The beginning of the end for the Gaelic world came in the sixteenth century, when England’s Tudor monarchs launched several ultimately successful efforts to conquer Ireland.
Ireland had become strategically vital to England. First, it stood on the Atlantic seaway to the Americas, which were targeted by European nations seeking gold and land. Second, Ireland was England’s ‘back door’. England’s enemies repeatedly planned to assist the disaffected Irish and to use Ireland as a base for invasion.
As the sixteenth century progressed, England’s need to bring Ireland under control became ever more pressing. Henry VIII preferred conciliation to conquest, since conciliation was less costly. He tried to control the Irish lords by binding them into a feudal relationship. Lords submitted to royal authority and gave up their lands to the king. He then granted their lands back along with titles. Thus, the head of the Ulster O’Neills was made Earl of Tyrone.
Repeated laws were passed ordering people to adopt the English language and customs. Nevertheless, even the bill declaring Henry VIII King of Ireland in 1541 had to be presented in Irish to the Irish houses of parliament.
After Elizabeth became queen in 1558, Anglo-Norman and Gaelic lords became increasingly unsettled, as English born adventurers and planters increasingly encroached upon their lands. Uprisings became more frequent, and some governors used ruthless force to suppress them. In Munster, Arthur, Lord Grey de Wilton, the lord-lieutenant of Ireland, massacred some 600 Italian and Spanish soldiers at Smerwick, laid waste to the countryside, and granted the confiscated land to settlers.
Elizabethan attitudes to the Irish language were dictated by expediency. On the one hand, soldiers and settlers believed that the Irish language and customs should be suppressed, by the summary execution of bards if necessary. At the same time, some provision was made for church services in Irish, because the Irish did not understand English, the language of the Reformed church.
Queen Elizabeth provided a font of Irish types at her own expense, so that the New Testament could be printed in Irish. The Irish font was based on the ‘semi-uncial’ script used by ninth century scribes. In Scotland, by contrast, Roman type was used to print Gaelic books from the start. Orders were made that prayers should be printed in Irish, and that services should be held in Irish in selected churches. She also accepted a Gaelic primer from Christopher Nugent, Lord Delvin, the Earl of Westmeath.
As battle raged across Ireland, the poets urged on their lords, sharing their triumphs and sorrows. Here Aonghus Ó Dálaigh mourns a clan chief, whose head had been spiked on Dublin’s battlements:
A cholann do chím gun ceann
Sibh d’fhaicsin, do shearg mo bhrigh,
Rannta ar sparra a n-Athcliath,
D’éigsi Bhanba bhias a dhith.
Douglas Hyde translates:
O body which I see without a head,
It is the sight of thee which has withered up my strength,
Divided and impaled in Ath-cliath (Dublin),
The learned of Banba (Ireland) will feel its loss.
Ulster was the last bastion of the Gaelic order, and English incursions led to a great rising of northern chiefs, which lasted from 1594 to 1603. Aodh Mag Uidhir (Hugh Maguire), Lord of Fermanagh, was joined by Aodh Rua Ó Dónaill (Red Hugh O’Donnell) and Aodh Ó Néill (Hugh O’Neill), Earl of Tyrone, who had previously fought on the side of the queen.
O’Neill, O’Donnell and Maguire won a great victory at the Battle of Yellow Ford, near Armagh, in July 1598. The rising spread across Ireland, and Queen Elizabeth raised a new army, which arrived in Ireland in 1599, commanded by Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex.
In January 1600, O’Neill went south to Munster with an army, accompanied by Hugh Maguire. Maguire’s official poet, Eochaidh Ó hEódhasa, remained in Fermanagh, fearful for his patron in the freezing winter:
Fúar liom an adhaighsi dh’Aodh,
cúis tuirse truime a cithbhraon;
mo thrúaighe sein dár seise,
neimh fhúaire na hoidhcheise.
Anocht, is neimh rem chridhe,
fearthar frasa teintidhe
a gcomhdháil na gclá seacdha
mar tá is orghráin aigeanta.
