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The History of Ulster
State of Ulster: Civil and Military


Fitz William again Deputy - State of the Army - Violence and Greed of the Soldiery - Wretchedness of the People - Ulster as described by a Survivor of the Armada - An Avaricious, Cruel Viceroy - His Treacherous Conduct towards Two Ulster Chieftains - MacMahon is betrayed and judicially murdered by him.

Perrot was succeeded by Sir William FitzWilliam, who had filled the position of Deputy sixteen years previously, during an interval in Sidney's viceroyalty. At the date of his appointment (1588) the English Government apparently enjoyed an uncontested supremacy in Ireland, and the Irish seem to have temporarily laid aside any design of insurrection or hope of foreign succour. The Spaniards who, after the defeat of the Armada, were wrecked upon the western coasts were treated as enemies; the only Irish chief who received them as friends was transferred to London and executed. In Munster the natives had been crushed, and in Ulster the power of the 6'Neills was paralysed.

The state of the army has already been referred to as disgraceful from an economic point of view; it now became outrageous from a political. The troops of this period were not restrained by a rigid discipline; they were accustomed to look upon plunder and free quarters as portion of their remuneration; their officers in money matters were not trained to a high standard of honour and honesty; the pay of privates was generally scandalously in arrear. Soldiers of this description were scattered in small detachments throughout the country with very little duty to perform, and living among the Irish, whom they had been taught to despise as an inferior race. They looked upon the natives as their legitimate prey.

This is a picture of the times when the conduct of the troops became a subject of enquiry: "The horse companies, in passing through the Pale, every man hath double horses, some officers treble; each of them one boy, some of them two; travelling not four miles in the day and that not directly, but crossing the country to and fro wasting with their lingering journeys the inhabitants' corn excessively with their horses, and their goods with their extortion. The foot companies likewise observing the same course in travelling, most commonly not above two or three miles in the day, though their appointed garrisons be not ten miles off, yet do they go thirty miles about, being followed and accompanied as they go through the Pale, each soldier with his boy at least, and for a great part with their women, and many horses as well of their own as of the country, taken violently from their owners to carry them, their children, and women; pleasing themselves at their pleasures; exacting meat and drink far more than competent, and, commonly, money from them; their boys, women, and followers, much exceeding the people's ability, taking money for their officers after a double rate, whereof among every seven and eight soldiers they affirm commonly to have one.

"And if there be any wanting of a full company as commonly in these journies, and all other cases tending to the country's charge, there be rather more than under, though at all other times far fewer than due then are the numbers, which they report to be absent, said to be employed in necessary causes, and they which are present do oftentimes take up money for the diet of them pretended to be absent.

"And if they be not satisfied with meat and money according to their outrageous demands, then do they beat their poor horses and their people, ransacking their houses, taking away cattle and goods of all sorts, not leaving so much as the tools and instruments that craftsmen do exercise their occupations withal, nor the garments to their backs, nor clothes to their beds; so as, at their next meeting places, there are to be found many times such plentiful store of household stuff, or what else they could carry or drive away with them, as at ordinary markets; which, if the owners did not redeem at the will of the takers, then are they sold and dispersed in such sort as they that owned them shall never come by them again.

"And if any do withstand or gainsay such their inordinate wills, then they do not only exercise all the cruelty they can against them, in far worse sort than before, in nature of a revenge, so as whosoever resisteth their will shall be sure to have nothing left him, if he can escape with his life.

"This course of ranging and extorting her silly people is become so common and gainful, as that many other soldiers (as is said) have no other entertainment from their captains; and many others that are not soldiers, pretending to be of some company or other, have, in like outrageous sort, ranged up and down the country, spoiling and robbing the subjects, as if they were rebels. And most certain it is that the rebels themselves, pretending to be soldiers, and knowing how gainful the course, have often played the like parts, unbeknown to the poor people, who live in such awe of the soldiers, as they dare not resist any that take upon them that profession. So as, of all sides, the poor subjects go so miserably to wreck, as no tongue or pen can at full express.

