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The History of Ulster
The Geraldine Revolt


Henry VIII and his Views on Ireland - Conn O'Neill and John FitzGerald - Leagues of Desolation - O'Donnell's Treaty with England - Kildare superseded - The Rebellion of Lord Offaly; "Silken Thomas" - Murder of Alen - Skeffington reappointed - Manus O'Donnell's Friendship with Conn O'Neill - Battle of Lake Bellahoe.

King Henry VIII started, as so many before had done, and have done since, full of confidence and of hope that just measures and firm government would speedily ameliorate the condition of Ireland. That he gave the subject his careful consideration we have evidence in the instructions he gave to the Earl of Surrey on his appointment as Lord Deputy. The young King, pondering over affairs in Ireland, evidently came to the conclusion that a lack of unity among the Irish chiefs had much to do with the perturbed state of the country, and he accordingly instructed Surrey to call together as many of the native chiefs as would attend, and confer with them on the subject. Alas, for the bright hopes of youth and the sanguine spirit of ignorance! Henry might as well have called a conference of Kilkenny cats!

"We deem it expedient", he wrote, "that when ye shall call the lords and other captains of that our land before you, as of good congruence, ye must needs so do; ye, after and among other overtures, by your wisdom then to be made, shall declare unto them the great decay, ruin, and desolation of that commodious and fertile land, for lack of politic governance and good justice; which can never be brought in order unless the unbridled sensualities of insolent folk be brought under the rules of the laws. For realms without justice be but tyrannies and robberies, more consonant to beastly appetites than to the laudable life of reasonable creatures. And whereas wilfulness doth reign by strength, without law or justice, there is no distinction of propriety in dominion; ne yet any man may say, this is mine; but by strength the weaker is subdued and oppressed, which is contrary to all laws, both of God and man. . . . Howbeit, our mind is, not that ye shall impress on them any opinion by fearful words, that we intend to expel them from their lands and dominions lawfully possessed; ne yet that we be minded to constrain them precisely to obey our laws, ministered by our justices there; but under good manner to show unto them, that of necessity it is requisite that every reasonable creature be governed by a law. And therefore, if they shall allege that our laws, there used, be too extreme and rigorous; and that it should be very hard for them to observe the same; then ye may further ensearch of them under what manner, and by what laws, they will be ordered and governed, to the intent that, if their laws be good and reasonable, they may be approved; and the rigour of our laws, if they shall think them too hard, be mitigated and brought to such a moderation as they may conveniently live under the same. By which means ye shall finally induce them, of necessity, to conform their order of living to the observance of some reasonable law, and not to live at will, as they have used heretofore."

Such were the true, wise, and generous dictates of Henry. Surrey was, however, precluded from carrying his instructions into effect by the fact that no sooner had he landed than the whole country was up in arms against him. As we have seen, he asked for and obtained his recall, and now we find the country again under the rule of Kildare, the very man who had been dismissed from office and whom Surrey had been sent to supersede.

Kildare, on his reappointment, seems to have lost his head. Freed by the downfall of Avolsey from a powerful enemy, he began to quarrel with Skeffington, whom he succeeded in ousting, and he then turned his attention to Alen, the Lord Chancellor, whom he summarily dismissed, appointing in his place a friend of his family, Cromer, Archbishop of Armagh. He then attacked the Earl of Ossory, destroying his castles and ravaging his lands around Kilkenny, carrying off large spoils. At the siege of Birr Castle the Earl received a ball in the left side, which was extracted from the opposite side in the following year, and it is said he never fully recovered from this wound. About this time Conn O'Neill, at his instigation, and assisted by John FitzGerald, Kildare's brother, plundered the English districts in Louth.

Such was the state of affairs during Kildare's last term of office. The King's Deputy was as lawless as any chief of the time, and apparently could be lawless with impunity. The utter desolation caused by these raidings and burnings left huge tracts of country uninhabited. In a letter written at this period a picture is drawn of "a land that is lonelier than ruin". "Some day", the writer says, "we rode sixteen miles of waste land, the which was Englishmen's ground, yet saw I never so goodly woods, so goodly meadows, so goodly pastures, and so goodly rivers, and so goodly ground to bear corn: and where the ridges were that hath borne corn, to my thinking there was no beast did eat it, not this twelve year, and it was the most part such waste all our journey."

