THE ENGLISH PALE
BENEATH County Down begins the part longest held by England, and formerly called the Pale. When King Henry II. had seen the first success of his knights, Richard de Clare, Robert FitzStephen, Maurice FitzGerald, and their companions, he thought it time to assert his claim to a part of the spoils, but did not wish to attempt the conquest of Ireland; so he gave them leave to subdue the wilder parts at their own risk and expense, and declaring himself Overlord, he took possession of Dublin and of a long narrow tract of the country around it. This was to be the Royal foothold, from which at some future time he or a later King of England could conquer the country, after private adventurers had broken its strength. He gave orders (it is said) that a moat should be dug along its inner side, and that this boundary should be studded with castles. There is no proof that the moat ever existed; but the castles were built, and the English Pale was defined. With that he was content, and so were most of the Kings who succeeded him, till the time for the Conquest arrived in the days of the Tudors. Richard II. and King John had other dreams; but after their intervention in Ireland they came under the spell of Irish misfortune. Meanwhile the descendants of those knights became Irish, thus adding a difficulty never foreseen by Henry II.; and the Pale, though it was held in subjection, could not be made English. In Henry VII.'s time it was limited by a line drawn from Dundalk in Louth to Kells in Meath, thence to Kilcullen in Kildare, and thence by Ballymore-Eustace, and Tallaght to the sea below Dublin.
All the included land was open and pleasant, not made dangerous by mountains or bogs or forests. It was a country framed for peace. Of course, since it was in Ireland peace was often denied to it. The recognition of the Pale was enough to cause many attacks; it was harried by the neighbouring chiefs, O'Connors, O'Mores, O'Carrolls, O'Tooles, and O'Byrnes, and by many of the Normans besides, when they happened to be at war with the Deputy after they had grown Irish.
In addition to this, its inmates had many little wars of their own; but of all these encounters there is hardly a token. The Pale is full of the loneliness and the stillness of Ireland.
If you go to Tara, the spot famous as the site of the chief palace of primitive days, you find only a little green hill with not even a ruin upon it, and the odds are that you hear no sound except the lowing of cattle. Whether that palace was ever magnificent, or owed all its fame to the regretful imagination of bards, it has vanished. Go to the banks of the Boyne, and you see only a calm weedy river winding among moderate hills. Yet there the fate of the British Isles was decided when the last Stuart King met William of Orange. Seek Drogheda, and though there are ramparts to testify to its former defence, you will find in it no suggestion of war.
Drogheda was broken by Cromwell. When he landed in Dublin in August 1648, he came not only to wreak retribution but to break Ireland once and for all. Nine months were allotted to the pitiless task. Here in Drogheda he began it by storming the fortress and putting all its defenders, two thousand five hundred men, to the sword; and elsewhere he continued it so zealously that whenever you ask a peasant in Leinster or Munster about a ruined castle or church of any period you will be told "Crummle desthroyed it." From this you might suppose that he would be remembered with hatred; but that is by no means the case: on the contrary, if you study the legends by which he is commemorated, you will find that the conduct ascribed to him is often magnanimous.
Take, for instance, the tale of his dealings with Lord Plunkett in Louth. Plunkett (so it is said) had lost his way in the dusk after a battle, and stopping to let his horse drink at a ford, was dimly aware of a rider doing the same on the opposite bank. Being worn out, he did not heed him at first; but then as he gazed down at the water, he saw the stranger's shadow and on it the glint of a star. With that he knew that he was opposite Cromwell, and since he could not reach him, he hurled his sword across at him, wounding him in the face, and then made his escape. On a later day he was captured and brought before Cromwell, who, mindful of that injury, said to him "I give you your choice of deaths." "Then," said Lord Plunkett, "give me back my good sword, and set any two of your officers to kill me with theirs." On this, Cromwell rewarded his courage by setting him free, only demanding that henceforth there should be in each generation of Plunketts one christened Oliver.
So the tale runs, and many others are like it. In many of them he is credited with that unpleasant humour of his. For instance, it is told how, when he had spared Jerpoint Abbey, marching past it, he heard its bells peal as soon as he had gone out of sight, and therefore returned and destroyed it, saying jocosely "this proves the folly of rejoicing too soon." The truth is that the Irish —like King Henry VIII.—honour manhood. Strafford, though he was a tyrant, was deeply lamented; and when Perrot, Queen Elizabeth's fierce Deputy, left Dublin, sailing to his doom, Irish chiefs stood on the shore and wept. So even in Cromwell's case the merits were recognised. Like Sarsfield, who (it is said) called to the victors on the banks of the Boyne, "Change Kings, and we'll fight the battle over again," the Irish peasants would rather have been commanded by Oliver than by treacherous Ormonde. In Drogheda his name now excites little emotion. The ruins he made are his monument; but nobody heeds them. The thought of that day of havoc is lost in the remembrance of quietude, for even when the city was fortified it was enveloped by the peace of the Pale.
