This was Shane O’Neil: “a thorough Celtic chief, not of the traditional type, but such as centuries of prolonged struggle for existence had made the chieftains of his nation.”
Continuing Earls Flee Ireland,
our selection from Ireland and Her Story by Justin McCarthy published in 1903. The selection is presented in four easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in Earls Flee Ireland.
It is not easy to come to a satisfactory estimate of the character of Shane O’Neil. Some English historians treat him as if he were a mere monster of treachery and violent crime. Most Irish legends and stories convert him into a perfect hero and patriot; while other Irish writers of graver order are inclined to dwell altogether upon the wrongs done to him, and the perfidies employed to ensnare him by those who acted for the English government. It is necessary to keep always in mind that, in their dealings with the Irish native populations, the English government only too frequently employed deception and treachery, thus giving the Irish chieftains what they considered warrant enough for playing a similar game. Shane O’Neil was very unscrupulous in his methods of dealing with his enemies; he was a man of sensuous passions and fierce hatreds, but he was gifted with splendid courage, a remarkable capacity for soldiership, and much of the diplomatist’s or statesman’s art.
An Irish essayist, who writes with much judgment and moderation on the subject, describes Shane as “a thorough Celtic chief, not of the traditional type, but such as centuries of prolonged struggle for existence had made the chieftains of his nation.” This seems the only fair standard by which to judge his career. No Irish family gave more trouble in its time to the English conquerors than did the O’Neils, and Shane O’Neil was in some of his qualities the most extraordinary man of the family. There were other O’Neils who bequeathed to their country’s history a brighter and purer fame, and of whose characters we can form a common estimate with less chance of dispute, but in Shane O’Neil we see a genuine type of the ancestral Irish chieftain brought into dealings and antagonism with the advances and the emissaries of a newer civilization.
This prolonged period of incessant war brought about the almost complete devastation of wide tracts of country in Ireland. Historians and poets tell the same sad story. Holinshed says that except in the cities or towns the traveller might journey for miles without meeting man, woman, child, or even beast. Edmund Spenser declared that the story of many among the inhabitants, and the picture one could see of their miserable state, was such that “any stony heart would rue the same.” Mr. Froude affirms that in Munster alone there had been so much devastation that “the lowing of a cow or the sound of a ploughboy’s whistle was not to be heard from Valentia to the Rock of Cashel.” It was made a boast by at least one of those engaged in ruling Ireland on behalf of the Queen that he had reduced some of the populations so deeply down that they preferred slaughter in the field to death by starvation. When the supposed pacification of Munster was accomplished, the province was divided into separate settlements, to be held under the crown, at hardly more than a nominal quit-rent, by any loyal settlers who were willing to hold the land as vassals of the sovereign and fight for their lives. All these lands were obtained by the confiscation of the estates of the rebellious chieftains.
A new deputy, Sir John Perrot, convened a parliament in Ireland. There was something farcical as well as grim in calling together a parliament under such conditions, when the delegates were supposed to be convened that they might give frank and sincere advice to the representative of the sovereign. Some of the Irish chieftains who had given their allegiance to the English sovereign not only accepted the Deputy’s invitation, but actually presented themselves in full English costume. In former parliaments, when Irish chieftains were loyal enough to take part in the sittings, they still wore the costume of their septs; but now, after so many struggles, some of the Irish nobles thought they would do better by making a complete submission to the conqueror, and inaugurating the new season of peace and prosperity by adopting the costume of their rulers.
This parliament naturally proved most obedient. Whatever the Deputy wished, it promptly adopted. More estates were confiscated to the Crown, and the land thus obtained was parcelled out on the cheapest terms of holding to English nobles, and also to mere English adventurers, who undertook to colonize it with workmen and traders from England. But it was soon found that English traders and laborers were not easily to be persuaded into the risks of a settlement under these conditions, and the new owners were compelled in most cases either to put up with such labor as the country afforded or to allow the soil to lie barren for the time. The scheme which the rulers had in mind — a scheme which meant nothing less than the substitution of an English for an Irish population — proved a failure. An English nobleman endowed with the spirit of adventure might be tempted to accept an estate in Ireland on the chance of making a brilliant career there, winning the favor of his sovereign, and becoming a great figure in the eyes of his own court and his own country. A mere adventurer might be as ready to try his fortunes in Ireland as in some unexplored part of the New World beyond the Atlantic. But the ordinary trader or working-man of English birth and ways did not at that time feel inclined to give up his business and his home to venture on a settlement in that wild western island, where all reports told him that every man’s hand was against every other man, and that the loyal subjects of the Queen were hunted like wild game by the uncivilized Irish.
Sir John Perrot was not a man qualified to make the situation any better than he had found it. A man of quick and violent temper, he succeeded in making enemies of some of the Irish chieftains who had lately been coming over to the service of the Crown, and converted some of his friends in office into his most bitter enemies. Sir John Perrot had to be withdrawn, and a new deputy appointed in his place. Such a representative of English government was not likely to encourage many of the Irish chieftains to accept the advances of an English deputy, or to believe that they could secure safety for themselves and their lands by submitting to his rule. The new Deputy, Sir William Russell, had a hard task before him.