COUNT JOSEPH DE MAISTRE, in his "Principe Generateur des Constitutions Politiques" (Par. LXI.), says: "All nations manifest a particular and distinctive character, which deserves to be attentively considered."
This thought of the great Catholic writer requires some development.
It is not by a succession of periods of progress and decay only That nations manifest their life and individuality. Taking any one of them at any period of its existence, and comparing it with others, peculiarities immediately show themselves which give it a particular physiognomy whereby it may be at once distinguished from any other; so that, in those agglomerations of men which we call nations or races, we see the variety everywhere observable in Nature, the variety by which God manifests the infinite activity of his creative power.
When we take two extreme types of the human species--the Ashantee of Guinea, for instance, and any individual of one of the great civilized communities of Europe-the phenomenon of which we speak strikes us at once. But it may be remarked also, in comparing nations which have lived for ages in contiguity, and held constant intercourse one with the other from the time they began their national life, whose only boundary-line has been a mountain-chain or the banks of a broad river. They have each striking peculiarities which individualize and stamp them with a character of their own.
How different are the peoples divided by the Rhine or by the Pyrenees! How unlike those which the Straits of Dover run between! And in Asia, what have the conterminous Chinese and Hindoos in common beyond the general characteristics of the human species which belong to all the children of Adam?
But what we must chiefly insist upon in the investigation we are Now undertaking is, that the life of each is manifested by a special physiognomy deeply imprinted in their whole history, which we here call character. What each of them is their history shows; and there is no better means of judging of them than by reviewing the various events which compose their life.
For the various events which go to form what is called the history of a nation are its individual actions, the spontaneous energy of its life; and, as a man shows what he is by his acts, so does a nation or a race by the facts of its history.
When we compare the vast despotisms of Asia, crystallized into forms which have scarcely changed since the first settlement of man in those immense plains, with the active and ever-moving smaller groups of Europeans settled in the west of the Old World since the dispersion of mankind, we see at a glance how the characters of both may be read in their respective annals. And, coming down gradually to less extreme cases, we recognize the same phenomenon manifested even in contiguous tribes, springing long ago, perhaps, from the same stock, but which have been formed into distinct nations by distinct ancestors, although they acknowledge a common origin. The antagonism in their character is immediately brought out by what historians or annalists have to say of them.
Are not the cruelty and rapacity of the old Scandinavian race Still visible in their descendants? And the spirit of organization displayed by them from the beginning in the seizure, survey, and distribution of land--in the building of cities and castles--in the wise speculations of an extensive commerce--may not all these characteristics be read everywhere in the annals of the nations sprung from that original stock, grouped thousands of years ago around the Baltic and the Northern Seas?
How different appear the pastoral and agricultural tribes which have, for the same length of time, inhabited the Swiss valleys and mountains! With a multitude of usages, differing all, more or less, from each other; with, perhaps, a wretched administration of internal affairs; with frequent complaints of individuals, and partial conflicts among the rulers of those small communities--with all these defects, their simple and ever-uniform chronicles reveal to us at once the simplicity and peaceful disposition of their character; and, looking at them through the long ages of an obscure life, we at once recognize the cause of their general happiness in their constant want of ambition.
And if, in the course of centuries, the character of a nation has changed--an event which seldom takes place, and when it does is due always to radical causes--its history will immediately make known to us the cause of the change, and point out unmistakably its origin and source.
Why is it, for instance, that the French nation, after having lived for near a thousand years under a single dynasty, cannot now find a government agreeable to its modern aspirations? It is insufficient to ascribe the fact to the fickleness of the French temper. During ten centuries no European nation has been more uniform and more attached to its government. If to-day the case is altogether reversed, the fact cannot be explained except by a radical change in the character of the nation. Firmly fixed by its own national determination of purpose and by the deep studies of the Middle Ages--nowhere more remarkable than in Paris, which was at that time the centre of the activity of Catholic Europe--the French mind, first thrown by Protestantism into the vortex of controversy, gradually declined to the consideration of mere philosophical utopias, until, rejecting at last its long-received convictions, it abandoned itself to the ever-shifting delusions of opinions and theories, which led finally to skepticism and unbelief in every branch of knowledge, even the most necessary to the happiness of any community of men. Other causes, no doubt, might also be assigned for the remarkable change now under our consideration. The one we have pointed out was the chief.
To the same causes, acting now on a larger scale throughout Europe, we ascribe the same radical changes which we see taking place in the various nations composing it: every thing brought everywhere in question; the mind of all unsettled; a real anarchy of intellect spreading wider and wider even in countries which until now had stood firm against it. Hence constant revolutions unheard of hitherto; nothing stable; and men expecting with awe a more frightful and radical overturning still of every thing that makes life valuable and dear.
