The Statute of Kilkenny (1318-1377)

Patrick Weston Joyce

256. Edward III. succeeded to the throne of England in 1327, in succession to his father Edward II.

The Irish government emerged from the Bruce struggle weak: it now grew weaker year by year—engaged in defence rather than invasion; and the causes were not far to seek. The Irish, taking advantage of the dissensions and helplessness of the English, recovered a great part of their lands. The English all over the country were fast becoming absorbed into the native population.

257. There were two reasons for this. First: the colonists, seeing the Irish prevailing everywhere, joined them for their own protection, intermarrying with them and adopting their language, dress, and customs. Second: the government had all along made a most mischievous distinction between New English and Old English—English by birth and English by blood. They favored Englishmen and gave them most of the situations of trust, putting them over the heads of the Old English. This so incensed the old colonists that a large proportion of them turned against the government and joined the Irish all over the country.

These "degenerate English," as they were called, were regarded by the loyal English with as much aversion as the Irish, and returned hate for hate quite as cordially. So completely did they become fused with the native population, that an English writer complained that they had become Hiberniores Hibernicis ipsis, more Irish than the Irish themselves.

258. The whole country was now feeling the consequences of the Bruce invasion. There were murderous broils everywhere among the English themselves. At Bragganstown, near Ardee, Sir John Bermingham, the victor of Faughart, was led into a trap, in 1329, and treacherously slain, together with his brothers, nephews, and retainers, to the number of 160, by the Gernons and Savages. About the same time a similar outrage was perpetrated in Munster; when Lord Philip Hodnet and 140 of the Anglo-Irish were massacred by their brethren, the Barrys, the Roches, and others.

259. The uprising of the Irish became so general and alarming that, in 1330, the viceroy called in the aid of the powerful nobleman in the country, Maurice Fitzgerald, who was at the same time created first earl of Desmond. This only made matters worse; for Fitzgerald, after some successful expeditions, quartered his army, to the number of 10,000, on the colonists, to pay themselves by exacting coyne and livery (56). This was the first time the English adopted the odious impost, which afterwards became so frequent among them.

260. The Anglo Irish lords had now become so dangerously powerful that king Edward III. determined to pull them down and reduce them to obedience. He made three attempts by three different governors and failed in all.

The first was Sir Anthony Lucy, a stern Northumbrian baron, who was sent over in 1331 as lord lieutenant. He arrested, among others, the earl of Desmond and Sir William Bermingham. Bermingham, who was suspected of being implicated in a rebellious outbreak that had lately taken place in Leinster, was executed in the following year; and Desmond was released after 18 months' imprisonment. But Lucy was not successful in his main object.

261. In 1333 De Burgo the Brown earl of Ulster, then only 21 years of age, was murdered on his way to Carrickfergus church on a Sunday morning by Richard de Mandeville, his own uncle by marriage. The Anglo-Irish people of the place, by whom the young lord was much liked, rose up in a passionate burst of vengeance, and seizing on all whom they suspected of having a hand in the deed, killed 300 of them.

262. The murder of this young earl lost a great part of Ireland to the government, and helped to hasten the incorporation of the English with the Irish. He left one child, a daughter, who according to English law was heir to her father's vast possessions in Ulster and Connaught, about one-fourth of the whole Anglo-Irish territory.

The two most powerful of the Connaught De Burgos seized the estates, declared themselves independent of England, and adopted the Irish dress and language.

They took also Irish names, one of them calling himself Mac William Oughter (Upper) as being lord of upper, or south, Connaught; he was ancestor of the earls of Clanrickard: the other, Mac William Eighter i.e. of Lower or North Connaught, from whom descended the earls of Mayo. And their example was followed by many other Anglo-Irish families, especially in the west and south.

263. The English of the Pale were now so weak that they had to pay some of the Irish septs of their borders to protect them from the attacks of the natives. Payments of this kind subsequently became very common, and were called "Black rents."

264. After a considerable interval, Sir John Morris came in 1341 as deputy, to attempt what Lucy had failed in. He took back all the lands and all the privileges which either the king himself or his father had granted; and he re-claimed all debts that had been cancelled. But there came a much worse measure than this. The king issued an ordinance in 1342 that all natives, whether of Irish or English descent, who were married and held public offices in Ireland, should be dismissed, and their places filled up by English-born subjects who had property in England.

265. These measures caused intense surprise and indignation among the Anglo-Irish of every class. The earls of Desmond and Kildare refused to attend Morris's parliament, and in 1342 convened a parliament of their own in Kilkenny. They spoke openly of armed resistance and drew up a spirited remonstrance to the king. In this document they complained bitterly of the intolerable conduct of the English officials, exposed their selfishness and fraud, and represented that to their corruption and incompetency were due the recent losses of territories and castles. The appeal was successful: the king granted almost everything they asked for; and at the same time requested assistance from them for his French wars.

