Spenser's View of Ireland

From An Illustrated History of Ireland by Margaret Anne Cusack

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It seems almost needless to add anything to the official descriptions of Ireland, which have already been given in such detail; but as any remark from the poet Spenser has a special interest, I shall give some brief account of his View of Ireland. The work which bears this name is written with considerable prejudice, and abounds in misstatements. Like all settlers, he was utterly disgusted with the hardships he endured, though the poet's eye could not refuse its meed of admiration to the country in which they were suffered. His description of the miseries of the native Irish can scarcely be surpassed, and his description of the poverty of the country is epitomized in the well-known lines:—

"Was never so great waste in any place,
Nor so foul outrage done by living men;
For all the cities they shall sack and raze,
And the green grass that groweth they shall burn,
That even the wild beast shall die in starved den."[1]

Yet this misery never touched his heart; for the remedy he proposes for Irish sufferings is to increase them, if possible, a thousandfold; and he would have troops employed to "tread down all before them, and lay on the ground all the stiff-necked people of the land." And this he would have done in winter, with a refinement of cruelty, that the bitter air may freeze up the half-naked peasant, that he may have no shelter from the bare trees, and that he may be deprived of all sustenance by the chasing and driving of his cows.

It is probable that Spenser's "view" of Irish affairs was considerably embittered by his own sufferings there. He received his property on the condition of residence, and settled himself at Kilcolman Castle. Here he spent four years, and wrote the three first books of the Faerie Queene. He went to London with Sir Walter Raleigh to get them published. On his return he married a country girl, named Elizabeth—an act which was a disgrace to himself, if the Irish were what he described them to be. In 1598, during Tyrone's insurrection, his estate was plundered, his castle burned, and his youngest child perished in the flames. He then fled to London, where he died a year after in extreme indigence.

His description of the condition of the Protestant Church coincides with the official account of Sidney. He describes the clergy as "generally bad, licentious, and most disordered;" and he adds: "Whatever disorders [2] you see in the Church of England, you may find in Ireland, and many more, namely, gross simony, greedy covetousness, incontinence, and careless sloth." And then he contrasts the zeal of the Catholic clergy with the indifference of "the ministers of the Gospel," who, he says, only take the tithes and offerings, and gather what fruit else they may of their livings.

The House where Sir Walter Raleigh lived

The House where Sir Walter Raleigh lived

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[1] Den.—Faerie Queene, book iii. c. 3.

[2] Disorders.—"In many dioceses in England (A.D. 1561), a third of the parishes were left without a clergyman, resident or non-resident..... The children grew up unbaptized; the dead buried their dead." Elizabeth had to remonstrate with Parliament upon the "open decays and ruins" of the churches. "They were not even kept commonly clean, and nothing was done to make them known to be places provided for divine service." "The cathedral plate adorned the prebendal sideboards and dinner-tables. The organ pipes were melted into dishes for their kitchens. The organ frames were carved into bedsteads, where the wives reposed beside their reverend lords. The copes and vestments were slit into gowns and bodices. Having children to provide for, the chapters cut down their woods, and worked their fines .... for the benefit of their own generation." "The priests' wives were known by their dress in the street, and their proud gait, from a hundred other women."—Froude, Reign of Elizabeth, vol. i. pp. 465-467.


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