Map of Ireland

Prev | Next | Contents | Main Page


THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY.

Before plunging into the troubled torrent of the revolution of 1688, let us cast a glance back on the century, and consider the state of learning and religion during those three generations.

If we divide the Irish literature of this century by subjects, we shall find extant a respectable body, both in quantity and quality, of theology, history, law, politics, and poetry. If we divide it by the languages in which that literature was written, we may consider it as Latin, Gaelic, and English.

  1. Latin continued throughout Europe, even till this late day, the language of the learned, but especially of theologians, jurists, and historians. In Latin, the great tomes of O'Sullivan, Usher, Colgan, Wadding, and White, were written--volumes which remain as so many monuments of the learning and industry of that age. The chief objects of these illustrious writers were, to restore the ancient ecclesiastical history of Ireland, to rescue the memory of her saints and doctors from oblivion, and to introduce the native annals of the kingdom to the attention of Europe. Though Usher differed in religion, and in his theory of the early connection of the Irish with the Roman Church, from all the rest, yet he stands pre-eminent among them for labour and research. The Waterford Franciscan, Wadding, can only be named with him for inexhaustible patience, various learning, and untiring zeal. Both were honoured of princes and parliaments. The Confederates would have made Wadding a cardinal; King James made Usher an archbishop; one instructed the Westminster Assembly; the other was sent by the King of Spain to maintain the thesis of the Immaculate Conception at Rome, and subsequently was entrusted by the Pope to report upon the propositions of Jansenius. O'Sullivan, Conde de Berehaven, in Spain, and Peter White, have left us each two or three Latin volumes on the history of the country, highly prized by all subsequent writers. But the most indispensable of the legacies left us in this tongue, are Colgan's "Acta Sanctorum"--from January to March--and Dr. John Lynch's "Cambrensis Eversus." Many other works and authors might be mentioned, but these are the great Latinists to whom we are indebted for the most important services rendered to our national history.

  2. In the Gaelic literature of the country we count Geoffrey Keating, Duald McFirbis, and "the Four Masters" of Donegal. Few writers have been more rashly judged than Keating. A poet, as well as a historian, he gave a prominence in the early chapters of his history to bardic tales, which English critics have seized upon to damage his reputation for truthfulness and good sense. But these tales he gives as tales--as curious and illustrative--rather than as credible and unquestionable. The purity of his style is greatly extolled by Gaelic critics; and the interest of his narrative, even in a translation, is undoubted. McFirbis, an annalist and genealogist by inheritance, is known to us not only for his profound native lore, and tragic death, but also for the assistance he rendered Sir James Ware, Dr. Lynch, and Roderick O'Flaherty. The master-piece, however, of our Gaelic literature of this age, is the work now called "The Annals of the Four Masters." In the reign of James I., a few Franciscan friars, living partly in Donegal Abbey and partly in St. Anthony's College, at Louvain, undertook to collect and collate all the manuscript remains of Irish antiquity they could gather or borrow, or be allowed to copy. Father Hugh Ward was the head of this group, and by him the lay brother Michael O'Clery, one of the greatest benefactors his country ever saw, was sent from Belgium to Ireland. From 1620 to 1630, O'Clery travelled through the kingdom, buying or transcribing everything he could find relating to the lives of the Irish saints, which he sent to Louvain, where Ward and Colgan undertook to edit and illustrate them. Father Ward died in the early part of the undertaking, but Father Colgan spent twenty years in prosecuting the original design, so far as concerned our ecclesiastical biography.

After collecting these materials, Father O'Clery waited, as he tells us, on "the noble Fergall O'Gara," one of the two knights elected to represent the county of Sligo in the Parliament of 1634, and perceiving the anxiety of O'Gara, "from the cloud which at present hangs over our ancient Milesian race," he proposed to collect the civil and military annals of Erin into one large digest. O'Gara, struck with this proposal, freely supplied the means, and O'Clery and his coadjutors set to work in the Franciscan Convent of Donegal, which still stood, not more than half in ruins.

On the 22nd of January, 1632, they commenced this digest, and on the 10th of August, 1636, it was finished--having occupied them four years, seven months and nineteen days. The MS., dedicated to O'Gara, is authenticated by the superiors of the convent; from that original two editions have recently been printed in both languages.

These annals extend to the year 1616, the time of the compilers. Originally they bore the title of "Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland," but Colgan having quoted them as "The Annals of the Four Masters," that name remains ever since. The "Four Masters" were Brother Michael O'Clery, Conary and Peregrine O'Clery, his brothers, both laymen and natives of Donegal, and Florence Conroy of Roscommon, another hereditary antiquary.

The first edition of the New Testament, in the Gaelic tongue, so far as we are aware, appeared at Dublin, in 1603, in quarto. The translation was the work of a native scholar, O'Cionga (Anglicized King). It was made at the expense and under the supervision of Dr. William O'Donnell, one of the first fellows of Trinity, and published at the cost of the people of Connaught. Dr. O'Donnell, an amiable man, and an enemy of persecution, became subsequently Archbishop of Tuam, in which dignity he died, in 1628. A translation of the Book of Common Prayer, by O'Donnell, appeared early in the century, and towards its close (1685), a translation of the Old Testament, made for Bishop Bedell by the Gaelic scholars of Meath and Cavan, was published at the expense of the famous Robert Boyle. Bedell had also caused to be published Gaelic translations of certain homilies of Saint Leo and Saint John Chrysostom, on the importance of studying the holy Scriptures. The only other Gaelic publications of this period were issued from the Irish colleges at Louvain and Rome. Thence issued the devotional tracts of Conroy, of Gernon, and O'Molloy, and the Irish grammars of O'Clery and Stapleton. The devotional tracts, with their fanciful titles, of "Lamps," and "Mirrors," were smuggled across from Ostend and Dunkirk with other articles of contraband, and did much to keep alive the flame of faith and hope in the hearts of the Gaelic-speaking population.

