The Elizabethan mind found the native Irish - described as "mere" in the sense of pure rather than inferior - incomprehensible, and rapidly took refuge in the analysis of barbarism. How could the Irish be both savage and subtle? Both warlike and lazy? At once evidently "inferior" yet possessed of an ungovernable pride? Cowardly, yet of legendary fortitude in the face of death? Socially primitive, but capable of complex litigation? These were the questions that presented English observers with a constant conundrum. The poet Edmund Spenser, himself an English settler in Ireland, witnessed the execution of Murrough O Brien at Limerick, and saw how "an old woman, which was his foster-mother, took up his head whilst he was quartered, and sucked up all the blood running thereout, saying that the earth was not worthy to drink it ...". By Spenser's standards, to behead and quarter Murrough was not barbarous, but to drink his blood was barbarous, and invited such further beheadings and quarterings as might be necessary to put an end to such practices and establish a civil Ireland. To Fynes Moryson, chief secretary to Mountjoy in Ireland from 1600 to 1603, even the names they held "rather seemed the names of devouring giants than Christian subjects." They were dirty, lazy, dishonest and violent. Their laws were unethical and inequitable. Yet these "corrupt customs" had invariably fascinated and drawn in the English who settled in Ireland, "degenerating" them. For this reason, the forms of Irish social and legal life were the subject of much adverse commentary.
Society was based on the "tuath", a tribal or kindred unit of land, not usually more than 300 or 400 square miles. "Clans" did not exist in the Scots sense of areas homogeneously populated by one family. Identity and coherence were dictated by commitment to the land; some kings ritually "wedded" their domains, like Venetian doges. Within the tuath, chieftain, freemen and serfs sustained a mobile structure of client relationships; these were replicated in the links between chieftains and their overlords. There were parallels with feudalism but the great and significant difference, emblematic of all that seemed odd in Irish society, was the contractual and terminable nature of such arrangements. The ultimate nature of authority was essentially temporary; a chieftain had no right of inheritance in his land, which passed by election among his kindred within a four-generation family group. This was the system of "tanistry" so condemned by English observers. A client could attach himself for protection, by a money payment, to a chieftain outside his tuath whereas a chieftain's freedom of action was actually restricted by reliance on levies, as well as dependence on ritual observance (only an O Cahan, for instance, could inaugurate an O Neill). Fluidity, in a word, ruled. Though local autonomies were vital, the main social and institutional features of the Celtic system were surprisingly consistent over the country as a whole.
What struck English observers was the impermanence of a structure where the social foundations of authority and even property were redefined in every generation. They rationalized this as anarchy. In fact, while raiding of rivals was frequent, and violence could erupt at the great gatherings held twice a year to transact business, Gaelic society was well adapted to the mobile Irish way of life and to the powerful Irish sense of family. It was an aristocratic culture, where the lowborn were of little account, and where a chief's authority was sustained by a complex, archaic and variable system of levies and taxation in kind, which presented yet another obstacle to the imposition of English systems. If it was a violent society, the violence was ritualized with certain sophistication. The tradition of war as sport went back to the great cattle raids of Celtic storytelling; and Irish warfare was fairly limited, elitist and restricted. The anarchy that might seem implied by Irish social and legal practice was held in check by the power of tradition, respect for the legal classes and the authority of effective overlords. The "Life of Red Hugh O Donnell" is a contemporary text that reflects the beau ideal of Celtic sovereignty; it thus describes the first year of Red Hugh's kingship in 1592: "He proceeded to govern his principality as was right, preventing theft and evil deeds, banishing rogues and robbers, executing everyone who was plundering and robbing, so that it was not necessary for each one to take care of his herds of cattle but only to bed them down on straw and litter, and the country was without guard or protector, without plundering one by the other, and two enemies slept in the one bed, for fear did not allow them to remember their wrongs against each other. Hugh passed the first year in the very beginning of his sovereignty having large followings, holding meetings, being generous, joyous, roaming, restless, quarrelsome, aggressive, and he was advancing every year in succession till the end of his life came." There were also law-enforcement mechanisms of local custom, at least one of which would have a very long-lived resonance indeed. This was the practice of "fasting upon" an enemy to force him to arbitration - in effect, going on a hunger strike outside his door.
