The Land and the People (4)

Henry Jones Ford
CHAPTER II (4) Start of Section

This revival of spiritual energy was in full vigor at the time when the Irish people were practically unchurched. The situation afforded large opportunity to the missionary zeal then abounding and it was utilized with such energy and devotion as to stamp the national character. Within a decade there was a change for the better in the condition of the established church; but it came too late to recover lost ground, and the outlawed Church of Rome remained in secure possession of the loyalty of the Irish masses.

It is clear enough now that in dealing with this situation wise statesmanship would have sought to connect the interests of the masses of the people with the system of law and order which it was proposed to introduce. The conversion of tribal right into legal right should have been accompanied by an equitable distribution of the land among chiefs and people. Virtually this process is going on in our own times under the operation of the land laws, by schemes of purchase and re-allotment sustained by the public credit, and the ultimate effect will undoubtedly be a transformation of Irish social and political conditions. The time is approaching when it will appear that Irish character is no more inadequate to sustain orderly and efficient government than any other European stock. It is a matter of race discipline and race experience rather than of innate disposition. The qualities of shiftlessness and improvidence proverbially attributed to the Irish peasantry used to be imputed to the French peasantry before the changes in land tenure accomplished by the French Revolution. But such penetrating treatment of the situation was beyond the thought and capacity of statesmanship at the time of the Ulster plantation.

Sovereignty was too undeveloped, the State was too lacking in efficient organization to cope with such tasks as the equitable transfer of a people from a tribal to a legal status. Outside of the limited area known as the Pale there were no judges, no juries, no sessions of the courts in Ireland. The clansmen lived under the customary law of the septs, administered by their chiefs. The situation was something like that which confronted the English in India nearly two centuries later, when they acquired administrative authority over peoples among whom English law did not extend, and actuated by considerations of administrative convenience they set up a landlord system that disregarded the customary rights to the soil of the actual cultivators, converting them from co-proprietors into tenants-at-will. It eventually turned out that the arrangement perpetrated injustice, but at the time it presented itself as a public necessity.

It is easy to criticize the administrative shortcomings of one age from the mature knowledge and experience of a later age, but that is not the way to obtain insight. To appreciate the character of any age one must read down to it and not back to it. To understand the nature of events one must view them in genetic order. The English administrators in Ireland, working by the light of their own times, felt no scruples as to the wisdom and justice of their plans for reclaiming Ulster from barbarism. The lands were escheated to the Crown as the result of the treason of the lords. What more proper course to pursue than to do as had often been done in England itself, turn the lands over to the loyal lords, for occupancy by them and their retainers! No scruples as to the propriety of the course actually pursued appear to have been felt by anybody except Chichester, and his were based on practical and personal considerations. He thought it would have been wiser to make a more liberal provision for the native Irish and he feared that his own promise to the Irish had not been sufficiently respected.

Measures by which it was sought to break up Irish tribal institutions had long been pursued. In the time of Elizabeth severe laws were passed against bards and "shanachies," or historians of the clan. Soon after the accession of James the courts declared illegal the native system of inheritance known as tanistry and gavelkind, based upon the principle of collective ownership. This had been frequently recommended by English administrators in Ireland, who regarded it as a necessary reform. A State Paper of 1611 set forth among "Motives of Importance for holding a Parliament in Ireland" that "all the possessions of the Irish shall from henceforth descend and be conveyed according to the course of the common law of England, and not according to the barbarous customs of tanistrie or gavelkinde." Religious conformity was aimed at by a series of laws and proclamations against recusancy, which were futile save as sources of irritation and which Chichester came to regard as so troublesome and impolitic that eventually he resigned rather than administer them.

These measures belong to Irish history in general, and in view of the colonization which took place they were of less immediate importance in Ulster than elsewhere. The great administrative task in Ulster was to dispose of the warrior class. It was thought that since their trade was fighting the best thing to do was to send them into foreign service. Sweden then ranked as a powerful State aiming at empire, and her wars with Russia, Poland and Denmark attracted military adventurers, including many from Scotland. In 1609 it was arranged that 1,000 Irish fighting-men should be sent to Sweden. Writing from Fermanagh, September 18, 1609, Chichester says that he had accepted the submission of two chieftans in that county with their followers, "who so freely proffered themselves to this service for avoiding further danger by the prosecutions he made upon them." When ships arrived to transport them to Sweden Chichester had a different tale to tell. In a letter, October 8, 1609, he says that "idlers and swordmen everywhere (especially in the province of Ulster) now withdrew themselves into the woods." Before the end of that month, however, three ships sailed from Derry with 800 men. Another ship was about departing from Carlingford when the swordmen seized the ship and tried to run her ashore so that they might escape. Chichester acted with characteristic energy, mustering a force that attacked the ship with boats and put down the mutiny. Some of the ringleaders were hanged. This ship seems to have been doomed to disaster, for it was soon wrecked on the Isle of Man and had to put into a port of Scotland for relief. There another ship was hired, but this was driven into Newcastle where a body of the Irish escaped.

