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From A View of the Present State of Ireland

FromA View of the Present State of Ireland

1596

Edmund Spenser

The great Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser witnessed some of the worst of the Irish wars as secretary to Arthur Grey, Lord Grey de Wilton, lord deputy of Ireland in the 1580s, and subsequently as a resident planter at Kilcolman in County Cork. In his View of the Present State of Ireland, he advocated the unrelenting application of martial law, but the tract takes the form of a mock-classical dialogue between a proponent of force and a proponent of conciliation.

SEE ALSO English Writing on Ireland before 1800

EUDOX.:
But yf that countrey of Ireland, whence you lately came, be soe goodly and commodious a soyle, as ye report, I wonder that noe course is taken for the tourning thereof to good uses, and reducing of that savadge nation to better government and civilitye.
IREN.:
Marry, soe there have beene divers good plottes devised, and wise counsells cast alleready about reformation of that realme; but they say, it is the fatall desteny of that land, that noe puposes, whatsoever are meant for her good, will prosper or take good effect . . .
IREN.:
I will then, according to your advisement, beginne to declare the evills, which seeme to me most hurtfull to the common-weale of that land: and first, those which I sayd were most auncient and long growen. And they allso are of three kindes; the first in the Lawes, the second in Customes, and the third in Religion. . . . It is a nation ever acquaynted with warres, though but amongest themselves, and in theyre owne kind of mylitary discipline, trayned up ever from theyr youthes; which they have never yet beene taught to lay aside, nor made to learne obedience unto lawe, scarcely to know the name of lawe, but insteede therof have always preserved and kept theyr owne lawe, which is the Brehoone lawe.
EUDOX.:
What is that which ye call the Brehoone Lawe? It is a word to us altogither unknowen.
IREN.:
It is a certayne rule of right unwritten, but delivered by tradition from one to another, in which oftentimes there appeareth greate shewe of equitye, in determining the right betweene party and partye, but in many thinges repugning quite both to God and mans lawe: as for example, in the case of murder, the Brehoon, that is theyr judge, will compound betweene the murderer and the frendes of the party murthered, which prosecute the action, that the malefactor shall give unto them, or to the child or wife of him that is slayne, a recompence, which they call a Breaghe; by which bi lawe of theyrs, many murders are amongest them made up and smoothered. . . . There be many wide countryes in Ireland in which the lawes of England were never established nor any acknowledgment of subjection made; and also even in those that are subdued, and seeme to acknowledge subjection, yet the same Brehoone lawe is practised amongst themselves by reason, that dwelling as they doe, whole nations and septs of the Irish togither, without any Englishman amongest them, they may doe what they list . . .
EUDOX.:
What is this that you call Tanistih and Tanistrye? They be names and termes never hard of nor knowen to us.
IREN.:
It is a custome among all the Irish, that presently after the death of any theyr chief Lordes or Captaynes, they doe presently assemble themselves to a place, generally appoynted and knowen unto them, to choose another in his steede; where they doe nominate and elect, for the most part, not the eldest sonn, nor any of the children of theyre Lord deceased, but the next to him of blood, that is the eldest and woorthyest; as commonly the next brother to him yf he have any, or the next cossin germayne, or soe foorth, as any is elder in that kinred or sept, and then next to him they choose the next of bloud to be Tanistih, whoe shall next succeede him in the sayd Captaynrye, yf he live thereunto. . . .when the Earle Strangbowe, having conquered that land, delivered up the same unto the handes of Henry the second, then King, whoe sent over thither great store of gentellmen, and other warlick people, amongest whom he distributed the land, and settled such a strong colonye therin, as never since could, with all the subtill practises of the Irish, be rooted out, but abide still a mighty people, of soe many as remayne English of them.
EUDOX.:
What is this that you say, of soe many as remayne English of them? Why are not they that were once English abiding English still?
IREN.:
Noe, for the most part of them are degenerated and growen allmost meere Irish yea and more malicious to the English then the very Irish themselves.
