25/07/2017 by socialistfight
By JOHN MINAHANE
For those of you interested in Mediaeval and Norman times, Henry II, Laudibiliter and all that my old school friend has a few observations
Is it possible that the way academics write Irish history might be changing? Two books published in the past few months take a combative attitude and try to give Gaelic Ireland some of its due. And this is unusual, because not giving Gaelic Ireland its due has been the settled policy of the mainstream of the history-writing establishment in recent times. For such people Ireland is most significant as Hibernia Anglicana, “English Ireland”.
Richard Cox wrote a history of Ireland with that title for the emerging Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, a pioneering work which was published while the Williamite War was still in progress (1689-90). In his introduction he said that the history of the other Ireland had been written by Geoffrey Keating, and it was only a mass of silly fables.
And a modern work written in the same tradition and in the same spirit? It’s easy to find one, but The Geraldines and medieval Ireland: the making of a myth, edited by Seán Duffy and Peter Crooks (Four Courts Press, 2016), will do as an example. Actually, the Geraldines brought their “origin myth” with them to Ireland, as one gathers from Gerald of Wales: the idea that they were of Trojan descent. This might be an interesting theme to explore, but the authors and editors ignore it. So far as the title theme is concerned, they are only interested in finding myths put round by Irishmen and sneering at them.
Otherwise there is some interesting information about castle-building, etc., but the focus is firmly on English Ireland. The rich relationship and dialogue of the Gaels with the Geraldines is virtually blanked out. A key aspect of that dialogue is the poetry written in Irish to, and by, Geraldine aristocrats. It is treated in the most condescending and perfunctory way by the token expert on what the Gaels had to say, Katharine Simms.
The Geraldines and Medieval Ireland is listed as No. 1 in the Trinity Medieval Ireland Series. To a large extent Trinity has dominated the history of what is called medieval Ireland. There was a time when promising ideas were developing there. Edmund Curtis, who began his working life as a factory labourer, had a broad historical awareness that couldn’t be bounded by Trinity’s big wall. He started to explore the Gael-Gall relationship, and particularly the Gael-Geraldine relationship, with fresh eyes and a sense of the possibilities. But his student Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven killed off that line of thinking and turned back to Hibernia Anglicana, and that is where Trinity has been ever since. (The Geraldines volume has a sniffy put-down of Curtis, by Robin Frame: “a mixture of the insightful and the misguided”.)
So then, Trinity Medieval Ireland Series No. 2 comes as rather a shock: The Irish Church, its Reform, and the English Invasion by Donnchadh Ó Corráin. This is a robust defence of the Gaelic church in the period leading up to the invasion, when a variety of interested parties alleged that it was decadent, unchristian, pagan and barbaric. Ó Corráin says it was no such thing. Gaelic Christianity was continuing to develop as it had done for centuries, and it had a rich popular vigour expressed in the cults of the saints.
The Cathars were the leaders of the great civilisation in the Languedoc in the 11th and 12th centuries, tolerant of Jews and Mohammedans, of Christians and heretics alike. It was wiped out by the Northern French barbarians led by Simon De Monfort, father of the hero of the Battle of Evesham, under the instructions of Pope Innocent III – and innocent he surely was not:
During this periodan estimated half-million Languedoc men, women and children were massacred, Catholics as well as Cathars. The Crusaders killed the locals indiscriminately – in line with the the famous injunction recorded by a Cistercian chronicler as being spoken by his fellow Cistercian, the Abbot in command of the Crusader army at Béziers. The Counts of Toulouse and their allieswere dispossessed and humiliated, and their lands later annexed to France. Educated and tolerant Languedoc rulers were replaced by relative barbarians; Dominic Guzmán (later Saint Dominic) founded the Dominican Order. Within a few years the first papal Inquisition, manned by the Dominicans, was established explicitly to wipe out the last vestiges of resistance.
