The ground bass of the great Irish melody is complaint. Successive waves of invasion by Celts, Norsemen, Anglo- Normans, English, have allowed us in Ireland always to lay the blame for the ills that beset us upon the Other; upon, indeed, a rapacious host of Others. Hence the acronym employed recently by the journalist and critic Fintan O’Toole: MOPE, that is, Most Oppressed People Ever. Yet as the historian Joseph Lee has pointed out, very many countries—for instance, in Eastern Europe during and after World War II—have suffered far worse injury to their populations and infrastructures than Ireland ever did, yet managed not only to survive, but to heal themselves and, in numerous cases, to thrive.
This is not to say that Irish plaints are unjustified, as a glance at the history books, at least the unrevised ones, will amply demonstrate. In the closing decades of the sixteenth century the suppression by Elizabeth’s distinctly unsad captains of the Desmond rebellion in Munster left all of Ireland below a line drawn between the cities of Cork and Limerick, an area of lush land half the size of Belgium, utterly laid waste and depopulated. In their drive through the countryside the English conquistadors left nothing and no one standing. Sir William Pelham, one of the commanders, put it succinctly: “We consumed with fire all inhabitations and executed the people wherever we found them.”
It was an irony not lost upon the Irish that the rebel Earl of Desmond, whose defiance of the Crown had called down such destruction upon the land, was Gerald FitzGerald, direct descendant of Anglo-Norman robber barons who four hundred years previously had come over from Wales to stake their claim to the rich Irish territories of the southeast, preparing the way for the annexation of Ireland by the English King Henry II. Indeed, while the Desmond wars raged, the last of the native Irish lords, Hugh O’Neill of Ulster, according to his biographer Seán O Fáolain, “lay doggo in the north, purchasing the confidence of the English either by actively assisting them to butcher the south, or by his cautious inaction.” Heaping irony upon irony, we may point out that Desmond himself had spent much of his early life in the great houses of England, for the most part unhappily, although he had been the playmate of princes.
As Declan Kiberd points out in Irish Classics, “Most of the [Irish] lords in the later 1500s had little sense of the [English] invaders as representatives of a modern nation: for them the Tudor forces were just a foreign element, another in the seemingly endless sequence of constants from the dawn of time who fought for control of land.” It was left to the filí, the court poets, to recognize, or at least to sense, the slow earthquake that would eventually swallow the Gaelic world and its ways. Among the first tremors of that catastrophe was the introduction by Henry VIII in 1541 …