THE LAND AND THE PEOPLE (3)

Some writers of our own times have idealized the pastoral conditions of Celtic Ireland. A good example of the process is given by a brilliant work on Irish Nationality by Alice Stopford Green. She holds that "in the Irish system we may see the shaping of a true democracy, a society in which ever broadening masses of the people are made intelligent sharers in the national life and conscious guardians of its traditions." This projects into the past the ideas of the present, for democracy by its terms is a late, elaborate, complex form of government. In every form of government power must exist and be vested somewhere. That the rule of the people shall actually exist, it must have appropriate institutions securing and defining the public trusteeship of the actual custodians of authority, and this requires a long course of political evolution. Upon close scrutiny all democratic government is found to rest upon apparatus of sovereignty originally formed on the basis of prerogative. Any inquiry into the origin of legal institutions discloses this fact.

The historical process by which modern society was prepared for democratic government through the growth of monarchical power has been accurately surveyed by Sidgwick in his Development of European Polity. The notion that any early form of the State possessed a democratic character is a belated piece of Rousseauism. All anthropological evidence is in agreement that political power in its earliest manifestations takes arbitrary forms. In the primitive form of the State, specimens of which have been detected among the Australian aborigines, political authority is of a piece with family authority, authenticating itself by its mere presence and power. The community commands and disposes of the lives of its units by transactions as instinctive and impulsive as the habits of bees or ants. The advance from primitive savagery into barbarism is marked by differentiations of tissue in the social organism. The formation of the priest class and the warrior class is an invariable concomitant of political evolution, and the development of class consciousness precedes the diffusion of public consciousness. The notion of individual rights is a late development of political evolution, marking a very advanced stage in the growth of the linguistic apparatus of thought. No such stage had been reached in Celtic Ireland. At the opening of the seventeenth century its institutions retained their barbarian pattern although those institutions were in their dotage.[2]

Authentic traditions indicate that in the pre-Christian period the priest class was a mighty power in the State, but that period had long passed away. The warrior class, however, still remained, its arrogance the greater because all social counterpoise had been removed. Its members are frequently referred to in the State Papers of the period as kerns, galloglasses or swordsmen. They had the typical characteristics of their class wherever found under tribal polity: disdain of labor, jealous guardianship of traditional privilege, fierce tenacity in adhering to their customary rights to public support. Everywhere as advancing civilization eliminates rapine from among the economic resources of the community, the pretensions of the warrior class have raised difficulties in the way of establishing public order. One of the early tasks of European kingship was to put down the robber knights; and the work was not fully performed until the invention and improvement of artillery had transferred the art of war from a hand-made to a machine-made basis. The Irish galloglasses—and their close kin, the moss-troopers of the Scottish Highlands—were survivals of a type that had long since been extirpated in the area of European civilization. Themselves proud of their rank and its adventurous activities, they were detested by the settled agriculturists of the Scottish Lowlands and of the Irish Pale as savage ruffians and cattle thieves. Blackmail was paid to the Rob Roys of Ireland as in Scotland. The Irish State Papers contain accounts of payments of tribute to the "wylde Iryshe" even by the King's officers as a regular charge in public accounts. Returns in the time of Henry VIII. show a yearly tribute amounting to 740 pounds paid as the price of immunity from molestation.

The seventeenth century antiquary William Camden has given us a picture of the Irish fighting-men, a company of whom accompanied Shane O'Neal when he visited the Court of Queen Elizabeth in the fifth year of her reign. Camden says the "axe-bearing galloglasses" were "bareheaded, with curled hair hanging down, yellow surplices dyed with saffron, long sleeves, short coats and hairy mantles." These hairy mantles were the pelts of wild animals, probably wolf skins. The dexterity and skill with which the galloglasses wielded the broad battle-axe are celebrated in English accounts of the Irish wars. A long sword, mailed tunic and iron helmet completed the equipment as formed on the military practice of the times, but the Irish never took well to armor, preferring to fight in their saffron coats. The kerns were light-armed footmen, who fought with a skean, or sharp-edged dagger, and a javelin.

The domination of these warriors was not compatible with conditions such as can properly be designated as democratic. They helped themselves as of right and the common people submitted with customary deference, but grudgingly. Any growth of individual ownership, privacy of habitation or enclosure of land was in derogation of their class privileges and made the offender a mark of attack. It is not necessary to offer evidence to support so obvious a proposition as that customs permitting an idle soldiery to rove about the lands of the clan quartering themselves on the people could not be favorable to morality. In urging upon Queen Elizabeth his claim to the Earldom of Tyrone, the succession to which was in dispute, Shane O'Neal remarked in his petition: "Being a gentleman, my father never refused no child that any woman namyd to be his." In a letter of May 4, 1606, Sir John Davies remarks that "by reason and impunity of the common use, the bastard is of as good reputation as the legitimate, and doth commonly share the inheritance with him."

