The main peculiarities of social life among the Irish and Anglo-Irish during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are still visible to us. Of the drudges of the earth, as in all other histories, we see or hear little or nothing, but of those orders of men of whom the historic muse takes count, such as bards, rulers, builders, and religious, there is much information to be found scattered up and down our annals, which, if properly put together and clearly interpreted, may afford us a tolerably clear view of the men and their times.
The love of learning, always strong in this race of men and women, revived in full force with their exemption from the immediate pressure of foreign invasion. The person of Bard and Brehon was still held inviolable; to the malediction of the Bard of Usnagh was attributed the sudden death of the Deputy, Sir John Stanley; to the murder of the Brehon McEgan is traced all the misfortunes which befell the sons of Irial O'Farrell. To receive the poet graciously, to seat him in the place of honour at the feast, to listen to him with reverence, and to reward him munificently, were considered duties incumbent on the princes of the land. And these duties, to do them justice, they never neglected. One of the O'Neils is specially praised for having given more gifts to poets, and having "a larger collection of poems" than any other man of his age. In the struggle between O'Donnell and O'Conor for the northern corner of Sligo, we find mention made of books accidentally burned in "the house of the manuscripts," in Lough Gill. Among the spoils carried off by O'Donnell, on another occasion, were two famous books--one of which, the Leahar Gear (Short Book), he afterwards paid back, as part of the ransom for the release of his friend, O'Doherty.
The Bards and Ollams, though more dependent on their Princes than we have seen them in their early palmy days, had yet ample hereditary estates in every principality and lordship. If natural posterity failed, the incumbent was free to adopt some capable person as his heir. It was in this way the family of O'Clery, originally of Tyrawley, came to settle in Tyrconnell, towards the end of the fourteenth century. At that time O'Sgingin, chief Ollam to O'Donnell, offered his daughter in marriage to Cormac O'Clery, a young professor of both laws, in the monastery near Ballyshannon, on condition that the first male child born of the marriage should be brought up to his own profession. This was readily agreed to, and from this auspicious marriage descended the famous family, which produced three of the Four Masters of Donegal.
The virtue of hospitality was, of all others, that which the old Irish of every degree in rank and wealth most cheerfully practised. In many cases it degenerated into extravagance and prodigality. But in general it is presented to us in so winning a garb that our objections on the score of prudence vanish before it. When we read of the freeness of heart of Henry Avery O'Neil, who granted all manner of things "that came into his hands," to all manner of men, we pause and doubt whether such a virtue in such excess may not lean towards vice. But when we hear of a powerful lord, like William O'Kelly of Galway, entertaining throughout the Christmas holydays all the poets, musicians, and poor persons who choose to flock to him, or of the pious and splendid Margaret O'Carroll, receiving twice a year in Offally all the Bards of Albyn and Erin, we cannot but envy the professors of the gentle art their good fortune in having lived in such times, and shared in such assemblies. As hospitality was the first of social virtues, so inhospitality was the worst of vices; the unpopularity of a churl descended to his posterity through successive generations.
The high estimation in which women were held among the tribes is evident from the particularity with which the historians record their obits and marriages. The maiden name of the wife was never wholly lost in that of her husband, and if her family were of equal standing with his before marriage, she generally retained her full share of authority afterwards. The Margaret O'Carroll already mentioned, a descendant and progenitress of illustrious women, rode privately to Trim, as we are told, with some English prisoners, taken by her husband, O'Conor of Offally, and exchanged them for others of equal worth lying in that fortress; and "this she did," it is added, "without the knowledge of" her husband. This lady was famed not only for her exceeding hospitality and her extreme piety, but for other more unexpected works. Her name is remembered in connection with the erection of bridges and the making of highways, as well as the building of churches, and the presentation of missals and mass-books. And the grace she thus acquired long brought blessings upon her posterity, among whom there never were wanting able men and heroic women while they kept their place in the land. An equally celebrated but less amiable woman was Margaret Fitzgerald, daughter of the eighth Earl of Kildare, and wife of Pierce, eighth Earl of Ormond. "She was," says the Dublin Annalist, "a lady of such port that all the estates of the realm couched to her, so politique that nothing was thought substantially debated without her advice." Her decision of character is preserved in numerous traditions in and around Kilkenny, where she lies buried. Of her is told the story that when exhorted on her death-bed to make restitution of some ill-got lands, and being told the penalty that awaited her if she died impenitent, she answered, "it was better one old woman should burn for eternity than that the Butlers should be curtailed of their estates."
The fame of virtuous deeds, of generosity, of peace-making, of fidelity, was in that state of society as easily attainable by women as by men. The Unas, Finolas, Sabias, Lasarinas, were as certain of immortality as the Hughs, Cathals, Donalds and Conors, their sons, brothers, or lovers. Perhaps it would be impossible to find any history of those or of later ages in which women are treated upon a more perfect equality with men, where their virtues and talents entitled them to such consideration.
The piety of the age, though it had lost something of the simplicity and fervour of older times, was still conspicuous and edifying. Within the island, the pilgrimage of Saint Patrick's purgatory, the shrine of our Lady of Trim, the virtues of the holy cross of Raphoe, the miracles wrought by the Baculum Christi, and other relics of Christ Church, Dublin, were implicitly believed and piously frequented. The long and dangerous journeys to Rome and Jerusalem were frequently taken, but the favourite foreign vow was to Compostella, in Spain. Chiefs, Ladies, and Bards, are almost annually mentioned as having sailed or returned from the city of St. James; generally these pilgrims left in companies, and returned in the same way. The great Jubilee of 1450, so enthusiastically attended from every corner of Christendom, drew vast multitudes from our island to Rome. By those who returned tidings were first brought to Ireland of the capture of Constantinople by the Turks. On receipt of this intelligence, which sent a thrill through the heart of Europe, Tregury, Archbishop of Dublin, proclaimed a fast of three days, and on each day walked in sackcloth, with his clergy, through the streets of the city, to the Cathedral. By many in that age the event was connected with the mystic utterances of the Apocalypse, and the often-apprehended consummation of all Time.
