The Irish Pale

Frank Mathew & Francis S. Walker
The Irish Pale

OPPOSITE the English Pale lies the Irish one, the province of Connaught. When Cromwell had broken Ireland he reversed the old policy, and instead of retaining a part for the English, he left one for the Irish. In 1652 the Puritans announced that it was "not their intention to extirpate the whole nation," and in 1653 they proved this by enacting that its survivors should be permitted to live between the Atlantic and the Shannon. That river formed a natural moat along nearly all the inner side of Connaught; and this was to be strengthened by giving a belt of land next it to veteran soldiers. Since the enclosed land was especially unfit to be cultivated, there was reason to hope that most of the dwellers in that prison would soon be quiet. The Irish Reservation was decreased afterwards, for the counties of Leitrim and Sligo were taken from it and assigned to the veterans, but not being appreciated by them, they, like Donegal, were left for the most part in the hands of the natives. And in later years they were stocked with exiles from the Protestant North. Thus, in spite of the attempt to except this northern corner of the province, the whole of Connaught was left, as the Puritan Parliament said, in an unintentional rhyme,

"For the habitation

 Of the Irish Nation."

Cromwell's plan was not carried out with thoroughness. If anyone could prove that during the whole war he had been "actively constant" to the Commonwealth, he was exempted from transplantation, and so were all husbandmen who had not carried arms. Such exemptions should have been few; but they made it possible to purchase connivance, and thus some of the Irish remained in their homes. Others, in course of time, presumed to break out of the Pale and return. As for the new English settlers, they became Irish, so the plan only succeeded in causing a great deal of affliction.

The Irish Pale was an appropriate contrast to the English one. The gaunt moors of Clare, the stark mountains and sedgy glens and wild bays of Connemara, and the windy hills and valleys about them, have a tragical look. You feel they could never have been prosperous; and they never were, for Connaught has always been full of battles and sorrows. It is true that it once had a prosperous city. In 1656 the Commissioners of Ireland alleged that, except London, there was in the British Islands no port more considerable than Galway; and though it is possible that they were inaccurate, since they were trying to sell forfeited houses, it is certain that they had some excuse for the statement. But Galway was Norman and English and Spanish while it was wealthy. It was quite aloof then from Connaught. From the year 1232, when it was built by Richard de Burgo, it was an isolated fortress controlled by families of Norman or English descent known as the Tribes. The names of these are Irish enough now; but in those days the men who bore them were classed among the English of Ireland. While these rich merchants had little affection for the English of England, they were proudly apart from the Old Irish, "the Os and the Macs." That was why the Corporation of Galway decreed that the Os and the Macs should not be permitted to swagger in the streets. It is recorded that over one of their gates they had an inscription "From the Ferocious O'Flaherties, Good Lord Deliver us." It is probable that those "mountain men" were, on their part, inclined to echo the old chant of the Saxon monks, "A furore Normannorum, libera nos Domine!" The City of the Tribes trafficked with Spain and that made it Spanish. Even to-day you will see in that silent and desolate place many old houses that will remind you of the stately abodes of Spanish grandees; but in Cromwell's time these were already impoverished, for Queen Elizabeth's long struggle with Spain ruined Galway. By that time the Tribes had for the most part forsaken commerce, and were to be found up in the mountains. There they shared the ill-luck of Connaught, as the Mac Williams had done before. While Galway flourished apart, few were more detested by it than these Mac Williams, who sprang from the same stock as the Burkes, tracing their descent from the conquering house of De Burgo. They were in Mayo and in Connemara and in the hills behind Galway, and ranked with the Celtic stocks, the O'Flaherties who reigned by Lough Corrib, and the O'Briens of Thomond, and the sea-roving O'Malleys of Renvyle and the Islands. Now the MacWilliams are fallen, and the O'Flaherties are ferocious no more.


Killery Bay

STAND on some bold headland, as Renvyle or Salruck, that resists the full force of the Atlantic, and watch the distant hills changing every variety of colour in their rapid transit from sunlight to shadow, note wildfowl, the fisherman's guide, hovering over shoals, also the blue sky above and the deep blue water below, and you will have witnessed a scene that cannot be surpassed.

The Highlands of Connemara have long been held by the Galway Tribes; and to this day they are linked with such names as Martin, Blake, Morris, French, Burke, Bodkin, and D'Arcy. From these families sprang the most typical gentlemen of Ireland, the most reckless, the most gallant, the proudest. Here they lived free, for, as they said, the King's writ did not run in Connemara: here they observed the one set of laws respected in Ireland in the merry old times, the Galway Code of the Duel. Great hunters and fighters and drinkers, they rejoiced till the inevitable day of the reckoning. Now the gloom of Connemara—the darkness they loved because it heightened their defiant hilarity—has overcome them at last; Ballinahinch, the palace of the Martins, is silent; and Renvyle of the Blakes has become a hotel.

