Octor Simeon Pincher knew all about Ireland. Doctor Simeon Pincher was a tall, thin, balding man, still in his twenties, with a sallow complexion and stern black eyes that belonged in a pulpit. He was a learned man, a graduate and fellow of Emmanuel College, at Cambridge University. When he had been offered a position at the new foundation of Trinity College in Dublin, however, he had come thither with such alacrity that his new hosts were quite surprised.
“I shall come at once,” he had written to them, “to do God’s work.” With which reply, no one could argue.
Not only did he come with the stated zeal of a missionary. Even before his arrival in Ireland, Doctor Pincher had informed himself thoroughly about its inhabitants. He knew, for instance, that the mere Irish, as the original native Irish were now termed in England, were worse than animals, and that, as Catholics, they could not be trusted.
But the special gift that Doctor Pincher brought to Ireland was his belief that the mere Irish were not only an inferior people, but that God had deliberately marked them out–along with others, too, of course–since the beginning of time, to be cast into eternal hellﬁre. For Doctor Simeon Pincher was a follower of Calvin.
To understand Doctor Pincher’s version of the subtle teachings of the great Protestant reformer, it was only necessary to listen to one of his sermons–for he was already accounted a ﬁne preacher, greatly praised for his clarity.
“The logic of the Lord,” he would declare, “like His love, is perfect. And since we are endowed with the faculty of reason, with which God in His inﬁnite goodness has bestowed upon us, we may see His purpose as it is.” Leaning forward slightly towards his audience to ensure their concentration, Doctor Pincher would then explain.
“Consider. It is undeniable that God, the fount of all knowl-edge–to whom all ages are but as the blinking of an eye–must in His inﬁnite wisdom know all things, past, present, and to come. And therefore it must be that even now, He knows full well who upon the Day of Judgement is to be saved, and who shall be cast down into the pit of Hell. He has established all things from the beginning. It cannot be otherwise. Even though, in His mercy, He has left us ignorant of our fate, some have already been chosen for Heaven and others for Hell. The divine logic is absolute, and all who believe must tremble before it. Those who are chosen, those who shall be saved, we call the Elect. All other, damned from the ﬁrst, shall perish. And so,” he would ﬁx his audience with a terrible stare, “well may you ask: ‘Which am I?’”
The grim logic of John Calvin’s doctrine of predestination was hard to refute. That Calvin was a deeply religious and well-meaning man could not be doubted. His followers strove to follow the loving teachings of the gospels, and to live lives that were honest, hardworking, and charitable. But for some critics, his form of religion ran a risk: its practice could become unduly harsh. Moving from France to Switzerland, Calvin had set up his church in Geneva. The rules governing his community were sterner than those of the Lutheran Protestants, and he believed that the state should enforce them by law. Following their strict moral regime–and reporting their neighbours to the authorities for any failure to live according to God’s law–his congregation did not only seek to earn a place in Heaven, but also to prove to themselves and to the world that they were indeed the predestined Elect who had already been chosen to go there.
Soon Calvinist communities had sprung up in other parts of Europe. If the Scottish Presbyterians were known for their somewhat dour adherence to the doctrines of predestination, the Church of England and its sister Church of Ireland had nowadays a Calvinistic air. “Only the Godly are part of the Church,” its congregations would declare.
But could it be that certain among the community might in fact not be chosen to go to Heaven at all? Most certainly, the Calvinists would concede. Any moral backsliding might be an indication of it. And even then, as Doctor Pincher put it in one of his ﬁnest sermons, there remained a great uncertainty.
“No man knows his fate. We are like men walking across a frozen river, foolishly unmindful that, at any time, the ice may crack, and buckle, and drop us down into the frozen waters–below which, hidden deeper yet, burn the ﬁery furnaces of Hell. Be not puffed up with pride, therefore, as you follow the law of the scriptures, but remember that we are all miserable sinners and be humble. For this is the divine trap, and from it there is no escape. All is foretold, and the mind of God, being perfect, will not be changed.” Then, looking round at his disconsolate congregation, Doctor Pincher would cry out: “And even though, if God has so ordained, you may be doomed, yet I beseech you, be of good cheer. For remember, no matter how hard the way, we are commanded, always, to hope.”