Kildare, recognizing the fact that he could not rely on the support of England in his high-handed dealings, determined to strengthen his position still further by alliances with Irish chiefs, and accordingly he gave a daughter in marriage to O'Carroll of Ely and another to O'Carroll of Offaly. The Earl's friendship with his kinsman, Conn O'Neill of Tirowen, had proved so disastrous to O'Donnell of Tirconnell that he determined to come to terms with the Crown without the intervention of the Lord Deputy. The Annalists state that he was "a man who did not suffer the power of the English to come into his country, for he formed a league of peace and friendship with the King of England when he saw the Irish would not yield superiority to anyone among themselves, but that friends and blood-relations contended against each other". Two of his sons, Niall Garv and Owen, slew each other in a domestic feud in 1524; and the enmity between his two remaining sons, Hugh Boy and Manus, was such that in 1531 he was obliged to call in the aid of Maguire to stop their strife. On that occasion Manus, the young brother, was compelled to fly, and entered into alliance with Conn O'Neill, showing him to be decidedly hostile to the English. In consequence the popularity of Manus became very great, and on the death of his father, in 1537, he was unanimously chosen his successor.

The many enemies whom the Lord Deputy had made of late Alen, Ossory, Skeffington, Ormonde, and others now determined on his downfall. The ex-Archbishop of Dublin, and a possible kinsman named Alen also, sent long and lucid reports on the conduct of Kildare to the King. The reports stated, amongst other things, that the English laws, manners, and language were confined within the narrow compass of twenty miles, and that unless the laws were duly enforced the "little place", as the Pale was termed, would be reduced to the same condition as the remainder of the kingdom. It was also stated that the exactions and oppressions practised on the inhabitants loyal to England had driven many from the land, and that their lands were occupied by Irish enemies. The reports wound up with an entreaty to the King to entrust the charge of his Irish government to some loyal subject sent from his realm of England, whose sole object should be the honour and interest of the Crown, unconnected with Irish factions, and uninfluenced by partial favour or aversion.

The gravity of this application, coupled with the complaints of Skeffington, roused the anger of Henry, and he naturally fixed on the Lord Deputy as the proper object of his resentment, even on those points which were not directly charged as his particular misdemeanours, and Kildare therefore received a peremptory mandate to at once proceed to England to answer for his conduct. The Earl, conscious of his own irregularities, and sensible that he was in great danger, endeavoured in every way to evade the order and gain time. He pleaded the situation of his Government, and insurrections of the Irish, and while he delayed his visit to England he sent his wife over to use her influence with her powerful friends on his behalf. In the meantime he furnished his castles with arms and ammunition from the armoury in Dublin, and left them in the custody of dependents whom he could trust. Having by these delays gained some three months in which to settle his own affairs, he embarked at Drogheda, in February, 1534, appointing, before his departure, his son, Thomas, Lord Offaly, who was not yet twenty-one years old, to act as deputy in his absence. On his arrival in London he was arrested by the King's order, and committed to the Tower.

Kildare had been directed by Henry VIII to appoint some one on whom he could rely to act as his deputy. No doubt his appointment of his son was done under compulsion. There were, few indeed on whom the Earl could place any reliance, and his appointment of his youthful son, who was known as Silken Thomas on account of his love of dress, was a grave error of judgment. Kildare seems to have had some misgivings at thus putting "a naked sword into a young man's hand", and on parting with his son he bade him to be ruled by the Privy Council, " whose wisdom will be able to restrain you with sound and sage advice, for though in authority you rule them, they in Council must rule you". This good advice Offaly might have endeavoured to profit by and act on, had he not been blinded by his own trustful nature, and allowed impetuosity rather than prudence to guide his actions. His father's enemies resolved to take advantage of his innocence and credulity; and, skilfully spreading abroad a report that Kildare had been executed and Skeffington appointed his successor, they succeeded in rousing in the young Vice-Deputy such a spirit of rebellion and a thirst for revenge that, without making any attempt to verify the statements made, he, in a fit of frenzy at the supposed treachery of Henry, entered the Council chamber, and, flinging the Sword of State on the table, declared that he was no longer a servant of the King but his foe, adding a diatribe on Henry's conduct, as a monarch and a man, which contained such foul terms that Campion tells us he "has no mind" to chronicle them.