James Clarence Mangan, the nineteenth century poet, translates:
Where is my chief, my master, this bleak night, mavrone?
O cold, cold, miserably cold is this bleak night for Hugh!
Its showery, arrowy, speary sleet pierceth one thro’ and thro’,
Pierceth one to the very bone.
Ó hEódhasa comforts himself with the thought that Maguire will be killing settlers and firing their country homes (‘courts’ in Irish):
Iomdha ó chuairt Aoidh Mhéig Uidhir
feadh íarthair fhóid fhionnfhuinidh
cúirt ‘na doighir, ní díoth núa,
críoch gan oighir gan íarmhúa.
Osborn Bergin translates: ‘Because of Maguire’s circuit, throughout the west of the fair sunset-land many is the court in flames, many the territory without heir or great-grandson.’
Maguire was killed on March 1, 1600, in a skirmish outside Cork.
Essex failed to defeat the Ulster lords, and in January 1600 Elizabeth appointed Charles Blount, the eighth Lord Mountjoy, to replace him. Mountjoy killed indiscriminately, destroying crops and cattle to create famine.
The Spanish sent soldiers to aid the Irish, but too few, too late, and to the wrong end of Ireland. The Irish lords’ strength was in the north, but the Spanish landed at Kinsale in Co Cork. Mountjoy laid siege to Kinsale in October 1601. Hugh O’Neill and Red Hugh O’Donnell marched to relieve it, but were defeated in a decisive battle on December 24.
O’Neill marched back to the north, while O’Donnell sailed for Spain, where he was welcomed by the king. Eoghan Ruadh Mac an Bhaird, chief poet to O’Donnell, implored God’s protection for his lord:
Dia dot eadráin san amsa
ar ghluasacht ngaoth ccodarsna,
ar ghoin n-ainchridhigh gach fhir,
‘s ar mhoir n-ainbhthinigh idir.
Osborn Bergin translates: ‘God protect thee at this time from the motion of contrary winds, and from the cruel wound of every man, and from all stormy seas’.
On December 10, 1602, O’Donnell died at Simancas in Spain, aged 29. Many suspected English agents had poisoned him.
Meanwhile, that September, Mountjoy rampaged through O’Neill’s heartland of southeast Tyrone. He attacked the O’Neills’ inauguration place, a hilltop enclosure at Tullahoge, and smashed the inauguration stone, the Leac na Rí (the stone of the kings). This act symbolised the end of O’Neill rule.
Hugh O’Neill submitted to Queen Elizabeth on March 30, 1603. Unbeknown to him, she had died six days earlier. On September 14, 1607, he took a ship with 98 other Irish leaders from Lough Swilly, Co Donegal, to Rome.
The poets’ despair
The ‘flight of the earls’ marked the end of the Gaelic aristocracy and the elite culture they supported. Poets had always depended on their lords for land, cattle and wealth. From a position of great privilege, they suddenly descended into a new order where their craft was worthless. In poem after poem, they lamented their plight.
The poet Mathghamhain Ó hIfernáin bitterly advised his son: ‘A mhic ná mbhraig éigsi . cerd do shen rót róthréigsi’. Standish O’Grady translates: ‘My son, cultivate not the poetic art — the profession of thine ancestors before thee forsake utterly’.
The Politics of Language in Ireland 1366-1922 (2000) by Tony Crowley; Catalogue of Irish Manuscripts in the British Library (1992) edited by Standish Hayes O’Grady; ‘Native culture and political change in Ireland, 1580-1640’ by Bernadette Cunningham, in Natives and Newcomers (1986) edited by Ciaran Brady and Raymond Gillespie; Irish Bardic Poetry (1970) by Osborn Bergin; The Elizabethans and the Irish (1966) by David Beers Quinn; A History of Ireland (1961) by Edmund Curtis;; A Literary History of Ireland (1899) by Douglas Hyde.
Photographs by Liz Curtis. © Liz Curtis 2004.