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The History of Ulster
O'Neill, Prince of Ulster


The Statute of Kilkenny - Ulster's Petty Wars - O'Neill attacks Dundalk and becomes Undisputed Chief of Ulster - Art McMurrough of Leinster - Richard II visits Ireland - O'Neill, "Prince of the Irishry in Ulster", submits - The O'Donnells and the O'Neills combine against the English - O'Neill, Lord Paramount of Ulster.

"The Lord Lionel", as Sir John Davies quaintly calls him, was highly incensed by his inability to recover his wife's property in Ulster. He had journeyed to Ireland with an imposing army and a distinguished suite, including Lord Stafford, Sir John Carew, Sir William de Windsor, and the Earl of Ormonde. He had come not alone to regain his wife's lost lands, but also the Ireland which his royal father had declared to be "almost lost"; he had come determined to rule the country with a rod of iron, and to teach "the mere Irish" and the rebellious Anglo-Irish that they must submit to the rule of the strong arm of England ; he came with all the prestige attaching to the son of the most powerful and warlike monarch in the world, and he had in five years accomplished nothing! This was enough to make a young man wroth.

Disgusted with the state of affairs, he thought of many methods to gain his ends, but could think of no more original plan than a means whereby the Irish and the Anglo-Irish might be made antagonistic for all time, and to this end he devised the Statute of Kilkenny, so called because the Parliament during the sitting of which the Act was passed was held in Kilkenny (1367).

The provisions of this statute were calculated to keep the Irish and the Anglo-Irish as far asunder as possible, to prevent them, in fact, if possible, from ever uniting. They exhibit such legislation as England to-day would hesitate to apply to some protectorate such as, say, Southern Nigeria! Intermarriage and fosterage between English and Irish were strictly forbidden and declared to be high treason, and the perpetrators of such crimes were pronounced to be traitors to "our lord the King". No sale to the Irish of horses or armour in time of peace or food in time of war was permitted. Such transactions were to be dealt with as felony. Englishmen who adopted Irish dress, language, customs, such as the mode of riding without a saddle, entailed forfeiture of their lands. The English were not to permit the Irish to pasture their cattle on English land. Even Irish games, such as hockey, were forbidden.

"In all this it is manifest", wrote Sir John Davies, "that such as had the government of Ireland did indeed intend to make a perpetual enmity between the English and the Irish, pretending that the English should in the end root out the Irish, which, the English not being able to do, caused a perpetual war between the two nations, which continued four hundred and odd years. . . ."But it is easy to make laws; it is another thing to enforce them, and, as Ulster lay outside the jurisdiction of the Crown, the Statute of Kilkenny, so far as the north of Ireland was concerned, was a dead letter. It is only referred to here because it throws some light on the state of the country at the time, and without some knowledge of its provisions it is impossible to fully understand many incidents in the history of Ireland.

Ulster from 1380 to 1390 enjoyed a period of comparative peace. Of course, as might be expected, Tirconnell and Tirowen had their periodical fallings-out, but these wars were insignificant when compared with the injuries done in the past by one province to the other. The contentious O'Donnells were, as usual, continually wrangling amongst themselves when they were not waging war against the O'Neills. In 1380 O'Donnell was defeated by O'Neill, and the opportunity was seized by the Lord-Lieutenant, the Earl of March and Ulster, to invade Tirowen and Tirconnell, on which occasion he razed to the ground the fortress of Castlefin and other castles in the district. But nothing could quell these warlike chiefs, and in 1395 we find O'Donnell waging war on O'Neill, and defeating him with heavy losses. This war lasted, in a desultory way, for four years, O'Donnell devastating the districts through which he forced his way. O'Neill retaliated by invading Tirconnell and defeating O'Donnell. He then attacked the English in the south of Antrim, and, elated with his success, he set fire to the fortress of Carrickfergus, which was the last stronghold of the Anglo-Irish in Ulster. O'Neill now marched from victory to victory. In 1392 he defeated the English of Dundalk, and extorted submission and tribute from that city. The next six years saw O'Neill the acknowledged chief of Ulster, the sole disputant to his claims being the irreconcilable O'Donnell.