Chichester had a low opinion of swordmen. To speak generally," he said in one of his reports, "they were all but an unprofitable burden of the earth, cruel, wild, malefactors, thieves." But he had the discernment to observe that it would be good policy to utilize their own native customs and habits of allegiance to their chiefs. Writing to the English Privy Council, October 31, 1609, he recommends that in making levies for foreign service he be allowed "to appoint the commanders, such as he in his knowledge and experience of them shall think most popular with the nation; for they will distaste and avoid all strange commanders." This anticipates the policy pursued by the elder Pitt a century and a half later when he extracted the spirit of turbulence from the Highland glens by forming the clansmen into regiments officered by their chiefs. In Chichester's day the regimental system did not exist, and armies were composed of casual levies. Chichester found that the swordmen did not like to enter the Swedish service, an antipathy readily accounted for when it is remembered that the King of Sweden was a Protestant champion and that the influence of the Roman Catholic missionaries was now active among the people. Chichester twice urged the Privy Council that the swordmen be employed in the service of Russia rather than of Sweden, but nothing appears to have come of the suggestion. Nevertheless, it appears from Chichester's own statement that he sent away 6,000 men for service in the Swedish wars.

The removal of so large a number of the warrior class seems to have aided in the pacification of the country. It appears that the common people were patient and submissive as the Undertakers and their followers made their entry upon the land. On September 24, 1610, Sir John Davies wrote to the home Government in a characteristic strain of cheerful optimism. He remarks that the natives were choosing to be tenants-at-will rather than receive land as freeholders "for which they would be compelled to serve in juries." Davies proceeds: "All the Irish (the chief lords excepted) desire naturally to be followers, and cannot live without a master, and for the most part they love every master alike, so he be present to protect and defend them." And therefore he is of opinion that, "if they were once settled under the servitors, the bishops, or others who may receive Irish tenants, they would follow them as willingly, and rest as well contented under their wings, as young pheasants do under the wings of a home-hen, though she be not their natural mother."

Chichester, the soldier, showed a more penetrating judgment of the situation than Davies, the jurist. Writing about the same time that expressed his confidence in the tranquility of Ulster, Chichester expressed doubts as to the prospects of the plantation:

"But to hinder the same the natives of those countries will do what in them shall lie, for they are generally discontented, and repine greatly at their fortunes and the small quantity of land left them upon the division; especially those of the counties of Tyrone, Ardmagh and Colerayne, who having reformed themselves in their habit and course of life beyond others and the common expectation held of them (for all that were able had put on English apparel, and promised to live in townredes, and to leave their creaghting) had assured themselves of better conditions from the King than those they lived in under their former landlords: but now they say they have not land given to them, nor can they be admitted tenants, which is very grievous unto them."

Chichester complains that he himself has been discredited by the proceedings of the land commissioners, and "he prays that he may not be guided by any directions of theirs, for they know not Ireland so well as he does, especially Ulster." He points out that the grievances of the common people afford grounds upon which the priests can stir up disaffection. He remarks:

"The priests now preach little other doctrine to them, but they are a despised people, and worse dealt with than any nation hath ever been heard or read of; for being received to mercy upon their humble submissions, their bodies, goods, and lands were taken into the King's protection, but now they are injuriously thrust out of their houses, and places of habitation, and be compelled, like vagabonds, to go they know not whither."

Chichester concludes that "how ill soever they be disposed, he sees not how they can rebel in any great numbers unless they have assistance of arms and munition from foreign parts." Nevertheless he suggests that it would be wise to treat them with more consideration. Chichester has been represented as a hard, ruthless soldier, whose policy in Ulster is marked by covetousness, but his own pen has unconsciously drawn for us his true portrait as a man who excelled his contemporaries in justice and discernment.

Before the Ulster plantation began there was already a considerable Scottish occupation of the region nearest to Scotland. These Scotch settlements were confined to Counties Down and Antrim, which were not included in the scheme of the plantation. Their existence facilitated Scottish emigration to the plantation, and they were influential in giving the plantation the Scottish character which it promptly acquired. Although planned to be in the main an English settlement, with one whole county turned over to the City of London alone, it soon became in the main a Scottish settlement.