When someone uses the word ‘sheriff’ we tend to think of a tall, grizzled man with a wide brimmed hat and a revolver. Gary Cooper in High Noon. Now there was a sheriff. But closer to home the word itself originally comes from ‘shire’, meaning county and the role has had many different definitions over the years. Think ‘Sheriff of Nottingham’ – Robin Hood’s antagonist – at one end of the spectrum and the man who sends the bailiffs to take back that couch you can’t pay for, at the other.
Probably the most unfortunate sheriff in Irish history is a man who had a distinguished literary career in England. In his most celebrated work he spent six books brown nosing Queen Elizabeth 1. This was a very healthy thing for a poet to do. Less healthy was being an English planter in Ireland in the late 16th century living on land confiscated from Irish rebels.
The sheriff in question was the writer Edmund Spenser whose long poem, The Faerie Queene, is still one of the most highly regarded works in the English language.
But Spenser had a whole other side to him, far removed from poetic sensibility. Born in London, probably in 1552, he came to Ireland at the age of twenty-eight in the service of the Lord Deputy, Lord Grey. He fought alongside Walter Raleigh at the siege of Smerwick in Kerry during the rebellion of James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald in 1580. At the end of the siege Grey had five hundred of the Spanish and Italian defenders of Smerwick fort butchered. Only the officers were spared. Noblesse oblige, don’t you know.
Like and enterprising carpetbagger Spenser benefitted from the subsequent plantation of Munster. He settled on the Kilcolman estate near Doneraile in Cork. He also acquired land overlooking the Munster Blackwater where he is said to have written some of the Faerie Queen under an oak tree. The oak was destroyed by lightning in the 1960s.
Spenser published the first three volumes of his most famous work in 1590 and duly received a pension of £50 a year from the Faerie Queene herself. If he was hoping to get a job out of sucking up to Her Majesty he probably shouldn’t have antagonized her hatchet man Lord Burghley with his next piece of work Mother Hubberd’s Tale. Getting into Burghley’s bad books meant that it was back to Ireland for Spenser. There his first wife died in 1594 and he married Elizabeth Boyle, a relative of Richard Boyle, the 1st Earl of Cork, one of the great survivors of Irish Elizabethan history.
Just because most of Spenser’s income came from his Irish estates rather than his pension or his poetry didn’t mean he had to like the native Irish. And he duly obliged by disliking them and almost everything about them. In a pamphlet entitled A View of the Present State of Ireland he essentially adopted the position that the peasants were revolting and the only way to stop them revolting was to destroy their language and customs. He also had a high opinion of a scorched earth policy in the event of war with the Irish. This would helpfully deprive said revolting peasants of food and sustenance.
So it was ironic that Spenser himself was the one who was scorched in the Nine Years War. Shortly after his appointment as Sheriff of Cork in 1598 the forces of Hugh O’Neill burned the poet’s castle. He was obliged to return to London. There he fell on hard times and died at the age of forty-six. He is buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.
Although the author of many celebrated works he’s possibly best remembered for a quatrain written when his annual pension was overdue, it goes …
I was promis’d on a time,
To have a reason for my rhyme:
From that time unto this season,
I receiv’d nor rhyme nor reason.
Edmund Spenser was appointed Sheriff of Cork four hundred and eighteen years ago, on this day.