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The History of Ulster
Bad Money and Misery


The Introduction of "Brass Money" - Misery of Ireland in Consequence - The New Imposition called "Cess" - Rise of Prices - Crying down the Coinage - Death of Edward VI - Accession of Mary - Fall of the Earl of Tyrone - Rise of Shane O'Neill - War in Ulster - Defeat of the Baron of Dungannon - Shane O'Neill triumphant.

Matters temporal and spiritual usually go hand in hand in Ireland. By the irony of fate the advent of "brass money" coinage, which is indissolubly associated in the minds of men of Ulster with Popery and wooden shoes, was contemporaneous with the coming of the Reformation. By a resolution of the English Council, dated the 8th of July, 1550, it was determined that a mint should forthwith be established in Ireland, and that it should be farmed out for twelve months, on terms which brought about the last and worst measure any Government can adopt, a debasement of the currency. The Irish standard had been always lower than the English. When the English silver was 11 ounces fine to 1 of alloy, the Irish had been 8 ounces fine to 4 of alloy. It was now arranged with the manager of the Irish mint that the money to be coined was to be 4 ounces fine with 8 of alloy. The pound weight of silver, if coined at a pure standard, yielded forty-eight shillings; with two-thirds of alloy it should therefore produce one hundred and forty-four; and if the King was to make twenty-four thousand pounds by receiving, as arranged, thirteen shillings and fourpence on every seven pounds four shillings that were issued, three hundred thousand pounds' worth of base coin would be let out over the Irish people in a single year. Notwithstanding that such a procedure threatened the country with great injury, the mint was established, and we learn from the Annalists that "new money was introduced into Ireland, that is copper; and the men of Ireland were obliged to accept it for Silver". In consequence, prices rose, and trade was utterly disorganized. The new coin was of so base a description that its introduction into England -was prohibited under severe penalties. The mint continued, notwithstanding the universal outcry against the debasing of the currency, to pour forth supplies of coin, each issue being baser than the one which had preceded it. The confusion and loss caused thereby became daily more intolerable.

Such was the state of the currency in 1551, when Sir Anthony St. Leger left the country. He was succeeded, as we have seen, by Sir James Crofts, who was struck by the misery resulting from the circulation of the bad money, and complained, in a letter to the Duke of Northumberland, that he could not understand why Ireland should have worse money than England. He protested against a continuance of the debasement, and entreated that the standard might be restored. The mischief had only commenced; yet even then he represented that the soldiers could no longer live upon their wages; and the importance of this statement may be estimated from the fact that the maintenance of the garrisons in the affected districts alone cost thousands yearly. The natives had so poor an opinion of the coinage that they would not accept the money upon any terms. Crofts added that "the town of Dublin and the whole English army would be destroyed for want of victuals if a remedy were not provided". He suggested that a possible remedy would be to cry down the money to its true value, and to issue no more of it. In reply to his complaints, Crofts was told that the reformation of the coinage was impossible, and the calling down objectionable. It was suggested that he should consult the principal people in the country about it; and he received a broad hint that the churches contained jewels and plate, which he might secure, failing which he could dismiss the soldiers if he could not pay them.

The Lord Deputy, an honest man, was in a cruel plight, but he recognized the truth of "needs must when the devil drives"; and as he could not dispense with his soldiers, he admits that in order to keep the army from starving he had been driven to purveying, but he hoped this state of things would not last long. "We have forced the people for the time", he wrote, "to take seven shillings for that measure of corn which they sell for a mark, and twelve shillings for the beef which they sell for fifty-three shillings and fourpence. These things cannot be borne without grudge, neither is it possible it should continue." The merchants cried out piteously against the fraud which was filching from them the results of their commerce. Consultations were of no avail. "I sent", wrote the Lord Deputy, "for inhabitants of Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Waterford, and Drogheda, to know the causes of the dearth of corn and cattle, and how the same might be remedied. I declared unto them how the merchants were content to sell iron, salt, coal, and other necessaries, if they might buy wine and corn as they were wont to do. And thereof grew a confusion in argument, that when the merchant should need for his house not past two or three bushels of corn, he could not upon so small an exchange live; and likewise the farmer that should have need of salts, shoes, cloth, iron, hops, and such others, could not make so many divisions of his grain, neither should he at all times need that which the merchants of necessity must sell. So it was that money must serve for the common exchange."

