Sir Henry Sidney

Eleanor Hull
Sir Henry Sidney

The Tudors did not spare their most distinguished servants when an appointment had to be made in Ireland. In 1556, during the absence of Sussex, Sir Henry Sidney, who had served under Sussex as Vice-Treasurer and had accompanied him on his expeditions to the North, was appointed Lord Justice. In 1565 he succeeded as Lord Deputy, and from that time, with short intervals, Sidney passed the greater part of his life in Ireland. “Three times hath her Majesty sent me her Deputy into Ireland,” he writes to Walsingham in March, 1583, “and in every of the three times I sustained a great and violent rebellion, every one of which I subdued and with honourable peace left the country in quiet. I returned from each of those three deputations £3,000 worse than I went.”[1]

Sir Henry Sidney

Sidney was a man of great position, inheriting large grants of land in Kent and Sussex, with the beautiful manor of Penshurst, where his gifted son, Sir Philip Sidney, was born. He was an accomplished man and a vigorous and successful ruler. Stern as was his rule, the Irish believed him to be just and honest.[2] The Annals of the Four Masters call him “a knight by title, nobleness, deed, and valour,” and to the populace he was known as “Big Sir Harry.”

He rebuilt Dublin Castle, then in a ruinous condition, and he arranged for the preservation of the State Papers, which had not hitherto been kept, a great service to future generations.

As a young man his activity was so great that when pursuing Shane O’Neill “his vauntcurrers felt Shane’s couch warm” where he lay the night before; and on one occasion, when word was brought to Shane that the Deputy was near at hand, he exclaimed, “That is not possible; for the day before yesterday I know he dined and sat under his cloth of state in the hall of Kilmainham.” “By the hand of O’Neill,” quoth the messenger, “he is in thy country, for I saw the red bractok with the knotty club [Sidney’s crest] and that is carried before none but himself; meaning [Sidney adds] my pensell with the ragged staff.”[3]

When Sidney first came over as Deputy Shane was at the height of his power, and he marched north immediately against “this monstrous monarcall tyrant” to whose son he, when Lord Justice, had stood godfather. The campaign was a severe and trying one. “How pleasant it is in this time of year with hunger and sore travail to harbour long and cold nights in cabins made of boughs and covered with grass, I leave to your indifferent judgment,” writes the owner of Penshurst at the close of a letter to London.

Sidney had great influence over the Munster lords, who accompanied and entertained him as he passed through the province, and his popularity extended through all parts of the country. It is perhaps no wonder that at a time when Lord Grey de Wilton, Ormonde, or Pelham were carrying an unsheathed sword through Munster, especially during Lord Grey’s term of office from 1580–82, Sir Henry Sidney was the man “generally desired,” and that he “was cried for by the children in the streets.” “If Sir Henry can but sit in his chair,” wrote Malbie to Walsingham in 1582, when Grey’s recall in disgrace began to be mooted, “he will do more good than others with all their limbs;”[4] and Sidney had to go back to another term of office, in spite of growing infirmities and increasing age, when he had hoped to spend the rest of his life at home.

“And so, being wearied with often sending for, I resolved to go thither again; the place, I protest before God, which I cursed, hated, and detested.”

Yet he “hoped to be able to do somewhat that had not been done before and to hit where others had missed.”

The chief personal difficulty of Sidney’s life in Ireland arose from the jealousy of Ormonde, who was constantly in London and whose splendid presence and abilities made him a prime favourite with the Queen. To her, every act of Sidney was reported. This hampered him seriously in dealing with the quarrels of the Butlers, Ormonde’s brothers, and surrounded him with an atmosphere of suspicion and espionage most galling to a man of honest intentions. His dealings with the Desmonds were fair and patient and might have been successful in staving off the Munster rebellion had his plans not been overturned by others. Of this we have to speak later.

During his long terms of office he learned to know Ireland as few Viceroys ever knew it, and he endeavoured to encourage industry and found schools supported by the State.

