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Famous Scenes From Ireland's Story

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In the days of the Home Rule agitation a story used to be told of an Irish schoolboy who, on being asked the question, "What is the date of the conquest of Ireland?" replied: "The conquest of Ireland began in the reign of Henry II and has been going on ever since." The conquest of Ireland, like the ruin of Troy, may be traced to the elopement of a married woman. Dervorgilla, the Irish Helen, was a prince's wife who, with her own consent, was carried off by Dermot MacMurrough, the King of Leinster; and the civil strife that resulted led to Roderick the High King's issuing a decree of banishment against Dermot. Dermot fled to the court of Henry II, who had for many years contemplated the conquest of Ireland, and besought his assistance, and in May 1169 a small invading army of about 2,000 men left Wales and landed at Bannow in Wexford.

The triumph of the invaders, who were followed in the succeeding year by Strongbow with larger forces, was made easy by the extraordinary passivity of the Irish king, who seemed to be unaware of what was happening, and for a long time took no serious step to crush Dermot and his allies. When at length he had collected a great army and, having surrounded the invaders in Dublin, seemed to have them in his grasp, he allowed himself to be taken by surprise and was in his bath when his enemies made a successful sally and routed his forces. He himself, leaping out of the bath, had to fly all but naked before his foes. There never was an easier conquest of a feebler monarch by his foes.

When King Henry II landed at Crook, near Waterford, in 1171, it was as a man of peace rather than as a man of war, though he took with him a fleet of 400 ships and an army of more than 4,000 men. One of his first acts was to order one of his own barons, of whose conduct the Irish complained, to be imprisoned in Reginald's Tower, which still stands in Waterford. There was an Irish prince to do homage to him almost when he landed, and when he transferred the pageantry of his forces to Cashel, the ancient City of the Kings, many of the southern princes came to offer their submission.

After he had been in Ireland six months Henry was compelled to return to Normandy after having parcelled out the country among his followers. Dervorgilla, who unwittingly had cost her country the loss of its liberty, died many years later, a pious and charitable lady of 85, in Mellifont Abbey. Roderick, the last High King of Ireland, also devoted the closing years' of his life to religion and retired to the beautiful lakeside Abbey of Cong, where he died at the age of 82, and from which his body was taken to be buried at Clonmacnoise of the Seven Churches, now among the most celebrated ecclesiastical ruins of Ireland.

It was nearly a century and a half later when another armed invader landed in Ireland with the intention of making himself its king. This was Edward Bruce, who on May 25, 1315, arrived with an army of Scots at Larne, the scene of a famous gun-running exploit in our own time. Robert Bruce, his elder brother, had already some friendly associations with Ireland, and it is said to have been while he was seeking sanctuary on Rathlin Island, off the coast of Antrim, that he saw the lucky spider that changed his fortunes later.

The victory of Bannock-burn in 1314, by which the Scots won their independence, filled the Irish with the hope that they, too, might throw off the English yoke, and some of their northern leaders sent deputies inviting Bruce to send his brother Edward to Ireland as its king. For a time, Edward swept everything before him, but it was a triumph of pillage and plunder that wrought as much havoc among the Irish as among their English oppressors. He crushed the English forces at Connor, near Bally-mena, and penned the remnants of their northern army into Carrickfergus Castle, the siege of which is among the most memorable in Irish history. The English held out long and gallantly, though tradition detracts from the glory of their heroism with the story that on one occasion, having admitted thirty Scottish soldiers into the castle under a flag of truce, they seized them and starved them to death, afterwards eating their dead bodies to assuage their hunger.

Bruce, meanwhile, had been crowned King of Ireland and had defeated another English army beside the famous mound known as the Moat of Ardscull, near Athy. After the capture of Carrick-fergus, accompanied by King Robert of Scotland, he marched southward, but finding it impossible to break through the defences of Limerick, he returned northwards. In October 1318 he met the English forces at the Hill of Faughart, near Dundalk, and was overwhelmingly defeated and slain, and his head was salted and sent in a box to the King of England.

