The Flight of the Earls and the End of Mediaeval Ireland (2)

Eleanor Hull
The Flight of the Earls | start of chapter

With the flight of the Earls mediæval Ireland may be said to have come to an end, and with it the old clan system. Henceforth, for good and ill, the plantations over the larger portions of the country introduced an element of English life and thought too large to admit of any extended revival of the sept and clan conditions.

We need not regret them, picturesque as they may appear from the outside. What was good in the clan life, its loyalty to the chieftain, its sense of interdependence, was more than overshadowed by its inherent disadvantages. The uncertainty as to the succession to the chiefship led to incessant wars within the sept itself, out of which the neighbouring chiefs made their own profit; murders of pretenders to the office were continual even in the Tudor period, and mutilations intended to prevent designs upon the leadership of the sept.

In every chief’s house sat hostages, who spent in captivity the better part of their lives, liable at all times to be blinded or put to death for faults not their own. The number of the chiefs’ wives, and the open acknowledgement of numerous base-born sons, who could succeed to the chieftainship, show the state of feeling on social matters, while the cruelties of chiefs like Shane O’Neill or the long drinking bouts of Turlogh do not give us an impression of high culture among the general run of the leaders of the people.[9]

War, raiding, and the devastation of neighbouring lands was the daily life of the clans and their natural delight; they were trained to be warriors, and as warriors they lived and died. In Elizabethan times few pages of the Annals are without such reports as the following:

“Shane O’Neill and Hugh O’Donnell left neither house neither corn in all my [Maguire’s] country upon the main land unwasted, neither church neither sanctuary unrobbed; but there is certain islands in my country in the which islands standeth all my goods, but your lordship shall understand that Hugh O’Donnell has prepared twelve boats for to rob and waste all those islands.”

Or again, when O’Rorke is contemplating a raid into Meath his family bard exhorts him to reap down the growing corn, and fell the orchards, and to leave misery behind him on the smooth pastures of the Boyne, so that a woman from Meath’s pastureland must satisfy her hunger with the flesh of her first-born child.[10]

There was little to choose between the methods of the Irish chief and the English officer so far as terrorism and bloodshed were concerned, though the destruction caused by the passage of English armies was more widespread. Nor was there anything to distinguish the Irish soldier from his English comrade in the matter of pity for the sufferers in war. Neither English or Irish troops spared those who fell under their hand.

War, in spite of the attempts or affected attempts to gloss over its horrors, is never anything but barbarous and terrible—a monster raised by one nation to torture and destroy another. In Elizabethan days palliation was not even dreamed of; and the troops of both countries showed an equal readiness to execute the ruthless orders of their commanders.

O’Sullevan Beare laments that the Irish troops did not hold their hand even from the desecration of Armagh Cathedral, Catholics though they were, tearing down the images and polluting the precincts with the same fury as the heretics with whom they were associated.[11]

But, though Irish soldiers never failed to be forthcoming for the Irish armies fighting on the side of the Government under English commanders, and there is no distinction visible between their conduct and that of their fellows, there is a real difference in the humanity shown by their leaders toward the vanquished, or the captives that the fortunes of war threw into their hands.

When Enniskillen Castle surrendered to Maguire and O’Donnell in 1594 the defenders were dismissed as agreed upon, and after the battle of the Yellow Ford the surrendered garrisons were permitted to withdraw to Newry and Dundalk. No treachery, such as seems to have occurred at Smerwick and Dunboy, was attempted upon them.

The men of note who fell into their hands, though held to ransom, were well treated, and in some cases, such as that of Sir Henry Harington, they were so happy with their captors that they “ever afterwards spoke well of the Irish.” There were no massacres of surrendered garrisons or of helpless women and children. Here the behaviour of the Irish chiefs showed a sense of honour and courtesy of which we have lamentably few examples on the part of the English officers in their dealings with them.

The principles laid down by Machiavelli in The Prince for the guidance of the Italian princes of his day were equally accepted and acted upon by France, Spain, and England, but the harshness and perfidy practised in Ireland by the men in power in the Tudor period were not only disapproved in many cases by the sovereigns, they also aroused horror in the bulk of the English people.

Lord Arthur Grey was assailed on all sides on his return as “a bloody man, who regarded not the life of the Queen’s subjects no more than dogs, but had wasted and consumed all so as now she had nothing almost left but to reign in their ashes.”