Might there, perhaps, be hope for some of those not in the Calvinist congregation? Perhaps. No man could know the mind of God. But it seemed doubtful. In particular, for those in the Catholic Church, the future looked bleak. Did they not indulge in popish superstitions and worship the saints as idols–things speciﬁcally prohibited in the scriptures? Hadn’t they had opportunity to turn away from their errors? To Doctor Pincher it seemed that all followers of the Pope in Rome must surely be on their way to perdition, and that the natives of Ireland, whose bad character was so well-known, were probably in the devil’s clutch already. And might they not yet be saved if they converted? Could not their case be remedied? No. Their sin, to Doctor Pincher, was a clear sign that they had been selected to be damned from the ﬁrst. They belonged, like the pagan spirits that infested the place, deep underground. Such were the thoughts that had strengthened the keen resolve of Doctor Pincher as he crossed the sea to Dublin.
Yet what of his own fate? Was Simeon Pincher sure, in the secret places of his heart, that he himself was one of the Elect? He had to hope so. If there had been certain sins, indiscretions at least, in his own life, might they be signs that his own nature was corrupt? He turned his face from the thought. To sin, of course, was the lot of every man. Those who repented might indeed be saved. If sins there had been in his life, therefore, he repented most earnestly. And his daily conduct, and his zeal for the Lord, proved, he hoped and believed, that he was, indeed, not the least amongst God’s chosen.
It was a quiet day, with a light breeze, when he arrived at Dublin. His ship had anchored out in the Liffey. A waterman rowed him to the Wood Quay.
And he had just clambered onto the terra ﬁrma of Ireland represented by the old quay when, quite suddenly, something happened and the world turned upside down.
The next thing he remembered, he was lying facedown, conscious of a great roar, and that something had given him a huge blow in the stomach so that he could hardly breathe. He looked up, blinked, and saw the face of a man, a gentleman by his clothes, dusting himself off and gazing down at him with concern.
“You are not hurt?”
“I do not think so,” Pincher answered. “What has happened?”
“An explosion.” The stranger pointed, and, twisting round, Pincher saw that, in the middle of the quays, where he had noticed a tall building with a crane standing before, there was now a broken stone stump, while the houses in the street opposite were blackened ruins.
Pincher took the stranger’s proffered arm gratefully as he stumbled to his feet. His leg hurt.
“You are just arrived?”
“Yes. For the ﬁrst time.”
“Come, then, Sir. My name, by the way, is Martin Walsh. There’s an inn close by. Let me help you there.”
Having left Pincher at the inn, the obliging gentleman went off to inspect the damage. He returned an hour later to report.
“The strangest business. An accident without a doubt.” It seemed that a spark from a horse’s shoe upon a cobble had ignited a keg of gunpowder, which had set off a large gunpowder store by the big central crane.
“The lower part of Winetavern Street is destroyed. Even the fabric of Christ Church Cathedral up the hill has been shaken.” He smiled wryly. “I have heard of strangers bringing bad weather, Sir, but an explosion is something new. I hope you do not mean the Irish any further harm.”
It was gentle banter, kindly meant. Pincher understood this very well. But he had never been very good at this sort of thing himself.
“Not,” he said with grim satisfaction, “unless they are papists.”
“Ah.” The gentleman smiled sadly. “You will ﬁnd many of those, Sir, in Dublin.”
It was not until after this Good Samaritan had conducted him up to Trinity College and seen him safely into the care of the porter there that Doctor Pincher discovered that Mr. Walsh himself was of the Roman faith. It was an embarrassing moment, it couldn’t be denied. Yet how could he have guessed that the kindly stranger, so obviously English, so clearly a gentleman, could be a papist? Indeed, as Walsh had warned him, he was soon shocked to discover that many of the gentlefolk and better sort in Dublin were.
But this very discovery only showed, he was also to understand, how much work there was to be done.
A midsummer evening. Martin Walsh stood with his three children on the Ben of Howth and stared across the sea. His cautious, lawyer’s mind was engaged in its own careful calculations.
Martin had always been a thoughtful soul–old for his years, people used to say. His own mother had died when he was three, his father Robert Walsh a year after. His grandfather, old Richard, and his grandmother had brought him up and, used to the company of older people all the time, he had unconsciously taken on many of their attitudes. One of these had been caution.
He gazed fondly at his daughter. Anne was only ﬁfteen. It was hard to believe that he must already make such decisions about her. His ﬁngers clasped the letter in the hidden pocket in his breeches, and he wondered, as he had been wondering for hours: should he tell her about it?
