Irish Chiefs yield to King Henry VIII

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


HENRY THE EIGHTH was the first English sovereign styled King of Ireland, and it must be confessed he had more to show for assuming such a title than his predecessors had for the lesser dignities of the kind which they claimed; inasmuch as the title was "voted" to him in the first formal parliament in which Irish chieftains and Anglo-Norman lords sat side by side. To be sure the Irish chieftains had no authority from the septs (from whom alone they derived any authority or power) to give such a vote; and, as we shall learn presently, some of those septs, instantly on becoming aware of it and the consequences it implied, deposed the chiefs thus acting, and promptly elected (in each case from the same family however) others in their stead. But never previously had so many of the native princes in a manner so formal given in their acknowledgment of the English dynasty, and their renunciation of the ancient institutions of their nation. Utterly broken down in spirit, reft of hope, weary of struggle, they seem to have yielded themselves up to inevitable fate.

"The arguments," says one of our historians, "by which many of the chiefs might have justified themselves to the clans in 1541-2-3, for submitting to the inevitable laws of necessity, in rendering homage to Henry the Eighth, were neither few nor weak. Abroad there was no hope of an alliance sufficient to counterbalance the immense resources of England; at home, life-wasting private wars, the conflict of laws, of languages, and of titles to property had become unbearable. That fatal family pride which would not permit an O'Brien to obey an O'Neill, nor an O'Connor to follow either, rendered the establishment of a native monarchy (even if there had been no other obstacle) wholly impracticable." Another says: "The chief lords of both English and Irish descent were reduced to a state of deplorable misery and exhaustion. ... It was high time, therefore, on the one side to think of submission, and prudent on the other to propose concession; and Henry was just then fortunate in selecting a governor for Ireland who knew how to take advantage of the favorable circumstances."

This was Saintleger, whose politic course of action resulted in the assembling at Dublin, June 12, 1541, of a parliament at which, beside all the principal Anglo-Norman lords, there attended, Donogh O'Brien, tanist of Thomond, the O'Reilly, O'More, M'William, Fitzpatrick, and Kavanagh.[1] The speeches in the English language were translated in the Gaelic tongue to the Irish chiefs by the Earl of Ormond. The main business was to consider a bill voting the crown of Ireland to Henry, which was unanimously passed—registered rather; for, as far as the native "legislators" were concerned, the assemblage was that of conquered and subdued chieftains, ready to acknowledge their subjection in any way. O'Neill and O'Donnell refused to attend. They held out sullenly yet. awhile in the North. But in the next year they "came in," much to the delight of Henry, who loaded them with flatteries and attentions. The several chiefs yielded up their ancient Irish titles, and consented to receive English instead.

O'Brien was created Earl of Thomond; Ulick M'William was created Earl of Clanrickard and Baron Dunkellin; Hugh O'Donnell was made Earl of Tyrconnell; O'Neill was made Earl of Tyrone; Kavanagh was made Baron of Ballyann; and Fitzpatrick, Baron of Ossory. Most of these titles were conferred by Henry in person at, Greenwich palace, with extravagant pomp and formality, the Irish chiefs having been specially invited thither for that purpose, and sums of money given them for their equipment and expenses. In many instances, if not in all, they consented to receive from Henry royal patents or title deeds for "their" lands, as the English from their feudal standpoint would regard them; not their lands, however, in point of fact and law, but the "tribe-lands" of their septs. The acceptance of these "patents" of land proprietorship, still more than the acceptance of English titles, was "a complete abrogation of the Gaelic relation of clansman and chief." Some of the new earls were moreover apportioned a share of the plundered church lands. This was yet a further outrage on their people. Little need we wonder, therefore, that while the newly created earls and barons were airing their modern dignities at the English court, feted and flattered by Henry, the clans at home, learning by dark rumor of these treasons, were already stripping the backsliding chiefs of all authority and power, and were taking measures to arrest and consign them to punishment on their return. O'Donnell found most of his clan, headed by his son, up in arms against him; O'Brien, on his return, was confronted by like circumstances; the new "Earl of Clanrickard" was incontinently attainted by his people, and a Gaelic "M'William" was duly installed in his stead. O'Neill, "the first of his race who had accepted an English title," found that his clansmen had formally deposed him, and elected as the O'Neill, his son John, surnamed "John the Proud"—the celebrated "Shane" O'Neill, so called in the jargon of English writers. On all sides the septs repudiated and took formal and practical measures to disavow and reverse the acts of their representatives. The hopelessness that had broken the spirit of the chief found no place in the heart of the clan.

This was the beginning of new complications in the already tangled skein of Irish affairs. A new source of division and disorganization was now planted in the country. Hitherto the clans at least were intact, though the nation was shattered. Henceforth the clans themselves were;split into fragments. From this period forward we hear of a king's or a queen's O'Reilly:and an Irish O'Reilly; a king's O'Neill and an Irish O'Neill; a king's O'Donnell and an Irish O'Donnell.'" The English government presented a very artful compromise to the septs—offering them a chief of the native family stock, but requiring that he should hold from the crown, not from the clan. The nominee of the government, backed by all the English power and interest, was generally able to make head for a time at least against the legitimate chief duly and legally chosen and elected by the sept. In many instances the English nominee was able to rally to his side a considerable section of the clan, and even without external aid to hold the chosen chief in check.

By the internal feuds thus incited, the clans were utterly riven, and were given over to a self-acting process of extinction. Occasionally, indeed, the crown nominee, once he was firmly seated in the chieftaincy, threw off all allegiance to his foreign masters, declared himself an Irish chief, cast away scornfully his English earlship, and assumed proudly the ancient title that named him head of his clan. In this event the government simply declared him "deposed," proceeded to nominate another chief in his place, and sent an army to install the new nominee on the necks of the stubborn clan. This was the artful system—copied in all its craft and cruelty by the British in India centuries afterward—pursued toward the native princes and chiefs of Ireland from the reign of Henry the Eighth to the middle of the seventeenth century.


[1] Son of M'Murrogh who had just previously "submitted," renouncing the title of M'Murrogh, adopting the name of Kavanagh, and undertaking on the part of his sept, that no one henceforth would assume the renounced title!