"At other times the garrisons oppress the inhabitants without cause, consuming wastefully and needless such provisions as people make for relief of themselves and their families, and in misusing of their persons, in such wise as the poor creatures, being thereby deprived of food and rest, together with the spoils of the rebels, are forced to forsake their houses, which out of hand are plucked down, and the timber therefore burned in garrisons; which waste is made the more grievous that the inheritors or inhabitants of those waste places are forced to carry the timber of their houses to be burned; the soldiers leaving no trees, fruitful or otherwise, unspoiled; the planters and preservers, with heavy hearts, looking on their long labours and expectations thus defaced and brought to so uncomfortable an event.

"Many companies appointed to lie in garrisons, and victualled with your Highness's store, when the same is near at an end, and sometimes before, pretending want, and not procuring or having care of supply from your Highness's victualler, from whom they are to have the same, issue forth into the country where they list, taking beeves or what else they pretend to want, at their own pleasures, far exceeding any ordinary or competent portion, whereof some part they restore for money, and the rest use as they will, thinking all they do lawful, for they give their tickets, which many times they deny.

"And if the owners of the goods prefer to stay the same, as some have done, demanding by what authority or warrant their goods are thus violently taken from them, their common answer is that their drum and colours is a sufficient warrant. Then, if the owners seem not to be satisfied, they may be assaulted, and as vigorously used as if they were disobedient and disloyal subjects.

"Upon complaint exhibited unto the state for other the abuses of soldiers, proclamation was sent forth that in their thoroughfare, upon pain of death, they should not exact the country, but take such meat and drink as the inhabitants could afford them, giving ready money or their officers' tickets for the same ; and if they did otherwise, then it should be lawful to sheriffs, justices of the peace, and others to apprehend and commit the soldiers so offending to the shire gaol, or failing thereof, to present their names, that they might inflict such punishment on them as their misdemeanour and abuses did merit."

Such was the state of the army in Ireland at this period. When we reflect on the misery, poverty, and degradation of the inhabitants resulting from the rude licence given to a lawless and savage soldiery, the picture drawn of an Irish household at the same period does not appear to be painted in too squalid colours. Here is a vivid description of an Irish household as given by one of the survivors from a vessel belonging to the Armada wrecked in Donegal Bay:

"The habit of those savages is to live like brutes in the mountains, which are very rugged in the part of Ireland where we were lost. They dwell in thatched cabins. The men are well-made, with good features, and as active as deer. They eat but one meal, and that late at night, oat-cake and butter being their usual food. They drink sour milk because they have nothing else, for they use no water, though they have the best in the world. At feasts it is their custom to eat half- cooked meat without bread or salt. Their dress matches themselves tight breeches, and short loose jackets of very coarse texture; over all they wear blankets, and their hair comes over their eyes. They are great walkers and stand much work, and by continually fighting they keep the Queen's English soldiers out of their country, which is nothing but bogs for forty miles either way.

"Their great delight is robbing one another, so that no day passes without fighting, for whenever the people of one hamlet know that those of another possess cattle or other goods, they immediately make a night attack and kill each other. When the English garrisons find out who has lifted the most cattle, they come down on them, and they have but to retire to the mountains with their wives and herds, having no houses or furniture to lose.

"They sleep on the ground upon rushes full of water and ice. Most of the women are very pretty, but badly got up, for they wear only a shift and a mantle, and a great linen cloth on the head, rolled over the brow. They are great workers and housewives in their way. These people call themselves Christians and say Mass. They follow the rule of the Roman Church, but most of their churches, monasteries, and hermitages are dismantled by the English soldiers, and by their local partisans, who are as bad as themselves.

"In short there is no order nor justice in the country, and everyone does that which is right in his own eyes. The savages are well affected to us Spaniards, because they realize that we are attacking the heretics and are their great enemies. If it was not for those natives who kept us as if belonging to themselves, not one of our people would have escaped. We owe them a good turn for that, though they were the first to rob and strip us when we were cast ashore."

Of the ships which belonged to the Armada the majority wrecked on the Irish coast were wrecked on the western side. Of those wrecked on the coast of Ulster three appear to have been lost in Donegal Bay, near Killybegs, and one in Lough Foyle. It is difficult to estimate the number of men who escaped being "drowned, killed, and taken", but, judging from the list of the ships and their crews, there must have been about 2000 alive in Donegal, and it is said that 500 Spaniards escaped from Ulster to Scotland, "miserable, ragged creatures, utterly spoiled by the Irishry".

