English Pale

The term Pale, signifying a fence or enclosure, was applied to those English settlements in Ireland, within which their laws and authority prevailed; and the designation “Pale” appears to have been first applied to the English territory about the beginning of the fourteenth century. Spencer, in his “View of Ireland” (written in the reign of Queen Elizabeth), speaking of the invasion of Edward Bruce, A.D. 1316, says—“he burned and spoiled all the old English Pale.” The extent of the Pale varied much at different periods, and Spencer says again of Bruce’s forces—“they marched forth into the English Pale, which then was chiefly in the north, from the point of Dunluce (in the county Antrim), and beyond into Dublin, having in the midst Knockfergus (now ‘Carrickfergus’), Belfast, Armagh, and Carlingford, which are now the most out-bounds and abandoned places in the English Pale, and indeed not counted of the English Pale at all, for it stretched now no further than Dundalk towards the north.” According as the English power extended, so did the Pale, and it was considered to comprise at some periods the counties of Antrim, Down, part of Armagh, Louth, Meath, Westmeath, Dublin, Kildare, King’s and Queen’s Counties, Carlow, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Waterford, Wexford, and part of Wicklow; but in general the name “Pale” was confined to the counties of Dublin, Louth, Meath, and Kildare.

Campion, in his Chronicle says: “An old distinction there is of Ireland into Irish and English Pales, for when the Irish had raised continual tumults against the English planted here with the conquest, at last they coursed them into a narrow circuit of certain shires in Leinster, which the English did choose as the fattest soil, most defensible, their proper right, and most open to receive help from England; hereupon it was termed their Pale, as whereout they durst not peep; but now, both within this Pale uncivil Irish and some rebels do dwell, and without it countries and cities English are well governed.” It appears that the Irish who dwelt within the Pale, and acknowledged English authority, were considered as subjects, had to a certain extent the protection of English laws; but all the Irish outside the Pale were styled Irish enemies, not being recognised as subjects; while the Anglo-Irish, or Irish of English descent, who resisted the Government, were termed English Rebels, being accounted as subjects.

The native Irish, according to Sir John Davies, being reputed as aliens, or rather enemies, it was adjudged no felony to kill a mere Irishman in time of peace; and it appears that if an Englishman killed one of the mere Irish, he was only fined a mark. Various penal laws against the native Irish were passed, in the parliaments of the Pale, particularly the “Statute of Kilkenny,” A.D. 1367, in the reign of King Edward the Third, which prohibited, under the penalty of high treason, any intermarriages, fosterage, or similar connexions, between the families of English descent and the native Irish; and imprisonment, fines, and forfeiture of lands and goods were inflicted on such English as permitted the Irish to pasture or graze their cattle on their lands; and similar penalties, prohibiting the appointment or promotion of any of the native Irish to bishops’ sees, abbacies, church livings, or any ecclesiastical preferments; and that any person of the English race speaking the Irish language, or adopting Irish names, dress, customs, or manners, should forfeit all their goods, lands, and tenements!

In the reigns of the Henrys and the Edwards, kings of England, various other penal laws were passed against the native Irish, to compel them to change their names and take English sirnames; to give up the use of the Irish language, and speak only English; to adopt the English dress, manners, and customs; to cut off their glibs and flowing locks,[1] and shave their upper lips at least once a fortnight—otherwise to be punished as Irish enemies. The Irish resisted the relinquishment of their ancient customs, as they were extremely partial to wearing long flowing hair and beards on their upper lips; and, notwithstanding these penal enactments, the Irish continued for centuries to use only their own language, manners, and customs.


[1] Flowing locks: Up to the 28th year of the reign of Henry VIII., the Irishmen in Ireland proudly wore long locks of hair, which was called Coulin [coolin], and meant “long fair hair;” but an act was then passed restraining the Irish from wearing long locks on their heads, or hair on their upper lips. That stringent Law inspired the composition of the exquisite Irish song called the Coolin (“cuilfhion;” Irish, a fair-haired or handsome person), which is rendered in Moore’s Irish Melodies— “Though the last glimpse of Erin with sorrow I see;” and, for pathos, its music is amongst the choicest of all the Irish melodies:

“To the gloom of some desert or cold rocky shore,

Where the eye of the stranger can haunt us no more,

I will fly with my Coulin, and think the rough wind

Less rude than the foes we leave frowning behind.

“And I’ll gaze on thy gold hair,

As graceful it wreathes,

And hang o’er thy soft harp,

As wildly it breathes;

Nor dread that the cold-hearted Saxon will tear

One chord from that harp, or one lock from that hair.”