Sir Edmund Spenser and Croghan Hill -a Damascus moment? By Dr Mary O’Connor

When renowned Offaly archaeologist Caimin O’Brien, cited Sir Edmund Spenser’s inclusion of a verse on Croghan Hill in his most famous poem, The Faerie Queene, in Stories from a Sacred Landscape: from Croghan Hill to Clonmacnoise; the curiosity bells began to ring.  This was an amazing revelation and posed questions as to how Spenser was familiar with Croghan Hill and its religious history? Had he visited the area? When did he visit? What were the circumstances pertaining to his visit? And latterly, the question arose as to whether it was possible that this visit influenced him in some distinctive way? And furthermore, whether that influence was positive or negative?

Spenser’s Background

Edmund Spenser

Sir Edmund Spenser (1552-1599) was born in Smithfield, London, the son of John Spenser, a journeyman clothmaker. He was educated at Merchant Taylor’s School, London and Pembroke College, Cambridge and graduated with an MA in 1576.  His family were the ‘poor relations’ of the Spensers of Althorp, Princess Diana’s family.  When he completed his studies, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, head of the Puritan faction in government and a favourite of Queen Elizabeth 1, secured a position as secretary to John Young, Bishop of Rochester for Spenser.  It is thought that Spenser had extreme and radical Protestant views in line with Dudley and had a firm belief in the moral purity of the Elizabethan Church.

Spenser and Ireland

This edition published by Oxford in 1970. After fifteen years experience he compiled the view in 1596.

Spenser was clearly a product of the English Reformation during the reign of Elizabeth 1. Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry V111 and Ann Boleyn.  Elizabeth was determined that Protestantism would be the religion not only of England but also of Ireland. She established Trinity College in 1592 and had documents designed to bring about the evangelisation of the Irish translated the texts of church services into Irish.  The New Testament was also translated into Irish in 1603, the year of her death, as were the Four Gospels.

In 1580, Spenser arrived in Ireland as private secretary to Lord Arthur Grey the newly appointed Lord Deputy to Ireland. Grey had recruited a force of 6,000 soldiers to suppress the second Desmond Rebellion which was led by James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald, Earl of Desmond. The most notorious and bloody episode of the Gray’s attempts to crush this Rebellion was the Siege of Smerwick, on the Dingle Peninsula in 1580.  Pope Gregory X111 and King Philip 11 of Spain supported the Rebellion and sent a force of freelance soldiers of Italian and Spanish origin to Ireland.  A force of between 400 and 700 of these soldiers captured the village of Smerwick but they were forced to retreat to Dún an Óir where they were besieged by the Royal forces, led by Grey, who was accompanied by Spenser, as chronicler, and Sir Walter Raleigh.  After a three -day siege, the commander of 600 troops surrendered.  Lord Grey informed Queen Elizabeth 1 that an attempt was made by the commander to agree terms of unconditional surrender by which they would cede the fort and leave.  However, Grey insisted on surrender without such conditions and ordered summary executions of all the troops. However, the lives of the officers were spared.

Furthermore, Kerry historian Margaret Ann Cusack states that those who were spared summary execution suffered a worse fate.  They were offered life if they renounced their Catholic faith.  Upon refusal, their arms and legs were broken in three places by an ironsmith.  They were left in agony for a day and a night and then hanged.  Sir Walter Raleigh led the executions and Spenser was present to witness the horrific events.  It took two days to carry out the executions.  Many were beheaded in a field known locally as Gort a Ghearradh (Field of the Cutting.)  Six hundred bodies were stripped, laid out on the sand bodies and were then thrown into the sea.  Local folklore refers to another field called Gort na gCeann (Field of Heads), which could indicate that the heads of those beheaded were strewn around that particular field.

However, reports of Grey’s tyranny and barbarity were related to Queen Elizabeth 1 and she was told there was little for her to reign over except carcasses and ashes and that ‘he regarded the lives of the subjects no more than the lives of dogs’.  On foot of these reports, Elizabeth terminated his position as Lord Deputy, and he was recalled to England in 1582.  However, it is recorded that he visited King’s County in June 1582 and would no doubt, have been accompanied by his private secretary Edmund Spenser.  This appears to have been the time when Spenser visited Croghan Hill.