The main lines of his policy, or what he called “his fixed principle,” were “the dissipation of the great lords and their countries, and the reducing of the lands of the Anglo-Norman lords into many hands,” for he saw in the immense power held by the few owners of the great estates a constant source of danger to the State. He believed in plantation schemes, and thought that Essex’s ‘plot’ for the reformation of the North was the best and surest foundation on which to build.[5] He highly disapproved the “cowardly policy,” recommended by some of the Queen’s advisers, “of keeping the Irish by all possible means at war between themselves for fear lest, through their quiet, might follow I know not what;” if this system were to be persisted in, he begs the Queen to choose some other minister.

“Ireland,” in Sidney’s view, “could only be reformed by justice and by making it possible to practise the arts of peace.”[6] Soon after his appointment as Deputy, Sidney continued that good practice of making occasional circuits of the provinces begun by Cusack. His lengthy reports, full of character and detail, remain.

The first of these journeys was made in April 1567, through the Pale and Munster, the second in 1575–76, when he visited in turn all the provinces of Ireland. Starting northward, he found Eastern Ulster desolate and waste, and the towns impoverished, except Drogheda, which Essex had made his headquarters, spending very bountifully while he was there, and increasing the wealth of the city.

O’Reilley’s country was an exception to the general disorder, “very well ruled by him; the justest Irishman and the best-ruled Irish country, by an Irishman, that is in all Ireland”; farther south, Upper Ossory was equally well governed and defended by the young Baron, who was so firm in his decision to adopt the recognized English rule of succession that “it made no matter, even if the country were never shired.”[7]

Kilkenny, on the contrary, was in very bad case, “the sink and receptacle of innumerable cattle and goods stolen out of many other countries,” the fruits of the interminable wars of the Butlers. Nevertheless, Sidney was honourably feasted and entertained by the Earl of Ormonde, who accompanied him to Waterford, where the Deputy was received “with all shows and tokens of gladness and pomp, as well upon the water as on the land.”[8]

A similar reception awaited them in Cork, where they remained six weeks, Youghal being in too reduced a condition to entertain high personages like the Deputy. The journey from this point onward was like a royal progress. They moved about attended by the Earls of Desmond, Thomond, and Clancar, the Earl of Desmond having ‘come in’ only a few days before; the Bishops of Cashel and Cork, the Viscounts Barry and Roche, the Barons Courcy, Lixnaw, Dunboyne, Power, Barry Oge, and even Louth, who “only to do Sidney honour,” came down from the north of the Pale to Cork.[9]

Divers of the Irish, “not yet nobilitated,” were of the party, such as the Lords of Carbery and Muskerry, Sir Donogh MacCarthy, and Sir Cormac MacTeigue MacCarthy—men Sidney wished to see made barons, at least, “though in respect of their territories Muskerry and MacCarthy were fitted to be made Viscounts.”

Besides these, there were Sir Owen O’Sullevan, and the son and heir to O’Sullevan Mór, “the father not being able to come by reason of his great years and impotency,” Sir William O’Carroll and MacDonoghue, “never a one of them but for his lands might pass in rank of a baron, either in Ireland or England.”

Of the Irish, too, were the sons of MacAwley and O’Callaghan, “the old man not being able to come by reason of extreme age and infirmity,” and O’Mahon and O’Driscoll “each of them having land to live like a knight, here or there.”

Of the descendants of the old English were Sir James FitzGerald, Sir Theodore Butler, “who lawfully and justly enjoyed the lands of his uncle and cousin the Barons of Cahir,” Sir Thomas, Sir John, and Sir James of Desmond, brothers to the Earl, and, besides all these, many of the “ruined reliques of the ancient English inhabitants, as the Arundels, Rocheforts, Barretts, Flemings, Lombards, Terries (Tirrells), whose ancestors did live like gentlemen, knights some of them, and now all in misery, either banished from their own, or oppressed upon their own.”

Lastly, there was a group of captains of galloglas, the MacSwynes, “a brood not a little perilous to this province,” who “made the greatest lords of the province both fear them and be glad of their friendship.”

All of these, according to the Viceroy, “seemed to loathe their vile and barbarous manner of life and were all ready to offer fealty and service for ever to her Majesty and to perform it at Westminster.”