Are not these tragic convulsions the black and spotted types wherein we read the altered character of modern nations; are they not the natural expression of their fitful and delirious life?
These considerations, which might be indefinitely prolonged, show the truth of the phrase of Joseph de Maistre that "all nations manifest a particular and distinctive character, which deserves to be attentively considered."
The fact is, in this kind of study is contained the only possible philosophy of history for modern times.
With respect to ages that have passed away, to nations which have run their full course, a nobler study is possible--the more so because inspired writers have traced the way. Thus Bossuet wrote his celebrated "Discours." But he stopped wisely at the coming of our Lord. As to the events anterior to that great epoch, he spoke often like a prophet of ancient times; he seemed at times to be initiated in the designs of God himself. And, in truth, he had them traced by the very Spirit of God; and, lifted by his elevated mind to the level of those sublime thoughts, he had only to touch them with the magic of his style.
But of subsequent times he did not speak, except to rehearse the well-known facts of modern history, whose secret is not yet revealed, because their development is still being worked out, and no conclusion has been reached which might furnish the key to the whole.
There remains, therefore, but one thing to do: to consider each nation apart, and read its character in its history. Should this be done for all, the only practical philosophy of modern history would be written. For then we should have accomplished morally for men what, in the physical order, zoologists accomplish for the immense number of living beings which God has spread over the surface of the earth. They might be classified according to a certain order of the ascending or descending moral scale. We could judge them rightly, conformably with the standard of right or wrong, which is in the absolute possession of the Christian conscience. Brilliant but baneful qualities would no longer impose on the credulity of mankind, and men would not be led astray in their judgments by the rule of expediency or success which generally dictates to historians the estimate they form and inculcate on their readers of the worth of some nations, and the insignificance or even odiousness of others.
In the impossibility under which we labor of penetrating, at the present time, the real designs of Providence with respect to the various races of men, so great an undertaking, embracing the principal, if not all, modern races, would be one of the most useful efforts of human genius for the spread of truth and virtue among men.
Our purport is not of such vast import. We shall take in these pages for the object of our study one of the smallest and, apparently, most insignificant nations of modern Europe--the Irish. For several ages they have lost even what generally constitutes the basis of nationality, self-government; yet they have preserved their individuality as strongly marked as though they were still ruled by the O'Neill dynasty.
And we may here remark that the number of a people and the size of its territory have absolutely no bearing on the estimate which we ought to form of its character. Who would say that the Chinese are the most interesting and commendable nation on the surface of the globe? They are certainly the most ancient and most populous; their code of precise and formal morality is the most exact and clear that philosophers could ever dictate, and succeed in giving as law to a great people. That code has been followed during a long series of ages. Most discoveries of modern European science were known to them long before they were found out among us; agriculture, that first of arts, which most economists consider as the great test whereby to judge of the worth of a nation, is and always has been carried by them to a perfection unknown to us. Yet, the smallest European nationality is, in truth, more interesting and instructive than the vast Celestial Empire can ever be--whose long annals are all compassed within a few hundred pages of a frigid narrative, void of life, and altogether void of soul.
But why do we select, among so many others, the Irish nation, which is so little known, of such little influence, whose history occupies only a few lines in the general annals of the world, and whose very ownership has rested in the hands of foreigners for centuries?
We select it, first, because it is and always has been thoroughly Catholic, from the day when it first embraced Christianity; and this, under the circumstances, we take to be the best proof, not only of supreme good sense, but, moreover, of an elevated, even a sublime character. In their martyrdom of three centuries, the Irish have displayed the greatness of soul of a Polycarp, and the simplicity of an Agnes. And the Catholicity which they have always professed has been, from the beginning, of a thorough and uncompromising character. All modern European nations, it is true, have had their birth in the bosom of the Church. She had nursed them all, educated them all, made them all what they were, when they began to think of emancipating themselves from her; and the Catholic, that is, the Christian religion, in its essence, is supernatural; the creed of the apostles, the sacramental system; the very history of Christianity, transport man directly into a region far beyond the earth.
Wherever the Christian religion has been preached, nations have awakened to this new sense of faith in the supernatural, and it is there they have tasted of that strong food which made and which makes them still so superior to all other races of men. But, as we shall see, in no country has this been the case so thoroughly as in Ireland. Whatever may have been the cause, the Irish were at once, and have ever since continued, thoroughly impregnated with supernatural ideas. For several centuries after St. Patrick the island was "the Isle of Saints," a place midway between heaven and earth, where angels and the saints of heaven came to dwell with mere mortals. The Christian belief was adopted by them to the letter; and, if Christianity is truth, ought it not to be so? Such a nation, then, which received such a thorough Christian education--an education never repudiated one iota during the ages following its reception--deserves a thorough examination at our hands.
