Cáit ar ghabhadar Gaoidhil? [Where will the Irish go?]

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2007), Medieval History (pre-1500), News, Volume 15

Hugh O’Neill in exile. (John Conway)

Hugh O’Neill in exile. (John Conway)


By the end of the sixteenth century Hugh O’Neill, second earl of Tyrone, had emerged as the greatest single threat to English rule in Ireland. He took advantage of royal favour, exploited crown assaults on vulnerable Gaelic neighbours and forged strategic political and marital alliances with the O’Donnells, O’Cahans and O’Reillys to construct a powerful confederacy in Ireland that would prove an enormous political and financial threat to the Tudor dynasty. After a number of stunning successes against the cream of Elizabeth’s forces, an untimely Spanish descent on Kinsale forced O’Neill to march the length of the country to their aid from his impregnable fastnesses in Ulster in the depths of winter. Decisively defeated in a pitched battle at Kinsale by Lord Deputy Mountjoy, he retraced his steps to Dungannon and waited in vain for additional Spanish support. Assailed on all sides by land and sea, he accepted the queen’s generous terms and signed the Treaty of Mellifont three days after the death of the last Tudor monarch. Although it has received little attention in David Starkey’s numerous historical documentaries on the Tudors, the Nine Years’ War cost the parsimonious Elizabeth nearly £2,000,000—eight times more than any previous war, and as much as had been spent on all Continental wars waged during her reign. Hiram Morgan’s short article on the ‘Wild Man of the Woods’ and the ‘Hunting of the Earl of Rone’ uncovers O’Neill’s faint echo in English folklore and suggests that the Ulster earl pre-dated Judge Jeffreys and Bonaparte as a hate-figure in English folk circles. In contrast, O’Neill gained enormous prestige amongst European Catholic potentates and the wider Catholic populace. Henry IV of France named him in the triumvirate of great contemporary European generals, and his numerous victories over Protestant foes were not forgotten by aristocrats and artisans as he later made his way to Rome.
Pardoned and received at court in 1603 by the new king, James I, O’Neill nevertheless felt besieged by a rapacious coterie of new settlers who decried his lenient treatment, coveted his huge lordship and, as John McGurk shows, manipulated his underling Sir Donal Ballagh O’Cahan to further undermine his position. The relentless political and legal machinations of Lord Deputy Chichester and Attorney-General Davies, rumours of the earl’s traffic with Spain and an ominous royal summons to London ultimately precipitated the flight. O’Neill departed Ulster on 14 September 1607 along with Rory O’Donnell, earl of Tyrconnell, and Cuchonnacht Maguire, lord of Fermanagh, together with their wives, families and followers, in one of the most iconic and significant events in Irish history. The historical importance of this exodus would be difficult to overstate. In effect, this event marked the effective collapse of an independent Gaelic Ulster and paved the way for the subsequent Plantation of Ulster and Ireland’s full incorporation into the new tripartite Stuart monarchy. Raymond Gillespie shows that the servitors, soldiers and settlers who flooded into Ulster in the wake of the earls, lambasted as usurpers and interlopers in the contemporary Gaelic literature, saw themselves less as planters than as social engineers and the harbingers of King James’s self-styled policy to ‘civilise these rude parts’. They would make an indelible mark on the politics, economics and material culture of Ulster and would in turn send forth a multifaceted, trans-continental diaspora to rival their Catholic counterparts.
The ‘flight’ precipitated the emergence of an Irish Catholic military, religious and intellectual diaspora on continental Europe that made enormous contributions to the martial, academic, political and diplomatic life of seventeenth-century Ireland, Britain and Europe. Breandán Ó Buachalla, Nollaig Ó Muraíle, Hiram Morgan and Patrick Fitzgerald attest to the manner in which it has captured the imagination of Irish writers and artists: the Ulster Literati, James Clarence Mangan, Seán Ó Faoláin, Thomas Kilroy, Brian Friel, Thomas Ryan and Brian Vallely. The decade after the ‘flight’ saw a decline in the fortunes of the professional learned classes such as poets, scribes, brehons, historians, genealogists and chroniclers. The wholesale destruction of manuscripts and the carelessness of later generations have deprived us of much evidence with which we might have tabulated the extent and influence of the aos dána (learned classes). Nevertheless, the surviving material vastly outstrips that of contemporary Scotland or Wales and sheds invaluable light on contemporary Irish society. Ó Buachalla shows that the traditional conservatism often attributed to this mandarin literary caste masks their appreciation of, and reaction to, contemporary events. The doom-laden reaction to the flight, the heart-rending laments for Ireland’s sorry plight and despair at the scattering of her native aristocracy coexisted with an emerging cult of the House of Stuart.
In spite of the incessant wars and political turmoil of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Ireland witnessed a remarkable flowering of poetic, literary and scribal activity. Mícheál Mac Craith and Edel Bhreathnach show us how the Franciscan Order, operating from the Counter-Reformation powerhouses of Louvain and Rome and utilising scions of the traditional learned families such as the Uí Chléirigh, Uí Mhaoilchonaire and Uí Dhuibhgheannáin, drove this two-pronged effort to stem the tide of Protestantism and preserve the nation’s literary heritage. Throughout the reign of the first two Stuart kings, a stream of confessional and theological works, religious primers and catechisms emanated from these Continental colleges, mainly directed towards the clergy as opposed to the largely illiterate laity. They reflected the Continental training of their authors and drew heavily on contemporary post-Tridentine, Counter-Reformation works in Spanish, French, Latin and Italian.
Pivotal to the effort to preserve the nation’s literary heritage was the enormous undertaking of the compilation of Annála Ríoghachta Éireann (Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland), assembled by the Four Masters with the support of the Franciscans and the patronage of Fearghal Ó Gadhra, a Sligo nobleman. Mícheál Ó Cléirigh, the leading luminary among the quartet, also produced the Martyrology of Donegal and a revised version of the Leabhar Gabála (the Book of Invasions, comprising the origin-myths of the Gaeil). Seathrún Céitinn (Geoffrey Keating), author of Fóras Feasa ar Éirinn (‘Foundation of knowledge on Ireland’), employed his formidable pen against those Anglo-Norman and English writers such as Giraldus Cambrensis, Edmund Spenser, Richard Stanihurst, Edmund Campion, Richard Hamner and Fynes Moryson whom he dismissed as dall aineolach i dteangaibh na tíre (‘blind and ignorant in the language of the country’). This monumental work proved immensely popular, the last ‘best-seller’ in the European manuscript tradition, the first book of the old testament of Irish Catholic nationalism and the reference work for Irish poets until the nineteenth century. The first decades of the seventeenth century also witnessed a proliferation of historical works, hagiographical biographies, diaries and social commentary. These include Tadhg Ó Cianáin’s ‘Imeacht’ na nIarlaí (The ‘Flight’ of the Earls) and Lughaigh Ó Cléirigh’s Beatha Aodha Rua Uí Dhomhnaill (Life of Red Hugh O’Donnell), a heroic biography of the earl of Tír Chonaill.
Latin had always been taught, studied and readily understood in sixteenth-century Ireland, but the Irish Counter-Reformation fuelled a great industry of Hiberno-Latin learning from Cork and Donegal to Spanish Flanders, Rome, Vienna, Naples and Lisbon. In his Zoilomastix, the exiled Irish writer Philip O’Sullivan Beare lists some 86 Irish Catholic writers, and the full extent of this literary diaspora awaits the completion of the ongoing researches of Thomas O’Conor. The Jesuit schools and academies that flourished in most major towns in the 50 years after the onset of the Reformation helped to fuel this literary renaissance. For example, a grammar school presided over by Peter White, one-time graduate of Oriel College, Oxford, boasted students of the calibre of the Jesuit writer Richard Stanihurst and Peter Lombard, archbishop of Armagh and pivotal figure, as Ernan McMullin attests, in Galileo’s trial. Galway Academy, founded by Dominic Lynch, included scholars of such learning and renown as the historian, chronicler and genealogist Dubhaltach Mac Fir Bhisigh and John Lynch, archdeacon of Tuam and author of Cambrensis Eversus (1662) and Alithinologia (1662–4), rebuttals of Giraldus Cambrensis. Roderick O’Flaherty, another alumnus of this venerable academy, became a correspondent of Sir William Molyneux and the renowned Welsh Celticist Edward Lhuyd. O’Flaherty’s famous work Ogygia (1685) comprised a learned exposition of Irish Catholic loyalty to the house of Stuart and asserted the antiquity of the kingdom of Ireland. Throughout the course of the seventeenth century Luke Wadding, David Rothe, Richard Creagh, Cornelius O’Deveney, Richard Stanihurst, Richard O’Ferell, Robert O’Connell and the extraordinary literary talent of the Franciscan friars of St Anthony’s, Louvain, added to and enhanced a long and eminent tradition of history, hagiography, theology and genealogy.
Ireland’s long-lived, far-flung, multifaceted European diaspora, inspired by the monastic and scholarly traditions of Colmcille and Don Scottus Eriugena, enabled a small, peripheral, underpopulated island to box far above its weight in early modern European political, military, religious, diplomatic and literary circles.

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