Old Matthew Paris writes: “The case of historical writers is hard; for if they tell the truth they provoke men, and if they write what is false, they offend God.” Of all histories this dictum is perhaps most true of Irish history, which has been studied rather in terms of present-day political issues than in terms of actual retrospect. The most urgent of these political issues having been, up to a recent moment, the relations of England toward Ireland, this part of the history has to a certain extent, though often with much prejudice, been dealt with by all writers on Ireland; but the conditions of the country under native rule have been much more inadequately studied. It is taken almost for granted by patriotic writers that native Ireland was enjoying a Golden Age from which she was rudely awakened by the irruption of the English, who, in destroying it, put in its place a ruthless despotism, increasing in severity from age to age. There is no more exacting problem than that of the rule of a dependency by an outside power; and in studying this problem, as Lecky truly says, “Irish history possesses an interest of the highest order. … In very few histories can we trace so clearly the effects of political and social circumstances in forming national character, the calamity of missed opportunities and of fluctuating and procrastinating policy; the folly of trying to govern by the same methods and institutions nations that are wholly different in their character and their civilization.”[1] The problem was much more complicated than modern writers allow; the conditions in Ireland itself account for much; and it is perhaps because the theory of a Golden Age breaks down upon closer study that the internal history of the country, as exhibited in its own annals, has been scrupulously avoided by Irish writers anxious to lay all the blame of misgovernment upon forces over which Ireland had no control. In the new situation, now that Ireland has once more regained freedom of action unhampered by outside interference, a reconsideration of the whole subject seems urgent. The professed desire of many of the younger school of Irishmen is for a return to the conditions, the methods, and the laws of the past as a rule of guidance for to-day. A clear understanding as to where this ambition leads calls for a reading of history which takes into account both sides of the problem, and endeavours fairly to estimate the actual conditions of native life in Ireland as well as the many and varied attempts of England to deal with it. The early intentions of the ruling power to act justly toward Ireland broke down in a despair that led to the most ruthless methods of resettlement. The fault was partly English, partly Irish, but still more largely that of the officials, who intervened between the English Crown and the Irish people. How Ireland would have developed had the Normans never set foot in Ireland is a question as impossible to answer as a similar question concerning England. The coming of the Normans was as inevitable in the one case as in the other; nothing at that time could withstand the sweep of their victorious onrush over Western Europe; and the result of their conquests was in both cases permanent and mixed of good and evil.

I have endeavoured in the following history to interpose as little as was possible between the reader and the contemporary authorities to which all writers of history must go, if they would study the matter at first hand. The result has been in numberless cases a surprise to myself; so different is the report of the man on the spot from the commonly received opinion of the present day. Irish history is a series of contradictions; its unexpectedness creates its absorbing interest; it refuses to march along the simple lines marked out for it by the modern political writer; it is illogical, independent, averse to rule. In these circumstances it has seemed best, so far as space permitted, to let the original writers speak for themselves.

By this means some portion of that fresh flavour which we taste in old personal documents, letters, and memoirs of the time may be retained, and the fault which Montaigne charges against “the middle sort of historians” that “they will chew our meat for us” is partly avoided. The writers of the day were undoubtedly often prejudiced, partial, or even false; but their memorials are all we have to depend upon; and especially in the Tudor period, when Irish history is well documented on all sides, they never held their tongues. We might like them better if they had not talked so much; but at least we have their unbiased opinion, and it is not difficult for any intelligent reader to make the necessary deductions for their individual points of view. To know the history of any period we must know the men who made that history; the personal element can never be omitted with safety in preference for wide general deductions. History never repeats itself, for the men who made it yesterday are different from the men who are making it to-day. But it is upon the men that the trend and conclusions of history depend.

I have to acknowledge with gratitude the kindness of the following noblemen and gentlemen who have allowed the use of photographs of portraits from their private collections for this work: His Grace the Duke of Devonshire, for a portrait of the first Earl of Cork, called the ‘Great’ Earl of Cork, now at Hardwick Hall, formerly at Lismore, attributed to Paul van Somers; the Right Hon. Lord Sackville, for the portrait of Katherine FitzGerald, the “Old Countess of Desmond,” at Knole; the Right Hon. Lord de l’Isle and Dudley, for the portrait of Sir Henry Sidney, at Penshurst Place; Lady Nesta FitzGerald, for the portrait of Garrett Oge, ninth Earl of Kildare, at Carton, Maynooth; the Hon. Francis Agar-Robartes, for the portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh, at Wimpole; Mr Francis Joseph Bigger, for the portrait of Shane O’Neill, at Castle Shane, Ardglass; and the Rev. F. H. Hodgson, for the portrait of Sir George Carew, first Earl of Totnes, at Clopton House, Stratford-on-Avon. I have been unable to discover the owners of the two interesting portraits of Hugh O’Neill, second Earl of Tyrone, which were exhibited in the Loan Collection of Portraits, London, in 1866. Though known as a portrait of Hugh O’Neill, the younger of the two portraits has a faint inscription across the top of the picture, which seems to read, Hæc est Christophori simulaia canalis imago quem jaculum transfixa coxendice peremit.”

To Mr Newport B. White I am indebted for kindly translating King Cathal “Crovdearg” O’Conor’s letter in the Appendices, and to my brother, Mr C. M. Hull, for help in proof-reading and indexing.


[1] Historical and Political Essays.