- The culture, history and people of Ireland and the Irish

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The Danes were subdued, and the Irish at liberty to go on weaving the threads of their history--though, in consequence of the local wars, they had lost the concentrating power of the Ard- Righ--when treachery in their own ranks opened up the way for a far more serious attack from another branch of the great Scandinavian family--the Anglo-Norman.

The manners of the people had been left unchanged; the clan system had not been altered in the least; it had stood the test of previous revolutions; now it was to be confronted by a new system which had just conquered Europe, and spread itself round about the apparently doomed island. Of all places it had taken deep root in England, where it was destined to survive its destruction elsewhere in the convulsions of our modern history. That system, then in full vigor, was feudalism.

In order rightly to understand and form a correct judgment on the question, and its mighty issues, we must state briefly what the chief characteristics of feudalism were in those countries where it flourished.

The feudal system proceeded on the principle that landed property was all derived from the king, as the captain of a conquering army; that it had been distributed by him among his followers on certain conditions, and that it was liable to be forfeited if those conditions were not fulfilled.

The feudal system, moreover, politically considered, supposed the principle that all civil and political rights were derived from the possession of land; that those who possessed no land could possess neither civil nor political rights--were, in fact, not men, but villeins.

Consequently, it reduced nations to a small number of landowners, enjoying all the privileges of citizenship; the masses, deprived of all rights, having no share in the government, no opportunity of rising in the social scale, were forever condemned to villeinage or serfdom.

Feudalism, in our opinion, came first from Scandinavia. The majority of writers derive it from Germany. The question of its origin is too extensive to be included within our present limits, and indeed is unnecessary, as we deal principally with the fact and not with its history.

When the sea-rover had conquered the boat of an enemy, or destroyed a village, he distributed the spoils among his crew. Every thing was handed over to his followers in the form of a gift, and in return these latter were bound to serve him with the greatest ardor and devotedness. In course of time the idea of settling down on some territory which they had devastated and depopulated, presented itself to the minds of the rovers. The sea-kong did by the land what he had been accustomed to do by the plunder: he parcelled it out among his faithful followers-- fideles--giving to each his share of the territory. This was called feoh by the Anglo-Saxons, who were the first to carry out the system on British soil, as Dr. Lingard shows. Thus the word fief was coined, which in due time took its place in all the languages of Europe.

The giver was considered the absolute owner of whatever he gave, as is the commander of a vessel at sea. It was a beneficium conferred by him, to which certain indispensable conditions were attached. Military duty was the first, but not the only one of these. Writers on feudalism mention a great number, the nonfulfilment of which incurred what was called forfeiture.

In countries where the pirates succeeded in establishing themselves, all the native population was either destroyed by them, as Dudo tells us was the case in Normandy, or, as more frequently happened, the sword being unable to carry destruction so far, the inhabitants who survived were reduced to serfdom, and compelled to till the soil for the conquerors; they were thenceforth called villeins or ascripti glebae. It is clear that such only as possessed land could claim civil and political rights in the new states thus called into existence. Hence the owning of land under feudal tenure was the great and only essential characteristic of mediaeval feudalism.

This system, which was first introduced into Britain by the Anglo-Saxons, was brought to a fixed and permanent state by the Normans--followers of William the Conqueror; and, when the time came for treachery to summon the Norman knights to Irish soil, the devoted island found herself face to face with an iron system which at that period crushed and weighed down all Europe.

The Normans had now been settled in England for a hundred years; all the castles in the country were occupied by Norman lords; all bishopries filled by Norman bishops; all monasteries ruled by Norman abbots. At the head of the state stood the king, at that time Henry II. Here, more than in any other country in Europe, was the king the key-stone to the feudal masonry. Not an inch of ground in England was owned save under his authority, as enjoying the supremum dominium. All the land had been granted by his predecessors as fiefs, with the right of reversion to the crown by forfeiture in case of the violation of feudal obligations. Here was no allodial property, no censitive hereditary domain, as in the rest of, otherwise, feudal Europe. All English lawyers were unanimous in the doctrine that the king alone was the true master of the territory; that tenure under him carried with it all the conditions of feudal tenure, and that any deed or grant proceeding from his authority ought to be so understood.

The south-western portion of Wales was occupied by Norman lords, Flemings for the most part. Two of these, Robert Fitzstephens and Maurice Fitzgerald, sailed to the aid of the Irish King of Leinster. They were the first to land, arriving a full year before Strongbow.

Strongbow came at last. The conditions agreed on beforehand between himself and the Leinster king were fulfilled. He was married to the daughter of Dermod McMurrough, chief of Leinster, acknowledged Righ Dahma, that is, successor to the crown, while the Irish, accustomed for ages to admire valor and bow submissively to the law of conquest, admitted the claim. The English adventurer they looked upon as one of themselves by marriage. Election in such a case was unnecessary, or rather, understood, and Strongbow took the place which was his in their eyes by right of his wife, of head under McMurrough of all the clans of Leinster.