The marriage of a daughter should be a private family affair. But it wasn’t. Not nowadays. He wished his wife were still alive. She would have known how to deal with this. Young Smith might possess a good character or a bad one. Walsh hoped that it was good. Yet something more would be necessary. Principles, certainly. Strength, without a doubt. But also that indeﬁnable and all-important quality–a talent for survival.
For people like himself–for the loyal Old English–life in Ireland had never been more dangerous.
It was four and a half centuries since the Norman-French king Henry Plantagenet of England had invaded and, taking the place of the old High Kings of Ireland, bullied the Irish princes into accepting him as their nominal lord. Apart from the Pale area around Dublin, of course, it had still been Irish princes and Plantagenet magnates like the Fitzgeralds–who were soon not much different from the Irish– that had ruled the island in practice ever since. Until seventy years ago, when King Henry VIII of England had smashed the Fitzgeralds and made plain, once and for all, England’s intention to rule the western island directly. He’d even taken the title King of Ireland.
A few years later, the disease-ridden English monarch with the six wives had been dead. For half a dozen years his son Edward, a sickly boy, had ruled; his daughter Mary for another ﬁve. But then it had been Elizabeth, the virgin queen, who for nearly half a century had remained on England’s throne. They had all tried to rule Ireland, but they hadn’t found it easy.
Governors were sent over, some wise, some not. English aristocrats, almost always, with resonant names or titles: Saint Leger, Sussex, Sidney, Essex, Grey. And always they encountered the same, traditional Irish problems: Old English magnates–Fitzgeralds and Butlers–still jealous of each other; Irish princes impatient of royal control–up in Ulster, the mighty O’Neills had still not forgotten they had once been High Kings of Ireland. And everyone–yes, including the loyal Old English gentry like the Walshes–only too glad to send deputations to the monarch to undermine the gover-nor’s authority wherever the governor did something they didn’t like. If they came to turn Ireland into a second England, this was not only supposed to be for the beneﬁt of the Irish. With them came a collection of fortune hunters–the New English, they were called–hungry for land. Some of these rogues even tried to claim they were descended from long-forgotten Plantagenet settlers and that they had ancient title to Irish property.
So was it surprising that the English governors found that Ireland resisted change, or new taxes, or English adventurers trying to steal their land? Was it surprising that during Martin Walsh’s childhood there had been more than one local rising, especially down in the south, where the Fitzgeralds of Munster felt threatened? There was more than a suspicion, however, that some of the English ofﬁcials were deliberately trying to stir up trouble. “If they can provoke us into rebellion,” some Irish landowners concluded, “then our estates are conﬁscated and they can get their own hands on them. That’s the game.” But it was at the end of Elizabeth’s long reign that the big rebellion had come.
Of all the provinces of Ireland, Ulster had the reputation as the wildest and the most backward. Ulster chiefs had watched the progress of the English ofﬁcials in the other provinces with disgust and increasing restlessness. The greatest of them all, O’Neill–who had been educated in England and held the English title Earl of Ty-rone–had usually managed to keep the peace up there. Yet in the end it had been Tyrone who led the revolt.
What did he want? To rule all Ireland as his ancestors had done? Perhaps. Or just to frighten the English so much that they’d leave him to rule Ulster as his own? Also possible. Like Silken Thomas Fitzgerald, sixty years earlier, he had appealed to Catholic loyalties against the heretic English and sent messages to the Catholic king of Spain asking for troops. And this time, Catholic troops–four and a half thousand of them–had actually come. Tyrone was quite a skilful soldier, too. He’d destroyed the ﬁrst English force sent against him up in Ulster, at the Battle of the Yellow Ford, and people had rallied to his cause from all over the island. That had only been a decade ago, and no one in Dublin had known what was going to happen; but in due course Mountjoy, the tough and able English commander, had broken Tyrone and his Spanish allies down in Munster. There was nothing Tyrone could do after that. At the very moment that old Queen Elizabeth had been on her deathbed in London, Tyrone, last of the princes of Ireland, had capitulated. The English had been surprisingly lenient; he was allowed to keep some of the old O’Neill lands.
There was a new king, Elizabeth’s cousin James, on the throne now. Tyrone’s game was over, and he knew it. Yet was Ireland any safer?
From the Hardcover edition.