EUDOX.:
What heare I? And is it possible that an Englishman, brought up naturally in such sweete civilitye as England affoordes, can find such liking in that barbarous rudeness, that he should forgett his owne nature, and forgoe his owne nation? . . .
IREN.:
. . . there is one use amongest them [the Irish], to keepe theyr cattell, and to live themselves the most part of the yeare in bolyes, pasturing upon the mountayn, and wast wild places; and removing still to fresh land, as they have depastured the former. The which appeareth playne to be the manner of the Scythians, as you may reade in Olaus Magnus, and Jo. Bohemus, and yet is used amongest all the Tartarians and the people about the Caspian Sea, which are naturally Scythians, to live in heardes as they call them, being the very same that the Irish bolyes are, driving theyr cattell continually with them, and feeding onely upon theyr milke and white meates.
EUDOX.:
What fault can ye find with this custome? For though it be an old Scythian use, yet it is very behoofull in that countrey of Ireland, where there are greate mountaynes, and wast desartes full of grasse, that the same should be eaten downe, and nourish many thousand of cattell for the good of the whole realme, which cannot (me thinkes) be well any other way, then by keeping those Bolyes there, as ye have shewed.
IREN.:
But by this custome of bolyes there growe in the meane time many great enormityes unto that Common-wealth. For first, yf there be any out-lawes, or loose people, (as they are never without some) which live upon stealthes and spoyles, they are evermore succoured and find relief onely in those Bolyes, being upon the wast places, wheras els they should be driven shortly to starve, or to come downe to the townes to steale relief, where, by one meane or other, they would soone be caught. Besides, such stealthes of cattell as they make, they bring commonly to those Bolyes, where they are receaved readilye, and the theif harboured from daunger of lawe, or such officers as might light uppon him. Moreover, the people that thus live in those Bolyes growe therby the more barbarons, and live more licentiously then they could in townes, using what meanes they list, and practising what mischeives and villanyes they will, either agaynst the government there, by theyr combinations, or agaynst privat men, whom they maligne, by stealing theyr goodes, or murdering themselves. For there they thinke themselves halfe exempted from lawe and obedience, and having once tasted freedome, doe, like a steere that hath bene long out of his yoke, grudge and repyne ever after to come under rule agayne.
EUDOX.:
By your speache, Irenæus, I perceave more evills come by this use of bolyes, then good by theyr grazing; and therfore it may well be reformed: but that must be in his due course . . .
IREN.:
They have another custome from the Scythians, that is the wearing of Mantells and long glibbes, which is a thick curled bush of heare, hanging downe over theyr eyes, and monstrously disguising them, which are both very badd and hurtfull. . . .
EUDOX.:
Sith then the necessitye therof is soe comodious, as ye alleage, that it is insteede of howsing, bedding, and clothing, what reason have ye then to wish so necessary a thing cast of?
IREN.:
Because the comoditye doth not countervayle the discomoditie, for the inconveniences that therby doe arise are much more many; for it is a fitt howse for an outlawe, a meete bedd for a rebell, and an apt cloke for a theif. First the outlawe being for his many crimes and villanyes bannished from the townes and howses of honest men, and wandring in wast places, furr from daunger of lawe, maketh his mantell his howse, and under it covereth himself from the wrath of heaven, from the offence of the earth, and from the sight of men. When it rayneth it is his penthowse; when it blowes it is his tent; when it freezeth it is his tabernacle. In Sommer he can weare it loose, in winter he can weare it close; at all time he can use it; never heavy, never combersome. Likewise for a rebell it is as serviceable; for in his warre that he maketh (yf at least it besemeth the name of warr) when he still flyeth from his foe, and lurketh in the thick woodes and straite passages, wayting for advantages, it is his bedd, yea, and allmost his howsehold stuff. For the wood is his howse agaynst all weathers, and his mantell is his cave to sleepe in. Therin he wrappeth himself rounde, and encloseth himself strongly agaynst the gnattes, which in that countrey doe more annoye the naked rebelles, whilest they keepe the woodes, and doe more sharply wound them then all theyr enemyes swoordes or speares, which can come seldome nigh them: yea, and oftentimes theyr mantell serveth them when they are neere driven, being wrapt about theyr left arme in steede of a Targett, for it is as hard to cutt through it with a swoord; besides it is light to beare, light to throwe away, and, being (as they then commonly are) naked, it is to them all in all. Lastly, for a theif it is soe handsome, as it may seeme it was first invented for him; for under it he can cleanly convay any fitt pillage that cometh handsomely in his way, and when he goeth abrode in the night on free-booting, it is his best and surest frend; for lying, as they often doe, two or thre nightes togither abrode to watch for theyr