The barley bowed beneath the rough hands of the stranger as he bobbed their heads to test their health. The harvest melted into the landscape as it stretched to the shore of the lake where it extended its beige tentacles beneath the water and beached itself on some of the adjacent islands.
The stranger broke off a spike of barley and separated a swollen grain, which he split between his teeth.
“This is good land,” he said as he spat the husk out.
He looked up at his companion, sat upon a horse-driven cart.
“The Lord Deputy will be pleased if we can help bring these lands into the fold,” he continued.
“I don’t know why we bother to bribe these savages,” came the scornful reply. “Their allegiances flutter in the wind so often it’s not worth wasting good wheat seed. We should wait for them to kill themselves off in some bitter feud about who owns the best bog and clear the survivors off the land. Only when these lands are truly English, will they know the Queen’s peace.”
The stranger’s eyes returned to the landscape, and he sucked in the beauty of the rolling hills, the woodlands and how the land slipped into the lake and protruded in the knees and elbows of islands of a contented bather. His mind shredded the beautiful landscape and cast it upon weighing scales, as he quantified the value of everything in cattle and coin. He turned to his friend.
“Bury your opinions deep under your weighty commission for each chieftain swearing loyalty to the crown. Nobody wants to know what you think. Now let us go and fill our pockets so we may return to England with a head full of tales to embellish to impress young ladies and if that fails, pockets full of coin by which to dazzle them long enough to blind them from your ugliness.”
The stranger held up the remains of the head of barley and saluted his companion.
“For the crown, for the Lord Deputy, for your fat belly!”
The ugly man patted his stomach, a well-rounded collection of covetousness. They laughed, and the stranger jumped up onto the cart, and with a lash of the whip, they continued towards the village.
The village lay before the strangers, neatly tucked into a gap between the luscious forests and the gentle lapping of the lake waves upon the shore. Fields of barley were hemmed in at every available opening, as a protective barrier against starvation. The cows roamed freely, grazing on the delicious grass with a profusion of young calves to support the healthy herd. Pigs poked around the periphery of the village, searching the nooks and crannies of the village palisade and the gnarled and knotted roots of the trees on the shore of the lake for any morsels of food they could find. The village had thrived under several years of peace. However, the scars of raiding scratched the surface of the prosperous façade, as testified further up the lakeshore by the blackened soil of burnt crops. The stranger smiled. He had his leverage.
The two men and their cart entered the boundaries of the village. Their English accents betrayed them as the villagers approached and conversed. The villagers cleared a path for the strangers and gave directions towards the shoreline and the chieftain’s house. A boy ran ahead to warn of the approaching visitors.
The boy ran to his chieftain who was warming himself by a fire at the lakeside. The chieftain made jokes with men from the village who sat with him. The boy stopped, for his leader looked jovial and at peace. But the chief had noticed him.
“What do you want boy? Release your tongue!”
“Sir, sir! Strangers are here! Englishmen with a cart full of grain!”
The chieftain scowled.
“Send them here and be quick about it, boy! I suggest the rest of you come back when I have seen these visitors off!”
The men of the village got up and walked away. Two of them went and escorted the Englishmen into the chieftain’s presence. The strangers bowed; the men stayed in case they had invited in assassins.
“My name is Peter Squire of Leicester, and this is my friend, John Brodie of Liverpool. We bring you greetings from Queen Elizabeth and her Lord Deputy in Dublin,” said the husk-eating stranger.
“I am Cathal O’Keenan Maguire, the chieftain of this village and the surrounding countryside. Sit my friends, eat, drink but be quick about your business. It is harvest time, and I am expecting the men from the Maguire to collect their dues any day now. If they catch you here, it’ll mean your deaths. Your deaths will mean my lands full of Galloglass until I can fill the Maguire’s pockets with enough reassurance of coin that I am loyal. If that fails I’ll have to send him the first male born of the finest men of the village to persuade him of my loyalty. As time is short, excuse my bluntness, but why are you here and what have you got to offer me?”
“The protection of the crown and an army far more powerful than all the Gaelic lords can put together!” replied Peter Squire.
“As much as I yearn to be free of the yoke of the Maguire, or any lord I must pay duties to, he is my kin. Connor Roe Maguire has offered me better terms for my loyalty, and he is the lord of the closer branch of the Maguire clan. But as soon as I make a move against Cuchonnacht, my rival for control of the village, Michael O’Flanagan, will be straight to the Maguire to usurp me!”
“We come with the offer of lands and titles supported by the crown. Your son can inherit your title and your lands. You can pay a nominal rent to the crown and owe no loyalty, duty or warriors to a chieftain who imprisons your children and forces them to go and fight to extend their power. You can have the protection of Connor Roe and live a life of peace.”
“I want peace but fear it will not come in the way you suggest. You want to side with one Maguire against another. I will be the pips squeezed and squashed on the floor when the winner grips his prize.”
“There will be no prize and no squeezing when the crown gets its way. There will be no clan wars, no retributions. You will all be landed gentry, not interfering with one another, everyone minding their own business, all under the protection of the crown.”