When, a little later, came Henry II. to be acknowledged by Strongbow as his suzerain, and to receive the homage of the presumptive heir of Leinster, submission to him was, in the eyes of the Irish, merely a consequence of their own clan system. They understood the homage rendered to him in a very different sense from that attached to it by feudal nations; and had they had an inkling of the real intentions of the new comers, not one of them would have consented to live under and bow the neck to such a yoke.

In fact, on the small territory where those great events were enacted, two worlds, utterly different from each other, stood face to face. Cambrensis tells us that the English were struck with wonder at what they saw. The imperialism of Rome had never touched Ireland. The Danes, opposed so strenuously from the outset, and finally overcome, had never been able to introduce there their restrictive measures of oppression. The English found the natives in exactly the same state as that in which Julius Caesar found the Gauls twelve hundred years before, except as to religion--the race governed patriarchally by chieftains allied to their subordinates by blood relationship; no unity in the government, no common flag, no private and hereditary property, nothing to bind the tribes together except religion. It was not a nation properly, but rather an agglomeration of small nations often at war each with each, yet all strongly attached to Erin-- a mere name, including, nevertherless, the dear idea of country --the chieftains elective, bold, enterprising; the subordinates free, attached to the chief as to a common father, throwing themselves with ardor into all his quarrels, ready to die for him at any moment. Around chief and clansmen circled a large number of brehons, shanachies, poets, bards, and harpers--poetry, music, and war strangely blended together. The religion of Christ spread over all a halo of purity and holiness; large monasteries filled with pious monks, and convents of devout and pure virgins abounded; bishops and priests in the churches chanting psalms, each accompanying himself with a many-stringed harp, gave forth sweet harmony, unheard at the time in any other part of the world.

A most important feature to be considered is their understanding of property. Hereditary right of land with respect to individuals, and the transmission of property of any kind by right of primogeniture, were unknown among them. If a specified amount of territory was assigned to the chieftain, a smaller portion to the bishop, the shanachy, head poet, and other civil officers each in his degree, such property was attached to the office and not to the man who filled it, but passed to his elected successor and not to his own children; while the great bulk of the territory belonged to the clan in common. No one possessed the right to alienate a single rood of it, and, if at times a portion was granted to exiles, to strangers, to a contiguous clan, the whole tribe was consulted on the subject. Over the common land large herds of cattle roamed--the property of individuals who could own nothing, except of a movable nature, beyond their small wooden houses.

This state of things had existed, according to their annals, for several thousand years. Their ancestors had lived happily under such social conditions, which they wished to abide in and hand down to their posterity.

Foreign trade was distasteful to them; in fact, they had no inclination for commerce. Lucre they despised, scarcely knowing the use of money, which had been lately introduced among them. Yet, being refined in their tastes, fond of ornament, of wine at their feasts, loving to adorn the persons of their wives and daughters with silk and gems, they had allowed the Danes to dwell in their seaports, to trade in those commodities, and to import for their use what the land did not produce.

Those seaport towns had been fortified by the Northmen on their first victories when they took possession of them. Throughout the rest of the island, a fortress or a large town was not to be seen. The people, being all agriculturists or graziers, loved to dwell in the country; their houses were built of wattle and clay, yet comfortable and orderly.

The mansions of the chieftains were neither large architectural piles, nor frowning fortresses. They bore the name of raths when used for dwellings; of duns when constructed with a view to resisting an attack. In both cases, they were, in part under ground, in part above; the whole circular in form, built sometimes of large stones, oftener of walls of sodded clay.

Instead of covering their limbs with coats of mail, like the warriors of mediaeval Europe, they wore woollen garments even in war, and for ornaments chains or plates of precious metal. The Norman invaders, clad in heavy mail, were surprised, therefore, to find themselves face to face with men in their estimation unprotected and naked. More astonished were they still at the natural boldness and readiness of the Irish in speaking before their chieftains and princes, not understanding that all were of the same blood and cognizant of the fact.

Still less could they understand the freedom and familiarity existing between the Irish nobility and the poorest of their kinsmen, so different from the haughty bearing of an aristocracy of foreign extraction to the serfs and villeins of a people they had conquered.

The two nations now confronting each other had, therefore, nothing in common, unless, perhaps, an excessive pertinacity of purpose. The new comers belonged to a stern, unyielding, systematic stock, which was destined to give to Europe that great character so superior in our times to that of southern or eastern nations. The natives possessed that strong attachment to their time-honored customs, so peculiar to patriarchal tribes, in whose nature traditions and social habits are so strongly intermingled, that they are ineradicable save by the utter extirpation of the people.