The difficulties ensuing from the collision of civilized polity with tribal polity were aggravated by religious differences, and to this cause may be chiefly attributed the marked divergence between Celtic Scotland and Celtic Ireland in their modern history. The Reformation was a unifying influence in Scotland, a divisive influence in Ireland. When Henry VIII. began his war upon papal authority the ancient Celtic Church, which in its day had made Ireland a center of Christian activity, had long since disappeared, and the establishment that had absorbed it had become full of the abuses characteristic of the times. The Irish chiefs were as ready to share in the spoil of Henry's confiscations of church property in Ireland as the English nobles were in England. The English governors of Ireland at the time of the accession of James did not anticipate much trouble in securing conformity in matters of religion.

In a letter to the home Government, December 8, 1605, Sir John Davies remarks that "touching this work of reformation" he was strongly persuaded that "it would have a general good success, for the Irishry, priests, people and all will come to church" under official pressure. He mentions how the mass of the people in England had yielded to their rulers in the matter of religion, and remarks that "the multitude was ever made conformable by edicts and proclamations." This expectation was speedily disappointed. For one thing, the establishment of religion by English law was made odious by the character of bishops and clergy. There were illustrious exceptions, but at the time of the accession of James the general situation was base. In a report written some time in 1604, Chief Justice Saxey describes the bishops as "priests of Jeroboam, taken out of the basest of the people, more fit to sacrifice to a calf than to intermeddle with the religion of God." Writing in 1606, Sir John Davies says that he is informed that:

"The churchmen for the most part throughout the kingdom were mere idols and ciphers, and such as could not read; and yet the most of them, whereof many were serving men and some horseboys, were not without two or three benefices apiece. Nevertheless, for all their pluralities they were most of them beggars; for the patron or ordinary, or some of their friends, took the greater part of their profits by a plain contract before their institution.... And what is the effect of these abuses? The churches are ruined and fallen down to the ground in all parts of the kingdom. There is no divine service, no christening of children, no receiving of the sacrament, no Christian meeting or assembly, no, not once a year; in a word, no more demonstration of religion than among Tartars or cannibals."

This religious desolation afforded a field for missionary labor, cultivated with such zeal and energy by the religious orders of the Roman Catholic Church that the people were gathered into that communion and confirmed in their attachment as never before. Whatever grounds for Sir John Davies' opinion of Irish pliability existed when it was uttered, they were soon conclusively removed. The friars who had been turned out of doors by Henry's suppression of the monasteries had in large numbers continued to work and preach among the people, and under the chastening influence of adversity the immoralities formerly charged against some of them tended to disappear. The restoration of discipline and the purification of morals were really facilitated by the prostrate condition of the church. No legal obstacles would be raised against correctional measures taken by ecclesiastical authority that was itself outlawed. Among the Irish State Papers for 1613 there is a report on the work of a Franciscan friar that doubtless gives a faithful picture of activities characteristic of this period. At a meeting in the county of Londonderry the friar had before him all the priests of those parts to the number of fourteen. "He prayed long, exhorting them to reform their wicked lives, telling them of drunkenness, whoredom, and lack of devotion and zeal." The friar did not depend on exhortation alone but applied sharp discipline. The report goes on to say that he "compels all priests to put away their wives and whores, or else he deprives them of their living and makes them incapable to say mass or exercise their functions."

Such acts imply possession of large ecclesiastical authority. The State Papers afford plenty of evidence that persons described as wandering friars must in fact have been high dignitaries of the Church of Rome. Eventually the Government obtained lists of bishops that had been ordained and commissioned to the work in Ireland. The Jesuits, who flocked into Ireland in large numbers, displayed an energy and an activity that alarmed and incensed the Government officials. In a report sent to the home Government October 27, 1607, the Lord Deputy and Council say that priests and Jesuits land in every part, sometimes a dozen together and then disperse themselves:

".... in such sort that every town and county is full of them, and most men's minds are infected with their doctrines and seditious persuasions. They have so gained the women that they are in a manner all of them absolute recusants. Children and servants are wholly taught and catechised by them.... They withdraw many from the church that formerly had conformed themselves; and others of whom good hope had been conceived, they have made altogether obstinate, disobedient and contemptuous."

The movement that the Government officials describe with so much acrimony they found it impossible to arrest. The Reformation cut Scotland and England away from the papal see, but left Ireland more firmly united and more deeply loyal than before, but this religious divergence is to be attributed rather to historical circumstances than to any peculiarities of the Irish character. It is sufficiently accounted for by the Counter-Reformation by which abuses were corrected, morals were purified and faith was revived within the communion of the Church of Rome.

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The Scotch-Irish in America cover

There ain’t nothing like the real thing — get the softcover second edition to read The Scotch-Irish in America at your leisure and help support this free Irish library. The author, Henry Jones Ford had this to say about the book:

“This book tells the story of the Ulster Plantation and of the influences that formed the character of the people. The causes are traced that led to the great migration from Ulster and the Scotch-Irish settlements in America are described. The recital of their experiences involves an account of frontier manners and customs, and of collisions with the Indian tribes. The influence of the Scotch-Irish settlements upon American institutions is traced, particularly in organizing and propagating the Presbyterian Church, in spreading popular education, and in promoting the movement for American national independence. In conclusion, there is an appreciation of the Ulster contribution to American nationality.”


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