266. But after all this, still another attempt was to be made. Sir Ralph Ufford was now—in 1344—appointed lord justice, whose wife was Maud, widow of the Brown earl of Ulster. He turned out a most intolerable tyrant, and quite overshot the mark; and his wife was blamed for instigating him to some of his worst deeds. He seized the earl of Desmond's estates, hanged several of his knights, and threw the earl of Kildare into prison. But he died in the midst of his tyranny, "to the great joy of everyone;" and so fierce was the rage of the people against him, that his wife, who had lived with the grandeur and state of a queen, had now to steal away from Dublin Castle through a back gate, with the coffin containing her husband's body.

267. After his death Kildare was released, and joined the king at the siege of Calais in 1347, where he was knighted for his bravery. Desmond's wrongs were also redressed and he was made lord justice for life.

With these proceedings of Ufford's the attempts of the king to break down the power of the Irish nobles may be regarded as having terminated.

268. During all this time the people of the country, English and Irish alike, were sunk in a state of misery that no pen can describe. At this period the "black death" was in full swing, and was as bad in Ireland as elsewhere. Once it entered a house, all the family generally fell victims; and it swept away the inhabitants of whole towns, villages, and castles. The plague was not all: the people's cup of misery was filled to overflowing by perpetual war and all its attendant horrors. The inhabitants of the Pale were perhaps in a worse condition than those of the rest of Ireland; for they were tyrannised over and robbed by the soldiers.

The colonists, exposed to all sorts of exactions and hardships, and scourged by pestilence, quitted the doomed country in crowds—every one fled who had the means—and the settlement seemed threatened with speedy extinction.

269. In this critical state of affairs king Edward resolved to send over his third son Lionel, afterwards duke of Clarence, as lord lieutenant. This young prince had married Elizabeth the only child of the Brown earl of Ulster, and in her right had become earl of Ulster and lord of Connaught. With a force of 1,500 experienced soldiers he came to Ireland in 1361; and twice afterwards he came as lord lieutenant, in 1364 and 1367. Believing, after this much experience, that it was impossible to subdue the Irish, he caused the government, during his last visit—in 1367—to frame and pass an act of parliament—the celebrated Statute of Kilkenny—in order to save the miserable remnant of the settlement.

270. This act contains thirty-five chapters, of which the following are the most important provisions: Intermarriage, fosterage, gossipred, traffic, and intimate relations of any kind with the Irish, were forbidden as high treason:—punishment, death.

If any man took a name after the Irish fashion, used the Irish language, or dress, or mode of riding (without saddle), or adopted any other Irish customs, all his lands and houses were forfeited, and he himself was put into jail till he could find security that he would comply with the law. The Irish living among the English were permitted to remain, but were forbidden to use the Irish language under the same penalty. To use or submit to the Brehon law or to exact coyne and livery was treason.

No Englishman was to make war on the Irish without the special warrant of the government, who would conduct, supply, and finish all such wars, "so that the Irish enemies shall not be admitted to peace until they be finally destroyed or shall make restitution fully of the costs and charges of that war."

The Irish were forbidden to booley or pasture on those of the march lands belonging to the English; if they did so the English owner of the lands might impound the cattle as a distress for damage; but in doing so he was to keep the cattle together, so that they might be delivered up whole and uninjured to the Irish owner if he came to pay the damages.

According to Brehon law, the whole sept were liable for the offences and debts of each member. In order to avoid quarrels, the act ordains that an English creditor must sue an Irish debtor personally, not any other member of the sept. This at least was a wise provision.

No native Irish clergyman was to be appointed to any position in the church within the English district, and no Irishman was to be received into any English religious house in Ireland.

It was forbidden to receive or entertain Irish bards, pipers, story-tellers, or mowers, because these and such like often came as spies on the English.

271. The Statute of Kilkenny, though not exhibiting quite so hostile a spirit against the Irish as we find sometimes represented, yet carried out consistently the vicious and fatal policy of separation adopted by the government from the beginning. It was intended to apply only to the English, and was framed entirely in their interests. Its chief aim was to withdraw them from all contact with the "Irish enemies"—so the natives are designated all through the act—to separate the two races for evermore.

272. But this new law designed to effect so much, was found to be impracticable, and turned out after a little while a dead letter. Coyne and livery continued to be exacted from the colonists by the three great earls, Kildare, Desmond, and Ormond; and the Irish and English went on intermarrying, gossiping, fostering, and quarrelling on their own account, just the same as before.

273. The reign of Edward III. was a glorious one for England abroad, but was disastrous to the English dominion in Ireland. At the very time of the battle of Cressy, the settlement had been almost wiped out of existence—not more than four counties now remained to the English. If one-half of the energy and solicitude expended uselessly in France had been directed to Ireland, which was more important than all the French possessions, the country could have been easily pacified and compacted into one great empire with England.

274. Almost as soon as the English had made permanent settlements in Ireland the evil of absenteeism began to make itself felt. A number of speculators got possession of large tracts of lands; and while they lived out of the country and discharged none of the duties expected from holders of property, they drew their rents from their Irish estates and drained the country of its capital. Many attempts to remedy this evil were made about this time; and acts were passed to enforce residence: those who did not reside had to pay two-thirds of their income as fine. But these acts were evaded and produced no lasting results; and absenteeism has descended through seven centuries to our own times.