We select it, secondly, because the Irish have successfully refused ever since to enter into the various currents of European opinion, although, by position and still more by religion, they formed a part of Europe. They have thus retained a character of their own, unlike that of any other nation. To this day, they stand firm in their admirable stubbornness; and thus, when Europe shall be shaken and tottering, they will still stand firm. In the words of Moore, addressed to his own country:
"The nations have fallen and thou still art young; Thy sun is just rising when others are set; And though slavery's cloud o'er thy morning hath hung, The full noon of freedom shall beam round thee yet."
That constant refusal of the Irish to fall in with the rapid torrent of European thought and progress, as it is called, is the strangest phenomenon in their history, and gives them at first an outlandish look, which many have not hesitated to call barbarism. We hope thoroughly to vindicate their character from such a foul aspersion, and to show this phenomenon as the secret cause of their final success, which is now all but secured; and this feature alone of their national life adds to their character an interest which we find in no other Christian nation.
We select it, thirdly, because there is no doubt that the Irish is the most ancient nationality of Western Europe; and although, as in the case of the Chinese, the advantage of going up to the very cradle of mankind is not sufficient to impart interest to frigid annals, when that prerogative is united to a vivid life and an exuberant individuality, nothing contributes more to render a nation worthy of study than hoariness of age, and its derivation from a certain and definite primitive stock.
It is true that, in reading the first chapters of all the various histories of Ireland, the foreign reader is struck and almost shocked by the dogmatism of the writers, who invariably, and with a truly Irish assurance, begin with one of the sons of Japhet, and, following the Hebrew or Septuagint chronology, describe without flinching the various colonizations of Erin, not omitting the synchronism of Assyrian, Persian, Greek, and Roman history. A smile is at first the natural consequence of such assertions; and, indeed, there is no obligation whatever to believe that every thing happened exactly as they relate.
But when the large quartos and octavos which are now published from time to time by the students of Irish antiquarian lore are opened, read, and pondered over, at least one consequence is drawn from them which strikes the reader with astonishment. "There can be no doubt," every candid mind says to itself, "that this nation has preceded in time all those which have flourished on the earth, with the exception, perhaps, of the Chinese, and that it remains the same to-day." At least, many years before Christ, a race of men inhabited Ireland exactly identical with its present population (except that it did not enjoy the light of the true religion), yet very superior to it in point of material well-being. Not a race of cannibals, as the credulous Diodorus Siculus, on the strength of some vague tradition, was pleased to delineate; but a people acquainted with the use of the precious metals, with the manufacture of fine tissues, fond of music and of song, enjoying its literature and its books; often disturbed, it is true, by feuds and contentions, but, on the whole, living happily under the patriarchal rule of the clan system.
The ruins which are now explored, the relics of antiquity which are often exhumed, the very implements and utensils preserved by the careful hand of the antiquarian--every thing, so different from the rude flint arrows and barbarous weapons of our North American Indians and of the European savages of the Stone period, denotes a state of civilization, astonishing indeed, when we reflect that real objects of art embellished the dwellings of Irishmen probably before the foundation of Rome, and perhaps when Greece was as yet in a state of heroic barbarism.
And this high antiquity is proved by literature as well as by art. "The ancient Irish," says one of their latest historians, M. Haverty, "attributed the utmost importance to the accuracy of their Historic compositions for social reasons. Their whole system of society--every question as to right of property--turned upon the descent of families and the principle of clanship; so that it cannot be supposed that mere fables would be tolerated instead of facts, where every social claim was to be decided on their authority. A man's name is scarcely mentioned in our annals without the addition of his forefathers for several generations--a thing which rarely occurs in those of other countries.
"Again, when we arrive at the era of Christianity in Ireland, we find that our ancient annals stand the test of verification by science with a success which not only establishes their character for truthfulness at that period, but vindicates the records of preceding dates involved in it."
The most confirmed skeptic cannot refuse to believe that at the introduction of Christianity into Ireland, in 432, the whole island was governed by institutions exactly similar to those of Gaul when Julius Caesar entered it 400 years before; that this state must have existed for a long time anterior to that date; and that the reception of the new religion, with all the circumstances which attended it, introduced the nation at once into a happy and social state, which other European countries, at that time convulsed by barbarian invasions, did not attain till several centuries later.
These various considerations would alone suffice to show the real importance of the study we undertake; but a much more powerful incentive to it exists in the very nature of the annals of the nation itself.
Ireland is a country which, during the last thousand years, has maintained a constant struggle against three powerful enemies, and has finally conquered them all.
The first stage of the conflict was that against the Northmen. It lasted three centuries, and ended in the almost complete disappearance of this foe.
The second act of the great drama occupied a period of four Hundred years, during which all the resources of the Irish clans were arrayed against Anglo-Norman feudalism, which had finally to succumb; so that Erin remained the only spot in Europe where feudal institutions never prevailed.