The next great challenge to the English power came from Art MacMurrough Kavanagh, King of Leinster, whose rebellion cost King Richard II his throne and his life. The English having been defeated in a battle at Kells, near Kilkenny, Richard crossed to Ireland in order to lead them in person, and the continuous harrying of his famished troops on the march from Kilkenny to Dublin through the Wicklow mountains was a brilliant example of guerilla warfare. MacMurrough was still unsubdued when he died at the age of 59 at New Ross.

Not until the reign of Queen Elizabeth did a great native leader again arise to threaten the foundations of English rule. There is little left of Shane's Castle on the shores of Lough Neagh to-day, but the name still keeps alive the memory of Shane O'Neill, who called his castle Fuath na nGall ("Hatred of the Foreigners "), and who was finally crushed on the banks of the Swilly in 1567. After his defeat, he took refuge with the M'Donnells in their camp at Cushendun, where he was treacherously slain in the midst of a banquet. The scene of the murder is generally said to have been a field on the sea-shore which is still pointed out to the stranger.

The death of O'Neill brought no peace to Ireland. The rebellion of the Geraldines and its suppression turned Ireland into a slaughter-house for something like fifteen years. In crushing it, Sydney, Carew and Grey, treating the native population as wild beasts, pursued a policy of extermination, burning and slaying till the surviving inhabitants "looked," in Edmund Spenser's phrase, "the anatomies of death; they spake like ghosts crying out of their graves." The Geraldine wars are of particular importance in the history of Ireland as the first occasion in which Irishmen and Anglo-Irishmen fought side by side, in a great national uprising.

By the time peace was restored, Munster was almost a desert in which the lowing of a cow or the voice of a ploughman was a sound rarely heard. One of the first acts of Sir John Perrot, after the suppression of the rebellion, was to have the rebel Donagh Beg O'Brien hanged from a car at Quin in Clare, while his bones were broken with an axe, and then to have him tied to the steeple of Quin Abbey to die slowly.

The lands of the insurgents were then confiscated and granted to English "undertakers" among them Sir Walter Raleigh and Edmund Spenser. The house in which Raleigh lived at the period-now called Myrtle Grove-still exists at Youghal, and it is said to have been in the garden of the house that the first potato was planted in Ireland. Here, too, Spenser visited him, and a yew-tree is still shown under which, according to tradition, Raleigh first read part of the manuscript of "The Faerie Queene." Another of Raleigh's Irish residences was the Bishop's Castle at Lismore, which afterwards passed into the possession of the Dukes of Devonshire. Spenser, who received 12,000 acres of the confiscated territories, received with them Kilcolman Castle, where he wrote the first three cantos of " The' Faerie Queene," and it is likely that it was here, rather than at Youghal, that Raleigh read the poem during a visit. It was during a later insurrection, that of Hugh O'Neill, that Kilcolman Castle was sacked and fired, Spenser himself escaping, but (if we can believe the tradition) only to discover that his little son had been burnt to death.

The insurrection of Hugh O'Neill, the last of the O'Neills to be inaugurated as chief on the Rath of Tullaghogue, came nearer than any previous revolt to giving a native king to Ireland. His defeat of the queen's forces in the Battle of the Yellow Ford (two miles outside Armagh) in 1598 is one of the most memorable events in Irish history. Never before had England sustained so serious a defeat on Irish soil. O'Neill had as an ally Red Hugh O'Donnell, who also won a considerable victory in the following year at the Yellow Pass in the Curlew Hills.

An appeal to Spain for assistance brought a Spanish fleet sailing up Kinsale Harbour in September 1601, under Don Juan del Aquila, who at once took possession of the town of Kinsale and awaited his allies from the north. O'Neill and O'Donnell, who had hoped for a landing not in the south but in the north, nevertheless hurried south, and Del Aquila at once told O'Neill that he would return to Spain if the Irish did not attack immediately.

Compelled to fight before he was ready, O'Neil! attempted to surprise the English troops on a pitch-black night of storm and rain; but his plans had been betrayed, and his own troops were surprised in turn and routed. Del Aquila spoke with the utmost contempt of the Irish whose cause he had ruined, observing bitterly, "Surely Christ never died for this people!"

