The O’Neills had ruled as princes in Ulster for centuries, and eighty successive chiefs of the name, according to the Chroniclers, had been solemnly installed in power at the Rath of Tullahogue before Con the Lame (Con Bocagh) accepted the earldom of Tyr-Owen from King Henry VIII. in 1542, abandoning the simple title of “O’Neill” so hateful to English ears. In that same year the King of England was for the first time proclaimed King of Ireland, and the two countries England and Ireland, were declared to be thenceforward indissolubly connected by law. A few years before, Henry had struck a heavy blow at the feudal semi-independent nobles of the Pale, by sweeping off the whole house of Kildare; when, in 1537, Silken Thomas and his uncles were put to death at Tyburn, the line of the great Geraldines closed, and the Anglo-Normans in Ireland were left without any recognised head. It was at this time, too, that Henry was declared Supreme Head of the Church in Ireland, and all ecclesiastical jurisdiction was vested by law in the hands of Protestant churchmen, who became mere civil servants. From an Irish Parliament the king had nothing to fear. The parliament was nothing but an assembly of the English in Ireland. Even such little power as it had exercised in former times had been taken away in the previous reign, when in a moment of panic it committed suicide by passing Poynings’ Act at Drogheda, in 1495, binding all future parliaments not to propose any legislation without having first obtained the assent of the English king and council. With Nobles, Church, and Parliament at his feet, Henry held undisputed power in Ireland, and no contending authority of any kind remained to limit, hamper, or control his government.

There were at this time three distinct peoples in Ireland — the Ancient Irish; the amalgamated Norman-Irish, usually called the New Irish; and the Ancient English of the Pale. No deep or lasting lines of hostility separated these three peoples. For when the Statute of Kilkenny was passed in 1367, ordering all Englishmen in Ireland to cut off communication with the natives, few of the nobler Anglo-Norman houses obeyed that decree. Outside the Pale, indeed, the statute rather hastened amalgamation; and although within the Pale it was for some time observed, it gradually fell into desuetude in the fifteenth century, and England was too busy elsewhere to look after its observance. The lines of division grew fainter and fainter, until it seemed as if all traces of difference should soon fade away. But new disturbing influences now came in, and religious rancour acerbated national animosity. Those who refused to acknowledge the spiritual supremacy of Henry were put outside the protection of the law. Cathedrals, churches, and abbeys, and the lands by which they were maintained, were taken from Catholics and handed over to Protestants, except in some rare instances when Catholic consciences were elastic enough to acknowledge Henry’s claims.

These claims, however, could only be enforced within the limits of the Pale, which was now once more hemmed in from the rest of Ireland by a new dividing line. For two centuries the limits of the English Pale had not advanced into Irish quarters. The Bruce campaign of 1314-18 had rolled back the tide of invasion almost to the gates of Dublin, and there up to Tudor times it had stood. But it was part of Henry’s policy to make real the kingship which he claimed. If his predecessors, who had been merely Lords of Ireland, were contented with the submission of the Pale he for his part was resolved not to stop short of dominion over the whole island. Conquest recommenced, and wars of aggression on the native chiefs followed one another quickly. The completion of the conquest of Ireland was the Tudor programme, and the completion was accomplished precisely at the extinction of the Tudor dynasty. Terrible slaughters and devastation took place during the sixty years that elapsed from Con Bocagh’s submission until Con’s grandson, the great Hugh O’Neill, submitted at Mellifont on the very day of Elizabeth’s death.

It was in these years that Munster was laid desolate in the frightful “Desmond waste” (1571), and the old Celtic population was expelled from Leix and Offaly, the King’s County and the Queen’s. New English settlers came and occupied the confiscated lands, and a new tide of invasion swelled and roared as wave after wave of bold adventurers poured into Ireland carrying destruction in their wake. These new adventurers made settlements on the conquered lands, and the limits of the Englishry were extended daily. In Ulster, however, no such lodgment was attempted. Little scattered bodies of Scotch were splashed on the eastern seaboard of Antrim, but up to O’Neill’s submission in 1603 Ulster was still substantially unmixed “Ancient Irish.” To them the accession of James the First irresistibly brought hopes of a better day. James boasted of his descent from the Irish Fergus, the conqueror of Scotland. He was dear to the Catholics as the son of the most romantic of queens, for Ireland had been deeply moved by the sufferings and death of Mary Queen of Scots Hugh O’Neill and James had been in alliance, and it looked as if the Saxon supremacy was about to pass, and that the Celt once more was to have his day. Great rejoicings took place in Ireland. Bards foretold the golden days at hand when, under a Gaelic king, Gael and Gaoll should live in brotherhood and peace. For the first time all the Irish people were claimed as subjects of the English crown. For the first time, too, all Ireland lay calm, peaceful and exhausted, and the time for magnanimous statesmanship had come.