The last part of this fearful trilogy was a conflict of three centuries with Protestantism; and the final victory is no longer doubtful.
Can any other modern people offer to the meditation, and, we must say, to the admiration of the Christian reader, a more interesting spectacle? The only European nation which can almost compete with the constancy and never-dying energy of Ireland is the Spanish in its struggle of seven centuries with the Moors.
We have thought, therefore, that there might be some real interest and profit to be derived from the study of this eventful national life--an interest and a profit which will appear as we study it more in detail.
It may be said that the threefold conflict which we have outlined might be condensed into the surprising fact that all efforts to drag Ireland into the current of European affairs and influence have invariably failed. This is the key to the understanding of her whole history.
Even originally, when it formed but a small portion of the great Celtic race, here existed in the Irish branch a peculiarity of its own, which stamped it with features easy to be distinguished. The gross idolatry of the Gauls never prevailed among the Irish; the Bardic system was more fully developed among them than among any other Celtic nation. Song, festivity, humor, ruled there much more universally than elsewhere. There were among them more harpers and poets than even genealogists and antiquarians, although the branches of study represented by these last were certainly as well cultivated among them as among the Celts of Gaul, Spain, or Italy.
But it is chiefly after the introduction of Christianity among them, when it appeared finally decreed that they should belong morally and socially to Europe, it is chiefly then that their purpose, however unconscious they may have been of its tendency, seems more defined of opening up for themselves a path of their own. And in this they followed only the promptings of Nature.
The only people in Europe which remained untouched by what is called Roman civilization--never having seen a Roman soldier on their shores; never having been blessed by the construction of Roman baths and amphitheatres; never having listened to the declamations of Roman rhetoricians and sophists, nor received the decrees of Roman praetors, nor been subject to the exactions of the Roman fisc--they never saw among them, in halls and basilicas erected under the direction of Roman architects, Roman judges, governors, proconsuls, enforcing the decrees of the Caesars against the introduction or propagation of the Christian religion. Hence it entered in to them without opposition and bloodshed.
But the new religion, far from depriving them of their characteristics, consecrated and made them lasting. They had their primitive traditions and tastes, their patriarchal government and manners, their ideas of true freedom and honor, reaching back almost to the cradle of mankind. They resolved to hold these against all comers, and they have been faithful to their resolve down to our own times. Fourteen hundred years of history since Patrick preached to them proves it clearly enough.
First, then, although the Germanic tribes of the first invasion, as it is called, did not reach their shore, for the reason that the Germans, as little as the Celts, never possessed a navy--although neither Frank, nor Vandal, nor Hun, renewed among them the horrors witnessed in Gaul, Spain, Italy, and Africa--they could not remain safe from the Scandinavian pirates, whose vessels scoured all the northern seas before they could enter the Mediterranean through the Straits of Gibraltar.
The Northmen, the Danes, came and tried to establish themselves among them and inculcate their northern manners, system, and municipal life. They succeeded in England, Holland, the north of France, and the south of Italy; in a word, wherever the wind had driven their hide-bound boats. The Irish was the only nation of Western Europe which beat them back, and refused to receive the boon of their higher civilization.
As soon as the glories of the reign of Charlemagne had gone down in a sunset of splendor, the Northmen entered unopposed all the great rivers of France and Spain. They speedily conquered England. On all sides they ravaged the country and destroyed the population, whose only defence consisted in prayers to Heaven, with here and there an heroic bishop or count. In Ireland alone the Danes found to their cost that the Irish spear was thrust with a steady and firm hand; and after two hundred years of struggle not only had they not arrived at the survey and division of the soil, as wherever else they had set foot, but, after Clontarf, the few cities they still occupied were compelled to pay tribute to the Irish Ard-Righ. Hence all attempts to substitute the Scandinavian social system for that of the Irish septs and clans were forever frustrated. City life and maritime enterprises, together with commerce and trade, were as scornfully rejected as the worship of Thor and Odin.
Soon after this first victory of Ireland over Northern Europe, the Anglo-Norman invasion originated a second struggle of longer duration and mightier import. The English Strongbow replaced the Danes with Norman freebooters, who occupied the precise spots which the new owners had reconquered from the Northmen, and never an inch more. Then a great spectacle was offered to the world, which has too much escaped the observation of historians, and to which we intend to draw the attention of our readers.
The primitive, simple, patriarchal system of clanship was Confronted by the stern, young, ferocious feudal system, which was then beginning to prevail all over Europe. The question was, Would Ireland consent to become European as Europe was then organizing herself? The struggle, as we shall see, between the Irish and the English in the twelfth century and later on, was merely a contest between the sept system and feudalism, involving, it is true, the possession of land. And, at the end of a contest lasting four hundred years, feudalism was so thoroughly defeated that the English of the Pale adopted the Irish manners, customs, and even language, and formed only new septs among the old ones.
