England's Difficulty: Ireland's Revival of Prosperity, 1319-1486 A.D.

From The Historic Case for Irish Independence by Darrell Figgis

PreviousContentsNext

11. Yet for the time they meant nothing outside the English Pale; and that Pale was diminishing.

The Irish Stateships about the Pale warred on it continually, almost without cessation. Even the Pale at this time declared its absolute legislative independence of England, and its right to its own coinage, but beyond the Pale the King of England's officers did not venture unless backed by an armed force, and seldom even then. For now England was distracted, first with French wars, and subsequently with a bitter dynastic feud of its own. During the fifteenth century the Pale itself could hardly be said to exist. The Irish language was spoken throughout, and it would have taken very little to have won it back. But the nation had been too disorganised, both by a long war and by the absorption of new elements, for it so soon to have undertaken the unified and concerted action that this would have implied. Disrepair is more quickly achieved in a State, and more permanent in its results, than construction. The main result of that disrepair was the greater gathering of power into the heads of the larger Stateships, who had now become territorial lords.

Especially was this the case with the newer elements in the nation, amongst whom there were constant feuds. And the hand of the invader was always present to create such feuds if local occasion lacked. His very presence, as the cause of the disrepair, perpetuated the instability. Yet, now that his immediate oppression had been removed, now that his military polity was no more extended over the shattered civil polity of the nation, the country began steadily to thrive in all its parts. Its land passed again under tillage, its looms became busy again with woollen and with linen cloths, with tapestries and hangings, its minerals were mined and its guilds of metal-workers wrought wares for home and for abroad, its hides were tanned and wrought for export, the great forests that waved over the country gave employment to its woodworkers, ships were builded in all its ports, and its mercantile fleets carried the produce of the country to all the ports of Europe. Having no central government, and therefore no co-ordinated scheme for and no record of its labour, these activities for the most part cannot be discovered except in the records of foreign ports and in their contemporary repute as contained in writers of the time.

Not a little is to be discovered in the jealousies of English writers and merchants. Yet enough can be discovered to prove that this next period of the nation's history was marked by great industry, by wide prosperity, and by a considerable commerce with other nations of the world. Great difficulties had necessarily to be encountered; difficulties peculiar to a nation with no central Government or ordered State. Some of the Irish Stateships, for instance, had to mint their own coinage for the purpose of their commerce. Yet, despite the fact that the trade of the nation was conducted without the support and authority of its own State, such was its success that early in the sixteenth century the trade of the port of Galway was greater than the trade of any English port save London; and when the citizens of a western English city wished to communicate with Spain, their most speedy course lay through Galway. And even as industry prospered, so the arts and scholarship flourished. An old Irish proverb had said that "a ruler does not grant speech save to four: a poet for satire land praise, a chronicler of good memory for narration and story-telling, a judge for giving judgments, an historian for ancient lore." Such things were again heard, and none were more zealous for their care than those who had more newly avowed their Irish nationality. FitzGeralds and De Burgos vied with O'Connors and O'Neills in the nurture of the old national greatness. Great convocations were held of learned men.

The schools were re-established--one of them, for instance, in the middle of the sixteenth century, providing freely for twelve hundred scholars--in which the national learning was continued, Latin being a spoken language, and English neglected as unnecessary. Each of the great towns had such free schools and centres of learning. The period was one of wide literary activity, rivalling the activity known during the centuries before the invader's sword had stilled the nation's voice. The Poet, the Historian and the Jurist resumed their places of honour in the nation. The older learning was reconstructed, re-written and expounded. From the ripest scholar to lads at school manuscripts were accessible, and libraries were accumulated throughout the country. So deep-set was this literary revival of a culture a thousand years old, so stubbornly and passionately was it prized, that it continued throughout the dark persecutions and national upheaval that was now to follow, nor did it cease till the middle of the seventeenth century, when it flamed up in one last tragic cry loud with pain.

PreviousContentsNext 

Library Ireland Facebook