The society, as we have seen, revolved around the laws of the tuath - a commitment to extended family groupings that carried great emotional charge. Thus, though the Irish practice of fostering out their children into other families had parallels in contemporary England, what struck observers was the exceptional depth of the bond created: foster-brothers owed each other a deeper commitment than natural siblings. The family could thus be extended in deliberate directions: another mechanism to this end was the custom of "naming" fathers, whereby a woman might claim paternity, often noble, for her child at any stage of his minority. The convention of tanistry, the election of leaders, might be interpreted in this context, too, with the organization of the family group strengthening itself through redefinition in every generation. But in English eyes the whole system looked like a celebration of anarchy.
The same description would fit the English perception of the Irish legal system, the Brehon laws. These were practiced by a hereditary caste of jurists, a concept that infuriated professionally minded English observers. With their archaic divinations of pragmatic principles and their complex system of fines, the Brehon laws imposed a powerful obstacle to the spread of English law; they sustained an underground existence even in post-Elizabethan times and represented an intuitive, archaic and subtle pattern of life.
To some observers, the foreign nature of this society was appealing, with its wild, often beautiful scenery and style of life both convivial and bizarre. The harpists, storytellers, even the professional gamblers, imparted an exotic flavour to travels in Gaelic lands. This exoticism further manifested itself in long hair, curious jewellery, and flowing clothes, although some saw Irish trews and the uncorseted dress of the women as a deliberate flaunting of sexual temptations. Such judgements, especially regarding the behaviour of women, were affected by English reactions to the fact that Irish women drank alcohol, presided at feasts and - to English discomfiture - greeted strangers with a social kiss. They could keep their own names after marriage, and divorce was easy under Brehon law, with damages materialistically reckoned. The prevalence of probationary marriage and voluntary affiliation ("naming" a father) also conditioned English impressions; marriage and kinship were not what they were in England. There was no taboo on sexual relations within degrees of affinity that would have been frowned upon by English law (or Roman Catholic practice: Jesuits in Ireland found themselves issuing many dispensations on this score). All agreed that, though Irish children were brought up without discipline, Irish women were authoritative within the home, and often outside it; but though some believed sexual licence was common among married women, which surprised one observer "on account of the climate", others found Irish women unreserved but chaste. By and large, observers emphasized national characteristics of sensuality and vehemence.
These qualities were celebrated by the great tradition of Irish bardic culture: the poets sang of heroes and love, which to the English looked like glorifying robbery and licentiousness. Culture seemed to work against civility, wrote Moryson: "Alas! How unlike unto Orpheus, who, with his sweet harp and wholesome precepts of poetry, laboured to reduce the rude and barbarous people from living in woods to dwell civilly in towns and cities, and from wild riot to moral conversation!" The perverseness of bardic influence was all the more infuriating to the English because of the extent of their social power. A thirteenth century poet remarked that immortality was conferred by poets rather than by gods, and this attitude remained. The practice of poetry provided a more everyday power, too, as borne out by an incident of 1599 matter of factly described in the contemporary "Life of Red Hugh O Donnell". O Donnell's army, travelling through Thomond, takes some cattle from the land of the poet Maolin Og, as from everybody else through whose lands they passed. The poet comes to O Donnell, "displays his knowledge and talent in the presence of the prince", and recites him a poem: "recompense for his cattle and flocks was given to the poet with an increase and he took leave of O Donnell and left him his blessing".
Like Brehons, and even doctors, the craft of poetry was hereditary; the presentation of the poetry was archaic and formal, though it retained a devastating directness of expression. By 1600 the poets were capable of attaching themselves to Old English patrons; some of the poetry of this period is even composed by Old English poets. They could be hired to write against the native Irish, and some were cynically prepared to do so. This was a real power: if O Donnell had not restored Maolin Og's cattle to him, and had not left with his blessing, the alternative would have been very serious indeed. A bardic attack was not so much a satire as a curse in verse; so much feared were the poets that some Elizabethan observers thought they were possessed of occult powers.