Hence Ireland escaped all the commotions produced in Europe by the consequences of the feudal system:
For Erin remained so completely shut off from the rest of Europe, that, in spite of its ardent Catholicism, the Crusades were never preached to its inhabitants; and, if some individual Irishman joined the ranks of the warriors led to Palestine by Richard Coeur de Lion, the nation was in no way affected by the good or bad results which everywhere ensued from the marching of the Christian armies against the Moslem.
The sects which sprang from Manicheism were certainly an evil consequence of the holy wars; and it would be a great error to think that those heresies were short-lived and affected only for a brief space of time the social and moral state of Europe. It may be said that their fearfully disorganizing influence lasts to this day. If modern secret societies do not, in point of fact, derive their existence directly from the Bulgarism and Manicheism of the Middle Ages, there is no doubt that those dark errors, which Imposed on all their adepts a stern secrecy, paved the way for the conspiracies of our times. Hence Ireland, not having felt the effect of the former heresies, is in our days almost free from the universal contagion now decomposing the social fabric on all sides.
But it is chiefly in modern times that the successful resistance offered by Ireland to many wide-spread European evils, and its strong attachment to its old customs, will evoke our wonder.
Clanship reigned still over more than four-fifths of the island when the Portuguese were conquering a great part of India, and the Spaniards making Central and South America a province of their almost universal monarchy.
The poets, harpers, antiquarians, genealogists, and students of Brehon law, still held full sway over almost the whole island, when the revival of pagan learning was, we may say, convulsing Italy, giving a new direction to the ideas of Germany, and penetrating France, Holland, and Switzerland. Happy were the Irish to escape that brilliant but fatal invasion of mythology and Grecian art and literature! Had they not received enough of Greek and Latin lore at the hands of their first apostles and missionaries, and through the instrumentality of the numerous amanuenses and miniaturists in their monasteries and convents? Those holy men had brought them what Christian Rome had purified of the old pagan dross, and sanctified by the new Divine Spirit.
Virgin Ireland having thus remained undefiled, and never having even been agitated by all those earlier causes of succeeding revolutions, Protestantism, the final explosion of them all, could make no impression on her--a fact which remains to this day the brightest proof of her strength and vigor.
But, before speaking of this last conflict, we must meet an objection which will naturally present itself.
To steadily refuse to enter into the current of European thought, and object to submit in any way to its influence, is, pretend many, really to reject the claims of civilization, and persist in refusing to enter upon the path of progress. The North American savage has always been most persistent in this stubborn opposition to civilized life, and no one has as yet considered this a praiseworthy attribute. The more barbarous a tribe, the more firmly it adheres to its traditions, the more pertinaciously it follows the customs of its ancestors. They are immovable, and cannot be brought to adopt usages new to them, even when they see the immense advantages they would reap from their adoption. Hence the greater number of writers, chiefly English, who have treated of Irish affairs, unhesitatingly call them barbarians, precisely on account of their stubbornness in rejecting the advances of the Anglo-Norman invaders. Sir John Davies, the attorney-general of James I., could scarcely write a page on the subject without reverting to this idea.
We answer that the Irish, even before their conversion to Christianity, but chiefly after, were not barbarians; they never opposed true progress; and they became, in fact, in the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries, the moral and scientific educators of the greater part of Europe. What they refused to adopt they were right in rejecting. But, as there are still many men who, without ever having studied the question, do not hesitate, even in our days, to throw barbarism in their teeth, and attribute to it the pitiable condition which the Irish to-day present to the world, we add a few further considerations on this point.
First, then, we say, barbarians have no history; and the Irish certainly had a history long before St. Patrick converted them. Until lately, it is true, the common opinion of writers on Ireland was adverse to this assertion of ours; but, after the labors of modern antiquarians--of such men as O'Donovan, Todd, E. O'Curry, and others--there can no longer be any doubt on the subject. If Julius Caesar was right in stating that the Druids of Gaul confined themselves to oral teaching--and the statement may very well be questioned, with the light of present information on the subject--it is now proved that the Ollamhs of Erin kept written annals which went back to a very remote age of the world. The numerous histories and chronicles written by monks of the sixth and following centuries, the authenticity of which cannot be denied, evidently presuppose anterior compositions dating much farther back than the introduction of our holy religion into Ireland, which the Christian annalists had in their hands when they wrote their books, sometimes in Latin, sometimes in old Irish, sometimes in a strange medley of both languages. It is now known that St. Patrick brought to Ireland the Roman alphabet only, and that it was thenceforth used not merely for the ritual of the Church, and the dissemination of the Bible and of the works of the Holy Fathers, but likewise for the transcription, in these newly-consecrated symbols of thought, of the old manuscripts of the island; which soon disappeared, in the far greater number of instances at least, owing to the favor in which the Roman characters were held by the people and their instructors the bishops and monks. Let those precious old symbols be called Ogham, or by any other name--there must have been something of the kind.
