Chapter Two cont’d


With the Irish aristocracy gone, particularly in the North, which was closest to Britain, land and power were available to be seized by colonists from abroad. Thus began the Ulster Plantation, when mainly Scottish Presbyterians flocked to the North of Ireland, the area of Ulster [roughly equivalent to today’s Northern Ireland].  These colonists came partly to escape England, where the official Anglican Church persecuted the more radical sects of Protestantism.  (This migration runs parallel to the English Puritans and their flight to the “new world” of America, which occurred at virtually the very same time, the early-t0-mid-1600’s). Gradually these radical Protestants, called “dissenters,” would present a third term in Anglo-Irish politics, along with native Irish Catholics and ruling British Anglicans–a third term that has retained its currency into the 21st century in Northern Ireland, in Dr. Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, based largely within the Presbyterian tradition.

Ulster Freedom Fighters mural in Belfast, Northern Ireland

Ulster Freedom Fighters mural in Belfast, Northern Ireland

Throughout the 17th century, English policy sought to transform Ireland and to break the native customs and traditions.  As Sir William Parsons, lord chief justice of Ireland, wrote in 1641, “We must change their [the Irish] course of government, apparel, manner of holding land, language and habit of life.  It will otherwise be impossible to set up in them obedience to the laws and to the English Empire” (quoted in Ellis, Eyewitness p.99).

One of the greatest poems from this period, “Cill Chais” or “Kilcash,” tells of this ravaging of both the people and the landscape of Ireland in the 17th century.  “Cill Chais” opens with a lament for the wasting of the Irish country itself, and then moves to consider the concomitant destruction of Irish culture, hospitality, and generosity in the face of the invaders.  The poem states that “the prince of the Gael is abroad,” alluding to the flight of the Irish aristocracy for Catholic France and Spain.  But the poem closes with the hope that somehow Ireland will rise again in triumph.

“Cill Chais” is a wonderful example of the oral quality and the musical element in Irish poetry.  It is both a famous poem, and a well-known folk song.  In the link below, you can hear the poem’s opening stanza being read in the original Irish, and then you can hear the poem sung.  The traditional folk tune is still recognizable to Irish people today (an elderly woman at the Muckross Farms heard me whistling it in the spring of 2002, and instantly told me what the tune was).

Click here to experience “Cill Chais.”