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Art. IV.-1. Historical Memoir of the O'Briens, with Notes,
Appendix, and a Genealogical Table of their several Branches.
By John O'DONOGHUE, A.M. Dublin : 1860. 2. Irish History and Irish Character. By GOLDWIN SMITH.
Oxford : 1861. ` THEN the last O'Ruarc was driven from Breffny, the
Paystha hid the evidences of his state in a cave • beneath the waters of the Linn, and there they remain unscathed by time, and will reappear in their ancient shape, when the curse
of the Saxon has left the country. This quaint old legend expresses a truth, though not in the sense intended by its author, with respect to many of the antiquities of Ireland. Her historical and genealogical records are numberless, and have been preserved with great exactness; but they have lain concealed for several generations beneath the tide of war and revolution. At length, however, in the present age, when Ireland is blessed with comparative peace, and the long strife of Saxon and Celt is giving way to a kindlier feeling, they are finding a place in our national literature; and their richness, fulness, and interest may be estimated by such specimens as the Irish
State Papers,' and Dr. O'Donovan's Annals of the Four • Masters. One of the most important additions to the series will be a translation of the Brehon laws which is now in course of publication with the aid of a Parliamentary subsidy.
That this mass of materials for Irish History will sooner or later be thrown into form, analogy leads us hopefully to anticipate. It is much to be wished, in the interest of literature, that such stores of information should be turned to account, and be moulded into a regular narrative. It is, also, we think, of some importance, their angry feuds having partly ceased, that Irishmen should know more of their country than is found in compilations on the subject; and should feel linked with the life of their forefathers by the tie of genuine historical association. Accordingly we sympathise with efforts in this direction; and this, in truth, is the principal reason that we give space to a review of Mr. O'Donoghue's volume. It is an attempt, however crude and iinperfect, to make use of the elements of Irish History which of late years have been brought to light; and although it is a failure in point of art, it bears marks of care and study, and its tone and spirit are generally impartial. To praise it further is however impossible, for it has not a single trace of genius; it is
very deficient in style and arrangement; in some particulars we think it inaccurate; and it seems to have been composed in defiance of the laws of effect and perspective in writing. A real
Historical Memoir of the O'Briens' would give the reader a lively image of the Ireland which saw the battle of Clontarf, and acknowledged Brian of the Tributes' as its sovereign. It would make him acquainted with the genius of the age when the Princes of Thomond bade defiance to their nominal lords, the Plantagenet Kings, and swept the Pale with their Celtic vassals. It would place before him that eventful drama in which the O'Briens were prominent actors — the subjugation of Ireland by the Tudors, and the civil wars of the Revolutionand it would make him feel in the Ireland of 1782, when sketching the life of the Great Sir Lucius.' Mr. O'Donoghue, however, appears to be ignorant of the true end of historical biography; and although, as critics, we have no desire to measure his work by a high standard, we are bound to complain that he should have written it without regard to acknowledged principles. As it stands, it is only an undiscriminating genealogy, connected by a weak and tedious commentary. No greater contrast could be offered to Mr. O'Donoghue's desultory volume, than the essay by Professor Goldwin Smith, which we have also placed at the head of this Article. It is in fact a masterpiece of historical analysis, of profound and accurate thought, and of ingenious observation, conveyed in language of singular purity and precision. We shall not attempt to review this most remarkable volume, for it is in itself the critical essence of Irish history, and not a word can be subtracted from it without injuring the marvellous effect of the composition. After all that has been said of Ireland, this essay has the freshness of truth, and we do not think we overrate its excellence in placing it among the best specimens of political writing in the language. We shall avail ourselves occasionally of some of Mr. Goldwin Smith's luminous remarks, which throw a beam of light on the sources of Irish history; but we now resume the humbler labour we have imposed on ourselves in following the fortunes of the O'Briens.
Mr. O'Donoghue traces the line of the O'Briens through a long series of Milesian chiefs ascending beyond the Christian era. We shall not follow these phantom shapes, the denizens of a shadowy land, where the light of history has never shone, and the faint gleams of Celtic tradition only make the general darkness visible. The prowess of Con of the Hundred Battles, the deeds of Niall of the Nine Hostages, the feuds between the sons of Olioll Olum, and the crimes of Mong-finn of the fair tresses, are the proper theme of bards and sennachies; and we shall only say respecting these legends that they are quite at variance with the vague notion of the præ-historical civilisation of Ireland. When at length, about the eleventh century, the void assumes a different form, the scene it presents is very different from that bright mirage of peace and piety which for ages mocked the fancy of the Celt as the true image of the land of his fathers.
