Perhaps in no country, but only Ireland, would a plain narrative of wars and revolutions that are past and gone two centuries and a half ago, run any risk of being construed as an attempt to foster enmity between the descendants of two races that fought so long since for mastery in the land.
Yet the writer of this short record of the life of the greatest Irish chieftain, is warned that such construction may, and by some assuredly will, be put upon the following story and the writer’s manner of telling it. But as to the narrative itself, undoubtedly the only question ought to be — is it true? And if so — is the truth to be told, or hidden? — Is it not at all times, in all places, above all things, desirable to hear the truth instead of a lie? And for the way in which it is told — the writer does indeed acknowledge a strong sympathy with the primitive Irish race, proud and vehement, tender and poetical; with their deep religion and boundless wealth of sweetest song, and high old names, and the golden glories of Tradition; retiring slowly, and not without a noble struggle, before what is called “Civilization,” and the instinctive and unrelenting insolence of English dominion; mostly victors in the field, but always overcome by policy; plucking down the robber standard of England in many a stricken battle — but on the whole, by iron destiny, and that combination of force and fraud and treachery, which has ever characterized the onward march of English power — borne back, disunited, and finally almost swept from the earth, to make way for the greedy adventurers of all Great Britain. And if the word “Saxon” or “Englishman” is sometimes used with bitterness, it is because the writer, carrying himself two hundred and fifty years backward, and viewing events, not as from the Council-chamber of Dublin Castle, but from the Irish forests and the Irish hearths, is sometimes tempted to use the language that fitted the time, and might have lain in the mouth of a clansman of Tyr-eoghain.
But the struggle is over, and can never, upon that quarrel, be renewed. Those Milesian Irish, as a distinct nation, (why not admit it?) were beaten — were finally subdued; as the Fir-bolgs were before them; as the ancient Kymry were in Britain, and afterwards their conquerors the Saxons. A new immigration was made, early in the sixteenth century, like that of the Tuatha-de-Danaan and Milesians of remoter times. Once more new blood was infused into old Ireland; the very undertakers that planted Ulster grew racy of the soil; and their children’s children became, thank God I not only Irish, but united Irish — became “Eighty-two” Volunteers — anti-Union patriots — in every struggle of Irish nationhood against English domination (to which the now impending one shall not be an exception) were found in the foremost ranks, “more Irish than the Irish.” The armies of Elizabeth, the planters and undertakers of James, may have been marauding adventurers, or even robbers: let it be granted that they were — so were the Franks who founded Charlemagne’s empire; so were the vagabonds and fugitive slaves who flocked into the “asylum” of Romulus — and afterwards, off-scouring of mankind as they were, begat a progeny that bore the Roman Eagle over nations’ necks, from Indus to the Pillars of Hercules. Whatever god or demon may have led the first of them to these shores, the Anglo-Irish and Scottish Ulstermen have now far too old a title to be questioned: they were a hardy race, and fought stoutly for the pleasant valleys they dwell in. And are not Derry and Enniskillen Ireland’s as well as Benburb and the Yellow Ford? — and have not those men and their fathers lived, and loved, and worshipped God, and died there? — are not their green graves heaped up there — more generations of them than they have genealogical skill to count? — a deep enough root those planters have struck into the soil of Ulster, and it would now be ill striving to unplant them.
The writer of these pages boasts to be of that blood himself: no Milesian drop flows in his veins; and therefore he may be the more easily believed in disclaiming the base intention to exasperate Celtic Irish against Saxon Irish, or to revive ancient feuds between the several races that now occupy Irish soil, and are known to all the world besides, as Irishmen.
