A. D. 1535—1650. 

When Con O’Neill, surnamed Baccaghy, reigned in Ulster, the far greater portion of this island owed no allegiance and paid no obedience to the king or laws of England. More than two hundred years had gone by since the northern Irish, aided by Edward Bruce of Scotland, had destroyed every vestige of foreign dominion in Ulster; and the few Anglo-Norman families that had got footing there, under De Courcy and De Lacy, were long since, by intermarriage, gossipred, and fostering, blended with the Irish tribes; used Irish customs, disdained to ride with stirrups, wore crommeal and coolun, submitted to the Brehon laws, forgot vassalage, and liege-homage, and all feudal tenure, whether by knight service, escuage, or other, — nay, forgot their language and their very names. Like the Berminghams and De Burgos of Connanght, who became Mac Feorais and Mac Williams, Eighter and Oughter, some writers will have it that the haughty Mac Mahons of Monaghan, with all their fierce resistance to English laws and English sheriffs, were no more than so many Norman Fitzurses; — true Sons of Bears, and claiming that descent both in their original langue langue d’oui and their adopted Irish. And the Mac Swynes, from beyond Lough Swilly, sent yearly their tribute of cows to O’Donnell, never demurring on the ground that they were a branch of the knightly De Veres of Oxford.1

So attractive and genial was that Irish life of pastoral independence, and “strenuous liberty;” so kindly the Irish affections; so honey-sweet the Celtic accents on the tongue of foster-nurses and Irish maidens; — “which,” says Edmund Spenser, “are two most dangerous infections:” for “The speech being Irish, the heart must needes bee Irish.” 

Laws, indeed, were from time to time enacted by the small English colony of Leinster, in their local parliament, to forbid all such friendly dealings with the “Irish enemy,” under penalties: statutes which sounded terrible in Kilkenny and Dublin, but were of no force in the Irish country, where the “degenerate” English soon learned to forget the tongue in which those statutes were expressed, and to despise the authority that had presumed to enact them. 

Yet there was, in the sixteenth century, no Irish nation. They had no national council, as of old; no supreme monarch or Ard-Righ, to concentrate the powers of the island for any common object. Save the tie of a common language, the chieftain of Clan-Conal had no more connexion with the lord of Clan-Carrha, than either had with the English Pale. The Anglo-Norman colony was regarded rather as one of the independent tribes of the island; “an inferior sept,”2 often a tributary sept,3 which had got settled there; than what it really was, a garrison holding for a foreign king, the insidious enemy of them all: and the Irish in their frequent wars amongst themselves, sometimes had the troops of the Pale, as well as the powerful Scottish colony of Antrim for auxiliaries on one side or the other. 

Frequently the English carried the banners of the Pale into some Irish country with which they were then at war; burning and plundering in their march, until a force could be drawn together strong enough to drive them home: and as often were the war-cries of an O’Neill or an O’Connor heard at the Boyne and Liffey, to the very gates of Dublin; while the English were shut up everywhere in their castles and walled towns until the black rent was levied and the storm had passed. But, save in the four counties of the Pale and a few maritime cities, there was no attempt at the exercise of either legislative or executive authority on the part of the English government. 

The throne of England was filled by King Henry the Eighth, who styled himself King of England, France, and Ireland; — of France in virtue of the town of Calais, and of Ireland, because of those bands of his adventurous subjects who garrisoned the Pale. But Henry was not satisfied with temporal sovereignty. Like the Roman emperors, he determined to unite in his own person all authority of every kind, and to be acknowledged Pontifex maximus. His parliament had, without scruple, bestowed on him the supreme Headship of the Church; never doubting their power to give it: for the legislature of England has always regulated its religion, pronouncing this way or that upon true doctrine, like an œcumenic council, and deciding upon the successorship to the apostles with no more hesitation than on the rival claims to a disputed peerage. 

And having established his spiritual supremacy in England, and desiring to encroach further upon the jurisdiction of his rival the pope, King Henry caused an act to be passed in his parliament of the Pale, duly enacting the supremacy of the English king over the church of Ireland — “forasmuch,” say those legislators, “as Ireland was depending and belonging justly and rightfully to the imperial crown of England”. And so began the “Reformation” in this island. 

Here a difficulty arose, or rather several difficulties; for the claim of England to govern this country had always been held to rest upon that surprising grant of Pope Adrian IV., which conferred Ireland upon Henry the Second as a fief; and to deny the papal authority was to destroy the only title which the crown of England had ever pretended over this island; whereby hangs a controversy, partly political, partly theological, which greatly agitated the pedants of both countries at that period; but is interesting now neither to gods nor men. Yet for the clear understanding of some terms which must often occur in the following story, we may refer to the argument for English dominion used by one of its most learned advocates. “Whatsoever become,” says Archbishop Ussher,4 “of the pope’s idle challenges, the crown of England hath otherwise obtained an undoubted right unto the sovereignty of this country; partly by conquest prosecuted at first upon occasion of a social war, partly by the several submissions of the chieftains of the land made afterwards. For whereas it is free for all men, although they have been formerly quit from all subjection, to renounce their own right, yet now, in these our days (saith Giraldus Cambrensis in his History of the Conquest of Ireland) all the princes of Ireland did voluntarily submit, and bind themselves with firm bonds of faith and oath unto Henry the Second, king of England.” 

