From A Discovery of the True Causes Why Ireland Was Never Entirely Subdued

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FromA Discovery of the True Causes Why Ireland Was Never Entirely Subdued


Sir John Davies

Sir John Davies was a lawyer whose poetry also served to make him famous. Under James I he was appointed solicitor-general for Ireland (1603) and later attorney general (1606). In the latter capacity he inspected the courts in the country and helped to establish the Ulster Plantation. In 1613 he became speaker of the Irish House of Commons. In this treatise, one of the most important on Ireland from the Jacobean period, Davies seeks to show that failure to sweep away Irish laws and customs has resulted in a division of the country. This extract deals with Irish customs, social conventions, and institutions.

SEE ALSO Brehon Law; Colonial Theory from 1500 to 1690; English Writing on Ireland before 1800; Legal Change in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

For, if we consider the Nature of the Irish customes, wee shall finde that the people which doth use them must of necessitie be rebels to all good government, destroy the commonwealth wherein they live, and bring Barbarisme and desolation upon the richest and most fruitful Land of the world. For, whereas by the just and Honourable Law of England, & by the Lawes of all other well-governed Kingdomes and Commonweals, Murder, Manslaughter, Rape, Robbery, and Theft are punished with death; By the Irish Custome, or Brehon Law, the highest of these offences was punished only by Fine, which they call an Ericke [Mod. Ir. éiric]. Therefore, when Sir William Fitzwilliams, being Lord Deputy, told Maguyre that he was to send a sheriffe into Fermanaugh, being lately before made a County, Your sheriffe (sayde Maguyre) shall be welcome to me; but let me knowe his Ericke, or the price of his head, aforehand; that if my people cut it off I may cut the Ericke upon the Countrey. As for the Oppression, Extortion, and other trespasses, the weaker had never anie remedy against the stronger: whereby it came to passe that no man coulde enjoy his Life, his Wife, his Lands, or Goodes in safety if a mightier man than himselfe had an appetite to take the same from him. Wherein they were little better than Canniballes, who doe hunt one another, and hee that hath most strength and swiftnes doth eate and devoure all his fellowes.

Againe, in England and all well ordered Commonweales men have certaine estates in their Lands & Possessions, and their inheritances discend from Father to Son, which doth give them encouragement to builde and to plant and to improove their Landes, and to make them better for their posterities. But by the Irish Custom of Tanistry the cheefetanes of every Countrey and the chiefe of every Sept had no longer estate then for life in their Cheeferies, the inheritance whereof did rest in no man. And these Cheeferies, though they had some portions of land alloted unto them, did consist chiefly in cuttings and Cosheries, and other Irish exactions, whereby they did spoyle and impoverish the people at their pleasure: And when their chieftanes were dead their sonnes or next heires did not succeede them, but their Tanistes, who were Elective and purchased their elections by stronge hand; And by the Irish Custome of gavellkinde, the inferior Tennantries were partible amongst all Males on the Sept, both Bastards and Legittimate; and after partition made, if any one of the Sept had died, his portion was not divided among his Sonnes, but the cheefe of the Sept made a new partition of all Lands belonging to that Sept, and gave evere one his part according to his antiquity.

These two Irish Customes made all their possessions uncertain, being shuffled, and changed, and removed so often from one to another, by new elections and partitions, which uncertainty of estates hath bin the true cause of such Desolation & Barbarism in this land, as the like was never seen in any Countrey that professed the name of Christ. For though the Irishry be a Nation of great Antiquity, and wanted neither wit nor valour, and though they had received the Christian Faith, above 1200 years since; and were Lovers of Musicke, Poetry, and all kind of learning, and possessed a land abounding with all thinges necessary for the Civill life of man; yet (which is strange to be related) they did never build any houses of Brick or stone (some few poor Religious Houses excepted) before the reign of King Henrie the second, though they were Lords of this Island for many hundred yeares before, and since the Conquest attempted by the English: Albeit, when they sawe us builde Castles uppon their borders, they have only in imitation of us, erected some few piles for their Captaines of the Country: yet I dare boldly say, that never any particular person, eyther before or since, did build any stone or bricke house for his private Habitation; but such as have latelie obtained estates, according to the course of the Law of England. Neither did any of them in all this time, plant any Gardens or Orchards, Inclose or improve their Lands, live together in setled villages or Townes, nor made any provision for posterity, which, being against all common sense and reason, must needes be imputed to those unreasonable Customes which made their estates so uncertaine and transitory in their possessions.