The heads of one Deputy and officer after another fell on the block on their retirement from their Irish offices, even the near kin of the reigning sovereigns not escaping the penalty of their misdeeds. Perhaps the most remarkable expression of opinion is that of Lord Burghley, who, writing to Sir Henry Wallop at a time when English sympathy was strongly stirred on behalf of the suffering peoples of the Low Countries, declares that “the Flemings had not such cause to rebel against the oppression of the Spaniards as the Irish against the tyranny of England.”

At the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries, in order to provide a refuge and place of study for Catholic youths shut out from the means of education at home, a number of Irish colleges sprang up on the Continent, founded sometimes by sovereigns, like that of Toulouse, which owes its origin to Anne of Austria, or of Salamanca and Compostella, founded by Philip II; others, such as Bordeaux,[12] were established by Irish merchants settled abroad or by Irish officers in foreign service.

During the earlier half of the seventeenth century colleges were founded in France, Spain, Belgium and Rome. Lisbon was one of the first to open its doors to Irish students, who were maintained by a confraternity in that city. Salamanca had added an Irish college even sooner, Stephen White having presented to the King of Spain at Valladolid some Irish students and prayed him to found for these “poor exiles from Ireland” a college in Salamanca. This college became, along with that of Louvain, the favourite resort of Irish pupils; Colonel Henry O’Neill, Tyrone’s son, Owen Roe O’Neill, Ward, and Wadding were among the students who resorted thither.

Other colleges were started in Spain by the exertions of Thomas Stapleton, and Madrid, Alcala, Seville, and Santiago added Irish foundations to their list of colleges. Irish lads became a familiar sight in the streets of Spanish towns.

At Salamanca they were so well known that in Gil Blas there is an allusion to the figures Hibernoises in the public promenade of the city; and it is there remarked that these young Irish intellectuals were “always ready to discuss the most abstruse questions of metaphysics with any comer.”

Paris gave a welcome to Irish students from about 1578, when John Lee with six Irish students entered the College. In 1677 Lombard College was transferred to the Irish students and became the centre of the Irish colony in Paris; when King James arrived there after the defeat of the Boyne he held a levee at this college.

The existing Irish College in Paris was opened in 1769 by Laurence Kelly, who built a college for clerics in what is now the rue des Irlandais, but the Lombard College went on as before; it had attracted many of the military men who entered the Irish Brigade in the eighteenth century.

Irish students flocked abroad in such numbers that Ware estimated that as many as thirty foreign establishments existed, ranging from Douai and Rheims on the west to Prague and Vienna on the east.

Irish was taught and spoken in some of the colleges, and the rules of Lille, founded for Leinster boys, required all pupils to use the language on two days of the week; when, in 1764, a President was chosen who could speak no Irish the authorities refused to accept him. It was contended that in Leinster the native tongue was not necessary for clerical students, as all the priests in that province spoke English.

At Louvain there were three Irish colleges, and up to recent times the name “Collegium Hibernum” could be read over the large gateway of carved stone which led to the Irish Pastoral College. But the centre of Irish interests in Belgium was the Franciscan College of the Recollects, named after St Anthony of Padua and built through the intercession of Father Florence Conry by Philip III of Spain. It was founded in 1616. Here worked that great group of Irish scholars, Luke Wadding, John Colgan, Stephen White, Patrick Fleming, Hugh Ward, and Thomas O’Sheerin, and to it came Michael O’Clery when engaged in collecting materials for the lives of the Irish Saints and also for the Annals of the Four Masters.

Peter Lombard and Hugh MacCaghwell often passed periods within its walls, and there Hugh O’Neill was reunited with his eldest son, a colonel in the Spanish forces of the Netherlands. These boys did not go abroad wholly unprepared. The old schools of the bards seem to have been in full activity, and the early lists of pupils at Salamanca, which give not only the names and parents of the students, but the places where they had received their earlier education, show that many of those who went abroad between the years 1600 and 1616 had been instructed by poets whose poems are still extant, such as Blind Tadhg O’Higgin and others.

