The Demise of the Bardic Tradition …. And then….
Gaelic Ireland vs Tudor Ireland
Henry V11 became King of England, thus beginning the Tudor threat to Ireland’s status as predominately a Gaelic civilisation.
While great swathes of land along the East coast of Ireland and South Munster had fallen into the hands of powerful Norman families through conquest, over time these families had begun to adopt more and more Irish Gaelic customs and language. Here was a rich and complex civilisation that was hierarchical and community based. Its culture elevated poets and bards to significant positions and often wealth, its laws which governed everyday life of the people was based on fairness and compensation for the impact of crime against an individual. Many aspects of these ancient laws anticipated future modern jurisprudence and though it gave recognition to the importance of the hierarchical structure of the society no King could over-rule a law irrespective of the situation. The ancient language of the people was highly evolved and beautifully poetic in its descriptive capacity. Both music and dance were praised by independent commentators as one of the most wonderful in all of Europe with its celebratory form and evocative spirit.
This was a rural society outside the towns and cities where commerce was conducted through cattle and sheep trading. A person’s worth was based on the number of milk cows she owned and the legal compensatory system constructed an honour price on each individual based on the number of cattle owned. So if harm was done to a person or their property the offender’s punishment would be calculated on the honour price of the complainant. This was arbitrated by the ollamh or learned judge whose status was almost equal to the King.
There were a number of categories of king based on how much territory he/she ruled and each subordinate king had responsibility towards the higher king. Succession to kingship was through qualified election with brothers, sons and nephews being qualified to take the position. The electors were members of the wider family and the system generally functioned well, though quarrels were prone to break out with internecine battles fought over the rights to title as we have seen from the mythological stories of the Ulster Cycle. These kings were the patrons of the poets and bards who provided counsel to the King and were seen as very powerful and highly respected for both their artistry as well as their scholarship and knowledge of history. It was into this society that came the Tudor ambition to fully rule the island of Ireland and alter its very fabric.
Ireland during the period 1536–1603 saw reconquest of the island by England and its colonization with Protestant settlers from Britain This began a process leading to the establishment of two central themes in future Irish history: subordination of the country under the English crown and sectarian animosity between Catholics and Protestants. The period saw Irish society transform from a locally driven, clan based Gaelic structure to a centralised, monarchical, state-governed society, similar to those found elsewhere in Europe.
The period is bounded by the dates 1536, when King Henry V11 deposed the Fitzgerald Dynasty, a powerful Norman family, as Lords Deputies of Ireland and the new Kingdom of Ireland was declared by Henry VIII in 1541.With the aid of his chief advisor,Thomas Cromwell the Irish chieftains were offered English titles in return for their surrendering to the authority of the English monarch, a system known as “ Surrender and Regrant”. Many of the leading Gaelic Irish nobility saw advantage in this for themselves, particularly given the promises attached to the new legal arrangement. However, those who surrendered were also expected to speak English, wear English-style dress, remain loyal to the Crown, follow English laws and customs, forswear their Catholic religion and convert to Henry’s new English Anglican faith. It was an ingenious political stroke that did not require the expense of committing to battle and still create a legal system whereby title of Gaelic chieftain’s lands were now held by the English crown. Furthermore systems for inheritance under Brehon laws, where the wider clan members had a right to be elected chieftain were no longer to be used, but instead the eldest son would be entitled to take on their father’s title. This had a huge undermining effect on Gaelic society as it’s effects of carrying on the process of anglicising Ireland were far reaching.
The other main plank used by the Tudors was that of land confiscation and supplanting the Catholic Gaelic land users with Protestant settlers from various parts of England, Scotland and Wales between the years 1550 to the1600’s. This, was of course made easier under the new dispensation arising from change of title to the monarchy. It also was used to reward those financial supporters of the Queen and punishment for those Lords who carried out rebellion against the increasing power of the English in Ireland. The plantations carried out under Queen Elizabeth 1st and particularly under James 1st in Ulster were the most successful, though the later Cromwellian Settlement was also very extensive.
Briefing Note 15
Fighting Back and the 17th Century Penal Laws
- Confederation of Kilkenny-
a religious and cultural fight back
17th C. Ireland was a very unstable and somewhat confusing period. Progressively over the following centuries there was a diminishing experience of power and freedom for Gaelic society. It’s wellbeing was hugely impacted by English and British politics and religious developments.
We saw previously that Tudor conquest and particularly Elizabethan plantations of Ulster were initially successful in dispatching the old Irish Chieftains from their entitlement to their lands and transferring legal title to the English crown. Over 80,000 protestant settlers were given good lands in Ulster by the 1640’s. The administration of the country became more and more vested in the holder of the crown’s representative in Ireland, the Lord Deputy and while Ireland had its own parliament it was subservient to London and the Lord Deputy in passing Bills.