And yet St. Bernard of Clairvaux called the Gaels “Christians in name, in fact pagans”; Pope Alexander III referred to “that people of Ireland who, ignoring the fear of God, in unbridled fashion wander at random through the depths of vice”; Gerald of Wales said the Irish were “a filthy people”, and so on. What was all that about?
Sex, Marriage and the Gaels
Mainly it was about sex and marriage. In Europe the Church was promoting an incredibly wide restriction of kinship degrees in marriage, to the seventh degree: “one could not marry one’s sixth cousin or closer – and this absurd rule was expressly formulated in a canon of Pope Alexander II in 1076” (p. 50), though a century and half later this was reduced to the fourth degree. To the Gaels, either seventh degree or fourth degree was way beyond the bounds of reality. Traditional Irish kinship structures were such that families needed to keep open the option of marriage between closely related partners, down to and including first cousins (so as to safeguard status and eligibility, etc.)
This was clearly understood, and Irish lawyers found examples in the Bible to justify Gaelic custom: “the chosen people of God did this, so we can do it too!”. Someone put this argument to the great Anglo-Norman propagandist Gerald of Wales, and he was suitably scandalised.
Apart from that, the Church was pressing hard to establish the principle that marriage was monogamous and indissoluble (except by Church annulment). By the twelfth century no one in Europe was challenging the principle. Practice, though, was another matter. Actually, the differences between what Gaelic Christians did and what European Christians did weren’t all that great.
“The Merovingians had been genuinely polygynous. The Carolingians were less so: they mostly practised serial monogamy, which was enabled by easy divorce and remarriage, and they mated polygynously, though in Carolingian times the sons of concubines did not tend to succeed. Elsewhere in Europe, in Norway for example, polygyny continued and the children of concubines were not excluded from succession. What happened in Western Europe generally in the eleventh and twelfth centuries was that upper-class men (women had less freedom) married monogamously and mated polygynously, that is to say, they had one lawful wife, more-or-less in accord with the rules of the church, and relative ease of annulment made new licit wives possible. Besides they had what were, in the eyes of the church, seriously sinful illicit relationships with other women – many were concubines within the lordly household, many more were casual contacts outside it. In the eyes of the church these were sinful acts, not marriage partnerships” (p. 53).
So what was it that made the Gaels so awful? They were awful because they gave all or nearly all of those other women and their offspring rights. Gaelic law permitted divorce (some of the accepted grounds were also grounds for church annulment). Therefore the serial monogamy practised by Gaelic lords was legally marriage with a succession of wives, but without the church’s sanction. Furthermore, alongside the principal, respectable wife (cétmuinter) recognition was given to a secondary, disrespectable wife (an t-adaltrach, the adulteress) and possibly others besides.
As for the rule of clerical celibacy, it was flouted as much in Europe as in Ireland. But only in Ireland was there a major institution of hereditary clerical management: the office of erenachs or coarbs. These were the people who ran the individual churches. They had the main responsibility for the given church’s activities, including patronage of poetry and art. Usually they had taken the initial clerical orders, but often they weren’t priests. But in any case they handed down their office from father to son. They were a major target of the 12th century reformers: “an evil and adulterous generation” Bernard of Clairvaux calls the coarbs of Armagh (in fact, they seemed to confine themselves to one wife and they did many constructive things, especially peace-making).
What about the non-noble population?
“Though the objects (at least in Ireland) of well-developed pastoral care, the lower orders did much as they pleased: illicit relationships with women were repeatedly denounced, and the repetition alone shows that the denunciations had little effect, in Ireland or anywhere else. In Ireland, as in England, there was nothing unusual about a well-to-do commoner having a wife and a concubine – and this may be a long-established North European practice. The Irish, then, were not more debauched than their continental peers nor more vicious in their social mores; they were just differently organised, confident in their own institutions, and reluctant to change them” (p. 55).
The Phases of Reform
But a militant, highly political European Christianity, which was developing in association with the Normans, was determined that Ireland would change. The reform movement, and the lurid abuse of Gaelic Christianity that went with it, came in three phases. It began shortly after the Norman conquest of England. Lanfranc, William the Conqueror’s archbishop of Canterbury, was a very ambitious man. He was thinking in terms of primacy not just over York but over the whole of Britain and Ireland as well.