Exotic social behaviour, bizarre familial customs, the seemingly magical power of poetry - all predisposed the English to view the Irish as pagan; and the state of the Church in Ireland seemed to bear them out. It is a commonplace that the Romans never colonized Ireland; but the more germane point to make is that while Christianity had affected religion, it had not moulded social structure. Priests in Ireland enjoyed respect and status, but social authority lay in other hands. (The Jesuit officers of the Counter-Reformation, already active in Ireland by 1600, found Gaelic Catholicism in some ways unrecognizable.) The Irish interpretation of Catholicism had been adhered to, and Protestantism not much noticed; traditions of asceticism, monasticism and popular respect for the clergy were well adapted to maintaining the old faith - the laxity of local priests notwithstanding. Church lands were part of the archaic structure of landholding, devolving upon episcopal tenants with powerful local families. Moreover, under the Tudors the Reformed Church was inseparably connected with the Anglicizing process. It was generally accepted that the Celtic identity went with a lax and archaic Catholicism. Protestantism never really took root; though in making the point, it should not be forgotten how cautious and uneven the dissemination of the Reformation was, even in England. Ireland could in some ways be seen simply as an extreme case.
Religion would become one conduit of anti-English feeling, and eventually of national identity. The Irish language was in a similar position. Moryson found an antipathy among the Irish to speaking English, even when they could: at an earlier stage of rebellion (1566-67), Shane O Neill was too proud "to writhe his mouth in clattering English". It could be an index of loyalty; O Donnell, invading Connacht in 1595, "spared no male between fifteen and sixty years old who was unable to speak Irish". To speak the language was seen early on as an anti-English identification. In addition, the Celtic identity held to its old modes of clerical learning. Moryson remarks in an aside: "I have seen the chief of a sept ride, with a gentleman of his own name (and so learned he spoke Latin) running barefooted by his stirrup". What struck him was the indignity borne by the "gentleman"; but bare feet mattered less in Ireland, and it seems more noteworthy to us that he spoke Latin. John Harrington (translator of Ariosto's "Orlando Furioso", 1591) provides a more celebrated vignette: the ideal picture of Hugh O Neill entertaining at a "fern table and fern forms, spread under the stately canopy of heaven", discussing Ariosto with his guest, his little sons and their tutor. Stanishurst (fl. 1580s) shows us Irish students sprawled out on straw, learning "to speak Latin like a vulgar language". Alternative educational processes helped reinforce alternative patterns of thought, and drove the wedge between English and Irish perceptions even deeper. A failure of communication established itself early on; that awkward English-Irish interaction that the novelist Elizabeth Bowen would later describe as "a mixture of showing-off and suspicion, worse than sex".
The Tudor state, preoccupied by the priority of uniformity, could not stomach the complex, intuitive and protean way of life of the native Irish. Though it was certainly archaic and inadequate in many ways, judged as an effective form of social organization, it also had qualities of dynamism and sophistication that might have made it capable of adaptation. But by 1600 the gulf was too wide for that.
The strength of England's reaction against Ireland's lack of "civility" stemmed partly from Protestantism, partly from English nationalism, and partly from the spice of attraction mixed with the repulsion roused by what John Derrick (fl. 1578) called "their wild shamrock manners". Irish mores could be useful to the conquest, as in the easy alliance of chiefs against each other: the English ambition was, after all, to create a stable landowning aristocracy as well as English law and a docile Church. But more potent was, first, the dangerous fascination that wild shamrock manners had for those who had settled in the country; and second, the fact that the picture of Irish habits observed by English visitors coincided with contemporary anthropological ideas of savagery.