From Cape Clear to the Giant's Causeway, barbarian tribes spread over a land of hill, plain, forest, and morass, with scarcely a mark of culture upon it. Their wild cattle were their principal wealth; and rude burrows of turf or mud, here and there crowned by a low-browed church, were their only permanent habitations. The savage customs of the aborigines were inconsistent with national life, secured the continuance of war and disorder, and made hereditary property impossible. A nominal monarch was crowned at Tara; but his crown was usually the prize of a war between the Septs of the North and South, and his reign was almost always inaugurated by a royal raid on his weakest subjects. The tribes, however, were independent of each other, and owed allegiance only to their chiefs, who ruled them with a despotic sway, not unlike that of a Turkish Pasha. Each chief was absolute owner of the soil within the territory of the tribe, and parcelled it out among his followers who held it at will in miserable vassalage. The barbarous nature of this relation many years afterwards astonished Normans accustomed to the feudal severities; and in Spenser's time the English language had no terms to express its barshness. As for the chief, his title depended on election, although confined to certain families; and every election was usually preceded by a desperate strife among the clansmen, and was followed by a massacre of the vanquished, and a general redistribution of the territory. Mr. Goldwin Smith shows with great distinctness how the peculiar tenures of land by tanistry in the Irish Septs, which the English lawyers called . no estate, 'but only a transitory and scambling possession, arrested the social and economical developement of the Irish people at an almost primitive stage; and probably laid deep in the hearts of the people those indelible passions, which still look on the theory of feudal property as a robbery of the inhabitants, and break out to this day in agrarian outrages and theories of tenant right. The whole history of the island is a commentary on the original land tenures by the Septs, irrespective of any strict law of personal inheritance by descent. Thus separated into distinct communities, each a centre of murder,
violence, and rapine, Ireland had no real national existence; and her records tell only a weary tale of war, dissension, crime, and misery. Already, too, the Danes had ravaged her coasts, and were making settlements on her sea-board; but the Septs, huddled into hostile nations, maintained their state of chronic discord, and never combined against the invader. On such a land, religion of course had only a weak and precarious influence; and the Church, cut off from commerce with the Continent, beset all round by chaotic barbarism, and deeply tainted with Pagan superstition, could only oppose a feeble barrier to wide-spread anarchy and lawlessness. The
government,' said the old chronicler, was ‘hayled into contrarie factions, the nobilitie lawlesse, the multitude willfull, and religion waxing cold with the temporalitie.'
The genius or valour of Brian Boroimhe reduced this medley of savage tribes to something more than nominal subjection. This Milesian chief was the Alfred of Ireland: he routed the Danes on the field of Clontarf, gave law to the land from the hill of Tara, divided the country into tributary districts, and secured a moment of repose to the nation. His memory still lives in Celtic tradition, and the tourist in Ireland occasionally may see the effigy of the chief on the village ale-house, and may hear how Brian held state at Kincora, how he filled the Tolka with the slain of Sigurd, how he quelled the pride of the northern Hynialls, how he opened roads through Leathcon and Leathmogha, and how he strengthened the bonds of kindred by enforcing the use of surnames in families. His influence, however, ended with his life; and during the ensuing century and a half Ireland lapsed again into her ordinary state, or at best made little progress in civilisation. The sceptre of Brian passed to his descendants—the chieftains of the Dalcassian tribes that possessed the plains of Clare and Limerick then known by their ancient name of Thomond—but they proved unable or unworthy to wield it; and after a dreary period of war, of bloody hostings' and domestic strife, it became the prize of the race of O'Connor, the last Milesian sovereigns of Ireland. The change of course reduced the O'Briens—the surname borne by Brian's offspring—to their former rank as chieftains of Thomond; and many details may be gathered from this volume as regards the plan and genius of their government, and the measure of welfare enjoyed by their subjects. The attacks of the Danes, the feuds with the O'Connors, and the ravages of the neighbouring tribe of Macarthy, made Thomond a scene of constant warfare; and the disposition of the Dalcassians, the law of elective succession among the chiefs, and their barbarous tenure of landed property, assured the continuance of internal disorder. It seems probable however, that, during the period between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, the tribes of Thomond, like the rest of Ireland, advanced a little in the arts of life; that they learned the rudiments of building in stone from the Danish settlers on the southern coasts; that they acquired the use of better weapons than the Celtic sling and feeble bow; and that the humanizing influence of the Church in some degree increased among them. So, at least Giraldus Cambrensis informs us, and the synods of Killaloe and Drogheda give evidence in the same direction.
Donaldmore, the sixth successor of Brian, filled the throne of Thomond at the memorable period when, to use the words of the four Masters, “the treachery of the King of Leinster, and
the tread of the mailclad Norman horse, made Ireland shake • like a sod of the valley.' Being brother-in-law of Dermod
the accursed,' he fell in force on Roderick O'Connor when that monarch led his Kerne against Fitzgerald; and he bowed in homage to Henry II., at the great banquet of Cranes' in Waterford. Soon afterwards, however, as the Norman invaders pushed forward along the Suir and Blackwater, and began to menace the skirts of Thomond, he threw off his hasty allegiance to the stranger; and the native annalists tell with pride how he scattered the archers of Strongbow at Thurles, and fired the line of the Norman castles, which were rising along the banks of the Shannon.
From this period to the accession of the Tudors, the history of the princes of the race of Brian is that of the other Irish chieftains whom the Norman invasion had left unvanquished. Driven back at first behind the Shannon, they gradually advanced to the Slievebloom hills, as the Eng. lish power declined in Ireland; and they spread over the broad plain between the King's County and the Atlantic. Here fenced in front by the O'Connors of Offaley, and on either side by Desmonds and De Burghs, who had long abandoned the Norman culture, they reigned in barbarous independence, retaining their ancient government and characteristics, and scorning the unknown Lord of Ireland,' whose title appeared an empty phantom. Though one of the five Hibernian
races who enjoyed the right of English law,' they knew it only as a foreign custom in use among the strangers of the Pale; and they held their Celtic gatherings on the hills, administered their ancient Brehon jurisprudence, maintained their rules of succession and tenure, or wedded their children to degenerate Normans, with scarcely a thought of the distant