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At this time, too, began the first appearance of Ireland as a power on the sea. In the fourth century the high-king, Niall of the Hostages, commanding a large fleet of war galleys, invaded Scotland, ravaged the English coasts, and conquered Armorica (Brittany), penetrating as far as the banks of the Loire, where, according to the legend, he was slain by an arrow shot by one of his own men. One of the captives he brought from abroad on one of his early expeditions was a youth named Patrick, afterwards to be the Apostle of Ireland.
Niall's nephew, Dathi, also ard-ri, was a great sea king. He invaded England, crossed to Gaul, and marched as far as the Alps, where he was killed by lightning. He was the last pagan king of Ireland. In perhaps a score of years after the death of Dathi, all Ireland had been converted to Christianity, and its old religion of a thousand years buried so deep that scholars find the greatest difficulty in recovering anything about it. This conservative, obstinate, jealous people overturned its pagan altars in a night, and, ever since, has never put into anything else the devotion, soul and body, of its sacrifices for religion. Christianity profoundly modified Irish life, softened manners, and stimulated learning. Not that the fighting propensities were obliterated. There were indeed many long and peaceful reigns, but the historians record neat little wars, seductive forays and "hostings”, to use the new-old word, to the heart's content. The Irish character remained fixed in its essentials, but, under the influence of religious enthusiasm, Ireland progressed and prospered in the arts of peace. It would undoubtedly have shared the full progress of western Europe from this time on, but for its insularity. Hitherto its protection, it was now to be its downfall. A hostile power was growing of which it knew nothing.
The Norsemen—the hardy vikings of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark-had become a nation of pirates. Undaunted fighters and able mariners, they built their shapely long ships and galleys of the northern pine and oak, and swept hardily down on the coasts of England, Ireland, France, Spain, and Italy, and the lands of the Levant, surprising, massacring, plundering. In France (Normandy), in England, and lastly in Ireland they planted colonies. Their greatest success was in England, which they conquered, Canute becoming king. Their greatest battles and final defeat were in Ireland. From the end of the eighth century to the beginning of the eleventh the four shores of Erin were attacked in turn, and sometimes all together, by successive fleets of the Norsemen. The waters that had been Ireland's protection now became the high roads of the invaders. By the river Shannon they pushed their conquests into the heart of the country. Dublin Bay, Waterford Harbor, Belfast Lough, and the Cove of Cork offered shelter to their vessels. They established themselves in Dublin and raided the country around. Churches and monasteries were sacked and burned. To the end these Norsemen were robbers rather than settlers. To these onslaughts by the myriad wasps of the northern seas, again and again renewed, the Irish responded manfully. In 812 they drove off the invaders with great slaughter, only to find fresh hordes descending a year or two later. In the tenth century, Turgesius, the Danish leader, called himself monarch of Ireland, but he was driven out by the Irish king, Malachi. The great effort which really broke the Danish power forever in Ireland was at the battle of Clontarf, on Dublin Bay, Good Friday, 1014, when King Brian Boru, at the head of 30,000 men, utterly defeated the Danes of Dublin and the Danes of oversea. Fragments of the Northmen remained all over Ireland, but henceforth they gradually merged with the Irish people, adding a notable element to itis blood. One of the most grievous chapters of Irish history, the period of Norse invasion, literally shines with Irish valor and tenacity, undimmed through six fighting generations. As Plowden says:
"Ireland stands conspicuous among the nations of the universe, a solitary instance in which neither the destructive hand of time, nor the devastating arm of oppression, nor the widest variety of changes in the political system of government could alter or subdue, much less wholly extinguish, the national genius, spirit, and character of its inhabitants.” This is true not only of the Danish wars which ended nine hundred years ago, but of many a dreadful century since and to this very day.
Now followed a troubled period, Ireland weakened by loss
of blood and treasure, its government failing of authority through the defects of its virtues. It was inevitable, sooner or later, that England, as it became consolidated after its conquest by William the Norman, should turn greedy eyes on the fair land across the Irish sea. It was in 1169 that “Strongbow”–Richard, earl of Pembroke-came from England at the invitation of a discontented Irish chieftain and began the conquest of Ireland. Three years later came Henry II. with more troops and a Papal bull. After a campaign in Leinster, he set himself up as overlord of Ireland, and then returned to London. It was the beginning only. An English Lord Deputy ruled the "Pale”, or portion of Ireland that England held more or less securely, and from that vantage ground made spasmodic war upon the rest of Ireland, and was forever warred on, in large attacks and small, by Irish chieftains.