This situation became more intolerable for both the Old English great families, former Norman knights, as well as those Gaelic Lords who were seeing themselves side-lined on the bases that they professed the wrong religion. By the shared bitter experience of a continued failure by King Charles 11 to deliver on promises, known as the Graces, which would have provided for reversal of this diminished influence and possible restoration of land titles, a powerful unity of purpose began to form between these two vital strands of Irish society. This led to a possibility of armed resistance and the formation of large armies that successfully took back control over up to three quarters of the island from English forces. This alliance became known as the Confederation of Kilkenny and owed much of its military success to some good leadership but also the more important fact that civil war was intermittently breaking out in England and Scotland over the legitimacy of the King’s power to rule on the basis of divine right and the authority of Parliament to limit this power. This Confederation was specifically a catholic one but given that the vast majority of the people of Ireland were catholic at that time it could be described as a national one. The military success of the Confederation was deeply worrying to both the crown but also to the Parliamentarians in England. There were a number of notable massacres of Protestant settlers by some of the camp followers of the Confederate army particularly in Ulster. Such events were later seen as explanations for the atrocities committed by the Parliamentary army under the command of Oliver Cromwell who landed in the port of Dublin in 1649 with over 100 ships full of troops and equipment
The Cromwellian Conquest or Reconquest of Ireland was a highly efficient, effective and bloody 3 – 4 years and has lived on in the memories of the Irish people and diaspora to this day. The first town to be attacked by this impressive professional army was Drogheda which was defended by a garrison of 3,000 men. Within a week the walls of Drogheda were breached by the Parliamentarians which was followed by a slaughter of all of the Royalist and Confederate men as well as many civilians. This was carried out on the express orders of Oliver Cromwell and his name is still whispered among today’s townspeople. It is said that while negotiations were being carried out for the surrender of the Port of Wexford the Roundheads broke into the town and slaughtered another 2,000 men including many civilians. Further defeats for the Confederate forces and loss of important towns followed while in the North, other than Enniskillen, the whole Province came under the control of the Cromwellian forces. Before Cromwell left Ireland in 1652 the old landowning classes, both native Irish and old English families had been mostly wiped out and with them their patronage of the Gaelic poets and bards.
- The Penal Laws in Ireland
Following the defeat of King James at the Battle of the Boyne, 1690 and a year later the surrendering of Limerick by the Jacobite troops and their Irish allies to the Williamite forces a significant watershed in Irish affairs was reached. All hope of any restoration of catholic rights and freedom to participate in the affairs of their country diminished. As part of the conditions of the surrender of Limerick guarantees of religious freedom and retention of lands for those Catholics who were not to join the Flight of the Wild Geese to France would shortly be reneged on and the Gaelic cause in Ireland was again left totally bereft of leaders.
The government of Ireland was now under the full control of a small minority of Protestants and an opportunity to ensure the continuation of this was not lost when the Irish Parliament enacted several laws to supress the practice of “Popery” and work to impoverish its adherents.
The more draconian and impactful laws had the following impacts:-
- No child could be educated by a catholic teacher, thus depriving them in effect of an education.
- Overseas Education
“In case any of his Majesty’s subjects of Ireland shall go or send any child or other person beyond the seas to be trained in any popish university, college or school, or in any private popish family, or shall send any money for the support of any such person, then the person sending and the person sent shall, upon conviction, be disabled to prosecute any action in a court of law, or be a guardian or executor, or receive any legacy or gift, or bear any public office, and shall forfeit all their lands and estates during their lives.”
- “…….no person of the popish religion shall publicly teach school or instruct youth, “
- No Catholic could own a horse worth more than €60 (todays value) and if they did have such a horse a protestant could tender that amount and enforce the sale.
- Catholic bishops and monks were to depart Ireland and return on the pain of execution.
- Catholics were forbidden to enter the professions, lawyers or doctors but could do so if they were willing to denounce their religion
- A Catholic could not serve on a jury.
- If a Catholic eldest son were to convert to Protestantism his father would become a mere tenant and the son become the owner.
- If the sons were all Catholic the land would be divided equally amongst them on the death of the father. This had the effect of land holdings becoming smaller and smaller to levels of unsustainability.
- Catholics were not allowed to vote or hold any public office.
- Irish Presbyterians were also subjected to these laws
This legislative sectarianism had an accumulating impact on the Irish Catholic population and would serve to create a peasant society that was often landless or living on very small land parcels, poorly educated, having to find secret ways to practice their religion, be devoid of rights to participate in civil society, have their own language, customs and traditions be treated as inferior.
These were not the “Chosen People” !