If any one insists that such was not the case, he must of necessity admit that the oral teaching of the Ollamhs was so perfect and so universally current in the same formulas all over the island, that such oral teaching really took the place of writing; and in this case, also, which is scarcely possible, however, Ireland had an authentic history. This last supposition, certainly, can hardly be credited; and yet, if the first be rejected, it must be admitted, since it cannot be imagined that subsequent Irish historians, numerous as they became in time, could have agreed so well together, and remained so consistent with themselves, and so perfectly accurate in their descriptions of places and things in general, without anterior authentic documents of some kind or other, on which they could rely. Any person who has merely glanced at the astonishing production called the "Annals of the Four Masters," must necessarily be of this opinion.
In no nation in the world are there found so many old histories, annals, chronicles, etc., as among the Irish; and that fact alone suffices to prove that in periods most ancient they were truly a civilized nation, since they attached such importance to the records of events then taking place among them.
But the Irish were, moreover, a branch of the great Celtic race, whose renown for wisdom, science, and valor, was spread through all parts, particularly among the Greeks. The few details we purpose giving on the subject will convince the reader that among the nations of antiquity they held a prominent position; and not only were they possessed of a civilization of their own, not despicable even in the eyes of a Roman--of the great Julius himself--but they were ever most susceptible of every kind of progress, and consequently eager to adopt all the social benefits which their intercourse with Rome brought them. At least, they did so as soon as, acknowledging the superior power of the enemy, they had the good sense to feel that it was all-important to imitate him. Hence sprang that Gallo-Roman civilization which obtained during the first five or six centuries of the Christian era--a civilization which the barbarians of the North endeavored to destroy, but to which they themselves finally yielded, by embracing Christianity, and gradually changing their language and customs.
Everywhere--in Gaul, Italy, Britain, and Ireland--did the Celts manifest that susceptibility to progress which is the invariable mark of a state antagonistic to barbarism. In this they totally differed from the Vandals and Huns, whom it took the Church such a dreary period to conquer, and whom no other power save the religion of Christ could have subdued.
These few words are sufficient for our present purpose. We proceed to show that, in their stubborn opposition to many a current of European opinion, they acted rightly.
They acted rightly, first of all, in excluding from their course of studies at Bangor, Clonfert, Armagh, Clonmacnoise, and other places, the subtleties of Greek philosophy, which occasioned heresies in Europe and Asia during the first ages of the Church, and were the cause of so many social and political convulsions. By adhering strictly---a little too strictly, perhaps--to their traditional method of developing thought, they kept error far from their universities, and presented, in the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries, the remarkable spectacle in Ireland, France, Germany, Switzerland, and even Northern Italy, of numerous schools wherein no wrangling found a place, and whence never issued a single proposition which Rome found reason to censure. They were at that time the educators of Christian Europe, and not even a breath of suspicion was ever raised against any one of their innumerable teachers. If their mind, in general, did not on that account attain the acuteness of the French, Italians, or Germans, it was at all times safer and more guarded. Even their later hostility to the English Pale, after the eleventh century, was most useful, from its warning against the teachings of prelates sent from the English Universities of Oxford and Cambridge; and Rome seems to have approved of that opposition, by using all her power in appointing to Irish sees, even within the Pale, prelates chosen from the Augustinian, Dominican, Franciscan, and Carmelite orders, in preference to secular ecclesiastics educated in the great seats of English learning.
Thus the Irish, by opening their schools gratuitously to all Europe, but chiefly to Anglo-Saxon England, were not only of immense service to the Church, but showed how fully they appreciated the benefits of true civilization, and how ready they were to extend it by their traditional teaching. Nor did they confine themselves to receiving scholars in their midst: they sent abroad, during those ages, armies of zealous missionaries and learned men to Christianize the heathen, or educate the newly-converted Germanic tribes in Merovingian and Carlovingian Gaul, in Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian England, in Lombardian Italy, in the very hives of those ferocious tribes which peopled the ever-moving and at that time convulsed Germany.
And hence the island has escaped the modern results of the system, which we all witness to-day in the terrible hostility of class arrayed against class, the poor against the rich, the lower orders against the higher. The opposition in Ireland between the oppressed and the oppressor is of a very different character, is we shall see later. But the fact is, that the clan system, with all its striking defects, had at least this immense advantage, that the clansmen did not look upon their chieftains as "lords and masters," but as men of the same blood, true relations, and friends; neither did the heads of the clans look on their men as villeins, serfs, or chattels, but as companions-in-arms, foster-brothers, supporters, and allies. Hence the opposition which exists in our days throughout Europe between class and class, has never existed in Ireland. Let a son of their old chiefs, if one can yet be found, go back to them, even but for a few days, after centuries of estrangement, and they are ready to welcome him yet, as a loyal nation would welcome her long-absent king, as a family would receive a father it esteemed lost. We knowing what manner a son of a French McMahon was lately received among them.