The Irish were the fighting race now if ever. Without hope of outside assistance, facing a foe ever reinforced from a stronger, richer, more fully organized country, nothing but their stubborn character and their fighting genius kept them in the field. And century out and century in, they stayed, holding back the foreign foe four hundred years. It is worthy of note that it was the Norman English, racial cousins, as it were, of the Norsemen, who first wrought at the English conquest of Ireland. When some of these were seated in Irish places of pride, when a Butler was made Earl of Ormond and a Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare, it was soon seen that they were merging rapidly in the Irish mass, becoming, as it was said, "more Irish than the Irish themselves.” Many were the individual heroic efforts to strike down the English power. Here and there small Irish chiefs accepted the English rule, offsetting the Norman Irish families who at times were "loyal" and at times "rebel." The state of war became continuous and internecine, but three-fourths of Ireland remained unconquered. The idea of a united Ireland against England had, however, been lost except in a few exalted and a few desperate breasts. A gleam of hope came in 1316, when, two years after the great defeat of England by the Scotch under Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn, Edward, the victor-king's brother, came at the invitation of the north
ern Irish to Ireland with 6,000 Scots, landing near Carrickfergus. He was proclaimed king of Ireland by the Irish who joined him. Battle after battle was won by the allies. Edward was a brilliant soldier, lacking, however, the prudence of his great brother, Robert. The story of his two years of fighting, ravaging, and slaying, is hard at this distance to reconcile with intelligible strategy. In the end, in 1318, the gallant Scot fell in battle near Dundalk, losing at the same time two-thirds of his army. For two years Scot and Irish had fought victoriously side by side. That is the fact of moment that comes out of this dark period.
The following century, like that which had gone before, was full of fighting. In 1399, ön Richard II.'s second visit to Ireland, he met fierce opposition from the Irish septs. MacMorrough, fighting, harassing the king's army from the shelter of the Wicklow woods, fairly drove the king to Dublin. The sanguinary "Wars of the Roses"—that thirty years' struggle for the crown of England between the royal houses of York and Lancaster, 1455 to 1485-gave Ireland a long opportunity, which, however, she was too weak to turn to advantage; but fighting between Irish and English went on just the same, now in one province, now in another.
In the reign of Henry VIII. a revolt against England started within the Pale itself, when Lord Thomas Fitzgerald, known as Silken Thomas, went before the Council in Dublin and publicly renounced his allegiance. He took the field—a brave, striking figure in protest against the king's bad faith in dealing with his father, the Earl of Kildare. At one time it looked as if the rebellion (it was the first real Irish rebellion) would prosper. Lord Thomas made combinations with Irish chieftains in the north and west, and was victor in several engagements. He finally surrendered with assurances of pardon, but, as in many similar cases, was treacherously sent a prisoner to London, where he was executed.
Queen Mary's reign was one of comparative quiet in Ireland. Her policy towards the Catholics was held to be of good augury for Ireland. The English garrison was reduced with impunity to 500 foot and a few horse; but another and darker day came with Elizabeth. Her coming to the throne, to
gether with her fanatic devotion to the Reformation and an equal hatred of the old religion and all who clung to it, ushered in for Ireland two and a half centuries of almost unbroken misfortune. You cannot make people over. Some may take their opinions with their interest; others prefer to die rather than surrender theirs, and glory in the sacrifice. The proclamations of Elizabeth had no persuasion in them for the Irish. Her proscriptions were only another English sword at Ireland's throat. The disdain of the Irish maddened her. During her long reign one campaign after another was launched against them. Always fresh soldier hordes came pouring in under able commanders and marched forth from the Pale, generally to return shattered and worn down by constant harrying, sometimes utterly defeated with great slaughter. So of Henry Sidney's campaign, and so of the ill-fated Essex. Ulster, the stronghold of the O'Neills and the O'Donnells, remained unconquered down to the last years of Elizabeth's reign, although most of the greater battles were fought there. In Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, and “Red” Hugh O'Donnell, prince of Tyrconnell, Ireland had two really great soldiers on her side. The bravery, generalship, prudence, and strategy of O'Neill were worthy of all praise, and Red Hugh fell little short of his great compatriot. In battle after battle for twenty years they defeated the English with slaughter. Ireland, if more and more devastated by campaigns and forays, became the grave of tens of thousands of English soldiers and scores of high reputations. Writing from Cork, the Earl of Essex, after a disastrous march through Leinster and Munster, says:
"I am confined in Cork .... but still I have been unsuccessful; my undertakings have been attended with misfortune .... The Irish are stronger and handle their arms with more skill than our people; they differ from us also in point of discipline. They likewise avoid pitched battles where order must be observed, and prefer skirmishes and petty warfare .... and are obstinately opposed to the English government."
They did not like attacking or defending fortified places, he also believed. It was only his experience. The campaigns of