It is not necessary in a history of Ulster to follow the story of Silken Thomas's rebellion in detail, but the knowledge of some facts in connection with it are necessary in order to secure a clear understanding of subsequent events.

Offaly's first move, after gathering together his retainers and being joined by a large body of malcontents, was to demand the submission of Dublin. This was speedily granted, as not alone were the citizens unprepared for such hostilities, but they were further incapacitated for active resistance by a recent visitation of the plague; the officials, however, took refuge in the castle, among them being Alen the Archbishop. Offaly now laid waste the surrounding country, and Alen, taking advantage of his absence, attempted to escape, but was seized and brought before Lord Thomas, from whom he begged on his knees for mercy. The Archbishop had been active in hostility to the Geraldines; but it is not likely that Offaly wished to be revenged on an old and helpless man, and we may therefore believe that the command given by him was ''Take from me that clown!" but words spoken in the heat of passion are apt to be misunderstood, and the mandate of Offaly was followed by the immediate murder of Alen. This did not improve the cause Offaly had at heart. His cousin, Lord James Butler, to whom he appealed for assistance, turned from him, saying: "In this quarrel I had rather die thine enemy than live thy partner". Offaly retorted by entering Butler's territory and wasting it by fire and sword. He then again turned towards Dublin, where he had left a portion of his forces besieging the castle, and found to his consternation that the citizens of Dublin had closed the gates of the city, and had thus imprisoned the besiegers. Finding it impossible to capture the city, he raised the siege.

Long-delayed reinforcements now arrived from England, under the command of Sir William Brereton. With them came Sir William Skeffington, to whose ill -health and sluggish movements great delays were due. All the winter he lay idle, determined if there was no glory for him in the campaign his officers should have no opportunity to earn any. In the spring of 1535 he attacked the Kildares' stronghold at Maynooth. The siege lasted nine days, and in the end the castle was taken by assault; twenty-six of the garrison were taken prisoners, and two days later their heads adorned the turrets.

In the meantime Kildare, ignorant of the fate of the besieged, was hastening to the relief of his fortress with a large army drawn from the provinces of Ulster and Connaught. It is stated that this force numbered nearly 7000 men, but no sooner did they learn of the taking of the castle and the summary executions which followed than they deserted in large numbers, disappearing like snow in a sudden thaw. Kildare was now a fugitive, and took refuge with O'Brien in Thomond, and after fruitless efforts to regain his ground he submitted to Lord Leonard Gray, and was sent to the Tower, in which his father had expired a few months previously. Here he was imprisoned until 3rd February, 1537, when he was executed; and thus ended the rebellion of Silken Thomas. With Kildare, five of his uncles were also executed, and the sole representative left of the once-powerful family was a boy of twelve named Gerald, left in the care of his aunt, Eleanor, who had been married to MacCarthy Reagh, the Chief of Carberry. She was now a widow, and receiving at this time an offer of marriage from Manus O'Donnell of Tirconnell, she accepted, and, so great and universal was the loyalty to the house of Kildare, she passed in safety with her nephew from the south to the north of Ireland. O'Neill, O'Donnell, and other northern chieftains formed a confederacy for the restoration of young Gerald to his estates; and when Lord Gray, who had been appointed Lord Deputy, sought to treat with them for the surrender of the lad, they refused to meet him. The consequence was a hostile inroad by Lord Gray into Tirowen. The castle of Dungannon was taken, and the surrounding country was for six days abandoned to pillage and devastation.

Through the influence of O'Donnell's wife, O'Neill and O'Donnell now formed an alliance, and were for the first time in history on terms of genuine friendship. In August, 1539, they together attacked the Pale, marching, as pre-arranged, by different routes, and joining forces in Westmeath. The Lord Deputy, though unprepared, hastily gathered together, out of Dublin and Drogheda, as strong a force as he could, and marched to meet the invaders, who had already burnt the towns of Navan and Ardee, and devastated the surrounding territory. The greed of the mercenaries, who began to disperse with their booty, reduced the northern army so considerably that Gray won an easy victory (1539) at Lake Bellahoe, on the border of Meath and Monaghan. This battle proved to be a turning-point in Anglo-Irish history, for O'Neill's defeat meant that the power of the Ulster chiefs was broken, and that led to a general submission on their part two years later.


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