bootye, with that they can pretelye shrowde themselves under a bush or bankes side, till they may conveniently doe theyr errand: and when all is done, he can in his mantell pass through any towne or company, being close hooded over his head, as he useth, from knowledge of any to whom he is endaungered. Besides all this, yf he be disposed to doe mischeif or villanye to any man, he may under his mantell goe privilye armed without suspicion of any, carrying his head-peece, his skeane, or pistoll yf he please, to be allwaye in readiness. Thus necessarye and fitting is a mantell for a badd man, and surely for a badd howsewife it is noe less convenient, for some of those that be wandring women, there called of them Beantoolhe, it is half a wardrobe, for in Sommer you shall have her arrayed commonlye but in her smocke and mantel, to be more readye for her light services; in Winter, and in her travell, it is her best cloke and safegard, and also a coverlett for her lewde exercise. And when she hath filled her vessell, under it she can hide both her burden and her blame; yea, and when her bastard is borne it serves insteede of a craddle and all her swadling cloutes. And as for all other good women which love to doe but litle woorke, howe handsome it is to lye and sleepe, or to lowze themselves in the sunnshine, they that have bene but a while in Ireland can well witness. Sure I am that ye will thinke it very unfitt for good howsewives to stirre in, or to busy them selves about theyr howse-wiverye in such sort as they should. These be some of the abuses for which I would thinke it meete to forbidd all mantells.
EUDOX.:
O evill mynded man, that having reckned up soe many uses of a mantell, will yet wish it to be abandoned! . . .
IREN.:
I suppose that the cheifest cause of the bringing in of the Irish language, amongest them, was specially theyr fostring, and marrying with the Irish, the which are two most daungerous infections: for first the child that sucketh the milke of the nurse, must of necessitye learne his first speache of her, the which being the first that is enured to his tongue, is ever after most pleasing unto him, in soe much as though he afterward be taught English, yet the smacke of the first will allwayes abide with him; and not onely of the speache, but also of the manners and conditions. . . . Therfore are these evill customes of fostering and marrying with the Irish most carefully to be restrayned; for of them two, the third evill, that is the custome of language (which I speake of) cheifly proceedeth. . . . There is amongst the Irish a certayne kind of people called Bards, which are to them insteede of poetts, whose profession is to sett foorth the prayses and disprayses of men in theyr poems and rimes; the which are had in soe high request and estimation amongest them, that none dare to displease them for feare of running into reproche through theyr offence, and to be made infamous in the mouthes of all men. For theyr verses are taken up with a generall applause, and usually songe at all feasts and meetinges, but certayne other persons, whose proper function that is, which also receave for the same greate rewardes and reputation besides. . . It is most true that such Poetts, as in theyr writings doe laboure to better the manners of men, and through the sweete bayte of theyre numbers, to steale into yonge spiritts a desire of honour and vertue, are worthy to be had in great respect. But these Irish Bards are for the most part of another mynd, and soe farr from instructing yong men in morall discipline, that they themselves doe more desarve to be sharpely disciplined; for they seldome use to choose unto themselves the doinges of good men for the ornamentes of theyr poems, but whomsoever they find to be most licentious of life, most bold and lawless in his doinges, most daungerous and desperate in all partes of disobedience and rebellious disposition, him they sett up and glorifye in theyr rimes, him they prayse to the people, and to yong men make an example to followe. . . . such lycentious partes as these, tending for the most parte to the hurte of the English, or mayntenaunce of theyre owne lewde libertye, they themselves, being most desirous therof, doe most allowe. Besides this, evill thinges being decked and suborned with the gay attyre of goodly woordes, may easely deceave and carrye away the affection of a yong mynd, that is not well stayed, but desirous by some bold adventure to make proofe of himself; for being (as they all be brought up idelly without awe of parentes, without precepts of masters, without feare of offence, not being directed, or employed in any course of life, which may carrye them to vertue, will easely be drawen to followe such as any shall sett before them: for a yong mynd cannot rest; and yf he be not still busyed in some goodness, he will find himself such busines as shall soone busye all about him. In which yf he shall finde any to prayse him, and to give him encouragement, as those Bards and rimers doe for a litle reward, or a share of a stollen cowe, then waxeth he most insolent and half madd with the love of himself, and his owne lewde deedes. And as for woordes to sett foorth such lewdness, it is not hard for them to give a goodly glose and paynted shewe thereunto, borrowed even from the prayses which are proper to vertue itself. . . .