And now the characteristics of both races were to be brought out in strong contrast by the great question of property in the soil, which was at the bottom of the struggle between clanship and feudalism. The Irish, as we have seen, knew nothing of individual property in land, nor of tenure, nor of rent, much less of forfeiture. They were often called upon by their chieftains to contribute to their support in ways not seldom oppressive enough, but the contributions were always in kind.

A new and very different system was to be attempted, to which the Irish at first appeared to consent, because they did not understand it, attaching, as they did, their own ideas to words, which, in the mouths of the invaders, had a very different meaning.

With the Irish "to do homage" meant to acknowledge the superiority of another, either on account of his lawful authority or his success in war; and the consequences of this act were, either the fulfilment of the enactments contained in the "Book of Rights," or submission to temporary conditions guaranteed by hostages. But that the person doing homage became by that act the liegeman of the suzerain for life and hereditarily in his posterity, subject to be deprived of all privileges of citizenship, as well as to the possibility of seeing all his lands forfeited, besides many minor penalties enjoined by the feudal code which often resolved itself into mere might--such a meaning of the word homage could by no possibility enter the mind of an Irishman at that period.

Hence, when, after the atrocities committed by the first invaders, who respected neither treaties nor the dictates of humanity, not even the sanctuary and the sacredness of religious houses, Henry II. came with an army, large and powerful for that time, the Irish people and their chieftains, hoping that he would put an end to the crying tyranny of the Fitzstephens, Fitzgeralds, De Lacys, and others, went to meet him and acknowledge his authority as head chieftain of Leinster through Strongbow, and, perhaps, as the monarch who should restore peace and happiness to the whole island. McCarthy, king of Desmond, was the first Irish prince to pay homage to Henry.

While the king was spending the Christmas festivities in Dublin, many other chieftains arrived; among them O'Carrol of Oriel and O'Rourke of Breffny. Roderic O'Connor of Connaught, till then acknowledged by many as monarch of Ireland, thought at first of fighting, but, as was his custom, he ended by a treaty, wherein, it is said, he acknowledged Henry as his suzerain, and thus placed Ireland at his feet. Ulster alone had not seen the invaders; but, as its inhabitants did not protest with arms in their hands, the Normans pretended that from that moment they were the rightful owners of the island.

Without a moment's delay they began to feudalize the country by dividing the land and building castles. These two operations, which we now turn to, opened the eyes of the Irish to the deception which had been practised upon them, and were the real origin of the momentous struggle which is still being waged today.

Sir John Davies, the English attorney-general of James I., has stated the whole case in a sentence: "All Ireland was by Henry

  1. cantonized among ten of the English nation; and, though they had not gained possession of one-third of the kingdom, yet in title they were owners and lords of all, so as nothing was left to be granted to the natives."

McCarthy, king of Desmond, had been the first to acknowledge the authority of Henry II., yet McCarthy's lands were among the first, if not the first, bestowed by Henry on his minions. The grant may be seen in Ware, and it is worthy of perusal as a sample of the many grants which followed it, whereby Henry attempted a total revolution in the tenure of land. The charter giving Meath to De Lacy was the only one which by a clause seemed to preserve the old customs of the country as to territory; and yet it was in Meath that the greatest atrocities were committed.

Yet one difficulty presented itself to the invaders: their rights were only on paper, whereas the Irish were still in possession of the greatest part of the island, and once the real purpose of the Normans showed itself, they were no longer disposed to submit to Henry or to any of his appointed lords. The territory had to be wrested from them by force of arms.

The English claimed the whole island as their own. They were, in fact, masters only of the portion occupied by their troops; the remainder was, therefore, to be conquered. And if in Desmond, where the whole strength of the English first fell, they possessed only a little more than one-fourth of the soil, what was the case in the rest of the island, the most of which had not yet seen them?

Long years of war would evidently be required to subdue it, and the systematic mind of the conquerors immediately set about devising the best means for the attainment of their purpose. The lessons gathered from their continental experience suggested these means immediately; they saw that by covering the country with feudal castles they could in the end conquer the most stubborn nation. A thorough revolution was intended. The two systems were so entirely antagonistic to each other that the success of the Norman project involved a change of land tenure, laws, customs, dress--every thing. Even the music of the bards was to be silenced, the poetry of the files to be abolished, the pedigrees of families to be discontinued, the very games of the people to be interrupted and forbidden. A vast number of castles was necessary. The project was a fearful one, cruel, barbarous, worthy of pagan antiquity. It was undertaken with a kind of ferocious alacrity, and in a short time it appeared near realization. But in the long run it failed, and four hundred years later, under the eighth Henry, it was as far from completion as the day on which the second Henry left the island in 1171.

To show the importance which the invaders attached to their system, and the ardor with which they set about putting it in practice, we have only to extract a few passages from the old annals of the islands; they are wonderfully expressive in their simplicity:

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