There are many ruins to be seen in the Pale, the hulks of great abbeys, such as Mellifont or Monasterboice, and the green wrecks of castles and churches. Some are old, and others are recent; but all seem alike: Irish weather has such a way of its own that one cannot discern what has been wrecked for a hundred years and what for a thousand. The abbeys suggest no violent desecration; the castles seem to have suffered a natural decay. You are not impelled to remember the tragedies of outlaws and conquerors: it seems that if there was ever war in the Pale, it must have been a very long time ago.
This impression is felt even in Dublin. You know well enough that the capital of Ireland has seen many agonies; but such associations appear unnatural. The thing you first notice is its depopulated look; its wide streets are so empty and so many of its big houses seem quite deserted that one could imagine that one was visiting a city abandoned by most of its inmates. Nor is this notion transitory; for when you explore outlying streets tenanted by the poorest, you find in them houses that must once have been splendid. Here, you might think, is a city that was affluent once and has for some reason declined. You are not told of a tragical past, but of a former wealth.
Beyond doubt, Dublin was more prosperous once and more animated; but it never was rich. What about the merry old times when it boasted a Parliament? Tradition has glorified these, and it must be allowed that contemporary letters and newspapers tell of rejoicings then held in those desolate houses; but if you enquire closer, you find how unsubstantial those pageants were. Many of them were the insensate displays of a bankrupt magnificence: there were hours when the grey city was lit by the brief splendour of prodigals; but around that illusive light there was poverty, within sound of those irrational feasts there was starvation.
There is an old anonymous book, called A Philosophical Survey of the South of Ireland in a Series of Letters to John Watkinson, M.D., which was neglected because it had the unusual merit of truth. The writer landed in Dublin in 1776, and comparing it with London, observed a deplorable contrast. "Here," he wrote, "we see little to cheer or exhilarate reflection, and much to sadden and depress the spirits. Here is indeed a motion; but it is such as is seen when the pulse of life begins to stagnate, or like the wheel of some great machine just after the power which impelled it ceases to act. Here, to be sure, you meet some splendid equipages, and a large suite of lackeys after a sedan chair; you see a fair range or two of houses, and you frequently meet faces fair enough to make Circassia gaze; but all this scarcely compensates for the painful emotion produced by the general mass." Those were the days of which Sir Jonah Barrington wrote in his old age, recalling how boisterous Irish dissipation had been in his youth; but this traveller (Campbell, I believe, was his name) saw none of it, though elderly men told him how wild it had been when they were young. He was chilled by the sad and autumnal air of the city. In another way too, his account seems modern, for though he complained of many things, as of the street cries, which, he said, "tingle in your ears with all the enraging varieties of the brogue," he soon found himself growing fond of the place.
Dublin's attraction must be due partly to its wholesome sea air and its delightful surroundings; for it is planted on one of the most admirable bays and among rising fields behind which olive hills undulate. These first catch your eye when you enter the bay; they begin with the long headland of Howth, thence wind inland and come back to the sea at Killiney, and thence wander close to it. No town was ever more fortunately placed or more constantly dogged by misfortune. You feel this at once: from the first you are aware of Celtic resignation to sorrow. Dublin was first called (it is said) Bally-ath-Cliath, the Castle at the Ford of the Hurdles, and then Dubh-linn, the Black Stream, from its dark river, and it preserved this Celtic title throughout the long control of the Danes, though elsewhere, as in Wexford or Waterford, they named their strong towns. In the same way, despite the longer domination of England, it remains Celtic.
In the heart of the quiet city you come on a huge solid tower: this is all that is left of the Castle, the fortress that loomed over Ireland. In Queen Elizabeth's time it shadowed the life of the furthest clans; there was no chief, however remote his country might be, who did not dread it as a probable dungeon, and reflect that his head might blacken above it, spiked on its roof. Shane the Proud's head rotted there, food for the crows. Within its walls many were tortured, and even its rulers, the Deputies, were acquainted with suffering; Kildare and Perrot and Essex and Strafford saw calamity coming, and from the Castle found their way to the Tower. Now its old strength has departed; the wide moat has vanished, and so has one of the twin strongholds, and the other remains an obsolete hulk.
If you are concerned with the past, you can find many old houses linked with desperate rebels or with hunted informers; but these remembrances appear as unnatural as those of the Castle. Dublin looks as if it was built for pleasure and quietness; indeed it has a curious resemblance to Paris, though you have to imagine that city fallen and resigned to its fall. This look and something friendly and homely in its ways have combined with its surroundings to lend it that peculiar attraction. But when you grow familiar with it, there is a different aspect. If you turn in to Saint Patrick's Cathedral, you see in its renovated darkness a slab on which is inscribed "Hic depositum est corpus Jonathan Swift, S.T.P., hujus Ecclesiae Cathedralis Decani, ubi soeva indignatio ulterius cor lacerare nequit." There lies Dean Swift, where no man's heart can any longer be lacerated by savage indignation. Swift was a man of the Pale, born in this city, living for a long time outside it at Laracor, and ending in it his last miserable years. Though his indignation had other fuel besides the sorrows of Ireland, these made his heart burn. Those last words of his may remind you that Dublin has always been a city of pain. There is some shadow over it. In its indifferent peace there is something sepulchral. So there is in the strange calm that broods over all the realm of the Pale.