Statute of Kilkenny (2)

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XXII

I shall ask you to consider these statutes carefully; to remember that they were compiled under the direction of a crown prince, and confirmed by the men who had the entire government of Ireland in their hands. The first was an open and gross insult to the natives, who were treated as too utterly beneath their English rulers to admit of their entering into social relations with them. The settlers who had lived some time in the country, were ascertaining every day that its inhabitants were not savages, and that they considered the ties of honour which bound them to those whom they "fostered," or for whom they stood sponsors, as of the most sacred description. Their own safety and interests, if not common feelings of humanity and affection, led them to form these connexions, which were now so ruthlessly denounced. But it led them also to treat the Irish with more respect, and placed them on some sort of social equality with themselves; and this was clearly a crime in the eyes of those who governed the country.

The second clause had a similar object, and insulted the deepest feelings of the Celt, by condemning his language, which he loved almost as his life, and his customs, which had been handed down to him by an ancestry which the Anglo-Norman nobles might themselves have envied. The third enactment was an outrage upon common justice. It has been already shown that the Irish were refused the benefit of the English law; you will now see that their own law was forbidden. Some of these laws are at present open to public inspection, and show that the compilers, who wrote immediately after the introduction of Christianity into Ireland, and the original lawgivers, who existed many centuries before the Christian era, were by no means deficient in forensic abilities. Whatever feuds the Irish may have had between their clans, there is every reason to believe that justice was impartially administered long before the English settlement. That it was not so administered after that settlement, the preceding history, nay, even the very subject under discussion, sufficiently proves.

The fourth clause might have been beneficial to the Irish, if it had been strictly observed. The other enactments were observed; but this, which required the consent of the Government to make war on the natives, was allowed to remain a dead letter. In any case, the Government would seldom have refused any permission which might help to lessen the number of the "Irish enemy."

The last enactments, or series of enactments, were simply barbarous. The Irish were an agricultural nation; therefore they were not permitted to be agriculturists. Their wealth consisted solely in their flocks; therefore every obstacle should be placed to their increase. So much for the poor. The higher classes had formerly some hope of advancement if they chose to enter the English service in the army; to do so now they must renounce their Irish name, their language, and their customs. They might also have chosen the ecclesiastical state; from this now they are completely barred.

Most fatal, most unjust policy! Had it been devised for the express purpose of imbittering the feelings of the Irish Celt eternally against the Saxon ruler, it could not have succeeded more effectually. The laws of Draco were figuratively said to have been written in blood: how many bloody deeds, at which men have stood aghast in horror and dismay, were virtually enacted by the Statute of Kilkenny? The country-loving, generous-hearted Celt, who heard it read for the first time, must have been more or less than human, if he did not utter "curses, not loud, but deep," against the framers of such inhuman decrees. If Englishmen studied the history of Ireland carefully, and the character of the Celtic race, they would be less surprised at Irish discontent and disloyalty. An English writer on Irish history admits, that while "there is no room to doubt the wisdom of the policy which sought to prevent the English baron from sinking into the unenviable state of the persecuted Irish chieftain, still less is there an apology to be offered for the iniquity of the attempt to shut the great mass of the Irish people out from the pale of law, civilization, and religion. The cruelty of conquest never broached a principle more criminal, unsound, or unsuccessful."[5]

It is to be regretted that a more recent and really liberal writer should have attempted this apology, which his own countryman and namesake pronounced impossible. The author to whom we allude grants "it sounds shocking that the killing of an Irishman by an Englishman should have been no felony;" but he excuses it by stating, "nothing more is implied than that the Irish were not under English jurisdiction, but under the native or Brehon law."[6] Unfortunately this assertion is purely gratuitous. It was made treason by this very same statute even to submit to the Brehon law; and the writer himself states that, in the reign of Edward I., "a large body of the Irish petitioned for the English law, and offered 8,000 marks as a fee for that favour."[7] He states that an Irishman who murdered an Englishman, would only have been fined by his Brehon. True, no doubt; but if an Englishman killed an Irishman, he escaped scot-free. If, however, the Irishman was captured by the Englishman, he was executed according to the English law. If a regulation had been made that the Englishman should always be punished for his crimes by English law, and the Irishman by Irish law,[8] and if this arrangement had been carried out with even moderate impartiality, it would have been a fair adjustment, however anomalous.


[5] Unsuccessful.—Ireland, Historical and Statistical, vol. i. p. 200.

[6] Law.—Irish History and Irish Character, p. 69.

[7] Favour.—Ibid. p. 70.

[8] Irish law.—A considerable amount of testimony might be produced to prove that the Irish were and are peculiarly a law-loving people; but, in the words of the writer above-quoted, "a people cannot be expected to love and reverence oppression, because it is consigned to a statute-book, and called law."—p. 71. The truth is, that it was and is obviously the interest of English writers to induce themselves to believe that Irish discontent and rebellion were caused by anything or everything but English oppression and injustice. Even in the present day the Irish are supposed to be naturally discontented and rebellious, because they cannot submit silently to be expelled from their farms without any compensation or any other means of support, either from political or religious motives, and because they object to maintain a religion contrary to their conscience, and which is admitted by its own members to be "clearly a political evil." See concluding remarks in Mr. Goldwin Smith's interesting little volume.