Page images

pages will not have been written in vain, should they induce any such to consider these few but important questions:-what portion of our misfortunes is imputable to the crown or parliament of England; whether the local English government introduced new grievances, or merely omitted to remove old abuses; whether this omission arose from culpable neglect, or, on the other hand, from necessity, from principled forbearance, and respect, however erroneous, for the supposed rights of others.

Without proceeding minutely into these inquiries, it will be enough, in this place, to state one general proposition; that the great source of Irish misery has been, not the power of England, but its want of power. From the first connection between the islands to their legislative union, two local oligarchies, fiercely opposed to each other, but waging emulous hostility against the public welfare, fill a large space in our melancholy annals. Liberty and good order were equally the objects of their dislike: they intercepted from the sovereign, the allegiance of his subjects; and from the people, the protecting care of their prince and the blessing of impartial laws. Thus the country was exposed to a long succession of misfortunes, which its nominal monarch, the remote and unheeded colleague of domestic tyrants, might deplore, but was unable to prevent or to remedy. Absenteeism, the freehold system, and the abolition of our colonial legislature, have greatly reduced the power of the

more ancient of these factions," the landed aristocracy: a brief account of it will be no unsuitable introduction to the history of its triumphant rival.

There is good reason to believe, that in the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries, the Irish were possessed of a respectable share of those benefits, which result from industry, laws, and literature; with perhaps as much tranquillity, public and private, as was enjoyed by Greece at its most brilliant period. But amidst the rapine and massacre of the three following ages, their spirit and their imperfect civilization sunk together, beneath the ferocity of the northern Corsairs. The degenerate race which now appeared, inherited the mingled vices of their fathers and their enemies; the grossness and turbulence, without the generosity, of barbarians; the corruptions, without the arts, of more cultivated life. At the date of the arrival of the first English adventurers, every chieftain, from the dynast of a province to the tiny potentate of a realm which might be enclosed within a modern barony, was a king. The annual claim of his superior lord was settled, according to circumstances, by a tribute or a battle; but within his own territory, he exercised all the powers of barbarous royalty. By a custom which seems to have once extended from the Himlaya mountains to the Atlantic, he was sole proprietor of all the land in his sept: the clans

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

* That is, as far as it was a faction; it has, indeed, been reduced considerably below its constitutional level.

men held their portions during the pleasure of their chief, and there were some national usages which added to the uncertainty of this precarious tenure. All dignities were elective: vacancies were made, and elections carried, most frequently by the sword; so that every change of masters, in every tribe, threatened, if it did not cause, a new partition of lands. No special claims to inheritance were derived from primogeniture, legitimacy, or kindred. Upon the death or emigration of a vassal, his holding reverted to the common stock on the other hand, as youths grew to maturity or strangers became naturalized, the older occupants contracted their bounds to make room for the new settlers. These eternal fluctuations had their full effect upon the face of the country and the character of the people; there was no motive to industry, no spirit, except for turbulent adventure; cultivation was limited to the demands of nature and the landlord, and the fertility of the soil abused by a wretched system of husbandry. A distinction was acknowledged between a slave

a It was one of the articles of impeachment brought in 1613 against the lord deputy Chichester by the Catholic Association of the day, that his officers levied a fine on the Irish, for ploughing with horses by the tail. (See Desiderata Curiosa Hibernica, vol. i.) In 1648, it was one of the articles of peace between the duke of Ormond and another Catholic Association, "that two acts lately passed in this kingdom, the one prohibiting the ploughing with horses by the tail, and the other prohibiting the burning of oats in the straw, be repealed." Such was Irish patriotism in the seventeenth century; making a grievance of every measure that was calculated to promote comfort and civilization, or raise the character of the people: such it is in the nineteenth.

and a freeman; but it seems to have denoted no other difference than this, that the freeman had the right of choosing his tribe :-in choosing that he chose his master. Excluded from landed property by a selfish despotism, and from commercial wealth by the circumstances of a country, which had no money, no trade, and few manufactures, all who could not boast of princely blood were condemned to a state of hopeless dependence. The lords had neither the intelligence nor the generosity to give liberal institutions; and the Brehon Code, minute in its decisions between vassal and vassal, had not ventured to restrain their licentious mis-rule. Ireland had no towns except a few seaports which were still in the hands of the Danish enemy; there were therefore no corporations to diversify the bleak uniformity of feudal barbarism, to plead a chartered exemption from servitude, or reflect the dangerous image of plebeian rights. a

a These are the more palpable and prominent facts, as they are presented by history; yet we must not forget that, in a very great degree, things are as they are felt. A family man would say, that such a state of society could afford no fireside comforts; a statesman, that it was equally adverse to national greatness: both would say truly, but not the whole truth. It had its own attractions for a people, as the Irish were—as they are at this day—of few and simple wants, strangers to the spirit of trade, castlebuilders without forethought, convivial with their equals, aspiring to familiarity with their superiors, reckless of danger, Stoics in endurance, Cynics in their whimsical contempt of appearances, Epicureans in their relish of the passing hour, and full of airy and buoyant spirits, which shot up, as some trees are said to do, the more vigorously for the pressure of some incumbent weight. By the law of Tanistry, every man of noble blood was eligible to

Such was the system of the Irish chieftains whom Henry the Second found here; and thenceforward until the reign of James the First, by whom their power was finally broken, it continued rather to degenerate than improve. Through the

the chiefry of his tribe. The law of Gavel-kind was equally liberal of fair promises to every vassal; it gave him the chance of— the great object of an Irishman's ambition-a bit of land: to be sure, it would be only for his own life, but his sons could not hope to be better men than their father, or look for better prospects. In fine, in our Irish world, life was all a lottery, an adventure, a spirit-stirring uncertainty, in which a sanguine and elastic temper found enjoyment by snatches, and excitement always. The cup of expectation went round to every lip, and the visions it conjured up were to be realized by the exercise of a smooth tongue and a sturdy arm; gifts, in which the Irish were seldom deficient, and which were in themselves, as much sources of self-complacency, as the good things to which they ministered were objects of desire. Besides, it must be remembered, that the vassals were the constituents of their chief and landlord; a connection not the less intimate from this circumstance, that the hustings of those days were for the most part literally fields of battle. Thus, if harshly treated by the actual great man, they were sure to receive from the aspirant all the blandishments of a canvass; and, whenever they could muster a majority of battle-axes, might proceed, without further ceremony, to a new election. This mutual clientship and interdependence, between sovereign and subject, lord and serf, though a powerful element of commotion in the social chaos, must have greatly assuaged the sense, if not the reality, of oppression. In particular, it gave rise to two domestic relations, which united without confounding the upper and lower classes; the noble gave out his children to be nursed by his retainers, and in return, became baptismal sponsor for theirs. These two very innocent and very interesting customs of fosterage and gossipred, have been described by Sir John Davis in terms of rather absurd reprobation at all events, however alarming to a politician, they would afford exquisite material for a novelist.

We ought to have a writer of national tales. The Munster Farmer

Si quà fata aspera rumpat,
Hic Marcellus erit.

But he is better employed. The author of the Tales of the O'Hara Family is also capable of great things.

« PreviousContinue »