War of the Roses

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


WITHIN the hundred years next succeeding the events we have just traced—the period embraced between 1420 and 1520—England was convulsed by the great civil war of the White and Red Roses, the houses of York and Lancaster. Irish history during the same period being chiefly a record of the contest for mastery between the two principal families of the Pale—the Butlers and the Geraldines. During this protracted civil struggle, which bathed England in blood, the colony in Ireland had, of course, to be left very much to its own resources; and, as a natural consequence, its dimensions gradually contracted, or rather it ceased to have any defined boundary at all, and the merest exertion on the part of the Irish must have sufficed to sweep it away completely. Here was, in line, the opportunity of opportunities for the native population, had they but been in a position to avail of it, or had they been capable of profiting by any opportunity, to accomplish with scarcely an effort the complete deliverance of their country. England was powerless for aggression, torn, distracted, wasted, paralyzed, by a protracted civil war.

The lords of the Pale were equally disunited and comparatively helpless. One-hundredth part of the exertion put forth so bravely, yet so vainly, by the native princes in the time of Donald O'Neill and Robert Bruce would have more than sufficed them now to sweep from the land every vestige of foreign rule. The chain hung so loosely that they had but to arise and shake it from their limbs. They literally needed but to will it, and they were free!

Yet not an effort, not a movement, not a motion, during all this time—while this supreme opportunity was passing away forever—was made by the native Irish to grasp the prize thus almost thrust into their hand—the prize of national freedom! They had boldly and bravely striven for it before, when no such opportunity invited them; they were subsequently to strive for it yet again with valor and daring as great, when every advantage would be arrayed against them. But now, at the moment when they had but to reach out their hand and grasp the object of all their endeavors, they seemed dead to all conceptions of duty or policy. The individual chiefs, north, south, east, and west, lived on in the usual way. They fought each other or the neighboring Anglo-Norman lord just as usual, or else they enjoyed as a pleasant diversification a spell of tranquility, peace, and friendship. In the relations between the Pale and the Irish ground there was, for the time, no regular government "policy" of any kind on either hand. Each Anglo-Norman lord, and each Irish chieftain, did very much as he himself pleased; made peace or war with his neighbors, or took any side he listed in the current conflicts of the period. Some of the Irish princes do certainly appear to have turned this time of respite to a good account, if not for national interests, for other not less sacred interests. Many of them employed their lives during this century in rehabilitating religion and learning in all their pristine power and grandeur.

Science and literature once more began to flourish; and the shrines of Rome and Compostello were thronged with pilgrim chiefs and princes, paying their vows of faith, from the Western Isle. Within this period lived Margaret of Offaly, the beautiful and accomplished queen of O'Carroll, king of Ely. She and her husband were munificent patrons of literature, art, and science. On Queen Margaret's special invitation the literati of Ireland and Scotland, to the number of nearly three thousand, held a "session" for the furtherance of literary and scientific interests, at her palace, near Killeagh, in Offaly, the entire assemblage being the guests of the king and queen during their stay. "The nave of the great church of Da Sinchell was converted for the occasion into a banqueting hall, where Margaret herself inaugurated the proceeding by placing two massive chalices of gold, as offerings, on the high altar, and committing two orphan children to the charge of nurses to be fostered at her charge. Robed in cloth of gold, this illustrious lady, who was as distinguished for her beauty as for her generosity, sat in queenly state in one of the galleries of the church, surrounded by the clergy, the brehons, and her private friends, shedding a luster on the scene which was passing below, while her husband, who had often encountered England's greatest generals in battle, remained mounted on a charger outside the church to bid the guests welcome, and see that order was preserved. The invitations were issued, and the guests arranged, according to a list prepared by O'Connor's chief brehon; and the second entertainment, which took place at Rathangan, was a supplemented one, to embrace such men of learning as had not been brought together at the former feast."