Soon he had an understanding with the clergy in the Viking towns of Dublin and Waterford, and Canterbury began to consecrate their bishops. But Lanfranc also seems to have had support and encouragement from Toirdhealbhach Ó Briain, king of Ireland. The O’Briens were still innovative and they hadn’t stopped trying to develop an effective all-Ireland monarchy. Any centralising movement in the culture, even if it had its source on the neighbouring island, must have been attractive to them.
But then, from the very beginning of the 12th century, Canterbury was outflanked by an indigenous Irish reform movement. (And the contemporary O’Brien, Muircheartach, king of Ireland with opposition, switched his support to the locals.) The famous Malachy, with other very ambitious and energetic people, joined the reformers. Within fifty years they had made considerable headway, and there are two clear proofs of this.
Firstly, a structure of bishoprics and archbishoprics was set up which has lasted to the present day. And secondly, foreign monastic orders with a reforming mentality and without Gaelic influences were imported into Ireland and established in many places – principally the Cistercians and the Arrouaisians, both launched by Malachy. What the reforming bishops and the new monastic orders both sought to do was to take over the lands, properties, tithes etc. of the Gaelic monasteries. But they were not able, or not even willing, to provide the religious and cultural services that the old monasteries had provided. The term Ó Corráin uses for this is “asset-stripping” (p. 118).
But next, with the Irish reform movement at its height, there was a strange complication. Was it Canterbury trying to get revenge for being sidelined? Or was it just English churchmen loyally serving the ambitions of King Henry II? At any rate, within four years of the synod of Kells (1152), where the structure of four Irish archbishoprics was established by a specially-sent papal legate, there were various English churchmen in Rome asking Pope Adrian IV to approve an invasion of Ireland by King Henry II. The invasion was required in the interests of Christianity – nothing else would do, the barbarous and vicious Gaels were out of control. The Pope took his time and waited to be asked more than once or twice, but he didn’t wait too long. He approved the proposed invasion in his bull Laudabiliter:
“You may enter that island and do there what has to do with the honour of God and the salvation of the land. And may the people of that land receive you with honour and revere you as their lord, and that the rights of the churches remain whole and unimpaired.”
(Ó Corráin for some reason finds this passage “deeply ambiguous: the decision to accept Henry II remains with the Irish. But a quick reading might lead to other conclusions” (p. 100). If so, I imagine he’s the only one from Adrian’s day to this who has read it slowly enough. The clear implication in the Pope’s language, especially where he approves the king’s desire “to enter the island of Ireland to subject its people to the laws and to root out from it the weeds of vice”, is that the Irish need decisions imposed on them. And the Pope would have known better than to play “maybes” with Henry II.)
The Irish Bishops and the English Invasion
But King Henry was diverted for a few years, he didn’t carry out his plan, and the Irish reformers, on the other hand, carried on their reforming… And then Dermot McMurrough took his fateful initiative, the invasion happened, and in 1172 King Henry came over to keep the invaders in order. And also (even though he was then under Papal interdict for the murder of Archbishop Thomas à Becket) to put the Irish Church in order. He didn’t meet the bishops personally, but “his programme managers, Ralph archdeacon of Llandaff and Nicholas his chaplain” met them in council in Cashel early in 1172.
“We know nothing of any discussions that preceded their consent to assemble, whether there was any dissent, whether any doubted the propriety of the proceeding, whether any objected to the unseemly haste, whether any considered a king under personal interdict for the killing of an archbishop unfit to summon a national council of the Irish church (or any other church), whether any weighed the political consequences of their actions. The bishops will certainly have known about the privilege of Adrian IV – and they may have read it more closely than some modern historians. However, as papal loyalists, they will have accepted that Henry’s activity in Ireland had some limited, if inexplicit and somewhat dated, papal approval” (pp. 104-5).