On which “submissions” we remark, first, that the same Henry the Second did, with firm bonds of faith and oath, submit and perform homage to Louis the Seventh of France; and “with head uncovered and belt ungirt, with sword and spurs removed, he placed his hands, kneeling, between those of the lord, and promised to become his man from thenceforward, and to serve him with life and limb and worldly honour, faithfully and loyally;”5 — that King Edward the Third, in like humble guise, did homage at the feet of another French sovereign; — but that those two English kings were engaged in endless wars with those very suzerains: and never incurred thereby the charge of perfidy or rebellion.6 And the second remark is, that such submissions, by an Irish chieftain, either in the twelfth or any other century, were not only a mere form, but had no force or significance even as a form: because those chiefs were not, themselves, feudal lords: they had neither fiefs nor vassals: like the leaders of the ancient Franks, they were the elected captains of a tribe of freemen; and could not, by donning the coronet and robes of a foreign noble, change their countrymen into the subjects of an alien prince, nor involve them in that great feudal system, which, like every other form of national polity must grow with a people’s growth, and weave itself, in the “Loom of Time” out of the very elements of its being. 

But enough of this technical disquisition. As Henry was not free in conscience, to have and to hold under the pope any longer, he caused his Parliament of the Pale, in the year 1542, to declare him “King of Ireland” in his own right, the first English monarch who assumed that title: and in the same year, at his palace of Greenwich, was beheld a notable thing, — the O’Neill of Ulster submitting himself as liege-man to an English king, — renouncing the royal name of O’Neill, “in comparison of which,” says Camden, “the very title of Caesar is contemptible in Ireland,”7 — taking upon him the barbarian Anglo-Saxon title of Jarl, or Earl, of Tyrone; and doing homage to Henry as King of Ireland and Head of the Church; who on his side adorned him with a golden chain, saluted him beloved cousin, “and so returned him richly plated.”8 

And now we first hear of Matthew O’Neill, Con’s son, (or reputed son, for in Ireland he was believed to be the offspring of a smith of Dundalk,) called by the Irish Fardoragh, but passing at Greenwich under the outlandish style of Baron Dungannon, a title which he dearly rued. 

Nor are the O’Neills alone in their strange honours. Mac Gilla Phadruig becomes Fitzpatrick, and Baron of Upper Ossory. The O’Brien of Thomond, forgetful of the glories of Kincora, lays down at Henry’s feet his dignity of Chief Dal-Cais, and arises Earl of Thomond; his son. Baron of Inis-Hy-Quin; his nephew, Baron of Ibracken, by “letters patent,” with broad seal of England, with official ceremonial of Garter-king, and the rest; with remainders, expectancies, estates tail and other jargon of English law, portentous in the ears of Filea and Brehon. 

The southern chiefs, indeed, had a more substantial reward for their complaisance than those empty dignities of earl and baron. The revenues of all the suppressed abbeys of Thomond with patronage of church livings, were annexed to their lordships, and so was upheld the respectability of the peerage. For in those years there was a sweeping “suppression” in progress, of all religious houses in that part of the island which was under the control of the new Head of the Church; and many of the local princes, who could well have defied his power, were content to sacrifice the ancient monasteries endowed by their ancestors, to the reforming rage of Henry, on condition of themselves receiving the spoil. The fair possessions of abbeys and priories were therefore left almost invariably in the hands of their neighbouring lords, and seem to have been the stipulated price of their servile allegiance; so that even George Browne, the king’s archbishop of Dublin, could not by most diligent suit obtain for his own share the single nunnery of Grace Dieu, nor even “a very poor house of friars” called New Abbey, “a house of the obstinates’ religion which lay very commodious for him by Ballymore.” They were both destined for other claimants who had earned them worthily. 

In all Ireland were at that time three hundred and seventy of such establishments, of various orders, where the religious passed a life of devotional retirement, feeding the poor, entertaining strangers, and tending the sick, for no earthly reward, but for love of blessed charity, and the health of their founders’ souls. 

There was abundance of plunder in every province for those who would renounce their faith and betray their country. But Con O’Neill, to his honour be it said, understood not the power of his new suzerain, whether regal or spiritual, to extend so far; nor is it easy to say how far he was willing to admit such power. For this was the same chief who had formerly cursed his offspring if they should ever speak the Saxon tongue, sow com, or build houses in imitation of the English, and who, to demonstrate his views of Henry’s Headship, had on the first rumour of “Reformation” led his troops to the south, burned Atherdee and Navan to the ground, and from the hill of Tarah warned off the servile nobles of the Pale and their reforming deputy far from the frontiers of Ulster. 

