The English kings justified their domination of Ireland on the ground that a hostile Continental power might at any moment use that verdant island for a flank attack upon England; and this consideration, seconding the love of power, became more active when Protestant England failed to win Ireland from the Roman Church. The Irish people, heroic and anarchic, virile and violent, poetically gifted and politically immature, resisted, every day, their subjection to an alien blood and speech.
The evils of the English occupation mounted. Under Edward III many Anglo-Irish landowners returned to England to live there in ease on Irish rents; and though the English Parliament repeatedly denounced this practice, “absentee landlordism” rose through three centuries to be a leading spur to Irish revolts. Englishmen who remained in Ireland tended to marry Irish girls, and were gradually absorbed into Irish blood and ways. Anxious to dam this racial drain, the Irish Parliament, dominated by English residents and influence, passed the famous Statute of Kilkenny (1366), which, along with some wise and generous provisions, forbade intermarriage, fosterage, or other intimate relations between the English and the Irish in Ireland, and any use, by the English, of Irish speech, customs, or dress, on pain of imprisonment and forfeiture of property. No Irishman was henceforth to be received into any English religious organization; and no Irish bards or storytellers were to enter English homes.24 These prohibitions failed; the roses in Irish cheeks outshone the majesty of the law, and racial fusion went on in that narrow March, Border, or Pale where alone the English in Ireland dared to dwell.*
During the Wars of the Roses Ireland might have expelled the English had the Irish chiefs united, but they preferred fraternal strife, sometimes encouraged thereto by English gold. Henry VII re-established English authority in the Pale, and his lord deputy, Sir Edward Poynings, pushed through the Irish Parliament the humiliating “Poynings’ Law” (1494)—that in future no Irish Parliament should be convened until all bills to be presented to it had been approved by the king and privy council of England. So emasculated, the English government in Ireland became the most incompetent, ruthless, and corrupt in Christendom. Its favorite device was to appoint one of the sixty Irish chieftains as deputy to the viceroy, and commission him to buy or subdue the rest. Gerald, eighth Earl of Kildare, so appointed, made some progress in this direction, and mitigated the intertribal lawlessness that helped English exactions to keep Ireland weak and poor. On his death (1513) his son Gerald Fitzgerald was named to succeed him as deputy. This ninth Earl of Kildare had a career typical of the Irish lords. Accused of conspiring with the Earl of Desmond to let a French force land in Ireland, he was summoned to England and committed to the Tower. On his promise faithfully to aid the English cause, Henry VIII released him and reappointed him deputy. Soon he was charged with maladministration. He was again brought to England, and again sent to the Tower, where he died within the year (1534). His devoted son, “Silken Thomas” Fitzgerald, at once declared war on the English; he fought bravely and recklessly for fourteen months, was overcome, and was hanged (1537).
By this time Henry VIII had completed his divorce from the Roman Church. With characteristic audacity he bade the Irish Parliament acknowledge him head of the Church in Ireland as well as in England. It did. An oath accepting his ecclesiastical supremacy was required of all governmental officials in Ireland, and all church tithes were henceforth to be paid to the King. Reformers entered the churches in the Pale, and demolished religious relics and images. All monasteries but a remote few were closed, their property was taken by the government, their monks were dismissed with pensions if they made no fuss. Some of the spoils were distributed among the Irish chieftains; so oiled, most of them accepted titles of nobility from the English King, acknowledged his religious supremacy, and abjured the pope (1539).25 The clan system was abolished, and Ireland was declared a kingdom, with Henry as king (1541).
Henry was victorious, but mortal; he died within five years of his triumph. Catholicism in Ireland survived. The chieftains took their apostasy as a passing incident in politics; they continued to be Catholics (as Henry did) except for ignoring the pope; and the priests whose ministrations they supported and received remained quietly orthodox. The faith of the people underwent no change; or rather it took on new vigor because it maintained the pride of nationality against a schismatic king and, later, a Protestant queen. The struggle for freedom became more intense than before, since now it spoke for body and soul.