“The crown is weak in this part of the country. Cuchonnacht Maguire keeps the peace through his political skill while the old lords of Ulster slog it out for supremacy. That is why we have peace, not because of the crown.”
“The crown is coming to assert herself on her lands of Ireland once more. Look at the O’Reillys to the south. Have they not been quiet since they ceded their lands to the south? Hasn’t the raiding stopped? Surely it is best to be on the winning side?”
“I’ll be long dead before your Queen does any winning.”
“I’m sorry you have so little faith in the crown. However, we have brought you a gift of wheat seed as a declaration of goodwill from the Queen. You have no wheat, but it is merely the first down payment from your mutually beneficial relationship with the crown.”
“And how does the crown assert herself in Fermanagh exactly?”
“Through Connor Roe Maguire and your support for him.”
“I cannot support Connor Roe now. He is weak, and Cuchonnacht Maguire is strong and supported by the O’Neill clan. Now leave, before you get me in trouble and Cuchonnacht replaces me with a more pliant chieftain.”
“Thank you for hearing us out and please have the grain seed as a gift from the crown, as a reward for being a loyal subject.”
“Leave the grain and come back when Cuchonnacht is old and frail, which I fear will not be too long.”
“So we have your support if Connor Roe was ever to put himself forward to become the Maguire?”
“If those circumstances were ever to arise, then Connor Roe would be my favoured candidate.”
“Then we bid you farewell.”
Cathal called his men and instructed them to unload the wheat seed, and the strangers departed with an empty cart.
Several days later, Cuchonnacht Maguire’s men rode past freshly hoed fields filled with the precious wheat seed as they made their way to see the chieftain. They came with empty carts to fill with their dues in barley. But behind them another wagon rattled along the dirt road, filled with prisoners. The men set their carts down in the centre of the village and waited for Cathal O’Keenan Maguire. Cathal’s men went to the stores to fetch the sacks of barley they had set aside from the harvest. Once the bags were on the carts, Cathal came to speak to the Galloglass constable, the leader of Cuchonnacht’s party.
“Not travelling via boat this summer?” said Cathal pointing to the lake.
“Some of the chieftains are paying with cattle, and we have to drive them overland. A much longer and arduous trip for me this year.”
“I trust all is in order and you have received twenty percent of our crop as agreed?”
“I have looked in your stores, and I will take your word, for what it’s worth, that you have paid in full.”
“What do you mean ‘for what it’s worth’? You are addressing a Maguire chieftain, not some mercenary lackey you can throw a couple of coins at for his obedience!”
“And you, sir, are addressing Donal MacCabe, the recently promoted Galloglass constable and enforcer for Cuchonnacht Maguire in these parts. Let me reassure you, I know who I am addressing. While we collect dues, we are also searching for disloyal chieftains, ones who take a fancy to the English coin, seed or presents of Connor Roe’s cattle.
“We noticed on our way in you had planted a new crop, straight after harvesting the other one. Now I said to my men, I can’t remember you planting so many crops when I was here six months ago, or a year ago! How did dear Cathal come into such good fortune to be able to plant a second crop? Was it all the protection the MacCabes gave him to save him from being raided by the O’Reillys? Well, yes, and that is partly why the Maguire gets his twenty percent, thank you very much. But if Cathal O’Keenan Maguire is doing so well, surely he should contribute more? Since I have recently gotten promoted, surely I should try and impress the Maguire and increase his yield from this area, and we’ll all get rich together? Wouldn’t that be nice? But the Maguire wouldn’t like me taxing loyal subjects too much, so I thought twenty percent is just fine for everyone. That is until I discovered this!”
Donal clicked his fingers, and his men threw Peter Squire and John Brodie off the back of the prisoners’ cart and onto the ground.
“These two confessed to giving you the Queen’s wheat. Now we like to know where everybody stands. It keeps everything nice and simple. These people support the clan and the Maguire. These people should piss off back to the Pale and the English where they belong. Now, these two, where do they belong? I’d say in the middle of a dark wood with their throats slit by robbers trying to steal their wheat seed. But you? I don’t know where you stand. Do you support the Maguire? Will you sell him out if the price is right? But in your favour, you have an abundance of crops, more than enough for you and your villagers. The Maguire needs loyal servants in this area and to protect his interests from Connor Roe and his English masters. So it may be in everyone’s interests that the Maguire looks upon you favourably, exercise a bit of forgiveness, to take you back into the fold. The best way for you to show loyalty and to repay the Maguire’s generous offer is to extend coin and keep to a troop of Maguire Galloglass. What do you say to that?”
“No! Er, I mean we have only had one good crop and are surely too far away from the county borders for the Maguire to base some Galloglass here! The O’Reilly raids have died down! We would be more than willing to make a greater contribution to the Maguire if that should meet his needs?”
“Here is a perfectly fine place for my master’s Galloglass. Please make preparations for them to make them feel welcome. Maybe they could replace the children that your disloyalty made us take? Nevertheless, they will be with you in due course.”
Cathal gasped for breath as he felt his control slipping away, as his disgruntled villagers filed back to their homes.