English Possessions

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XXI

The English possessions in Ireland at the close of this century consisted of the "Liberties" and ten counties—Dublin, Louth, Kildare, Waterford, Tipperary, Cork, Limerick, Kerry, Roscommon, and part of Connaught. The "Liberties" were those of Connaught and Ulster, under De Burgo; Meath, divided between De Mortimer and De Verdun; Wexford, Carlow, and Kilkenny, under the jurisdiction of the respective representatives of the Marshal heiresses; Thomond, claimed by De Clare; and Desmond, partly controlled by the FitzGeralds. Sir William Davies says: "These absolute palatines made barons and knights; did exercise high justice in all points within their territories; erected courts for criminal and civil cases, and for their own revenues, in the same forms as the King's courts were established at Dublin; made their own judges, sheriffs, coroners, and escheators, so as the King's writ did not run in these counties (which took up more than two parts of the English colonies), but only in the church-lands lying within the same, which were called the 'Cross,' wherein the King made a sheriff; and so in each of these counties-palatine there were two sheriffs, one of the Liberty, and another of the Cross. These undertakers were not tied to any form of plantation, but all was left to their discretion and pleasure; and although they builded castles and made freeholds, yet there were no tenures or services reserved to the crown, but the lords drew all the respect and dependency of the common people unto themselves."

Hence the strong objection which the said lords had to the introduction of English law; for had this been accomplished, it would have proved a serious check to their own advancement for the present time, though, had they wisdom to have seen it, in the end it would have proved their best safeguard and consolidated their power. The fact was, these settlers aimed at living like the native princes, oblivious or ignorant of the circumstance, that these princes were as much amenable to law as the lowest of their subjects, and that they governed by a prescriptive right of centuries. If they made war, it was for the benefit of the tribe, not for their individual aggrandizement; if they condemned to death, the sentence should be in accordance with the Brehon law, which the people knew and revered. The settlers owned no law but their own will ;and the unhappy people whom they governed could not fail to see that their sole object was their own benefit, and to obtain an increase of territorial possessions at any cost.

On the lands thus plundered many native septs existed, whom neither war nor famine could quite exterminate. Their feelings towards the new lord of the soil can easily be understood; it was a feeling of open hostility, of which they made no secret. They considered the usurper's claim unjust; and to deprive him of the possessions which he had obtained by force or fraud, was the dearest wish of their hearts.

This subject should be very carefully considered and thoroughly understood, for much, if not all, of the miseries which Ireland has endured, have arisen from the fatal policy pursued at this period. How could the Celt be loyal to the Anglo-Norman, who lived only to oppress him, to drive him from his ancestral home, and then to brand him with the foul name of rebel, if he dared resist? Had he not resisted, he would have been branded with a worse name—a coward.

Such portions of the country as lay outside the land of which the Anglo-Normans had possessed themselves, were called "marches." These were occupied by troops of natives, who continually resisted the aggressions of the invader, always anxious to add to his territory. These troops constantly made good reprisals for what had been taken, by successful raids on the castle or the garrison. Fleet-footed, and well aware of every spot which would afford concealment, these hardy Celts generally escaped scot-free. Thus occupied for several centuries, they acquired a taste for this roving life; and they can scarcely be reproached for not having advanced in civilization with the age, by those who placed such invincible obstacles to their progress.[7]

The most important royal castles, after Dublin, were those of Athlone, Roscommon, and Randown. They were governed by a constable, and supplied by a garrison paid out of the revenues of the colony. The object of these establishments was to keep down the natives, who were accordingly taxed to keep the garrisons. The people quite understood this, and it was not an additional motive for loyalty. The battlements of the castle were generally adorned with a grim array of ghastly skulls, the heads of those who had been slain in the warfare so constantly going on. But the attempt to strike terror into the Irish utterly failed, and new candidates passed into the ranks. How, indeed, could they die more gloriously than in the service of their country?


[7] Progress.—The following passage is taken from a work published a few years ago. It is not a work of any importance, but it had some circulation in its day; and like many other works then published, was calculated to do immense mischief, by quoting the false statements of Cambrensis as authority, and by giving grotesque sketches of Irish character, which were equally untrue. The writer says: "They [the Irish chieftains] opposed the introduction of English law, because they had a direct interest in encouraging murder and theft." The fact was, as we have shown, that the Irish did their best to obtain the benefit of English law; but the English nobles who ruled Ireland would not permit it, unquestionably " because they had a direct interest encouraging murder and theft."