To the wise reforming ruler, sympathetically approaching the Irish problem, there could not come a more auspicious moment; but it soon became clear that James was not the man for such a task. The sword indeed was no longer used or needed, but James’s agents effected by fraud what the Tudor soldiers had effected by force. For open tyranny chicane was substituted. Adventurers ravened for spoils, and they employed in procuring them the weapons of the forger, the cheat and the false witness. Unwary victims were lured into the meshes of a law unknown and unintelligible to them, and their ignorance and credulity became the instruments of their ruin. Landowners were encouraged to surrender their lands on the promise of better and safer titles; but the surrenders once made, the titles were either refused, or granted with deliberate flaws which afterwards worked the annulment of the grants. The first blow fell on Ulster. The Bann and Foyle fisheries had been in the immemorial possession of the O’Neills; and Hugh, the earl, had received a grant from the king of all the lands and appurtenances of the clan. By subtle quibbles it was now sought to deprive him of his seignorial rights over these fisheries. They were taken from him and granted to adventurers. When he expostulated he was threatened with worse treatment still. His clansmen, now his tenants, were urged by castle agents to pay him no rent, and they had to come secretly to Dundalk where he lived to escape the eyes of the officials. Hugh was harassed with summons after summons calling him to answer in Castle Chamber for charges unsubstantiated by a tittle of proof. Warned from abroad by an Irish officer of an intended charge of treasonable conspiracy about to be brought against him, and knowing well that his life was aimed at so that his lands might be seized, he with kith and kin sailed away from Ireland in 1607.

The confiscators were now let loose on Ulster; but the Chichesters and Hamiltons had to share the plunder with great commercial “adventurers.” Lord Bacon had very strongly advocated a settlement or “plantation” of “estated tenants,” with fixed rights independent of any lord or landowner, and great London companies were willing to carry out this scheme. This was a terrible blow to the clansmen, for to make room for yeoman “planters” it was necessary that the clansmen should go. Now the clansmen were in no way involved in O’Neill’s alleged conspiracies, and O’Neill had by Brehon law no more right to the lands of the clan than a managing director has to the property of the shareholders. But these considerations did not stand in the way. By a test case known as the case of Tanistry, a judgment of the courts was obtained against Brehon law,[1] and as, by the royal grace, the common law of England had been extended to all Ireland, it followed that all rights and titles recognised by Brehon jurisprudence were no longer of any avail. All land was held mediately or immediately from the king, and as the Earl of Tyrone had forfeited his estate to the king, all those who held under him were involved in the destruction of his title. O’Donnell’s clansmen were similarly involved in the ruin of their chief; and two years later, in 1609, the O’Doghertys were ousted from all legal right to their lands by the forfeiture declared against young Sir Cahir O’Dogherty, Owen Roe’s brother-in-law. All Ulster was given over to the devourers; and although self-interest, humanity and fear modified the plans of expropriation, the clearance was effective and thorough. Ulster was made the most miserable of the provinces, by a parody of the forms of law subdued to the uses of the swindler and the cheat. The chief contriver of these fraudulent practices was Sir John Davies, who by a few gracious words has won for himself a respected name through the kindness of historians. He was in truth an unprincipled adventurer, and, as James’s attorney-general, was the ready and eager adviser in every scheme of plunder. It was part of the policy of Davies to introduce the forms of the English constitution into Ireland, only to distort them from their original purpose. A parliament of all Ireland was called; but it was packed with Castle clerks and attendants returned for imaginary boroughs created by royal writ. Trial by jury was introduced; but sheriffs carefully chose “safe” men, and if Catholic jurors declined to find priests guilty of having celebrated mass their “recalcitrance” was put forward as a proof of the unfitness of Papists to serve on juries at all. Although the penal statutes of Elizabeth were graciously allowed to lapse, old acts passed against Rome “in Catholic times” were now resuscitated; and by Father Lalor’s trial and condemnation for praemunire in 1607, Davies accomplished all the purposes of Elizabeth’s Acts through the older Acts of Edward III. and of Richard II. Priests were again banned, churches were closed, schools suppressed, and education forbidden.