EUDOX.:
. . . But tell me (I pray you) have they any arte in theyr compositions? Or be they any thing wittye or well savoured, as Poems should be?
IREN.:
Yea truly; I have caused diverse of them to be translated unto me that I might understand them; and surely they savoured of sweete witt and good invention, but skilled not of the goodly ornamentes of Poetrye: yet were they sprinckled with some prety flowers of theyr owne naturall devise, which gave good grace and comliness unto them, the which it is greate pittye to see soe abused, to the gracing of wickedness and vice, which would with good usage serve to beautifye and adorne vertue. This evill custome therfore needeth reformation. . . . Nowe we will proceede to other like defectes, amongest which there is one generall inconvenience which raigneth allmost throughout all Ireland: that is, of the Lordes of landes and Free-holders, whoe doe not there use to sett out theyr landes to farme, or for terme of yeares, to theyr tenauntes, but only from yeare to yeare, and some during pleasure; neither indede will the Irish tenaunt or husbandman otherwise take his land then soe longe as he list himselfe. . . . Marye! the evills which cometh thereby are greate, for by this meane both the land-lord thinketh that he hath his tenaunte more at comaunde, to followe him into what action soever he shall enter, and also the tenaunte, being left at his libertye, is fitt for everye occasion of chaunge that shal be offred by time; and soe much also the more readye and willing is he to runne into the same, for that he hath noe such estate in any his holding, noe such building upon any farme, noe such costes imployed in fencing and husbandring the same, as might with-hold him from any such willfull course, as his lordes cause, or his owne lewde disposition may carry him unto. All which he hath forborne, and spared so much expence, for that he had noe firme estate in his tenement, but was onely a tenaunt at will or litle more, and soe at will may leave it. . . . Therfore the faulte which I finde in Religion is but one, but the same is universall throughe out all the countrey; that is, that they are all Papistes by theyr profession, but in the same soe blindely and brutishly enformed, (for the most parte) as that you would rather thinke them Atheistes or Infidells for not one amongest an hundred knoweth any grounde of religion, or any article of his faythe, but can perhaps say his Pater noster, or his Ave Maria, without any knowledge or understanding what one woorde therof meaneth. . . . yet what good shall any English minister doe amongest them, by preaching or teaching, which either cannot understand him, or will not heare him? Or what comforte of life shall he have, when all his parishioners are soe unsociable, soe intractable, so ill-affected-unto him, as they usually be to all the English? . . . all chaunge is to be shunned, where the affayres stand in such state as that they may continue in quietness, or be assured at all to abide as they are. But that in the realme of Ireland we see much otherwise, for everye day we perceave the troubles to growe more upon us, and one evill growing upon another, insoe-much as there is noe parte sounde nor ascertayned, but all have theyr eares upright, wayting when the watch-woord shall come that they should all rise generally into rebellion, and cast away the English subjection. To which there nowe litle wanteth; for I thinke the woorde be allreadye given, and there wanteth nothing but opportunitye, . . . But all the realme is first to be reformed, and lawes are afterwardes to be made for keeping and conteyning it in that reformed estate.