O'Neill fled to Ulster after the battle ol Kinsale and O'Donnell to Spain. O'Sullivan Beere, who had fought in their army, returned to his castle of Dunboy, where he withstood his enemies in a siege that is famous in literature. It was at the end of this siege that MacGeoghegan, who was in charge of the defence, attempted as he lay dying to put a lighted candle to a barrel of gunpowder, as the triumphant attackers poured in, and to blow them and the castle to pieces. After the fall of the castle, O'Sullivan set out from Glengerriff at the head of 1,000 of his people-men, women and children-on a march towards Ulster, where he hoped to find safety. At the end of a tragic fortnight's marching, attacked by enemies, exhausted and famished, his company, when it arrived at O'Rourke's mansion, Leitrim Castle, had dwindled to thirty-five.

The submission of O'Neill after these events-he made his submission on his knees to the Deputy at Mellifont-secured him in his territories as the Earl of Tyrone; and he and the other great northern chiefs were received by King James in London after his accession. In 1607, however, a bogus plot was invented, as a result of which they believed that they were about to be arrested on a charge of treason, and at midnight on September 14 they went on board a ship at the little town of Rathmullan on Lough Swilly, and bade farewell for ever to their country. There are few more melancholy incidents in Irish history than the flight of the earls. It was as though the last hope of the nation had crossed the seas with them.

It was the flight of the earls that made possible the Plantation of Ulster. Sir Arthur Chichester, the Lord Lieutenant, resolved to root out the Irish from the province and to hand over the six counties of Donegal, Coleraine (renamed Londonderry), Tyrone, Fermanagh, Cavan and Armagh to colonists from England and Scotland. He himself took as his estate the peninsula of Inishowen, and the fortress of Greencastle, now in ruins, was assigned to him as a residence. One of the settlers themselves described the newcomers from England and Scotland generally as "the scum of both nations," but there were preachers as well as desperadoes among the settlers, one of the early Presbyterian ministers being a grandson of John Knox, known as "the Cock of the Conscience," who preached at Templepatrick.

The Presbyterians were sufficiently pious men, indeed, to resist persecution in great numbers when the bishops attempted to suppress their creed, and we read of men and women crossing from Donagheder to Scotland in boatloads to celebrate the Lord's Supper in their own fashion, and to have their children baptised in their parents' faith by their own ministers.

Meanwhile, the old Irish nation, though ruled in its own country, was not extirpated. It was during this period that four monks of the Franciscan monastery in Donegal compiled the "Annals of the Four Masters," and there were poets who were able to keep alive the spirit of the nation, living though it was on sufferance.

In 1641 yet another attempt was made to recover Ireland for the Irish. Then began a war which, before it was over, reduced the population by almost half, and cost 505,000 Irish lives and 110,000 English. The Irish leader in the war was the third of the great O'Neills, Owen Roe, a soldier of European distinction, who won a smashing victory at Benburb, near Armagh, from which the English general fled coatless to Lisburn. "In the name of Father, Son and Holy Ghost" Owen Roe exhorted his men, "charge for the old land." It was not his fortune ever to meet Oliver Cromwell in battle, since as he was setting out in a horse-litter to join the anti-Cromwellian forces in 1649 he fell fatally ill and died at Cloughoughton Castle in Co. Cavan.

The rebellion of 1641 has often been described as a "massacre," but modern historians dispute the correctness of this description. The Irish rebels certainly showed no fanaticism when they gathered to attend the funeral of Bedell, the saintly Protestant Bishop of Kilmore, and, firing a volley over his grave in the Kilmore churchyard, cried with loud voices, "Requiescat in pace ultimus Anglorum." Cromwell, however, undoubtedly believed the stories of massacre, and took vengeance in the sack of Drogheda and the pillage of Wexford, leaving the "curse of Cromwell " behind him as an inheritance to Ireland.

Ireland was at war again less than forty years later, when James II was driven from the throne of England and landed at Kinsale in search of help. Civil war though it was, it bequeathed to both sides honourable and heroic memories. The story of the thirteen apprentices who closed the gates of Derry against the Jacobites, of the indomitable Walker, parson and soldier, of the starving inhabitants and their endurance from December till August, when the relief ships broke the "boom" that had been placed across the Foyle, is the proudest story in the history of modern Ulster; and the defence of Ennis-killen in the same cause, followed by the rout of the Jacobites at Newtown Butler, was an episode of Irish history scarcely less glorious.

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