In the heart of the mountains, beyond the Pass of Kylemore, you will see a low wandering panelled house beside the Atlantic; this is Renvyle, and it is worth notice because it is a type. In the old days, while some prodigals built themselves castellated palaces, wiser men who preferred to spend their money on horses and claret, or to run into debt for them, had a modest way of adding a wing to their houses whenever they thought one was required. From this resulted singular homes, many of them only one storey high, covering a great deal of ground. These had many advantages; it was possible for the ladies to sleep undisturbed at one end of them, no matter how joyous the men were at the other; there were no stairs down which a man would be apt to fall in the morning; and the long narrow corridors were pleasant to those who found it hard to direct their devious steps.

What became of the Irish Nation? Where are the descendants of all the families wrecked by that decree of the Parliament, and herded to live among these rocks if they could? Many of them had been rich, and were given proportionate tracts of wilderness, instead of the pastures of which they were deprived. There were Lords among them, and the heads of many of the chief families of the English of Ireland. No doubt, you will remember that the decree affected all Royalists, Protestant and Catholic, rich and poor, except the labourers who were permitted to stay in their cabins because the new owners would need their service. And they were all sent to particular places; Connaught was divided among the folk of the other provinces; the Burren, for instance, was assigned to the exiles from Kerry, Roscommon to those from Kildare, Meath, Queen's County, and Dublin, while Connemara and Mayo were given to those from the North. This should make it easy to trace them; and one would expect to find their names prominent still in their compulsory homes. But very few of the landlords of Connaught are derived from them. It is not surprising that they failed to retain the Highlands, for in that part they were forestalled by the Tribes, and they could not rest there,—Connemara was horrible to them. One needs to be happy before one can enjoy outer gloom. But in the other parts they found lands which were not so unlike those they had lost. Then why have they vanished? They came here as exiles and did not take root in a soil detested by them, for in their eyes this was a place of punishment. Nor were they welcome in it, for its original stock, though pitying them, could not but resent their intrusion. That is why the fishermen of the Claddagh call anyone who intrudes in their midst "a transplanter." Many left Ireland for ever when they could, becoming soldiers of fortune in Austria, Spain, or France; the rest vanished from prominence because they were beggared. You will not find their descendants among the landlords, but under the thatched roofs of the cabins.

This helps to account for the character of the poor in these parts. The peasants of Galway are melancholy people. I have seen no more curiously doleful sight than a dance in Connemara—the two long lines of peasants facing one another and jigging mechanically in a red dusk, without the ghost of a smile on any one of their faces. It was like a Dance of Death. And this habitual sadness, though it may mislead you, if you have not learnt how some can find a pleasure in sorrow, is genuine. Talk alone with any fisher or any ragged labourer or any obstinate man trying to induce his potatoes to grow on a rock, and you will discern it. You will discern also an irrational pride and a grave courtesy. A like lordliness prevails in the similar Highlands of Scotland, in which country the poorest of a kindred race are gentlemen all; and you might infer from this that it is primeval and perhaps caught from the mountains. But if you did so, you would fail to appreciate the especial quality of the sad pride you find here. It tells of the memory of lost rank. You will discern other things, for instance, an absolute ignoring of laws, not in a rebellious spirit, but in an oblivious one, such as is natural to men who have suffered much with enforced patience at the hands of a usurper. With such a spirit the transplanted must have toiled in the rocks, quite broken, but never acknowledging Cromwell. You will find also that these men think little of the present and dream of an impossible past or future. It was by this means that the transplanted were enabled to live.


Salmon-fishing, Connemara

"Perchance not deep, but intense and rapid,—a mountain stream."

—James Clarence Mangan.

In other parts of Connaught the character of the peasants is different. The men of Clare are a strong and dangerous brood. No doubt, they have been hardened by the keen air of their storm-beaten moors. They are always on their guard, very slow to make friends, very quick to take umbrage; they have the look of men accustomed to watch for enemies and able to see them a long way off. And if you can win their hearts, their friendship is true. In Mayo the people are mild and often dejected, and very prone to self-pity. There the remembrance of misfortune is crushing. They lack the particular pride of sad Connemara and the embittered independence of Clare; they have borne too many blows in more recent times, for many of them are sprung from those driven with violence from the Protestant North. Such distinctions of character are to be seen in each county of Connaught; but there is one thing common to all, and that is resentment. Much more than in any other province of Ireland, there is in the Irish Pale an abiding sense of injustice. That is the one fruit of Cromwell's plan.

After all, there is this to be said for him; he herded his victims in a beautiful prison. It is not probable that he was aware of the fact, for he never marched here, nor that he would have admired Connaught in any case; so we may conclude that this palliation was not intended by him. But there is an infinite charm in that country of sorrow. Though it was not there for the transplanted, their children have found it. You will feel it most in dark Connemara, the Land of the Bays of the Sea. Connemara is a country of shadows: on the bright days they drift on the waters, for the tarns and the inlets are all under hills, and they roam on the mountains when the weather is dark. To love it, you must first understand the pleasure of pain. And if you love it, you will think of it dark; you will not remember the brief sunshine but the days when the mountains seem to exult in defiance or to glory in suffering. All the wild country beyond the wild Shannon seems lulled in an unnatural sleep on days when the wind is still and the sun is out. When the storms rave in the mountains, the West is awake.