The Invasion of Edward Bruce and the Gaelic Revival (3)

Eleanor Hull
The Invasion of Edward Bruce and the Gaelic Revival | start of chapter

As far as was possible, the town of Galway held itself aloof from the stirs of the province. From the fifteenth century it prided itself, and justly, on the solid, handsome buildings of hewn stone, erected by Galway citizens or Spanish merchants, which still show above their portals the arms of their founders, and on its splendid bay which became, through the energy of the citizens, the chief commercial port of the West, surpassing even the older merchant city of Limerick in the extent of its French and Spanish commerce. Vaults capable of storing 1000-1400 tuns of foreign wines were built at Athboy in Meath in early Tudor times, to contain the imports of wines from Galway, which were transmitted to Drogheda and Dublin for sale.

The Blakes, d’Arcys, ffrenchs. Martins, Lynchs, Kirwins, and other families of Norman, Irish, and Welsh descent, who had settled in the town between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, later were to become known to the scoffing Cromwellian army as “the Tribes of Galway” on account of their attachment to each other and to their city.

Already in 1375 the town was of sufficient commercial importance to have the king’s staple established for the sale of wool, sheepskins, and leather, a privilege hitherto conceded only to Cork and Drogheda. In spite of enemy ships constantly hovering round the Aran Islands at the entrance to the bay, and in spite of the turmoils of the O’Conors outside their gates, foreign and home trade steadily increased. Though themselves of mixed descent, they looked down with urban superiority and the pride of unstained loyalty to English rule on the “mountainous and wild people” of the countryside, by whom they “were sometimes robbed and killed.”[20] They passed severe laws against trade with the Irish, or letting to them any land or tenement within the walls. “No ‘O’ or ‘Mac’ should strut or swagger through their streets.”

In ancient days the furious descents of the inhabitants of the mountainous districts of Joyce’s country and West Connacht had inspired the petition inscribed above the west portal of the town, “From the ferocious O’Flahertys, good Lord deliver us.”

But even the O’Flahertys settled down in time, and became so observant of the law that in the seventeenth century during thirty years of peace “there was not one person executed out of their whole territories for any transgression.”[21] Intermarriages and the necessities of life were stronger than trade laws, and the Mayors of Galway granted the country people certain protections, which were, however, liable to be removed on account of “wilful disobedience, lying and deceit, or of the impossibility of recovering debts or robberies.” But the townspeople found the wheat, barley, oats, and rye, as well as the cheese, beef, butter, tallow, and hides, none the worse because they were brought to market from the Aran Isles or from West Connacht. The ground manured with seaweed was so prolific that they sowed in March with as little seed as possible, being sure that not a grain would fail to fructify.

Like all the chief merchant towns of Ireland, Galway held closely to the English interest. Its fine church of St Nicholas was, in 1484, erected into a collegiate body with warden and vicars, and was taken over from the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Tuam in order that it might follow the English rite and custom in matters of religion. There was an ordinance enacting that all should wear cloaks and gowns and doublets and hose after the English fashion, even if made of the country’s cloth. Society in Galway prided itself on keeping in touch with the latest output in English literature. Sir John Harington, on visiting the city early in Elizabeth’s reign, found that his recently published translation of Ariosto had been “entertained into Galway” before he came. With the pardonable conceit of the literary man at finding his work appreciated and known in so remote a city as Galway, he exclaims delightedly:

“When I got thither, a young lady, a fair lady, a great lady, read herself asleep, nay, dead, with a tale of it.”

There were fleets of galleys belonging to the O’Malleys and the O’Flahertys on the Galway coasts, and on the southern coasts the O’Driscolls of Baltimore and the le Poers, or Powers, of Waterford had each their fleet, carrying on constant hostilities with each other and with the citizens of Cork and Waterford. There were numerous sea-fights, which must have kept the coasts lively, between the “merchants, strangers and Englishmen,” who were plying their trade along the shores, and the galleys of these lords; mayors and sheriffs seem to have taken part in them. In one of these small naval battles in 1368 the le Poers and O’Driscolls made a united attack on the citizens of Waterford, in which the Mayor and sheriffs and justices of the peace were slain, together with thirty-six citizens and sixty merchants, strangers and Englishmen.

Sometimes there were reprisals. In 1413 Mayor Simon Wicken and the bailiffs of Waterford with a band of men in armour arrived at supper-time on Christmas Eve at O’Driscoll’s great house in Baltimore. A message was sent in that the Mayor of Waterford had arrived with a ship of wine, always good news in an Irish port. The Mayor and his company were readily admitted. Bidding O’Driscoll and his guests not to fear, for “he meant not to draw no man’s blood of them, but to dance and drink and so depart,” the Mayor sat down among them to sup, after which all joined in the dance. “After singing a carol,” at a sign from the Mayor, each of his men held his partner fast, and O’Driscoll and his family found themselves being borne away to the ship, the Mayor explaining that they should finish their carol at Waterford and make merry with them that Christmas.[22]

The condition of the ‘march’ or borderlands scattered throughout the island between the native and the English districts was much more pitiable. Though nominally under the authority of English proprietors, they were usually barren and waste lands, chiefly inhabited by Irish, and they were the natural paths by which the incursions of disaffected Irish were made into the districts of English occupation. By day and night they were the channel for surprises and raids. Laws were constantly being passed ordering the protection of the marches by owners of property, and forbidding intercourse with such natives on the borderlands as were in arms against the Crown.