Truly Sidney might feel that the ends of English rule in Ireland had been attained, as this princely company of ‘meere’ Irish, old English, and ‘newly nobilitated’ lords, each of them with his wife during all the Christmas season “the better to furnish out the beauty and filling of the city,” gathered round him, “all of them keeping very honourable, at least very plentiful houses; many widow ladies were there also, who erst had been wives to earls and others of good note and accompt.”[10]

This splendid progress was followed by practical results.

A great number of the Irish and old English lords submitted, even, as Sidney travelled westward, in the districts bordering on the Shannon. Burkes, Lacies, Purcells, the Red Roche, O’Mulrian, and several of the O’Briens and MacNamaras repaired to the Deputy at Limerick, all lamenting the waste and ruin of their countries, and praying for English laws to be planted among them and English sheriffs to execute those laws.

The lesser lords called for the imposition of a settled subsidy instead of the local cess exacted from them by force; on this point Sidney found them “very tractable, though the matter in handling was somewhat tough.”

Except in the Palatinates of Kerry and Tipperary, the Queen’s writ ran everywhere in the South and assizes were held. Owing to Perrot’s administration Munster showed “great towardness of reformation” since the Deputy’s last visit in 1567.

In Connacht affairs were not so satisfactory, though the Deputy entered the province with an imposing train of lords owning their lands in the west who here replaced those of Munster and the Pale.[11] The Earl of Thomond, heading a large company of O’Briens, accompanied him, “all gentlemen of one surname, and yet no one of them friends to another, and sometime have been named kings of Limerick”; as also the Earl of Clanricarde, the Archbishop of Tuam and Bishop of Clonfert, the Baron of Athenry, a now needy representative of the great family of the Berminghams, “the ancientest in this land”; with O’Flaherty, O’Kelly, O’Madden, O’Naughton, at the head of their respective lords and captains, besides Burkes under their adopted names of MacDavy, MacRedmond, MacHubbert, and many more.

The old Galway Prendergasts, MacCostelloes, Lynches, and Barretts were all well represented, and all alike besought that they might hold their lands of the Crown directly instead of being at the mercy of their provincial lords, who so tyrannized over them that many who had once been lords and barons in Parliament had not now three hackneys to carry them home. The whole province was suffering from the misdeeds of Ulick and John Burke, the two “hopeless sons” of the Earl of Clanricarde, whom no promises or oaths would restrain from their execrable evil deeds.

Galway had been so decayed through the “horrible spoils” committed by these young men, that the inhabitants had almost forgotten that they were a corporate town. The place was fortified like a city at war, its walls nightly watched, and its gates daily guarded by armed men.

Athenry, “a town full as big as Calais, with a fair high wall,” had been totally burned by them, college, parish church, and all; “yet the mother of one of them was buried in the church.”[12] In this former great and ancient town, which had three hundred good householders, Sidney found now “only four and they poor, and, as I write,” he says, “ready to leave the place. The cry and lamentation of the poor people was great and pitiful and nothing but thus, ‘Succour, succour, succour.’ The Earl of Clanricarde could not deny but that he held a heavy hand over them.”

Sidney set about to raise a tax on the country for the rebuilding of the town, and the two youths publicly submitted in St Nicholas’ Church of Galway, where Sidney caused a countryman of their own named Lynch, “sometime a friar at Greenwich, but a reformed man, a good divine and preacher in three tongues, Irish, English, and Latin” to preach a sermon to them on the wickedness of their actions.[13]

But their reformation was short. After a brief confinement in Dublin they were set free, provided that they would never again pass the Shannon into Connacht. But hardly were they at liberty than they recrossed the river, flinging off their English habit and apparel and putting on their wonted Irish weed with the remark, “Lie there for one year at least.” They rejoined their “loose rascall and kerne,” tore down the new buildings in Athenry, and again set the province in an uproar.

Their father, Richard or Redmond, known as the ‘Sasanach Earl’ on account of his English leanings, who was accompanying the Deputy, “very humbly on his knees had besought protection for himself and his two sons,” but on their fresh outbreak his castles were delivered into Sidney’s hands and he himself sent into England, the Deputy congratulating himself that he had in his power the father, an earl, and his followers, instead of “two beggerly bastard boys.” The old Earl “took his leave of this world” in 1582, and the sons continued their struggles for the title of Earl, in spite of a division of their immense properties between them and their frequent promises of a better life.[14]