Thus Celtic society was measured against a standard of outlandish reference, providing an index of comparison for observation of American Indians and Africans on the Gambia River. The English saw the world of cattle raids, Brehons and poets as arrogantly archaic and deliberately mystifying; a world at once bogus and perverse, which could only be civilized by plantation. Moryson and Spenser tried to find classical and barbarian parallels for the Irish, the Scythians being a particular favourite, but comparisons were usually less dignified. Moryson compared staying with the Irish to venturing into a wild beast's cave, where any other animal "might perhaps find meat, but not without danger to be ill entertained, perhaps devoured of his insatiable host". Others, like Harrington, were obviously attracted to the strange country in which they found themselves. There was an heroic, bizarre, seductive and oddly subtle twist to Irish life, echoed, some thought, in the natives' misplaced admiration for sophistry.
It was felt by many that country and people were attractive enough for "civility" to become established. Stanishurst, anti-Gaelic in 1577, had changed his views by 1584; by then, he wanted to clear up erroneous ideas "that the Irish have cast off all humanity, that they wander scattered and dispersed through very dense woods, and generally that they live unrestrainedly in a rough and uncivilized fashion". In a less committed mould, however, there was still at the end of the sixteenth century, a strain in Tudor official thought regarding Ireland that was moderate, if assimilationist. But those on the ground - Humphrey Gilbert, who had completed the ruthless pacification of Munster in 1569; the legendary Lord Grey de Wilton, who had massacred the garrison at Smerwick in 1580; even Sir John Perrot, Lord Deputy in 1584 - implicitly argued for extirpating the unstable elements of Irish society. This is reflected in the nature of Elizabethan warfare, which took a horrific toll of civilians in order to deprive the Irish of food, succour and recruits. The scorched-earth policy in Munster after the Desmond wars in the early 1580s called forth Spenser's famous and chilling description of the rebel remnant: "out of every corner of the woods and glens they came, creeping forth upon their hands, for their legs would not bear them. They looked like anatomies of death; they spake like ghosts crying out of their graves". The description, it should be noted, is given in praise of the effectiveness of Spenser's preferred form of warfare. Irish life was seen by many of the "civilizers" as of little account. Theoretical suggestions were being made in 1599 for transferring the Irish population as a whole to provide a helot class in England; and when Mountjoy was appointed Lord Deputy in 1600, his plan was to make Ireland "a razed table" upon which the Elizabethan state could transcribe a neat pattern. An otherwise humane man, he devastated Ulster in 1601; the ensuing descriptions of starvation and cannibalism made unbearable reading even then. The strategy was spoliation: "when plough and breeding of cattle shall cease, then will the rebellion end".
The concept of the Irish as savages to be civilized or exterminated had in some quarters taken root, and the grisly sportiveness of the elder Essex's massacre on Rathlin Island in 1575 bears this out. By 1600, anti-Catholicism was strongly reinforcing the "civilizing" ethos: the Irish were pagan as well as savage. Moryson produced an argument, in rather defensive terms, that blamed Irish ills on Gaelic perverseness: "They abhor from all things that agree with English civility. Would any man judge these to be born of English parents, or will any man blame us for not esteeming or employing them as English who scorn to be so reputed?" But the results of such an approach troubled some of his contemporaries. Francis Bacon, for one, was advising, even in 1602, that the Irish be treated evenhandedly and impartially, "as if they were one nation" with England. This would remain the panacea of reforming unionists throughout the history of the troubled connection. But it begged the question of different kinds of Irishness, and of the enduring and influential nature of the Celtic inheritance. For Ireland, like Marco Polo's China, would prove time and again "a sea that salts all rivers that run into it."
English observations about the native society they found in Ireland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries give us a glimpse into the way of life of the last of the Celtic tribes under their own rulers. By the close of the seventeenth century the English conquest of Ireland was complete and an ancient way of life had been destroyed, lingering on in fragments into our own age in isolated and inaccessible pockets of the country. The memory of what had been taken from them remained with the people: Ireland was never to reconcile itself to English rule. That, however, is another story.