All hostility is reserved for the foreigner, the invader, the oppressor of centuries, because, in the opinion of the natives, these have no real right to dwell on a soil they have impoverished, and which they tried in vain to enslave. This, at least, is their feeling. But the sons of the soil, whether rich or poor, high or low, are all united in a holy brotherhood. This state of things they have preserved by the exclusion of feudalism.
This "revival" did not reach Ireland. Many will, doubtless, attribute this fact to the almost total exclusion then supposed to exist of Ireland from all European intercourse. It would be a great error to imagine such to have been the cause. Indeed, at that very time, Ireland was more in daily contact with Italy, France, and Spain, than had been the case since the eighth century.
If the Irish were right in holding steadfast to the line of their traditional studies, in rejecting the city life and commercial spirit of the Danes, in opposing Anglo-Norman feudalism, and, finally, in not accepting the more than doubtful advantages flowing from the literary revival of the fifteenth century; if, in all this, they did not oppose true progress, but merely wished to advance in the peculiar path opened up to them by the Christianity which they had received more fully, with more earnestness, and with a view to a greater development of the supernatural idea, than any other European nation--then, beyond all other modes, did they display their strength of will and their undying national vitality in their resistance to Protestantism--a resistance which has been called opposition to progress, but the success of which to-day proves beyond question that they were right.
It was, the reader may remark, a resistance to the whole of Northern Europe, wherein their island was included. For, the whole of Northern Europe rebelled against the Church at the beginning of the sixteenth century, to enter upon a new road of progress and civilization, as it has been called, ending finally in the frightful abyss of materialism and atheism which now gapes under the feet of modern nations--an abyss in whose yawning womb nullus ordo, sed sempiternus horror habitat. The end of that progress is now plain enough: political and social convulsions, without any other probable issue than final anarchy, unless nations consent at last to retrace their steps and reorganize Christendom.
But this was not apparent to the eyes of ordinary thinkers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Only a few great minds saw the logical consequences of the premises laid down by Protestantism, and predicted something of what we now see.
The Irish was the only northern nation which, to a man, opposed the terrible delusion, and, at the cost of all that is dear, waged against it a relentless war.
"To a man;" for, in spite of all the wiles of Henry VIII., who brought every resource of his political talent into play, in order to win over to his side the great chieftains of the nation--in spite of all the efforts of Elizabeth, who either tried to overcome their resistance by her numerous armies, or, by the allurements of her court, strove her best, like her father, to woo to her allegiance the great leaders of the chief clans, particularly O'Neill of Tyrone--at the end of her long reign, after nearly a hundred years of Protestantism, only sixty Irishmen of all classes had received the new religion.
At first, the struggle assumed a character more political than religious, and Queen Elizabeth did her best to give it, apparently, that character. But for her, religion meant politics; and, had the Irish consented to accept the religious changes introduced by her father and herself, there would have been no question of "rebellion," and no army would have been sent to crush it. The Irish chieftains knew this well; hence, whenever the queen came to terms with them, the first article on which they invariably insisted was the freedom of their religion.
But, under the Stuarts, and later on, the mask was entirely thrown aside, and the question between England and Ireland reduced itself, we may say, to one of religion merely. All the political entanglements in which the Irish found themselves involved by their loyalty to the Stuarts and their opposition to the Roundheads, never constituted the chief difficulty of their position. They were "Papists:" this was their great crime in the eyes of their enemies. Cromwell would certainly never have endeavored to exterminate them as he did, had they apostatized and become ranting Puritans. One of our main points in the following pages will be to give prominence to this view of the question. If it had been understood from the first, the army of heroes who died for their God and their country would long ere this have been enrolled in the number of Christian martyrs.
The subsequent policy of England, chiefly after the English Revolution of 1688 and the defeat of James II., clearly shows the soundness of our interpretation of history. The "penal code," under Queen Anne, and later on, at least has the merit of being free from hypocrisy and cant. It is an open religious persecution, as, in fact, it had been from the beginning.
We shall have, therefore, before our eyes the great spectacle of a nation suffering a martyrdom of three centuries. All the persecutions of the Christians under the Roman emperors pale before this long era of penalty and blood. The Irish, by numerous decrees of English kings and parliaments, were deprived of every thing which a man not guilty of crime has a right to enjoy. Land, citizenship, the right of education, of acquiring property, of living on their own soil--every thing was denied them, and death in every form was decreed, in every line of the new Protestant code, to men, women, and even children, whose only crime consisted in remaining faithful to their religion.
