Demise of Gaelic Ireland
|Where have the Gaels gone?|
What is the fate of the mirthful throngs?
I catch no glimpse of them
within sight of the green land of Gaoidheal.
We have in their stead an arrogant, impure crow
of foreigners’ blood,
of the race of Monadh -
there are Saxons there, and Scotch.
Ulster, early 17th century
Gaelic bardic poety reveals the underlying, and often neglected, tragedy of the Tudor and Stuart conquest of Ireland: the demise of Gaelic Ireland.
The conquest of Ireland entailed not only the transfer of land and the establishment of an alien religion but also the collapse of the Gaelic way of life. Gaelic society, economy and culture were destroyed.
'Two Sons' by Laoiseach Mac an Bháird, late 16th century
In the work of this Monaghan poet is the first occurrence of the great theme of the coming of the final ‘stranger’ to Ireland. Criticism is aimed at one of two brothers who has apparently chosen Tudor ways, while the other has taken to the hills in revolt - an indication of the shape of much future history.
|You follow foreign ways|
and shave your thick-curled head:
O slender fist, my choice!
you are no good son of
If you were, you would not yield
your hair to a foreign fashion
- the fairest feature in Fódla’s land -
and your head done up in a crown.
Little you think of your yellow hair,
but that other detests their locks
and going cropped in the foreign way.
Your manners are little like.
|He loved no foreign ways,|
our ladies’ darling, Eogan Bán,
nor bent his will to the stranger,
but took to the wilds instead.
Eogan Bán thinks little of your views.
He would give his britches gladly
and accept a rag for a cloak
and ask no coat nor hose ....
This was no bad thing, according to the English. They regarded Irish society, economy,politics and culture as backward and introverted, ripe for replacement by superior English values and ways of doing things, a just target of England’s ‘civilising mission’.
The Irish did not see it that way. Despite the English view of Ireland, views apparently endorsed by some later Irish writers, Gaelic society was not backward and introverted. Gaelic Ireland had a very positive self-image and a pronounced attitude of superiority
towards the colonists.
Registering changes in Gaelic society
Changes in bardic poetry offer an insight into changes in Gaelic society. In the sixteenth century, such poetry could be proud and confident, extolling the qualities not only of patrons but also of the bards themselves. By the seventeenth century, the tone and content had changed, lamenting not only the passing of the great houses but also of the influence of the bards themselves.
The following poems in an IiS anthology
are divided into three groups.
|The first group, Confidence (‘A Visit to Enniskillen’ and ‘A Satire on the O’Haras’), celebrates the power of both Gaelic chieftains and the bards themselves. |
|The second group, Foreboding (‘Two Sons’ and ‘Company in Loneliness’), shows the beginnings of an awareness of the threat the ‘stranger’ posed to the Gaelic order - politically and culturally.|
The final group, Eclipse, laments both the passing of that order and the plight of the redundant bards themselves: ‘Heartrending News’, ‘The Deserted Land’, ‘A Question, Who Will Buy a Poem?’, ‘Kilcash’, ‘A Begging Letter’ and ‘No Help I’ll Call’.
An excellent commentary on the eclipse of Gaelic Ireland can be found at: