Ireland had been conquered by the English in 1169–71, and had been held ever since on the ground that otherwise it would be used by France or Spain as a base for attacks on England. At Elizabeth’s accession direct English rule in Ireland was confined to the eastern coast—”the Pale”—around and south of Dublin; the rest of the island was governed by Irish chieftains only nominally acknowledging English sovereignty. The perennial conflict with the English disrupted the tribal administration that had given Ireland chaos and violence, but also poets, scholars, and saints. Most of the land was left to woods and bogs; transport and communication were heroic enterprises, and the native Celtic population of some 800,000 souls lived in a half-lawless misery on the edge of barbarism. The English in the Pale were almost as poor, and they made Elizabeth’s problem worse by debauchery, peculation, and crime; they robbed the London government as sedulously as they plundered the Irish peasantry. Throughout the reign English settlers drove Irish proprietors and tenants from “clearances”; the dispossessed fought back with assassinations; and life for conquerors and conquered alike became a persisting fever of force and hate.. Cecil himself thought that “the Flemings had not such cause to rebel against the oppression of the Spaniards” as the Irish against English rule.91
Elizabeth’s Irish policy was based on the conviction that a Catholic Ireland would be a peril to a Protestant England. She ordered a full enforcement of Protestantism throughout the island. Mass was prohibited, the monasteries were closed; public worship ceased outside the narrow Pale. Priests survived in hiding, and administered the sacraments furtively to a few. Morality, deprived of both religion and peace, almost disappeared; murder, theft, adultery, and rape flourished, and men changed wives without grudge or qualm. Irish leaders appealed to the popes and Philip II for protection or aid. Philip feared to invade Ireland, lest the English should invade and help the rebellious Netherlands, but he established centers and colleges for Irish refugees in Spain. Pius IV sent to Ireland an Irish Jesuit, David Wolfe (1560); with the courage and devotion characteristic of his order, Wolfe established clandestine missions, brought in other disguised Jesuits, and restored Catholic piety and hope. The chieftains took heart, and one after another rose in revolt against English rule.
The most powerful of them was Shane (i.e., John) O’Neill of Tyrone. Here was such a man as legend could sing of and Irishmen could fight for. He fiercely defended his title of the O’Neill against a usurping brother. He ignored the Commandments and adored the Church. He foiled all English efforts to subdue him, risked his head to visit London and win Elizabeth’s alliance and support, and returned in triumph to rule Ulster as well as Tyrone. He fought the rival O’Donnell clan ferociously, was finally defeated by it (1567), and was killed when he took refuge with the MacDonnells, Scottish immigrants whose settlement at Antrim he had formerly attacked.
The history of Ireland after his death was a parade of rebellions, massacres, and lords deputy. Sir Henry Sidney, father of Sir Philip, served Elizabeth faithfully in that ungrateful office for nine years. He joined in defeating O’Neill, hunted Rory O’More to the death, and was recalled (1578) because of the high cost of his victories. In two years as Lord Deputy, Walter Devereux, first Earl of Essex, distinguished himself by a massacre on the island of Rathlin, off the Antrim coast. Thither the rebel MacDonnells had sent for safety their wives and children, their aged and ailing, with a protective guard. Essex dispatched a force to capture the island. The garrison offered to surrender if they might be allowed to sail for Scotland; the offer was refused; they surrendered unconditionally; they and the women and children, the sick and the old, numbering six hundred, were put to the sword (1575).92
The great revolt of the reign was that of the Geraldine clan in Munster. After many captivities and escapes, James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald crossed to the Continent, raised a troop of Spaniards, Italians, Portuguese, Flemings, and English Catholic emigrés, and landed them on the coast of Kerry (1579), only to lose his life in an incidental war with another clan. His cousin Gerald Fitzgerald, fifteenth Earl of Desmond, carried on the revolt, but the neighboring Butler clan, under the Protestant Earl of Ormonde, declared for England. The Catholics of the Pale organized an army and defeated the levies of the new Lord Deputy, Arthur, Lord Grey (1580). Reinforced, Grey beseiged Desmond’s main force by land and sea on a promontory in Smerwick Bay. Finding themselves defenseless against Grey’s artillery, the six hundred surviving rebels surrendered and begged for mercy; all were slaughtered, women and men, except for officers who could promise substantial ransoms.93 The war of English against Irish, and of clan against clan, so ravaged Munster that (said an Irish chronicler) “the lowing of a cow, or the voice of a plowman, was not to be heard that year from Dingle to the Rock of Cashel”; and an Englishman wrote (1582) that “there hath died by famine … thirty thousand in Munster in less than half a year, besides others that are hanged and killed.”94 For “to kill an Irishman in that province,” wrote a great English historian, “was thought no more of than to kill a mad dog.”95 Almost denuded of Irish, Munster was divided into plantations for English settlers (1586)—one of them Edmund Spenser, who there completed The Faerie Queene.
The desperate Irish rose again in 1593. Hugh O’Donnell, Lord of Tyrconnel, joined forces with Hugh O’Neill, second Earl of Tyrone. Spain, now at open war with England, promised help. In an interregnum between lords deputy, O’Neill routed an English army at Armagh, captured Blackwater, an English stronghold in the north (1598), and sent a force to renew the Munster revolt. The English colonists fled, abandoning their plantations. Hope and joy spread in Ireland, and even the English expected that Dublin itself would fall.
It was in this crisis that Elizabeth appointed the youthful Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, as her Lord Deputy in Ireland (March 1599). She gave him an army of 17,500 men—the greatest that England had ever sent to the island. She bade him attack O’Neill in Tyrone, make no peace without consulting her, and not return without her permission. Arrived in Dublin, he dallied through the spring, undertook a few skirmishes, let his army waste away with disease, signed an unauthorized truce with O’Neill, and returned to England (September 1599) to explain his failure to the Queen. Quickly replacing him, Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, faced with courage and skill a combination of tricky O’Neill, fearless O’Donnell, and a fleet landing at Kinsale with troops and arms from Spain and indulgences from Clement VIII for all who would defend Ireland and the faith. Mountjoy rushed south to meet the Spaniards, and defeated them so decisively that O’Neill submitted; the revolt collapsed, and a general amnesty brought a precarious peace (1603). Meanwhile Elizabeth had died.
Her record in Ireland subtracted from her glory. She underestimated the difficulty of conquering, in an almost roadless country, a people whose love of their land and their faith was their only bond to life and decency. She scolded her deputies for failures that were due in part to her own parsimony; they were unable to pay their troops, who found it more profitable to rob the Irish than to fight them. She vacillated between truce and terror, and never followed one policy to a decision. She founded Trinity College and Dublin University (1591), but she left the people of Ireland as illiterate as before. After the expenditure of £10,000,000, the peace achieved was a desert of desolation over half the lovely isle, and, over all of it, a spirit of unspeakable hatred that only bided its time to kill and devastate again.