For who would plant or improove, or build upon that Land, which a stranger whom he knew not, should possesse after his death? For that (as Solomon noteth) is one of the strangest Vanities under the Sunne. And this is the true reason Ulster and all the Irish Countries are found so wast and desolate at this day, and so would they continue till the worlds end if these Customes were not abolished by the Law of England.

Again, that Irish custom of Gavell-kinde did breed another michiefe, for thereby every man being borne to Land, as well Bastard as Legitimate, they al held themselves to be Gentlemen. And though their portions were never so small, and them-selves never so poor (for Gavelkind must needs in the end make a poor Gentility) yet did they scorne to discend to Husbandry or Merchandize, or to learn any Mechanicall Art or Science. And this is the true cause why there were never any Corporate Towns erected in the Irish Countries. As for the Maritine Citties and Townes, most certaine it is that they were peopled and built by Ostmen or Easterlings [i.e., the Vikings]; for the natives of Ireland never perfourmed so good a worke as to build a City. Besides, these poor Gentlemen were so affected unto their small portions of Land, as they rather chose to live at home by Theft, Extortion, and Coshering, than to seek any better fortunes abroad, which increased their Septs or Syrnames into such numbers, as there are not to bee found in any Kingdome of Europe, so many gentlemen of one Blood, Familie, and Surname as there are of the O'Nealles in Ulster; of the Bourkes in Conaght, of the Geraldines, and Butlers, in Munster & Leinster. And the like may be saide of the Inferiour Bloodes and Families; whereby it came to passe in times of trouble & Dissention, that they made great parties and factions adhering one to another, with much constancie because they were tyed together Vinculo Sanguinis ["by the chain of blood"]; whereas Rebels and Malefactors which are tyed to their Leaders by no band, either of Dutie or Blood, do more easily breake and fall off one from another: And besides, their Coe-habitation in one Countrey or Territory, gave them opportunity suddenly to assemble, and Conspire, and rise in multitudes against the Crowne. And even now, in the time of peace, we finde this inconvenience, that ther can hardly be an indifferent triall had between the King & the Subject, or between partie and partie, by reason of this generall Kindred and Consanguinity.

But the most wicked and mischeevous Custome of all others was that of Coigne and livery, often before mentioned; which consisted in taking of Man's meat, Horse meat & Money of all the inhabitants of the Country, at the will and pleasure of the soldier, who as the phrase of Scripture is, "Did eat up the people as it were bread," for that he had no other entertainment. This Extortion was or originally Irish, for they used to lay Bonoght [military service] uppon their people, and never gave their Soldier any other pay. But when the English had Learned it, they used it with more insolency, and made it more intollerable; for this oppression was not temporary, or limited either to place or time; but because there was everywhere a continuall warre, either Offensive or Defensive; and every lord of a Countrey and every Marcher made war and peace at his pleasure, it became Universall and Perpetuall; and was indeed the most heavy oppression that ever was used in any Christian of Heathen Kingdom. And therefore, Vox Oppressorum ["the voice of the oppressed"], this crying sinne did draw down as great, or greater plagues uppon Ireland, then the oppression of the Isrelites, did draw upon the land of Egypt. For the plagues of Egypt, though they were griveous, were but of a short continuance. But the plagues of Ireland, lasted 400 years together. This extortion of Coigne and Livery, did produce two notorious effects, First, it made the Land waste; Next, it made the people, ydle. For, when the Husbandman had laboured all the yeare, the soldier in one night, did consume the fruites of all his labour, Longique perit labor irritus anni ["The labor of a long year perishes barren"]. Head hee reason then to manure the Land for the next year? Or rather might he not complaine as the Shepherd in "Virgil": —

Impuris haec tam culta novalia miles habebit? Barbarus has segetes? En quo discordia Cives Perduxit miseros! En quies conservimus agros! [Did we for these barbarians plant and sow? On these, on these, our happy lands bestow? Good heaven, what dire effects from civil discord flow.] (Virgil, Eclogue 1, ll. 97–99, translated by John Dryden)

And hereupon of necessity came depopulation, banishment, & extirpation of the better sort of subjects, and such as remained became ydle and lookers on, expecting the event of those miseries and evill times: So as this extreame extortion and Oppression, hath been the true cause of the Idleness of the Irish Nation; and that rather the vulgar sort have chosen to be beggars in forraigne Countries, than to manure their own fruitful Land at home.

Reprinted in Strangers to That Land: British Perceptions of Ireland from the Reformation to the Famine,edited by Andrew Hadfield and John McVeagh (1994), pp. 77–80.

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From A Discovery of the True Causes Why Ireland Was Never Entirely Subdued

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From A Discovery of the True Causes Why Ireland Was Never Entirely Subdued