Among the humiliations which Lionel, Duke of Clarence, Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, had to endure during his vice-royalty was a severe defeat he experienced at the hands of Art McMurrough, a descendant of Dermot, King of Leinster. Dermot's daughter Eva, as we have seen, was married to Strongbow, but the Leinster septs refused to acknowledge her as their ruler, and elected an illegitimate son of Dermot named Donnell, who was one of the chiefs who submitted to Henry II. The kingship of Leinster was always held by a McMurrough, and these chieftains became so powerful that the English were glad to pay to one of them 80 marks a year as the price of peace. Art McMurrough enjoyed this stipend as King of Leinster, and was recognized by the English as The McMurrough. But the friendly relations between Art and the English did not last long, for in 1358, at a Parliament held at Castledermot, he was proclaimed a traitor, and hostilities were commenced in which The McMurrough won all before him, defeating the Lord -Lieutenant, Sir William de Windsor, in 1369, and seizing lands and castles, which he held despite all the efforts of the English to regain them. The Irish now assumed the offensive in all parts of the country, and when the Leinster colonists were assailed in 1377 they were glad to buy off O'Brien, who had attacked them, by the payment of 100 marks. In this year McMurrough died, and was succeeded by his son, also named Art, who, notwithstanding his father's having been proclaimed a traitor, also received his yearly stipend of 80 marks. The new King of Leinster might have settled down in peace had not the English sought to confiscate the lands belonging to his wife, who, as an Anglo-Irishwoman, had, by her marriage, violated the Statute of Kilkenny, which forbade any alliance between subjects of the King and the Irish; Art therefore determined to protect his property, and made war on the English, and successfully defeated them on every occasion. By the year 1389 the English holding in Leinster had been so reduced, and the outlook for the supremacy of the Crown in Ireland became so dubious, that Richard II, who was now on the throne of England, determined to visit his Irish dominions and crush that rebellious chief the King of Leinster.

Richard landed at Waterford in October, 1394, with 4000 men-at-arms and 30,000 archers. Such a display of force impressed the Irish chiefs who assembled to do the King homage, O'Neill being among the number, which also included Art McMurrough. The King entertained the chiefs with great magnificence, and received their submission. They bound themselves by hostages to be loyal subjects and to answer for the good behaviour of their dependents. Richard published a free pardon to all the disaffected Anglo-Irish; but, McMurrough's actions arousing suspicion, he was cast into prison. Later he was liberated on giving hostages for his good behaviour; but the imprisonment awakened in him an implacable hatred of the English, which resulted in his attacking Carlow, after the King had left Ireland (1395), and engaging the royal troops at Kells, when the Lord-Lieutenant, Roger Mortimer, the young Earl of March, a grandson of Lionel, Duke of Clarence and Earl of Ulster, was defeated and slain (1398).

The anger of Richard was now thoroughly roused, and he again landed at Waterford on 1st June, 1399, with a huge army. He marched into Kilkenny and tried to induce The McMurrough to give battle; but that wary chief knew better than to risk an engagement. He retreated into the forests of Carlow, and contented himself with carrying on a guerrilla warfare, which wearied and worried the royal troops, who, in addition to lack of provisions, suffered from disease brought on by exposure and the damp nature of the country through which they had to pass. Messages were now sent to Art from Richard calling upon him to submit; but he scornfully refused to do so, and declared that he was the rightful King of Leinster, and would never cease, in defence of his country, to wage war on the English. All efforts to secure him proving futile, and a conference between Art and the Earl of Gloucester failing to bring about terms of peace, the price of 100 marks was put on The McMurrough's head, without, however, bringing about the desired result. Richard was now (1399) summoned to England to grapple with the insurrection of Henry of Lancaster, and a little later the King was captured, and lost both his crown and his life.

Little as Richard's expeditions to Ireland affected Ulster, they make a landmark in Irish history which cannot be overlooked. That he was well disposed to Ireland is certain, for he took vigorous steps to reform both the corrupt bench and the complicated civil procedure; and that he was well received is proved by the manner in which even the great independent chiefs of the north submitted, the O'Hanlons, MacMahons, O'Donnells, and O'Neills. In particular, O'Neill, as "Prince of the Irishry in Ulster", acknowledged the King to be his sovereign lord, and undertook not only "to remain faithful to the Crown of England, but to restore the bonaght (family possession) of Ulster to the Earl of Ulster".

The reign of Richard II is remarkable in that "then was the first statute made against absentees, commanding all such as had land in Ireland to return and reside thereupon upon pain to forfeit two-third parts of the profit thereof". In this reign also the first idea of a "plantation" was formulated, when the chiefs of Wicklow, in consideration of a pension to be paid to them, agreed to remove to other territories which the King undertook to provide, the King's intention being to establish a colony in Wicklow, which was a stronghold of disaffection and of turbulence.