But chiefly during the Cromwellian war and the nine years of the Protector's reign were they doomed to absolute, unrelenting destruction. Never has any thing in the whole history of mankind equalled it in horror, unless the devastation of Asia and Eastern Europe under Zengis and Timour.
There is, therefore, at the bottom of the Irish character, hidden under an appearance of light-headedness, mutability of feeling--nay, at times, futility and even childishness--a depth of according to the eternal laws which God gave to mankind. Nothing else is in their mind; they are pursuing no guilty and shadowy Utopia. Who knows, then, whether their small island may not yet become the beacon-light which, guiding other nations, shall at a future day save Europe from the universal shipwreck which threatens her? The providential mission of Ireland is far from being accomplished, and men may yet see that not in vain has she been tried so long in the crucible of affliction.
Another part of the providential plan as affecting her will show itself, and excite our admiration, in the latter portion of the work we undertake.
The Irish are no longer confined to the small island which gave them birth. From the beginning of their great woes, they have known the bitterness of exile. Their nobility were the first to leave in a body a land wherein they could no longer exist; and, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they made the Irish name illustrious on all the battle-fields of Europe. At the same time, many of their priests and monks, unable longer to labor among their countrymen, spent their lives in the libraries, of Italy, Belgium, and Spain, and gave to the world those immense works so precious now to the antiquarian and historian. Every one knows what Montalembert, in particular, found in them. They may be said to have preserved the annals of their nation from total ruin; and the names of the O'Clearys, of Ward and Wadding, of Colgan and Lynch, are becoming better known and appreciated every day, as their voluminous works are more studied and better understood.
But much more remarkable still is the immense spread of the people itself during the present age, so fruitful in happy results for the Church of Christ and the good of mankind. We may say that the labors of the Irish missionaries during the seventh and eighth centuries are to-day eclipsed by the truly missionary work of a whole nation spread now over North America, the West India Islands, the East Indies, and the wilds of Australia; in a word, wherever the English language is spoken. Whatever may have been the visible causes of that strange "exodus," there is an invisible cause clear enough to any one who meditates on the designs of God over his Church. There is no presumption in attributing to God himself what could only come from Him. The catholicity of the Church was to be spread and preserved through and in all those vast regions colonized now by the adventurous English nation; and no better, no more simple way of effecting this could be conceived than the one whose workings we see in those colonies so distant from the mother-country.
This, for the time being, is the chief providential mission of Ireland, and it is truly a noble one, undertaken and executed in a noble manner by so many thousands, nay millions, of men and women--poor, indeed, in worldly goods when they start on their career, but rich in faith; and it is as true now as it has ever been from the beginning of Christianity, that haec est victoria nostra, fides vestra.
These few words of our Preface would not suffice to prepare the reader for the high importance of this stupendous phenomenon. We We purpose, therefore, devoting our second chapter to the subject, as a preparation for the very interesting details we shall furnish subsequently, as it is proper that, from the very threshold, an idea may be formed of the edifice, and of the entire proportions it is destined to assume.
We have so far sketched, as briefly as possible, what the following pages will develop; and the reader may now begin to understand what we said at starting, that no other nation in Europe offers so interesting an object of study and reflection.
Plato has said that the most meritorious spectacle in the eyes of God was that of "a just man struggling with adversity." What must it be when a whole nation, during nine long ages, offers to Heaven the most sublime virtues in the midst of the extremest trials? Are not the great lessons which such a contest presents worthy of study and admiration?
We purpose studying them, although we cannot pretend to render full justice to such a theme. And, returning for a moment to the considerations with which we started, we can truly say that, in the whole range of modern history, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find a national life to compare with that of poor, despised Ireland. Neither do we pretend to write the history itself; our object is more humble: we merely pen some considerations suggested naturally by the facts which we suppose to be already known, with the purpose of arriving at a true appreciation of the character of the people. For it is the people itself we study; the reader will meet with comparatively few individual names.
We shall find, moreover, that the nation has never varied. Its history is an unbroken series of the same heroic facts, the same terrible misfortunes. The actors change continually; the outward circumstances at every moment present new aspects, so that the interest never flags; but the spirit of the struggle is ever the same, and the latest descendants of the first O'Neills and O'Donnells burn with the same sacred fire, and are inspired by the same heroic aspirations, as their fathers.
Happily, the gloom is at length lighted up by returning day. The contest has lost its ferocity, and we are no longer surrounded by the deadly shade which obscured the sky a hundred years ago. Then it was hard to believe that the nation could ever rise; her final success seemed almost an impossibility. We now see that those who then despaired sinned against Providence, which waited for its own time to arrive and vindicate its ways. And it is chiefly on account of the bright hope which begins to dawn that our subject should possess for all a lively interest, and fill the Catholic heart with glowing sympathy and ardent thankfulness to God.