It is difficult to determine the reason for the visit, as the final Battle of Croghan Hill was fought in 1546 and three years later in 1549 the O’Conors submitted to the English forces and their lands were confiscated.  So, by 1582 the O’Conor lands had been awarded to members of the English aristocracy who were both Protestant supporters of Queen Elizabeth 1 and her political and religious policies.  Perhaps Grey and Spenser came to determine how the new landlord class were experiencing their new roles and assess their successes and difficulties.  It is also likely that they were guests in one of the Big Houses – Tubberdaly, perhaps, and is there that Spenser became aware of the religious significance of Croghan Hill and was determined to pay a visit.

The experience appears to have been profound and remained with Spenser when he was writing his most famous poem The Faerie Queene in honour of Queen Elizabeth.  Poetry, according to the English poet William Wordsworth is ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ and Spenser, who envisaged this literary work would be on a par with Virgil’s Aeneid and that it would develop the English literary tradition begun by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales. Thus, it is clear, that the impact of Spenser’s visit to Croghan Hill was recollected in the tranquillity of Kilcoman Castle, his Cork ressidece, as he penned that verse of his celebrated poem.  In 1590 that the first three books of The Faerie Queene were published and Sir Walter Raleigh was instrumental in advising Spenser to present the three volumes personally to Queen Elizabeth.  She was so pleased with the poem that she awarded him a pension of £50 per year which exceeded that paid to any other poet.

Croghan Hill and The Faerie Queene

The following verse in The Faerie Queene relates to Spenser’s response to the influence of the spiritual atmosphere he experiencded at Croghan Hill. However, in relation to Croghan Hill, he wrote:


Thence forward by that painfull way they pas,

Forth to an hill, that was both steepe and hy;

On top whereof a sacred chappell was,

And eke a little Hermitage thereby,

Wherein an aged holy man did lye,

That day and night said his devotion,

Ne other worldly busines did apply;

His name was heavenly Contemplation;

Of God and goodnesse was his meditation.

(This poem is written in Elizabethan English.)

Thus, it is clear, that Spenser, a radical supporter of the Reformation, acknowledged the religious significance of Croghan Hill and the holy man who lived and prayed there and his chapel. Indeed, he treats his subject with an air of reverence, sensitivity and the utmost resect.

Thus, the question is raised, did the apparently, strong spiritual influence of Spenser’s visit to Croghan Hill prove to have been a ‘Damascus moment’ experience that transformed his life or one of transitory effect?

Croghan Hill from vol 10 of Offaly Heritage and celebrating the purchase of the summit of the hill by the county council for the people of Offaly.

Spenser post 1582

When the Lord Deputy Arthur Grey was recalled to England, Spenser withdrew to his estates in Munster.  He was appointed to deputise as clerk of the Lords President of Munster.  He was given a sinecure post which included the right to dispose of parcels of land forfeited from the Earl of Desmond, after the defeat of the Second Munster Rebellion. On foot of this position, he invited English Adventurers to take over these confiscated lands. This enabled Spenser to indulge in profitable land speculation.  Furthermore, he was also appointed a Queen’s justice, and Sheriff-designate of Co. Cork.  At this time, Spenser married his second wife, the heiress Elizabeth Boyle, a cousin of the Earl of Cork, who was one of the wealthiest men in Ireland. He also decided to make Kilcolman Castle in Cork his principal residence. Spenser, also engaged in writing The Faerie Queene and promoting his other poetic works at this time and made a number of visits to London for this purpose

Although Spenser did not engage in any further military escapades following his visit to Croghan Hill, he expressed some radical opinions regarding Ireland.  These opinions were strongly asserted in his pamphlet A Viewe of the Present State of Ireland which he wrote in 1596.  However, it remained unpublished until 1633 some thirty four years after the death of Spenser; mainly because of the inflammatory nature of its contents.  In this work he discussed future methods to establish effective control of Ireland.  It appears that the aim of this work is to show how Ireland was in dire need of reform.  Spenser believed that ‘Ireland is a diseased portion of the State it must first be cured and reformed before it could be in a position to appreciate the good sound laws and blessings of the nation (England).’ Spenser divides the ‘evils’ of the Irish people into three prominent categories, law, customs and religion.  According to Spenser these three elements worked together …. Creating the allegedly ‘disruptive and degraded people’ who inhabited the country.