Special efforts were made to prevent private wars, so that “there be one peace and war throughout the entire land,” in which all were to be called on to assist. But in spite of this the petty raiding and feuds never ceased, and all attempts to improve the march-lands ended in failure.

In the circumstances it is not surprising that a large proportion of the proprietors of these borderlands became absentees; no fines or threats of punishment sufficed to keep them from flying to England to escape their costly and unpleasant duties at home. The heavy fines collected from absentees were spent in keeping up horses and soldiery to guard the marches; border castles were ordered to be built, ‘paces’ or wide avenues cut through the forests, and the highroads kept passable.[23]

It was impossible, nevertheless, to secure quiet in these districts; bands of lightfooted Irish marauders swooped down on the villages and towns, or waylaid passing travellers, while the heavy-armed soldiery were unable to follow them into the wild and tangled country into which they disappeared again with marvellous swiftness. The evil system of ‘black rents’ (dubh cios) had to be resorted to in order to buy off these border-septs, especially the O’Mores of Leix, the O’Byrnes of Ranelagh, and the O’Tooles of Wicklow, who were in the habit of making sudden and terrifying descents on the inhabitants of Dublin from the west and south.

These black rents were gradually extended throughout the country. In 1360 Mahon Moinmoy exacted them from the English of North Munster, and in 1380 Brian O’Brien in alliance with Richard de Burgh forced the payment of “great gifts and tribute” from Munster. Two years earlier the warlike Murchad O’Brien of Ara began to spoil the demoralized English of the Pale, and a special Parliament was called at Tristledermot to deal with him. “With a great force of Irishmen he threatened to destroy parts of Leinster,” and a hundred marks were paid to him to induce him to withdraw. It was a ruinous policy, which increased the evil it was designed to prevent.

In the reign of Edward IV large sums of money had to be paid annually to O’Connor of Offaly, O’Carroll of Tipperary, O’Brien in Limerick, and MacCarthy in Cork. All these rents were raised out of the incomes of the English settlers. Wexford had to contribute eighty marks yearly to pay off MacMorrogh Kavanagh, while the English of Ulster paid black rents to O’Neill.

According to a tract called An Abbreviate of the getting of Ireland and of the decaye of the same the black rents amounted annually to £740 of the contemporary currency. To maintain themselves against such odds became to the English a matter of constant anxiety; they had to keep armed retainers about their houses; and in 1475 even a bishop of Meath when summoned to repair to England pleaded that he was so occupied with hostings that he dare not leave his camp even to meet Parliament.

The English resident in Ireland had no easy time of it. There were exactions from Viceroys and English kings, black rents to Irish chiefs, and heavy costs for maintaining troops, with the continual harassing strife alike with their own countrymen and with the “Irish enemy.” Absenteeism grew, and could not be checked; even the appropriation by the Council of two-thirds of the rents of absentees did not suffice to bring back those who had left their estates in the hands of stewards while they lived in England.

In 1361 Edward III summoned before him in London sixty-three landowners, lay and clerical, earls, countesses, knights, and abbots, who were absentees from their establishments in Ireland, and ordered them at once to proceed to their Irish estates; but all threats and commands proved useless.

In 1371 a case was brought into court, and it was decided that a baron refusing to go into Ireland could not be forced to do so, because, under the provisions of Magna Charta, no free man could be obliged to abandon the realm of England unless by Act of Parliament.[24]

Ecclesiastics and landowners alike represented themselves in appeals to the English kings as “continuing in a land of war, environed by Irish enemies and English rebels, and in point to be destroyed.”[25]

It was often as much a desire of self-preservation as a matter of choice to fall back upon the native method of life, adopt Irish dress, customs, and language, and become one with the people among whom they lived. All of them were dependent on Irish labourers to till their fields and serve their families, and all of them were followed to war by troops of Irish kerne.

They envied the provisions of the Brehon law, which punished homicide only with a fine, whereas under English law the culprit (always excepting when the victim was an Irishman) was liable to capital punishment.

They had necessarily to learn the language of the country if they would hold any communication at all with their neighbours and dependents, and the native garb, a tunic with a wide, hooded cloak over it, they found to be well suited to the life and climate. Above all, they were glad to be free of the exactions of successive Governments, and they rejoiced in the Irish custom of ‘coyne and livery’ or free entertainment for man and beast at the expense of their dependents, a habit of which they took full advantage.

Gradually most of those who lived outside the Pale dropped into all the native ways, even to the adoption of the ‘culan’ (cuilfhionn), or long lock at the back of the head, or the ‘gibbe’ in front over the forehead, while the use of the moustache, “a beard on the upper lip alone,” and the Irish manner of riding without a saddle became habitual.