While Con, therefore, held the chieftaincy of Tyr-owen, and long after, the monasteries of his country stood secure. Though formally “given and granted” to King Henry along with the religious houses of other provinces, by those who had no title either to give or to grant, yet the commissioners appointed to reduce them into charge did not proceed (for excellent reasons) to hold the usual inquest on their possessions, to inventory their chattels and ornaments, or expel their peaceful inhabitants; and for seventy years after the “suppression” the monks of Donegal, Kilmacrenan, and Rathmullan, of Derry, Dungiven, Coleraine, and Dungannon, under the sheltering power of O’Neill and O’Donnell “escaped,” says the Abbè Mac Geoghegan, “the sacrilegious fury of the heretics:” or as the same fact is stated by the Presbyterian historian,9 the abbeys though long since suppressed, were not resumed into the hands of the king, nor their useless inmates expelled until the reign of James the First.” 

Yet the northern Irish liked not the new earl, nor his honours, however unencumbered by foreign laws and usages. The bards of Ulster had no songs of praise for the obsequious liegeman of a foreign prince. O’Donnell refused to send him his customary tribute for Inis-Owen: Mac Guiro of Fermanagh thought scorn to be the Uriaght of such an O’Neill as this; and Con Baccagh soon found that he was no longer the prince of the North, and must speedily give place to worthier scions of that ancient stock; who happily were not wanting. 

For, unmindful of court intrigue, and little versed in the lore of Saxon heraldry, there was, growing up to manhood, amongst the hills of Ulster, another son of Con; one of the proudest and fiercest O’Neills that had appeared there since he of theNineHostages; and his name was Shane. Chasing the wolf and deer with his foster-brethren in the forests of Tyr-owen, and by the shores of the lake of Feval; learning from the lips of bard and seanaghy the ancient glories and achievements of the Hy-Nial, this Shane had grown to believe, with all his soul, that the Emel-Eoghain were the hero-race most favoured by heaven; that Tyr-owen was the eye of Erin, and the very pride of the earth: and that of all noble and royal titles of honour and sovereignty, by far the most dread and illustrious was “The O’Neill.” 

And behold! just as the impetuous youth has reached manhood, and feels within him the strength and fiery spirit to uphold the honour of his race, that proud name is to be extinguished. The golden collar of an O’Neill, the sacred chair of Tullogh-oge, are to be made of no account; lost or forgotten in these unheard-of peerages of the stranger. By the soul of Con More! By the awful grave of Caille Nial! this must not be. Let his father plume himself in his foreign feathers: let the bastard Matthew maintain, as best he may, his “estate tail” and coronet of Dungannon; he, Shane, will be an O’Neill: — The O’NEILL; for the clansmen of Tyr-owen, as men are wont to do, soon found out the man who was fit to be their chief. 

It were long to tell, how the younger brethren of Shane stood by him for the honour of Tyr-owen; how the bards espoused, as ever, the cause of nationhood, and with harp and voice kindled the ancient spirit of Erin; how there was war in Ulster till the Baron of Dungannon fell (by treachery say English chroniclers); how Con the Lame recognized his true son, and repented him of his base homaging and his foreign earldom; and how, at last, the haughty Shane sat upon the chair of Stone, was invested with the white wand of sovereignty, and duly made the O’Neill, and Prince of Tyr-owen. 

Baron Matthew, as we said, fell: whether by treachery or on battle field, certain it is, in the course of that war he lost both life and coronet: — “a lusty horseman, well-beloved, and a tried souldiour,”10 but no match for the ardent and resolute Shane. For that generation, the blood of the Dundalk smith, was not to prevail; but, in the halls of Dungannon, Matthew left an infant son, one Aodh, or Hugh, who goes a fostering among the English and is “preserved by them from Shane,”11 (not without a politic design,) and disappears for a season.

1 Spenser’s “View of the State of Ireland,” p. 108. But the Irish annalists (probably a better authority) make both these families old Irish. Mac Mahon is said to have been, like the Mac Guires and O’Hanlons, descended from Colla-na-Chrich of the race of Heremon. (See Connellan’s “Four Masters,” note in p. 3.) For the Mac Swynes or Mac Sweenys, said to be a branch of the north, Hy Niall, see the same book, p. 52; yet Thierry and other writers have adopted Spenser’s statement about these two families. — Norman Con. Conclusion.

2 Leland, vol. 2, p. 83.

3 State Papers, Temp. Hen. VIII. cited in O’Connell’s Memoir

4 Religion of the ancient Irish.

5 For form of Liege-homage, see Hallam, Mid. Ages, vol. 1, p. 176.

6 No doubt it was as peers of France, not as kings of England, they did homage to the French king; but they made war upon him in both capacities, and with all the power of all their dominions, insular and continental. Hallam explains the law of the case, and Thierry the rationale of it. The former says, “It was always necessary for a vassal to renounce his homage, before he made war on his lord.” (Mid. Ages, vol. 1, p. 176, note.) And Thierry informs us that obligations of this kind “were very vague in their tenor, and were mostly taken with a bad grace, and in some sort as a mere matter of form.” — Whitaker’s edition, p. 161.

7 Camden, 2 Eliz. 

8 Campion, “Historie of Ireland,” p. 181. 

9 Dr. Reid, “History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland,” vol. 1, p. 77.

10 Campion, “Historic of Ireland,” p. 188. 

11 Moryson.