The learned Hugh Ward, a Donegal man, himself studied in the schools of Connacht “under diverse masters, of whom the most learned was Master Oliver Hussey, under whom he studied two years; under others, as Henry Hart, Tadhg Higgin, Aenea Conmy, for four years.”[13]

Besides the bardic schools there were several excellent ‘Latin schools’ in all the important towns, Kilkenny, Ross, Drogheda, Galway, Cork, Armagh, and Waterford, such as those of Peter White at Kilkenny and Alexander Lynch of Galway. Peter White had been educated at Oxford, which was then a regular resort for men of studious habits, and became a Fellow of Oriel College. He caught the fervour of the Oxford revival of classical studies, and his school inspired in its pupils a passion for Greece and Grecian studies. Richard Stanihurst, Peter Lombard the Primate, Luke Wadding, and Comerford were students at this school.[14]

When these schools were closed priests and Jesuits entered private families as teachers to the young. The “six religious houses of the Pale,” which were spared by special petition because of the excellent education they provided, were entirely for English-born children.

The larger number of these Oxford students were descendants of the settlers and came from the towns; it was naturally less common to find members of the country Irish families taking an English education, though from this rule there were many exceptions. The religious differences here, as elsewhere, determined their choice. If an Irish Catholic desired a more advanced standard of instruction than was obtainable within the country he went abroad to obtain it. Even Protestants seem to have followed this fashion.

In the statute of Elizabeth setting forth the reasons for the foundation of a college in Dublin it is stated that the purpose in view was that “knowledge and civility might be increased by the instruction of our people (in a College for learning), whereof many have usually heretofore used to travaile into France, Italy, and Spain to get learning in such foreigne Universities, whereby they have been infected with Popery and other ill qualities.”

In Elizabeth’s reign, however, there seems to have been a great tendency among the Irish gentlemen of position to send their boys into England or in some way to secure that they learned the English tongue. It was, in fact, necessary for those who took the English side either for a time or permanently to know the language of their allies. For instance, Bryan MacGeoghegan in a petition to the Queen states that he had been compelled by poverty to draw home two children whom he “was bringing up in England in good civility and literature.”

In 1593 it is stated that “MacMahon’s brothers and children know English and are civilly brought up.”[15]

O’Donnell, we are told, “knows English and can sign and date in that language.” Nevertheless, he spoke it with difficulty, so that Sidney had to get the aid of an interpreter, though O’Donnell understood what was said to him. It seems as if it had become a matter of reproach among the Irish chiefs if any one of them did not know the English tongue.

Donal O’Sullevan,[16] replying to what he considered the false accusations of Sir Owen O’Sullevan, protests that “the country was not so barbarous, but that the heirs thereof were always brought up in learning and civility, and could speak the English and Latin tongues; but to excuse his own ignorance and want of bringing up, being not able to speak the English language, he (Sir Owen) would gladly discredit the country and all his ancestors, who were ever better disposed people to good government, learning, and civility than the said Sir Owen, as hereunder shall appear.”

Latin was the universal medium and was used in a free conversational way, perhaps without a strict regard for grammar, but in a manner to make it useful for all the common wants of life. “Without any precepts or observation of congruity they speak Latin like a vulgar language,” writes Campian somewhat scornfully, about 1574, “learned in their common schools of Leachcraft [Medicine] and Law, whereat they begin children and hold on sixteen or twenty years, conning by rote aphorisms of Hippocrates and the Pandects of Justinian, and a few other parings of these two faculties.”

The State correspondence of the time shows that Shane O’Neill could write Latin letters to both laymen and ecclesiastics; while Cuconnacht Maguire is said to have been “a learned and studious adept in Latin and in Irish.”[17]

Shane seems to have understood English very well also; he writes to Sussex in 1562, in the curious spelling which he shared with many born Englishmen of the day.

“Bechetching you to wrytte me no more letters in Latyn, because that I would nott that no other clerke nor non other man of this contrey shuld knowe your mynd; wherfor doo you wryte all your mynd in Englys.”[18]

It was a much less usual accomplishment to speak and write English than to use Latin in the same way. The poor shoeless lads on the Galway mountains could often converse in Latin, and every young man educated for the priesthood had of necessity to learn it. But English was, as we have seen, also acquired where necessity demanded it; and occasionally we find a learned lady, like Calvagh O’Donnell’s Scottish wife, who could speak in three languages.[19]