The bardic order also, though shorn of much of their ancient splendour, and under the Puritan regime persecuted as vagrants, still flourished as an estate of the realm. The national tendency to poetic writing was not confined to the hereditary verse-makers, but was illustrated by such men as the martyred Plunkett, and the Bishops of Meath and Kerry--Dr. Thomas Dease, and Dr. John O'Connell. But the great body of Gaelic verse of the first half of this century is known under the name of "The Contentions of the Bards," the subject being the relative dignity, power, and prowess of the North and South. The gauntlet in this poetic warfare, was thrown down by McDaire, the Bard of Donogh O'Brien, fourth Earl of Thomond, and taken up on the part of Ulster by Lewy O'Clery. Reply led to rejoinder, and one epistle to another, until all the chief bards of the four provinces had taken sides. Half a dozen writers, pro and con, were particularly distinguished; McDaire himself, Turlogh O'Brien, and Art Oge O'Keefe on behalf of the Southerners; O'Clery, O'Donnell, the two McEgans, and Robert McArthur on the side of the North.

An immense mass of devotional Gaelic poetry may be traced to this period. The religious wars, the calamities of the church and of the people, inspired many a priest and layman to seize the harp of David, and pour forth his hopes and griefs in sacred song. The lament of Mac Ward over the Ulster princes buried at Rome, the odes of Dermod Conroy and Flan McNamee, in honour of our Blessed Lady, are of this class. Thus it happened that the bardic order, which in ancient times was the formidable enemy of Christianity, became, through adversity and affliction, its greatest supporter.

  1. Our Hiberno-English literature is almost entirely the creation of this century. Except some few remarkable state papers, we have no English writings of any reputation of an earlier period. Now, however, when the language of the empire, formed and enriched by the great minds of Elizabeth's era, began to extend its influence at home and abroad, a school of Hiberno-English writers appeared, both numerous and distinguished. This school was as yet composed mainly of two classes--the dramatic poets, and the pamphleteers. Of the latter were Bishop French, Sir Richard Nagle, Sir Richard Belling, Lord Orrery, Father Peter Walsh, and William Molyneux; of the former, Ludowick Barry, Sir John Denham, the Earl of Roscommon, and Richard Flecknoe,--the Mac Flecknoe of Dryden. It is true there appeared as yet no supreme name like Swift's; but as indicating the gradual extension of the English language into Ireland, the popular pamphlets and pieces written for the stage, are illustrations of our mental life not to be overlooked.

Of the ancient schools of the island, after the final suppression of the college at Galway in 1652, not one remained. A diocesan college at Kilkenny, and the Dublin University, were alone open to the youth of the country. But the University remained exclusively in possession of the Protestant interest, nor did it give to the world during the century, except Usher, Ware and Orrery, any graduate of national, not to say, European reputation. In the bye-ways of the South and West, in the Irish colleges on the continent of Europe--at Paris, Louvain, Lisle, Salamanca, Lisbon, or Rome--the children of the proscribed majority could alone acquire a degree in learning, human or divine. It was as impossible two centuries ago, to speak of Trinity College with respect, as it is in our time, remembering all it has since done, to speak of it without veneration.

Though the Established Church had now completed its century and a half of existence, it was as far from the hearts of the Irish as ever. Though the amiable Bedell and the learned O'Donnell had caused the sacred Scriptures to be translated into the Gaelic tongue, few converts had been made from the Catholic ranks, while the spirit of animosity was inflamed by a sense of the cruel and undeserved disabilities inflicted in the name of religion. The manifold sects introduced under Cromwell gave a keener edge to Catholic contempt for the doctrines of the reformation; and although the restoration of the monarchy threw the extreme sectaries into the shade, it added nothing to the influence of the church, except the fatal gift of political patronage. For the first time, the high dignity of Archbishop of Armagh began to be regarded as the inheritance of the leader of the House of Lords; then Brahmall and Boyle laid the foundation of that primatial power which Boulter and Stone upheld under another dynasty, but which vanished before the first dawn of Parliamentary independence.

In the quarter of a century which elapsed from the restoration to the revolution, the condition of the Catholic clergy and laity was such as we have already described. In 1662, an historian of the Jesuit missionaries in Ireland described the sufferings of ecclesiastics as deplorable; they were forced to fly to the herds of cattle in remote places, to seek a refuge in barns and stables, or to sleep at night in the porticoes of temples, lest they should endanger the safety of the laity. In that same year, Orrery advised Ormond to purge the walled towns of Papists, who were still "three to one Protestant;" in 1672, Sir William Petty computed them at "eight to one" of the entire population.

"So captive Israel multiplied in chains."

The martyrdom of the Archbishop of Dublin, in 1680, and of the Archbishop of Armagh in 1681, were, however, the last of a series of executions for conscience' sake, from the relation of which the historian might well have been excused, if it was not necessary to remind our emancipated posterity at what a price they have been purchased.




Prev | Next | Contents | Main Page



Map of Ireland