Sir Walter Raleigh

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Raleigh, Sir Walter, the celebrated statesman, author, and adventurer, was born at Hayes, in Devonshire, in 1552. His connexion with Ireland commenced in 1580, as a captain in the Munster wars. A month after landing he was joined in commission with Sir Warham St. Leger, for the trial of Sir James, brother of the Earl of Desmond. He took a prominent part in the capture and massacre of the Spanish invading force at Smerwick in November 1580. His services upon several occasions in the Desmond war are specially commended in despatches, and in the forfeitures which followed its conclusion he was allotted about 12,000 acres in the Counties of Cork, Waterford, and Tipperary.

With characteristic promptitude he settled his grant with colonists from Devonshire and Somersetshire, and for some years it was noticed that his estates were better tenanted, tilled, and pastured than those of many other grantees. In 1587 Archbishop Miler Magrath and his chapter demised to him the castle and manor of Lismore, with the lands adjacent, at the annual rent of £13 6s. 8d. He had besides a manor house at Youghal, still standing, in which he occasionally resided during his visits to Ireland. (Mr. Edwards, his biographer, doubts the commonly-received statement that he was Mayor of Youghal.)

His estates were thickly wooded, and not long after his occupation he had one hundred and fifty labourers in full employment, felling the timber, and making staves for the manufacture of wine casks. This was the commencement of the process of clearing off the forests, that in little more than a century left Ireland, once called the "Island of Woods," almost bare of timber. As might be supposed, Sir Walter was engaged in many bitter quarrels with the old proprietors of the soil. The Government also threw difficulties in the way of his exportation of pipe-staves, which excited the jealousy of English manufacturers. He was clear-sighted enough to perceive that the high-handed dealings of Government with the Irish chiefs and people must ere long lead to fresh troubles. The Queen, he says, "made a scorn of my conceit" in the matter. Yet he had no scruples concerning "practising," as he calls it, the secret murder of Irish enemies. He says: "It can be no disgrace if it were known that the killing of a rebel were practised; for you see that the lives of anointed princes are daily sought; and we have always in Ireland given head-money for the killing of rebels, who are ever proclaimed at a price. So was the Earl of Desmond; and so have all rebels been practised against... I am more sorry for being deceived than for being declared in the practice." "Of the consistency with which Raleigh," says his biographer, "on almost all occasions, counselled an unrelenting demeanour towards Irish rebels, the evidence is superabundant. The exceptional instances are but rare. He did this alike in open conference with the Queen, and with his private advice to her ministers."

Yet Sir Walter was one of the most cultivated and high-minded men of his day. Eventually the difficulties in connexion with his Irish property so pressed upon him, that, by the advice of Cecil and Carew, he sold almost his whole Irish estates, including the land on which he had planted the first potatoes ever set in Ireland, to Richard Boyle, afterwards Earl of Cork. He says himself: "There remains unto me but an old castle and demesne, which are yet in the occupation of the old Countess of Desmond, for her jointure." The result of a sojourn with Spenser at Kilcolman Castle, in 1589, was that the poet gave to the world his Faerie Queene. Raleigh does not appear to have had any material connexion with Ireland after this date. He ended his career on the scaffold in London, upon a verdict given fifteen years before, 29th October 1618.

Sources

292. Ralegh, Sir Walter, Life and Letters: Edward Edwards. 2 vols. London, 1868.

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