Luke Gernon (c.1580 – c.1672) was an English-born judge who held high office in seventeenth-century Ireland. He is best remembered today for his manuscript A Discourse of Ireland, which was written in 1620, and first published in 1904. He was the ancestor of several notable descendants, including the poet Nicholas Brady, and Maziere Brady, a long-serving Lord Chancellor of Ireland in the nineteenth century.
In view of his later eminence, it is surprising how little is known of his family background or his early life. He was certainly English by birth and was probably a native of Hertfordshire. He was most likely the Lucas Gernon who entered Lincoln's Inn in 1604; afterwards he is said to have served for a time as a soldier. He arrived in Ireland some time before 1619, in which year he was admitted to the King's Inn. In the same year he became second justice of the Provincial Court of the Lord President of Munster, of which Court he gives some interesting details in his Discourse. He lobbied, unsuccessfully, to be appointed a judge of one of the courts of common law, which would have enabled him to move to Dublin, always the centre of Irish political and social life (although the Irish capital did not impress him: "it resembles Bristol but falls short", he wrote).
He lived for many years in Limerick, a city which, like many travellers of the time, he praised for its beauty, and he remained there until the outbreak of the Irish Rebellion of 1641. Gernon and his family suffered greatly during the Rebellion, as we know from his petition in 1653 to Oliver Cromwell, in which he acknowledges Cromwell's lawful authority and asks for a pension, which it seems had already been promised but not paid. Gernon states that he had lost an estate worth £3000, and that he and his wife and four small children had been forced to "travel in depth of winter through the woods and bogs", whereby one child starved to death and Mrs. Gernon lost the use of her limbs. On this occasion the pension was paid, no doubt because the petition was supported by Roger Boyle, 1st Earl of Orrery and by James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, who seems to have been a close friend of Mrs. Gernon.
At the Restoration of Charles II, Gernon, like most of the Irish judges who had acknowledged the authority of Cromwell, was pardoned for this lapse of loyalty, and his pension from Cromwell of 100 marks a year was continued by the new Government. He was not restored to his old office of second justice in Munster, which was given to John Nayler, but this is hardly surprising since he was now at least 80 years old. The Lord President of Munster's Court was abolished in 1672: Gernon may still have been alive then, although he was dead in 1673 when probate of his estate was granted to Thomas Sheridan. In his later years he lived mainly in Cork.
Although Archbishop Ussher praised Mrs Gernon highly as "a lady of quality", little else seems to be known of her, apart from the fact that she had a family connection with Henry Pierrepont, 1st Marquess of Dorchester, which was useful to her husband. From Luke's petition to Cromwell for redress we know that they had four children, of whom one died young as a result of the family's sufferings in the Rebellion. A surviving daughter, Martha, married Major Nicholas Brady and was the mother of Nicholas Brady (1659-1726), co-author with Nahum Tate of New Version of the Psalms of David (1696), a metrical version of the Psalms. A later distinguished descendant was Maziere Brady (1796-1871), Lord Chancellor of Ireland.
The curious manuscript called A Discourse of Ireland, first published in 1904, seems to have been a long letter which Gernon wrote to an unnamed friend in England. The tone of the Discourse is friendly to the Irish people but it is somewhat condescending, and written entirely from the viewpoint of an English colonist. Gernon, unlike most Englishmen of his era, does not regard the Irish people as being either savage or uncivilised, but believes that they will benefit from English influences; rather coarsely, Ireland is described as a young woman or "nymph" who needs to be "occupied". Significantly he heaps praise on Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork, for many years the dominant English settler in Munster, (and whose son Lord Orrery was his friend and patron), especially for his improvements to the recently founded town of Bandon (although Lord Cork was not, as he sometimes claimed, the actual founder of Bandon).
There are short but valuable descriptions the main Irish towns (although he admits that his descriptions of Galway, Derry and Coleraine which he never visited, are based on hearsay). Dublin, which he compares unfavourably to Bristol, is not surprisingly described in more detail than the others: he notes that Dublin is the most frequented place in Ireland, but gibes that this is "more for convenience than Majesty". There is a sketch of Dublin Castle ("our Whitehall"), by which Gernon was rather impressed: the Castle was encircled by "a huge and mighty wall four square and of incredible thickness, and (there are) many fair buildings witihn". There are also descriptions of the two Cathedrals- St Patrick's Cathedral is the more "vast and ancient", but Christchurch is in better repair- and of the University of Dublin. and the original Four Courts (forerunner of the present Four Courts, though they were located on the other side of the River Liffey).
Limerick, his own city, is also described in some detail. The bridge divides the north town from the south town, the south town (Irish Town) now being largely decayed. He praises the north town (English Town) as "magnificent" in appearance: the High Street is built of marble, in the form of a single building from one gate to another, "like the colleges in Oxford, so that at my first entrance it did amaze me", although he cannot resist a gibe about the dirt and foul smells. (A Spanish visitor in 1584 had given a similarly flattering picture of the city, though without reference to the dirt). He praises St. Mary's Cathedral: "not large but very lightsome, and by the providence of the Bishop (Bernard Adams) fairly beautified within, and as gloriously furnished with singing and organs". King John's Castle was the seat of the Provincial Court of Munster, of which Gernon was a member (this helps date the document to 1620), and of which he gives a brief portrait.
He defends the Irish people against the charge of being savages: "be not afraid - the Irishman is no cannibal to eat you up nor lousy Jack to offend you". He does deplore the general standard of cleanliness among the Irish, and dislikes Irish food, although he found the roast mutton tolerable, and enjoyed Irish whiskey. The principal Irish fault in his view is a certain servility of manner, which, perhaps surprisingly, he acknowledges as being natural in a conquered people. Irish women he praises highly for their beauty, charm and virtue, although he regretted that they age more quickly than English women do. Their virtue, he noted, does not prevent them from drinking with male guests, while it is customary for the men to kiss all the women present. His use of the terms Bean Tí to describe the "woman of the house" and "deoch ar doras" for "drink at the door" or "the parting glass" shows that he had picked up a few Gaelic phrases.
He describes in detail the Irish style of dress, in particular the distinctive fringed mantle worn by the men, and the interior of the typical Irish tower house: "they are built very strong, with narrow stairs, for security". His views on the Irish weather were mixed: he praises the climate for its mildness, but deplores the constant rain. The rain as he points out is more than simply a nuisance: in the previous summer there was such heavy rain that the harvest failed (although England in the early 1620s also suffered several bad harvests due to wet weather).