Irish Historians and Scholars

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XXXII

O'Sullivan Beare's history is too well known to require more than a passing mention. It was said that he wrote as fiercely as he fought. Archbishop Usher, with whom he had many a literary feud, appears to have been of this opinion; for, after having described O'Sullivan as an "egregious liar," he was so sensitive to any counter abuse he might receive in return, that he carefully cut out every disparaging epithet which the historian used from the copy of his reply, which at present lies, with Usher's other works, in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin.

The Four Masters are included amongst the Irish writers of this century, but I have already given ample details of their labours. The Acta Sanctorum of Colgan, and Ward's literary efforts in a foreign land for his country, are beyond all praise. Usher and Ware were also amongst the giants of these days; and, considering the state of political and religious excitement amongst which they lived and wrote, it is incomparably marvellous that they should not have dipped their pens still deeper into the gall of controversy and prejudice. Usher was one of the Hibernis ipsis Hiberniores, for his family came to Ireland with King John; but he admired and wrote Celtic history with the enthusiasm of a Celt, and he gathered materials for other men's work with patient industry, however he may have allowed party spirit to influence and warp his own judgment in their use.

Usher was Ware's most ardent patron. Habits of indefatigable research did for him, in some degree, what natural genius has done for others. Nor was he slow to recognize or avail himself of native talent; and there can be no doubt, if he had lived a few years longer after his acquaintance with MacFirbis, that Irish literature would have benefited considerably by the united efforts of the man of power, who was devoted to learning, and the man of gifts, who had the abilities which neither position nor wealth can purchase. John Lynch, the Bishop of Killala, and the indefatigable and successful impugner of Cambrensis, was another literary luminary of the age. His career is a fair sample of the extraordinary difficulties experienced by the Irish in their attempts to cultivate intellectual pursuits, and of their undaunted courage in attaining their end.

Usher has himself recorded his visit to Galway, where he found Lynch, then a mere youth, teaching a school of humanity (A.D. 1622). "We had proofe," he says, "during our continuance in that citie, how his schollars profitted under him, by the verses and orations which they brought us."[5] Usher then relates how he seriously advised the young schoolmaster to conform to the popular religion; but, as Lynch declined to comply with his wishes, he was bound over, under sureties of £400 sterling, to "forbear teaching." The tree of knowledge was, in truth, forbidden fruit, and guarded sedulously by the fiery sword of the law. I cannot do more than name a few of the other distinguished men of this century. There was Florence Conry, Archbishop of Tuam, and founder of the Irish College of Louvain. He was one of the first to suggest and to carry out the idea of supplying Irish youth with the means of education on the Continent, which they were denied at home. It is a fact, unexampled in the history of nations, that a whole race should have been thus denied the means of acquiring even the elements of learning, and equally unexampled is the zeal with which the nation sought to procure abroad the advantages from which they were so cruelly debarred at home.

At Louvain some of the most distinguished Irish scholars were educated. An Irish press was established within its halls, which was kept constantly employed, and whence proceeded some of the most valuable works of the age, as well as a scarcely less important literature for the people, in the form of short treatises on religion or history. Colleges were also established at Douay, Lisle, Antwerp, Tournay, and St. Omers, principally through the exertions of Christopher Cusack, a learned priest of the diocese of Meath. Cardinal Ximenes founded an Irish College at Lisbon, and Cardinal Henriquez founded a similar establishment at Evora.

It is a remarkable evidence of the value which has always been set on learning by the Catholic Church, that even in times of persecution, when literary culture demanded such sacrifices, she would not admit uneducated persons to the priesthood. The position which the proscribed Catholic priesthood held in Ireland at this period, compared with that which the favoured clergy of the Established Church held in England, is curious and significant. Macaulay says of the latter: "A young levite—such was the phrase then in use—might be had for his board, a small garret, and ten pounds a year; and might not only perform his own professional functions, but might also save the expenses of a gardener or a groom. Sometimes the reverend man nailed up the apricots, and sometimes he curried the coach-horses. He cast up the farrier's bills. He walked ten miles with a message or a parcel. He was permitted to dine with the family, but he was expected to content himself with the plainest fare—till he was summoned to return thanks for the repast, from a great part of which he had been excluded."[6]


[5] Brought us.—Regal Visitation Book, A.D. 1622, MS., Marsh's Library, Dublin.

[6] Excluded.—History of England, People's Edition, part ii. p. 156.