During the fourteen years of Henry IV's reign little or nothing of moment occurred in Ulster, and even in the reign of Henry V there is but little to record, save that the Irish in the province gained ground yearly. In the latter reign the King's attention was almost wholly devoted to his wars with France, and Ireland was, in consequence, left to make her way as best she could. The condition of the English in Ireland was pitiable. They were completely at the mercy of the Irish, and were reduced to buying off their hostility and paying exorbitant sums as the price of peace. Being reduced to poverty by the demands of the Irish chiefs and the extortions of the English officials, the leading men of Dublin and the surrounding districts addressed a memorial to Henry V, begging him to help them in their dire distress, as they were surrounded by Irish enemies and English rebels. Henry was too busy with his French wars to heed the cry of his loyal subjects in Ireland, and the petition remained unanswered.

In 1423, at the commencement of the reign of Henry VI, the O'Donnells and O'Neills, for the first time in their history, combined their forces, and, aided by other Ulster chiefs, they marched against the frontier fortress of Dundalk. Here they encountered English forces under the command of the Lord-Lieutenant, Edmond Mortimer, Earl of March and Ulster, and defeated them with a loss of nearly 100 men. They then compelled the English in Louth and Meath to pay tribute, now known as Black Rent, and only on these conditions would they consent to depart. In the following year James, Earl of Ormonde, was Viceroy. He succeeded in getting large reinforcements from England, and, marching north, he did much damage in Ulster. But his triumph was only temporary, for in 14130 O'Neill again attacked Dundalk, and compelled the whole of Meath to pay him tribute.

In 1433 the O'Neills and O'Donnells waged a terrific war against each other; and, to add to the misfortunes of the country, a famine prevailed, so that the season was afterwards known as "the summer of slight acquaintance", from the selfish distance and reserve which the dearth created among friends. In 1434 the chiefs of Tirowen and Tirconnell once more combined to invade the Anglo-Irish districts and to enforce the tribute which O'Neill had imposed on Dundalk; but on this occasion a rash movement on the part of some of the young O'Neills led to the loss of a battle and the capture of Niall Garv O'Donnell, who was sent to England and confined in the Tower of London. In 1439 this heroic chieftain was removed to the Isle of Man, to negotiate for his ransom; but he died there soon after his arrival, and, to the exclusion of his sons, his brother, Naghtan O'Donnell, was installed chief of Tirconnell.

The feuds and alliances which alternated in such rapid succession among the Irish chieftains seem somewhat capricious and uncertain ; but the most melancholy feature in these internecine wars was the unprincipled competition for the chieftaincy by which the ruling families in almost all the independent territories were torn into factions. The old law of tanistry was perverted or ignored by the ambitious. Brothers were arrayed against each other, and uncles and nephews were engaged in perpetual warfare.

During the reign of Henry VI, so strong did the Irish and Anglo-Irish become that panic legislation was resorted to, in the hopes of enforcing the enactments of the Statute of Kilkenny, an Act of which it has been well said that it was ''perpetually renewed, habitually set at naught, and constantly evaded by licences of exemption". Under the provisions of this statute the English were empowered to seize and behead any natives whom they found thieving by night or by day, or suspected of that intent. To treat as Irish enemies, and to take the goods of, imprison, and demand a ransom for all persons who did not shave the upper lip at least once a fortnight. Englishmen who married Irishwomen were to be accounted guilty of high treason, and be hanged, drawn, and quartered. To trade with the native Irish was made felony, and natives who had dealings with the English "lieges" were to be treated as the King's enemies.

These fierce and foolish laws bear evidence to the hopelessness and helplessness of the English Government. It made a show of putting forth power which it did not possess, and the folly of its fulminations against the Irish is proved by the fact that, while the Government flattered itself it was in a position to enforce such laws, the great Irish chiefs were receiving an annual tribute from the English as the price of peace. O'Neill received 20 from the barony of Lecale and 40 from the county of Louth, and other chiefs received sums which were tendered to ensure a precarious respite, McMur rough of Leinster getting 80 marks from the Crown. Even the walled towns, recognizing the uselessness of appealing for protection to either the King or his representative in Dublin, purchased peace by an annual cess; Dundalk, for instance, paying a large sum to O'Neill, who, as chief of Ulster, was Lord Paramount.


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