A meeting was held in Dublin at the close of the year 1551, at which the Deputy met representatives of the industrial classes in Ireland, and discussed the first principles of commercial economy, but the meeting appears to have been barren of results. Those present agreed that "By the whole consent of the world gold and silver had gotten the estimation above other metals as meetest to make money of, and that estimation could not be altered by one little corner of the world, though it had risen but upon a fantastical opinion, when indeed it was grounded upon reason, according to the gifts that nature had wrought in those metals". They concluded, therefore, that if the currency could not honestly be restored, they preferred the lesser of two evils, and desired that it should be immediately called down to its market valuation.

But though the opinion of the country had been taken, as suggested, and the country was absolutely against the new coinage, and cried aloud for redress, the Government paid no heed to their sufferings. The prices continued to rise. "The measure of corn that was wont to be at two or three shillings", and when Croft was appointed Deputy in March, 1551, was "at six shillings and eightpence", rose a year later to "thirty shillings". "A cow that had been worth six shillings and eightpence sold for forty shillings; six herrings for a groat; cow-hides were ten to twelve shillings a hide; a tonne of Gascon wine was sold for twelve pounds, and of Spanish wine for double that sum."

The distress in the agricultural districts was particularly acute, owing chiefly to the reintroduction of the Anglo-Irish custom of coyne and livery under the new name of "cess". This new imposition has been defined as "a prerogative of the prince and an agreement and consent of the nobility to impose upon the country a certain proportion of victual and provision of all kinds, to be delivered and issued at a reasonable rate, or as it is commonly termed" at the King's price.

This price, unfortunately for the farmers, varied from time to time, being fixed by proclamation, and remained unaffected by the depreciation of the currency. Therefore, as the value of money decreased the cess became increasingly burdensome. The picture drawn by the honest Lord Deputy is harrowing even after a great lapse of time. "The people", he wrote, "know not the actual cause of their misery, but they know it originates in England; and that reflection is a source of bitterness: they do collect all the enormities that have grown in so many years, so that there is among them such hatred, such disquietures of mind, such wretchedness upon the poor men and artificers, that all the crafts must decay, and towns turn to ruin, and all things either be in common, or each live by others' spoil ; and thereof must needs follow slaughter, famine, and all kinds of misery." Crofts was in deadly earnest. "Baseness of coin", he assured Northumberland, who, no doubt, was tired of the subject, for he never even acknowledged the receipt of the letter, " causeth universal dearth, increaseth idleness, decayeth nobility one of the principal keys of the commonwealth and bringeth magistrates into hatred and contempt of the people."

The wail of the injured Irish now rose in tones too piteous to be neglected, and at last, in April, 1552, Northumberland consented to cry down the money to half its previous value. Three thousand pounds weight of bullion was sent to Dublin, with orders to the manager of the mint to call down the coin, buy it in at the reduced valuation, and make a new issue at the old standard or something approximately near it. The crying down was effected in June, and a partial revival of the stricken trade of the country followed.

The death of Edward VI, in July, 1553, grievously upset the existing order of things. The tables were turned, and those who were ardent reformers were to be themselves speedily reformed. Browne and Staples were, on the accession of Mary, expelled from their Sees, and Dowdall was replaced in his archbishopric. Mary, notwithstanding her Catholicism, was not a Papist. She retained the title of Queen of Ireland in spite of the contention of Pope Paul IV that "it belonged only to him to give the name of a king", and clung with so much tenacity to the dignity that the Pope in the end was content "to dissemble the knowledge of what Henry had done and himself to erect the island into a kingdom, that so the world might believe that the Queen had used the title as given by the Pope, not as decreed by her father ".

