CHAPTER IX. STATE OF IRISH AND ANGLO-IRISH SOCIETY DURING THE FOURTEENTH AND FIFTEENTH CENTURIES.
The main peculiarities of social life among the Irish and Anglo-Irish during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are still visible to us. Of the drudges of the earth, as in all other histories, we see or hear little or nothing, but of those orders of men of whom the historic muse takes count, such as bards, rulers, builders, and religious, there is much information to be found scattered up and down our annals, which, if properly put together and clearly interpreted, may afford us a tolerably clear view of the men and their times.
The love of learning, always strong in this race of men and women, revived in full force with their exemption from the immediate pressure of foreign invasion. The person of Bard and Brehon was still held inviolable; to the malediction of the Bard of Usnagh was attributed the sudden death of the Deputy, Sir John Stanley; to the murder of the Brehon McEgan is traced all the misfortunes which befell the sons of Irial O'Farrell. To receive the poet graciously, to seat him in the place of honour at the feast, to listen to him with reverence, and to reward him munificently, were considered duties incumbent on the princes of the land. And these duties, to do them justice, they never neglected. One of the O'Neils is specially praised for having given more gifts to poets, and having "a larger collection of poems" than any other man of his age. In the struggle between O'Donnell and O'Conor for the northern corner of Sligo, we find mention made of books accidentally burned in "the house of the manuscripts," in Lough Gill. Among the spoils carried off by O'Donnell, on another occasion, were two famous books - one of which, the Leahar Gear (Short Book), he afterwards paid back, as part of the ransom for the release of his friend, O'Doherty.
The Bards and Ollams, though more dependent on their Princes than we have seen them in their early palmy days, had yet ample hereditary estates in every principality and lordship. If natural posterity failed, the incumbent was free to adopt some capable person as his heir. It was in this way the family of O'Clery, originally of Tyrawley, came to settle in Tyrconnell, towards the end of the fourteenth century. At that time O'Sgingin, chief Ollam to O'Donnell, offered his daughter in marriage to Cormac O'Clery, a young professor of both laws, in the monastery near Ballyshannon, on condition that the first male child born of the marriage should be brought up to his own profession. This was readily agreed to, and from this auspicious marriage descended the famous family, which produced three of the Four Masters of Donegal.
The virtue of hospitality was, of all others, that which the old Irish of every degree in rank and wealth most cheerfully practised. In many cases it degenerated into extravagance and prodigality. But in general it is presented to us in so winning a garb that our objections on the score of prudence vanish before it. When we read of the freeness of heart of Henry Avery O'Neil, who granted all manner of things "that came into his hands," to all manner of men, we pause and doubt whether such a virtue in such excess may not lean towards vice. But when we hear of a powerful lord, like William O'Kelly of Galway, entertaining throughout the Christmas holydays all the poets, musicians, and poor persons who choose to flock to him, or of the pious and splendid Margaret O'Carroll, receiving twice a year in Offally all the Bards of Albyn and Erin, we cannot but envy the professors of the gentle art their good fortune in having lived in such times, and shared in such assemblies. As hospitality was the first of social virtues, so inhospitality was the worst of vices; the unpopularity of a churl descended to his posterity through successive generations.
The high estimation in which women were held among the tribes is evident from the particularity with which the historians record their obits and marriages. The maiden name of the wife was never wholly lost in that of her husband, and if her family were of equal standing with his before marriage, she generally retained her full share of authority afterwards. The Margaret O'Carroll already mentioned, a descendant and progenitress of illustrious women, rode privately to Trim, as we are told, with some English prisoners, taken by her husband, O'Conor of Offally, and exchanged them for others of equal worth lying in that fortress; and "this she did," it is added, "without the knowledge of" her husband. This lady was famed not only for her exceeding hospitality and her extreme piety, but for other more unexpected works. Her name is remembered in connection with the erection of bridges and the making of highways, as well as the building of churches, and the presentation of missals and mass-books. And the grace she thus acquired long brought blessings upon her posterity, among whom there never were wanting able men and heroic women while they kept their place in the land. An equally celebrated but less amiable woman was Margaret Fitzgerald, daughter of the eighth Earl of Kildare, and wife of Pierce, eighth Earl of Ormond. "She was," says the Dublin Annalist, "a lady of such port that all the estates of the realm couched to her, so politique that nothing was thought substantially debated without her advice." Her decision of character is preserved in numerous traditions in and around Kilkenny, where she lies buried. Of her is told the story that when exhorted on her death-bed to make restitution of some ill-got lands, and being told the penalty that awaited her if she died impenitent, she answered, "it was better one old woman should burn for eternity than that the Butlers should be curtailed of their estates."