Then the great exodus began. Irish students had to seek abroad for intellectual training and scholarship. A number of colleges were founded by Irish piety and munificence, and the youth of Ireland thronged these homes of learning, which stretched like lines of light from Louvain to Rome, and from Salamanca to Prague. While Waterford see was polluted by the abominable Atherton,[2] the sons of Waterford city, the Lombards and Whites and Waddings, were the councillors of cardinals and kings. The sages and scholars of Ireland were in exile and the light of knowledge faded from the land. Swordsmen as well as bookmen fled from Ireland to seek careers abroad. Irish Catholic soldiers had fought against Hugh O’Neill at the close of the seven years’ war against Elizabeth. They found themselves now turned adrift, and nothing remained for them but to fly from their unhappy country. Irish “swordsmen” were already famous in great Continental armies, and during the first quarter of the seventeenth century Irishmen joined the ranks of the Spanish, Austrian, French, and even Swedish forces.[3] The English officials gave hearty encouragement to this flight from Ireland, and were at no loss for high reasons and lofty justification for their policy. Thousands of young Irishmen thronged into the Spanish service.

Captains and colonels rapidly procured commissions for raising regiments, and at stated times the Irish harbours were filled with ships bearing brave men away for ever from their native land. The drain grew greater as confiscations increased; and although rulers came and went, policy glided on in satisfactory continuity, names only changing as Mountjoy, Chichester, St. John, and Falkland succeeded one another.

In Ulster the rich valleys were occupied by the Scotch planters, and the houseless and landless clansmen, huddled on the mountain tops in their poor, rude, wicker cots called “creaghts,” or “keraghts,” followed the herds of cattle which were now their sole wealth. These wandering outcasts sent many soldiers to the wars; but they still remained at home in numbers uncomfortably large for the planters. Mysterious mid-night drilling went on. Clouds of priests and friars passed to and fro between Ireland and the Continent. Rumours of Tyrone’s return were heard everywhere. “He would come; he was coming; he had come.” To those who asked if a rising were lawful in the eye of the Church, priests dexterously distinguished between rebellion and a war of restoration, “Tyrone might have become a rebel,” they said; “but O’Neill cannot.” The saying stamps the character of the new rising. It was to be no revolt against the ancient over-lordship of the English king. It was a rising for the old tribal kingdom of the clan against the new claims of sovereignty, the assertion of which for a hundred years had brought such desolation on the whole land.

But there were others who took wider views. Some among the leaders of the people thought the time had come for a national movement for liberty. Old barriers were broken down, and the tie of common creed began to unite races and tribes long torn asunder by hatred, jealousy, and prejudice. The “Ancient Irish” of Ulster, Connaught and Wicklow, were for once united in interest with their old hereditary enemies, the English of the Pale. Priests and bishops encouraged this new spirit and fanned the flame of national consciousness and unity. Outlaws themselves, they came from abroad in rude crazy barks, on dark nights when seas were breaking and winds were in uproar, so that they might escape the foeman and the spy. Then lurking in caves and mountain fastnesses, they gathered their flocks around them and told them what popes and emperors were doing, and how in God’s good time Erin should again be free. Captains and colonels came too, rousing the men at home to be ready when the men abroad should return. England, it was thought, should be swept into the vortex of European troubles and then the blow for Irish liberty should be struck. But England kept aloof from European complications, and Hugh, the great earl, went down to his grave in 1616 without having once caught one gleam of hope during his nine weary years of exile. With his death all purpose seemed to die out in Ireland. The stillness of the tomb settled over the whole land, and English statesmen boasted that the Irish sphinx had yielded up her secret, and that resolute and salutary restraint soon overcame all unruliness in the strange wayward island. For twenty-five years that hymn of victory went up. The ashes of assassinated Ireland at last reposed in their final resting place; and England’s great mission in the world should no longer be impeded by the importunate outlaw at her door.