Ireland under Catholic Mary was, alas! no happier than under Protestant Edward, indeed there is every reason to believe that the country suffered more during the reign of the Queen, for we are told that "the Irish were not quieter during her reign than they were under her brother; but, on the contrary, their antipathy against Englishmen and government induced them to be as troublesome then as at other times", for "although the Queen was zealous to propagate the Catholic religion, yet her ministers did not forbear to injure and abuse the Irish".

Under these circumstances it is not to be wondered at that Irish grievances increased and multiplied. When Conn O'Neill was created Earl of Tyrone, the Lord Deputy, Sir Anthony St. Leger, believed that the remedy for Irish anarchy had at last been found. He had yet to learn that though the loyalty of Irish clansmen to their chiefs was very great, their loyalty to their national traditions was greater still. The evidence of this loyalty is clearly seen in the conduct of John or Shane O'Neill, a son of the Earl of Tyrone, who now appeared upon the scene. In the settlement brought about by Henry VIII, Tyrone surrendered his lands to the Crown, as already stated, only to receive them again under the usual feudal tenure. The earldom he received for himself and his heirs, and he named as his heir Ferdoragh (called by the English chroniclers Matthew), his favourite son, who was accordingly created Baron of Dungannon. It was admitted at the time that there were serious doubts as to Ferdoragh's legitimacy, for he had not been presented to O'Neill by Alison Kelly, his mother, the wife of a blacksmith at Dundalk, until he was sixteen years old. Most men under these circumstances would have denied the paternity, but Conn O'Neill being as his son, Shane, later explained to Queen Elizabeth "a gentleman," in that "he never denied any child that was sworn to him, and that he had plenty of them", accepted the lad as his son, and, finding that he was a fine, dashing youth, gradually began to take delight in him. Thus it was that, on being required to name his heir, he named Ferdoragh, and accordingly to Ferdoragh was secured the reversion of the earldom on his father's death.

Tyrone, having grown old, became forgetful of his submission, and, reflecting on his past life, became filled with an abnormal sense of the greatness and regal splendour of his race. He had in his early manhood pronounced a curse on those of his posterity who should ever conform to English ways or associate with Saxons. And now all these favourite ideas were revived, when from his own reconciliation with the English Government he returned to live among his kinsmen and followers. His partiality for his son Ferdoragh caused much jealousy among his legitimate children. Shane and his brother Hugh endeavoured to alienate their father from the Baron of Dungannon, and from the Government which had countenanced his shameful liking for one who was in all probability not his son. They reproached him with his degenerate submissions to the English Crown, and exhorted him to resume the ancient dignity and independence of his house. The Earl was but too susceptible to such impressions, and readily sacrificed the interests of his favourite to dreams of shaking off the yoke of allegiance and recovering the ancient independence of the house of O'Neill. He began to regret his unjust partiality to Ferdoragh, and desired that Shane should succeed to all his honours. Some attempts against Ferdoragh made by Shane and Hugh, with the Earl's connivance, raised considerable commotion, and obliged Dungannon to advise the authorities at Dublin of the dangers he himself ran, and of the suspicious conduct of his father and his tendency to revolt. These charges resulted in the Earl and Countess being arrested and removed to the restraining influence of the English Pale, and later, on some further rumours of their disloyal intentions, to their being imprisoned in the house of a magistrate in Dublin.

Shane now proceeded to make war against Ferdoragh, to whom he attributed the imprisonment of his parents. Ferdoragh relied on the assistance of the Lord Deputy, and the Lord Deputy, depending on the forces commanded by the Baron, joined him with some newly raised levies. Shane and his followers were reinforced by a body of Scots, who had made a descent upon Ulster and were ready to engage in the service of any chieftain who was ready and willing to pay for his requirements. He suddenly attacked the joint forces of the Lord Deputy and Dungannon, defeated and pursued them with considerable slaughter, and, encouraged by this success, he plundered his father's castle, ravaged his whole territory, and spread desolation through a district the fairest and most flourishing in the whole island. Repeated attempts made by the Lord Deputy to reduce him to submission were futile, and as a rule ended for the Crown in disgrace and disappointment. A new force was now in Ulster, and years elapsed before the Crown ceased to be troubled by Shane O'Neill.


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