The truth is, that the object of this Life of Hugh O’Neill is simply to present as life-like a sketch as the writer’s ability and information enable him to give, of an important era of Irish history, and the deeds of that illustrious chieftain who was the leading spirit of the time; who was the first, for many a century, to conceive, and almost to realize the grand thought of creating a new Irish Nation; and who for so many bloody years, bulwarked his native Ulster against the numerous armies and veteran generals of the greatest English monarch. And, further than this, if any reader shall see a striking similarity in the dealings of England towards Ireland then, and now — towards Ireland Milesian and Strongbownian, and a later Irish nation consisting of Milesians, Strongbownians, Scottish planters, and Cromwellian adventurers; — and if such reader shall recognize the policy recommended by Bacon, directed by Cecil, and practised by Mountjoy and Carew, in the proceedings of certain later statesmen of England; and if (which is not impossible) he shall arrive at the conclusion, that the bitterest, deadliest foe of Ireland (however peopled) is the foul fiend of English imperialism; and, further, if he shall draw from this whole story the inevitable moral, that at any time it only needed Irishmen of all bloods to stand together — to be even nearly united — in order to exorcise that fiend for ever, and drive him irrevocably into the Red Sea; — surely it will be no fault of the present writer.
In the days of Hugh O’Neill, the religious element had begun to mingle, with terrible effect, in Irish affairs. And as the “business of a religious reformation in Ireland,” to use the words of Dr. Leland, “was nothing more than the imposition of English government on a people not sufficiently obedient to that government — not sufficiently impressed with fear or reconciled by kindness,”1 it is impossible for an Irishman, writing of that period, and sympathizing with the outraged and plundered people, to describe that most singular transaction with any soft or conciliatory phrases. Imagine how a native of Ireland must then have regarded the “Reformed” church. To him it was simply the church of the stranger — it was an ally of the enemy: — the spiritual supremacy and the temporal sovereignty of a foreign king, were to him altogether indistinguishable, and alike detestable: the one seemed but a scheme of plunder for military adventurers, the other for ecclesiastical. Apart from all considerations of doctrinal truth (with which, as being wholly irrelevant, the writer of these pages does not meddle) it was enough for the Irish people to know that foreign usurpation and foreign religion were striding over their country, hand in hand, and planting their footsteps together deep in blood and tears — deposing their chiefs, persecuting their bards, supplanting their ancient laws, and also prostrating their illustrious and hospitable monasteries, dishonouring the relics of their saints and hunting their venerated clergy like wolves.
But this, also, is all post and over. The very penal laws, last relics of that bloody business, are with the days before the flood. And, though it be true, that the mode of planting this Established Church of Ireland: — first, enthroning a whole hierarchy of bishops and archbishops, and then importing clergy for the bishops and parishioners for the clergy — was of all recorded apostolic missions the most preposterous — though the rapacity of those missionaries was too exorbitant, and their methods of conversion too sanguinary; yet, now, amongst the national institutions, amongst the existing fences, that make up what we call an Irish nation, the church, so far as it is a spiritual teacher, must positively Be reckoned. Its altars, for generations, have been served by a devoted body of clergy; its sanctuaries thronged by our countrymen; its prelates, the successors of those very queen’s bishops, have been amongst the most learned and pious ornaments of the Christian church. Their stories are twined with our history; their dust is Irish earth; and their memories are Ireland’s for ever. In the little church of Dromore, hard by the murmuring Lagan, lie buried the bones of Jeremy Taylor; would Ireland be richer without that grave? In any gallery of illustrious Irishmen, Ussher and Swift shall not be forgotten; Derry and Cloyne will not soon let the name of Berkeley die; and the lonely tower of Clough Oughter is hardly more interesting to an Irishman as the place where Owen Roe breathed his last sigh, than by the imprisonment within its walls of the mild and excellent Bishop of Kilmore. Sit mea anima cum Bedello!
When Irishmen consent to let the past become indeed History, not party politics, and begin to learn from it the lessons of mutual respect and tolerance, instead of endless bitterness and enmity; then, at last, this distracted land shall see the dawn of hope and peace, and begin to renew her youth and rear her head amongst the proudest of the nations.
1 Hist. of Ireland, vol. II. p. 201. He is speaking of the religious changes made in the reign of Edward the Sixth.