Contrast of the Two Contending Conceptions of Civilisation 1550-1641

18. It is a matter of much virtue briefly to contrast the supplanted with the supplanting nation at the moment when one was submerged by the physical force of the other. The literature of Elizabethan England, as the literature of a conqueror people, has achieved fame. The literature of the same period in Ireland is virtually unknown. Much of it was deliberately destroyed; what remained has been kept from attention by the ascendant Power. Yet even while the Plantations were proceeding, a poetical controversy broke out in Ireland, in which poets from all parts of the country joined. They wrote with vigour in difficult and exacting metres, that, for craft and delicacy, make all but the foremost few among contemporary English poets to appear cumbersome, crude and intolerably verbose. The difference was as between lithe skill and heavy experiment. That difference was, however, historic; for one wrote as the heirs of a finished and ancient culture, the other as men who had just learnt the art of numbers. Moreover, finding that their old order was doomed, the traditional historians of Ireland began now in a frenzy of labour to collect the older records and to re-write and to re-cast them. None of these things were printed. At a time when the printing press had opened the gates of knowledge to Europe, it was forbidden to Ireland, and such histories had to be written and copied furtively by hand, and as furtively passed through the country. Many of them have perished, but those that remain display a monumental learning and care that need yield priority to none.

The very Englishmen who were sent to prosecute the Plantation of Ulster bear testimony to the scholarship they found. Those who were engaged in making an English county of the country of the Maguires reported: "The natives of this country are reputed the worst swordsmen of the north, being rather inclined to be scholars or husbandmen than to be kern or men of action, as they term rebels in this kingdom." Irish literature of the time, in prose and poetry, remains a mine unsearched, but even so much as has been revealed shews that it need give precedence to none of its contemporaries in Europe. Its excellence and skilled craftsmanship were the possession of all its writers, sprung as they were from the loins of an ancient tradition, whereas English literature of that time lives only in the skill of a few inspired writers. However, Irish literature comprised a culture spread through a whole people, and was not, as in England, confined to a few learned centres. The same was true of music. As for law, in England this had been degraded into a trick or craft of pleading.

The English conception was well expressed by the poet Spenser. "In the last general war over there in Ireland," he says, "I knew many good freeholders executed by martial law whose lands were thereby saved to their heirs which should otherwise have escheated to her Majesty." He was alluding to the English law of treason, which was developed as a plot for the capture and ensnaring of property. Nearly all the monstrous Plantations of the time were carried out in the guise of law; and to study the practice whereby this was accomplished is to study as perverted and cynical an instrument of what is conceived as the search for equity among men as it is possible to discover in history. Whereas there is not a single instance in Irish history to shew that Irish law was not meant by its jurists as an honest intention towards equity, abstract and disinterested, or was otherwise than so conceived by the people. Without any central executive to enforce obedience, the people kept the "laws made upon hills firm and stable, without breaking them for any favour or reward." Even the most venal English lawyer of the time, the Attorney-General, Sir John Davies, under whose crafty manipulation of law the plantations were prosecuted, was compelled to admit: "There is no nation of people under the sun that doth love equal and indifferent justice better than the Irish." As for the Social System and National Polity, these have been examined. One system was based upon a free and legislating people, in which authority was broad-based upon the people's will: the other was devised and administered for the aggrandisement of an arbitrary king and his court favourites. One civilisation fell before the force of arms of the other; but the higher fell before the lower.