Although the Irish were then, as they still are, firm believers in supernatural influence working visibly among men, they do not appear to have ever been slaves to the terrible delusion of witchcraft. Among the Anglo-Irish we find the first instance of that mania which appears in our history, and we believe the only one, if we except the Presbyterian witches Of Carrickfergus, in the early part of the eighteenth century. The scene of the ancient delusion was Kilkenny, where Bishop Ledred accused the Lady Alice Kettel, and William her son, of practising black magic, in the year 1327. Sir Roger Outlaw, Prior of Kilmainham, and stepson to Lady Alice, undertook to protect her; but the fearful charge was extended to him also, and he was compelled to enter on his defence. The tribunal appointed to try the charge--one of the main grounds on which the Templars had been suppressed twenty-five years before--was composed of the Dean of St. Patrick's, the Prior of Christ Church, the Abbots of St. Mary's and St. Thomas's, Dublin, Mr. Elias Lawless, and Mr. Peter Willeby, lawyers. Outlaw was acquitted, and Ledred forced to fly for safety to England, of which he was a native. It is pleasant to remember that, although Irish credulity sometimes took shapes absurd and grotesque enough, it never was perverted into diabolical channels, or directed to the barbarities of witch-finding.
About the beginning of the fifteenth century we meet with the first mention of the use of Usquebagh, or Aqua Vitae, in our Annals. Under the date of 1405 we read that McRannal, or Reynolds, chief of Muntireolais, died of a surfeit of it, about Christmas. A quaint Elizabethan writer thus descants on the properties of that liquor, as he found them, by personal experience: "For the rawness (of the air) they (the Irish) have an excellent remedy by their Aqua Vitae, vulgarly called Usquebagh, which binds up the belly and drieth up moisture more than our Aqua Vitae, yet inflameth not so much."
And as the opening of the century may be considered notable for the first mention of Usquebagh, so its close is memorable for the first employment of fire-arms. In the year 1489, according to Anglo-Irish Annals, "six hand guns or musquets were sent to the Earl of Kildare out of Germany," which his guard bore while on sentry at Thomas Court--his Dublin residence. But two years earlier (1487) we have positive mention of the employment of guns at the siege of Castlecar, in Leitrim, by Hugh Roe O'Donnell. Great guns were freely used ten years later in the taking of Dungannon and Omagh, and contributed, not a little to the victory of Knock-doe--in 1505. About the same time we begin to hear of their employment by sea in rather a curious connection. A certain French Knight, returning from the pilgrimage of Lough Derg, visiting O'Donnell at Donegal, heard of the anxiety of his entertainer to take a certain Castle which stood by the sea, in Sligo. This Knight promised to send him, on Ms return to France, "a vessel carrying great guns," which he accordingly did, and the Castle was in consequence taken. Nevertheless the old Irish, according to their habit, took but slowly to this wonderful invention, though destined to revolutionize the art to which they were naturally predisposed--the art of war.
The dwellings of the chiefs, and of the wealthy among the proprietors, near the marches, were chiefly situated amid pallisaded islands, or on promontories naturally moated by lakes. The houses, in those circumstances, were mostly of framework, though the Milesian nobles, in less exposed districts, had castles of stone, after the Norman fashion. The Castle "bawn" was usually enclosed by one or more strong walls, the inner sides of which were lined with barns, stables, and the houses of the retainers. Not unfrequently the thatched roofs of these outbuildings taking fire, compelled the castle to surrender. The Castle "green," whether within or without the walls, was the usual scene of rural sports and athletic games, of which, at all periods, our ancestors were so fond. Of the interior economy of the Milesian rath, or dun, we know less than of the Norman tower, where, before the huge kitchen chimney, the heavy-laden spit was turned by hand, while the dining-hall was adorned with the glitter of the dresser, or by tapestry hangings;-the floors of hall and chambers being strewn with rushes and odorous herbs. We have spoken of the zeal of the Milesian Chiefs in accumulating MSS. and in rewarding Bards and Scribes. We are enabled to form some idea of the mental resources of an Anglo-Irish nobleman of the fifteenth century, from the catalogue of the library remaining in Maynooth Castle, in the reign of Henry VIII. Of Latin books, there were the works of several of the schoolmen, the dialogues of St. Gregory, Virgil, Juvenal, and Terence; the Holy Bible; Boethius' Consolations of Philosophy, and Saint Thomas's Summa; of French works, Froissart, Mandeville, two French Bibles, a French Livy and Caesar, with the most popular romances; in English, there were the Polychronicon, Cambrensis, Lyttleton's Tenures, Sir Thomas More's book on Pilgrimages, and several romances. Moreover, there were copies of the Psalter of Cashel, a book of Irish chronicles, lives of St. Beraghan, St. Fiech and St. Finian, with various religious tracts, and romantic tales. This was, perhaps, the most extensive private collection to be found within the Pale; we have every reason to infer, that, at least in Irish and Latin works, the Castles of the older race--lovers of learning and entertainers of learned men--were not worse furnished than Maynooth.