What healing measures came during these twenty five years? What thought was taken of Ireland What policy was adopted? New confiscations took place in Wicklow and in Connaught, and heavier blows than ever fell upon unhappy Ulster; while the machinery of Church and State worked out the degradation of the people, steeping them in ignorance, poverty, and terror. Forgery and fraud were as efficacious as ever; and the highest in the land stooped, as in the attempted spoliation of the O’Byrnes of Wicklow, to subornation of perjury and to perjury itself. One of the most skilful and persevering of these legal swindlers was the insatiable Boyle, queerly called “The Great Earl of Cork.” With gospel precepts on his lips this plunderer waded to wealth through the blood of his victims, and therewithal he much increased his store and piously rejoiced in the abundance which the Lord had given unto him. His counsels were ever at the disposal of active confiscators, and he now and then rebuked the “remissness” of the officials in Dublin for not putting such “practices” into more frequent operation. To men like him, Ireland’s seeming death-sleep of twenty-five years was a time of ease and entertainment. The dark background of homeless wanderers and widows and orphans weeping, churches rifled and schools destroyed, only threw into more brilliant relief the mansions, the wealth and the retinue of every successful criminal grown great upon the wages of his crimes. The trembling people looked on in terror, and only prayed that worse might not come, for worse was threatened.

In 1632 Spenser’s View of the State of Ireland was published, and its publication struck terror into the hearts of the defenceless Irish. The book had been written forty years earlier; but its maxims were quite in tune with the time of its issue to the world. The “gentle” poet had a policy of clear and logical simplicity; the clearing out and extermination of the native Irish. In the temper of 1632 such a book was as it were a message from hell, working on the passions of evil men. Another book, written by a Mr. Blennerhassett, was published about the same time. The writer was an English settler, and he had taken much thought about Ulster and the troubles there. He advised a system of kerne-hunting as the best remedy. Spirited English sportsmen would enjoy the novelty, and soon the “wolfe and the wood-kerne” would be cut down by the spears of hardy huntsmen. The “kerne” were “poor wandering creatures in creaghts,” he explained, and he was confident that they could readily be extirpated.

Spenser and Blennerhassett, the two evangelists of robbery and murder, found ready disciples. In that very year new clearances took place in Ulster. The new owners had found that Irish tenants were less troublesome than Scotch or English. They paid more rent, and they were far less sturdy in the assertion of rights. Gradually a great part of the confiscated lands went back into their possession. Intermarriages between the planters and the natives became frequent and notable; and it looked as if the old weird attractiveness of the Celt was once again to charm the enemy into a friend and lover. This serious peril was properly appreciated by an ever-watchful government. New laws breathing the spirit of the Statute of Kilkenny were passed, and all tenancies to Irishmen in the planted lands were declared void in 1632. Ulster was once more crowded with poor “wandering creatures in the creaghts,” and the cruel policy lit the old fire in the most temperate and cautious breasts. Wise men dreaded a return to the methods of the Desmond war with its rapine, massacre, and devastation. Waterford, the eye of Ireland, was deeply stirred by the closing up of its schools, which had by salutary connivance been allowed to go on in a simple and obscure way, doing most excellent work in the mental training of the south, till Ulster Puritans again called out for the forcible closing of such schools, “more like universities than schools,” they complained, where Papists were still surreptitiously taught. Lured by some slight concessions the Catholics of the Pale had hoped to found a university in Dublin which would relieve them from the perils of seeking education abroad; for they had tried in vain to bring about an agreement with Oxford or Trinity College, to which many Catholics had resorted until the gates were closed in their faces. In Eack-lane the beginnings of a home of learning were quietly formed; but the poor embryonic university was trampled under foot, its teachers were imprisoned, and its rooms and teaching apparatus were handed over to Trinity College. These were the blessed fruits of that long peace, the unsettling of which by “Papist rebels,” has moved the indignation of supercilious critics. Threats of worse things to come drove the outcast Catholics into agues of terror, and they waited like poor dumb animals for the scourge and the goad. But men pass through terror unto courage. The quarry at bay forgets fear, and fights for dear life. Its wrath is the black tragedy of history.

[1] Davies’s Reports.

[2] Carte doubts his guilt of the loathsome charges for which he was hanged, and believes that Boyle, Earl of Cork, by subornation, procured his judicial murder. In such a mire of iniquity, who can pick his steps?

[3] Attempts were made to induce the clansmen of Ulster to join the army of Gustavus Adolphus, and many were shipped for Sweden. But they must have in some way eluded their guards, as there is no instance of an Irish regiment in Swedish service, nor could Dr. Sigerson, a ripe Norse scholar, find any trace of Irish swordsmen in Sweden although he made special and minute inquiries.