Spenser disapproved of the Brehon Laws which were established in Ireland for centuries and had their own methods of punishing infractions committed.  He considered the Brehon Law system ‘backward’ and contributed to the ‘degradation’ of the Irish people.  The Brehon Law system of dealing with murder was to impose a fine or éiric on the accused.  Spenser believed that the correct penalty for murder should be capital punishment.  He was also strongly opposed to the use of the Irish language and stated: ‘Soe, that the speach being Irishe, the hart must needs be Irishe, for out of the abundance of the hart, the tonge speaketh.’  Thus, he was advocating a policy of suppression of the Irish language which, he acknowledged as being synonymous with our national identity.  He also advocated a ‘scorched earth policy’ for Ireland, the results of which were evident to him after the Second Desmond Rebellion.  In an account of the impact of such a policy as observed by him, as follows:

‘…. in a short space there were none almost left, and a most populous and plentiful country suddenly left void of man or beast, yet sure in all that want, there perished not manye by the sworde, but all by the extreamyte of famine … they themselves had wrought.’

Spenser’s strong dislike of Irish rebels is vividly portrayed in this extract.

In A Viewe of the Present State of Ireland he also comments on the manner in which hilltops were used by the Irish as centres of assembly and it is this context that Caimin O’Brien considers Croghan Hill in light of Spenser’s comment:

‘There is greate use among the Irishe, to make assemblies together upon a Rath or hill, there to parlie about matters and wrongs bet ween Towenship and Towenship, or one private person and another………

Besides, at these parlies I have divers tymes knowen many Englishmen and other goode Irish subjects, have been villlanouslie murdered, by moving one quarrel or another amongst them.  For the Irishe never came to these Raths but armed, whether on horseback or on foote which the Englishe  nothinge suspecting; are then commonly taken at advantage like sheepe in a pynfolde.’

(Written on Elizabethan English) ‘divers’ means ‘many’.

Spenser also comments on burial mounds which are built on summits (such as Croghan Hill), and says they had many functions.  He explains why they were built and the effect of Christianity upon them.

‘But besides these two sortes of hilles, there were auncientlie divers others, for some were raysed where there had beene a greate battayle: s a memory or trophies thereof, theres are monuments of buryalls (burials) of the carcasses of all those that were slaine in the fyghte upon whome they did throwe up such rounde mounts, as memorials for them …. For this was their auncyent (ancient) custome, beforer Christianitie came in amongest them that church-yardes were inclosed.’

Clearly, Spenser had an accurate perception of the social significance of hilltops and burial mounds in Irish culture and tradition.

Spenser’s final days

Spenser, as a Planter installed in is estates, courtesy of Queen Elizabeth 1 and responsible for inviting English Adventurers to take over lands confiscated  from the Earl of Desmond was a primary target for the forces of Hugh O’Neill during the Nine Years War. His castle at Kilcolman was burned and Spenser was driven from his lands. He fled to England and died in reduced circumstances the following year, 1599.

However, the impact of Spenser’s visit to Croghan Hill must be assessed.  Clearly, that the atmosphere of spirituality and the simplicity and piety of the holy man at Croghan Hill left a lasting impression on him, insofar, as he did not actively participate in any further violent and murderous acts.  Nevertheless, it is also clear that he had an abhorrence of the Irish people their laws, language and religion which he expressed with definite venom in A Viewe of the Present State of Ireland. Nevertheless, this work was not published during his lifetime.  This, inevitably begs the questions; did he realise that its inflammatory content would provoke violent repercussions or was the spiritual influence of his visit to Croghan Hill a contributory factor?

Croghan Hill and cemetery

Croghan Hill is the root of an ancient volcano that rose out of the deep ocean floor around 340 million years ago. Most of the rock of which the hill is made is either basalt or volcanic ash and rocky debris. Croghan Hill appears to have had a strong presence in the landscape for many thousands of years with evidence of a prehistoric burial mound and later significance as an early Christian site associated with St Brigid and St Patrick. By the fifth century the O’Conors , lords of the Uí Failge tribe (in what is now Leinster) had claimed Croghan Hill as their own. It is this tribe of Uí Failge after which Offaly is named. The hill is a prominent feature in the east Offaly landscape and has been much commented on in the historical literature since the sixteenth century. Close by in the bog the remains of Old Croghan Man were discovered in 2003 and are now conserved and on display in the National Museum of Ireland. The former concrete pillar on top the burial mound was a trigonometrical station used in mapping.

Text: Dr Mary O’Connor
Pictures and captions: Offaly History