EUDOX.:
Howe then doe you thinke is the reformation therof to be begunne, yf not by lawes and ordinaunces?
IREN.:
Even by the swoorde; for all those evills must first be cutt away with a strong hand, before any good can be planted . . . by the swoorde I meane the royall power of the Prince, which ought to stretche it self foorthe in the cheifest strength to the redressing and cutting of of those evills, which I before blamed . . . The first thing must be to send over into that realme such a stronge power of men, as that shall perforce bring in all that rebellious route of loose people, which either doe nowe stande out in open armes, or in wandring companyes doe keepe the woodes, spoyling the good subject.
EUDOX.:
You speake nowe, Irenæus, of an infinite charge to her Majestie, to send over such an armye as should treade downe all that standeth before them on foote, and laye on the grounde all the stiff-necked people of that lande; for there is nowe but one outlawe of any greate reckning, to weete, the Earle of Tyrone, abrode in armes, agaynst whom you see what huge charges she hath bene at, this last yeare, in sending of men, providing of victualls, and making head agaynst him: yet there is litle or nothing at all done, but the Queenes treasure spent, her people wasted, the poor countrey troubled, and the enemye nevertheless brought unto noe more subjection then he was, or list outwardly to shewe, which in effect is none, but rather a scorne of her power, and an emboldening of a proude rebell, and an encouradgement unto all like lewde disposed traytors that shall dare to lift up theyr heeles agaynst theyr Soveraigne Ladye. . . .
EUDOX.:
Surely of such desperat persons as will willfully followe the course of theyr own follye, there is noe compassion to be had, and for others ye have propose da mercifull meanes, much more then they have deserved: but what then shalbe the conclusion of this warre? For you have prefixed a shorte time of the continuance therof.
IREN.:
The end (I assure me) wil be very shorte and much sooner then can be (in soe greate a trouble, as it seemeth) hoped for allthough there should none of them fall by the swoorde, nor by slayne by the souldiour, yet thus being kept from manuraunce, and theyr cattell from running abroade, by this harde restraynte they would quickly consume themselves, and devoure one another. The proof wherof I sawe sufficiently ensampled in those late warres in Mounster; for notwithstanding that the same was a most riche and plentifull country, full of corne and cattell, that you would have thought they would have bene able to stand long, yet ere one yeare and a halfe they were brought to such wretchedness, as that any stonye harte would have rued the same. Our of every corner of the woodes the glinnes they came creeping foorthe upon theyr handes, for theyr legges could not beare them; they looked like anatomyes of death, they spake like ghostes crying out of theyr graves; they did eate of the dead carrions, happy were they yf they could finde them, yea, and one another soone after, insoemuch as the very carcasses they spared not to scrape out of theyr graves; and yf they founde a plotte of water-cresses or shamrokes, there they flocked as to a feast for the time, yet not able long to continue therewithall; that in shorte space there were none allmost left, and a most populous and plentifull countrey suddaynly made voyde of man or beast. . . .but all the landes I will give unto Englishmen whom I will have drawen thither, who shall have the same with such estates as shal be thought meete, and for such rentes as shall eft-sones be rated: under everye of these Englishmen will I place some of the Irish to be tenauntes for a certayne rente, according to the quantitye of such land, as everye man shall have allotted unto him, and shalbe founde able to weelde, wherin this speciall regarde shal be had, that in noe place under any land-lorde there shall remayne manye of them planted togither, but dispersed wide from theyr acquayntaunce, and scattred farre abrode through all the countreye: For that is the evill which I nowe finde in all Ireland, that the Irish dwell togither by theyr septs, and severall nations, soe as they may practize or conspire what they will; whereas yf there were English shedd amongest them and placed over them, they should not be able once to styrre or murmure, but that it shoulde be knowen, and they shortened according to theyr demerites.

The Works of Edmund Spenser,edited by R. Morris (1895), pp. 609, 610, 611, 629, 630, 631–632, 638, 640–641, 644, 645, 647, 650, 654, 663.

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