A commission was issued by FitzWilliam to search for the treasure which these Spaniards were supposed to have brought; but none, of course, could be found, and the Deputy, not content with this result, resolved to visit the locality himself, "in hopes to finger some of it". He determined to deal very severely with those chiefs who had countenanced the Spaniards. Tyrone had done what he could for the unhappy wretches by sending them provisions. A thousand Spaniards, under an officer named Antonio de Leva, had found refuge with O'Rourke and MacSweeny of the Battle-axes, the foster-father of young Hugh Roe O'Donnell, and were urged to recommence hostilities, but before doing so they determined to return for orders to Spain. The vessel on which they embarked went down with all on board within sight of the Irish coast.

The MacSweenys all helped the Spaniards, as also did O'Dogherty, while O'Rourke gave them arms. When they became aware of the Lord Deputy's approach they knew well the object of his visit, and sought safety, some by flight, some by putting on a bold front. O'Rourke and MacSweeny preferred not to meet FitzWilliam, but Sir John O'Dogherty came to meet him, and so did Sir John O'Gallagher. The result of this interview, about which there is some mystery, was that the Deputy seized these two chiefs ("two of the most loyal subjects in Ulster") and threw them into prison in Dublin castle. The latter died from the rigour of his imprisonment, and the former remained two years in captivity, and owed his liberation in the end to the payment of a large bribe to the corrupt Viceroy, who, on taking office, had solicited a reward for his services in his former administration, and had received an answer that "the position of an Irish Lord Deputy was an honourable one and should challenge no reward".

There is no doubt that FitzWilliam was both mean and avaricious, and it is equally true that he was cruel and treacherous. His action with regard to O'Gallagher and O'Dogherty set up a barrier of bitter hatred and distrust between the Irish and the Government, and further acts of a like nature intensified these feelings. One of these glaring acts of injustice was in connection with the estate of a Monaghan chieftain named Rossa MacMahon, who, having abandoned the principle of tanistry, and taken a re-grant of his territory from Elizabeth by English tenure, died without male issue. The dead chiefs brother, Hugh Roe MacMahon, repaired to Dublin to have his claims as heir-at-law admitted.

His claim was perfectly legal, but nevertheless he found that a bribe to the venal Viceroy was necessary, and that the gift of 600 cattle would meet the case. On a point of difference, that some cows out of the number stipulated were missing, MacMahon was imprisoned; but when, later, matters were adjusted, and his claim to his brother's property admitted, he was released, and accompanied the Deputy to Monaghan, in order to get possession. Arrived in Monaghan, FitzWilliam had MacMahon suddenly arrested on a charge of treason, giving as his reason that, two years before, he had employed an armed force to recover rents due to him. MacMahon was tried by a jury composed of private soldiers, some of whom, being Irish, were imprisoned and kept without food until they agreed to see the merits of the case from the Deputy's point of view; while the English soldiers, having agreed to convict, were at liberty. The result was that, within two days of his arrest, the unfortunate MacMahon was tried, convicted, and hanged in front of his own door.

Nor was this all. FitzWilliam, who had come north in order to be free to deal with the case by martial law, now hastened to partition the vast estates of the murdered man. According to instructions with regard to the possessions of persons who were executed (see p. 250), the Lord Deputy sold a portion of the estates to Sir Henry Bagenal, the Marshal at Newry; MacMahon's chief residence and some lands became the property of Captain Henslowe, who was appointed seneschal; and the bulk of the property was, on payment of (4 a good fine underhand", divided amongst four of the MacMahon sept, subject to an annual rent to the Queen.

Such was law and justice in Ireland under the administration of FitzWilliam. Of course the Lord Deputy, when accused of acting corruptly in this case, denied the charge. "I did it", he said, "to the profit of her Majesty and good of this State, nothing regarding mine own private; I speak it in the presence of God, by whom I hope to be saved . . . if ever there was such a motion or meaning for me, or for any of mine, let God wipe us all out of His Book." With which solemn declaration before us, we fear, at this distance of time, even the most sceptical must rest, if not content, at least prepared to say that possibly this is a case in which there were faults on both sides.


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