In any event, it seems that the bishops of Ireland, led by the permanent papal legate (a Cistercian protégé of Malachy) and three of the four archbishops, said “yes sir, no sir” as required. They let themselves be overwhelmed, reducing themselves to pawns on King Henry’s chessboard. If Gerald of Wales is telling the truth, they agreed that the Irish church would conform to the usages of the English church from then on. They are said to have sworn an oath of loyalty to Henry II and confirmed this in the form of a charter with their seals attached, recognising him and his successors as kings of Ireland forever. And they also denounced the supposedly shocking moral state of the Gaels in letters to the current Pope, Alexander III, lending themselves to Henry’s propaganda. (Alexander, recalling what they had said, declared he was glad that King Henry was taking “that most undisciplined and untamed nation” in hand and commanded them to help him.)
And yet just a few months later we find one of those archbishops taking part in what an annalist describes as “a synod of Ireland held by the province of Connacht, laity and clergy” (Senudh Érenn la Cóicid Connacht, laechaib cleirchib) in the presence of Ruaidhrí Ó Conchubhair, king of Ireland. Obviously, Ó Corráin says, this was Ó Conchubhair’s competitive response to Henry II’s council of Cashel, “but it was too little too late” (p. 110). Is that the right way to see it? Or was Archbishop Cadla Ó Dubthaig doing his best towards finding some modus vivendi in Ireland after the invasion?
Anyhow, to return to the council of Cashel – what did those bishops think they were doing? Ó Corráin can hardly find words to express his contempt.
“Perhaps they let themselves be led on by the papal legate Ó Con Airge, an uncritical and over-zealous reformer who may have seen Henry II as a source of political stability as well as improvement in the church; perhaps they felt threatened, even bullied, by Henry’s reputation and menacing presence; perhaps some of them felt that his intervention and the English attack would come to nothing, and they could temporise until the storm had blown over; perhaps some, or more likely the many, using reform as a flag of convenience, desired to be powerful and rich feudal bishops with a role in royal government, as ministers, chancellors, diplomats and royal judges, like their contemporaries elsewhere in England and continental Europe, and seized their opportunity with alacrity when they thought it had come. If so, they were fatuous beyond measure…
They cannot have been quite unaware how thoroughly William I (the Conqueror) uprooted the native English aristocracy nor could they have expected less from Henry II and his heirs. If this is true, they were prepared to envisage a social revolution that entailed the overthrow of their own ruling cadre and the rise of a foreign land-holding class loyal (at least in theory) to an absent king – all in the interest of an international mother church and an unrealistic programme of perceived moral betterment” (pp. 114, 116).
Certainly, it’s a puzzle – how the bishops read that situation, and what in fact they said. (Someone should write a novel on the council of Cashel.) It’s hard to make a case for the poor devils, since no Irish source gives them a word to say for themselves. But let me try to be their advocate. There is one account from those times which presents an Irish bishop as having some power of independent thought and judgment. It’s a report of a conversation from the early or mid-1180s.
Gerald of Wales, in the presence of some Irish clerics, was orating on his favourite theme of how the Irish were inferior Christians, and he said it was proved by the fact that there were no Irish martyrs. The Archbishop of Cashel made a deft response to this, which Gerald couldn’t resist quoting. “‘It is true,’ he said, ‘that although our people are very barbarous, uncivilised and savage, nevertheless they have always paid great honour and reverence to churchmen, and they have never put out their hands against the saints of God. But now a people has come to the kingdom which knows how, and is accustomed, to make martyrs. From now on Ireland will have martyrs, just as other countries’ (The History and Topography of Ireland tr. John J. O’Meara, sec. 107). – That’s not the comment of a man in the grip of illusions.
Now, a bishop who thought like that (supposing there was a bishop who thought like that in 1172) – what would he have hoped for in the early days of the invasion? Certainly not that the Normans would manage to do in Ireland what they had done in England. But he might well have wanted to temporise. And indeed by the late 1180s Gerald is complaining that the natives have been given time enough to adapt: “Because of the half-hearted dragging out of the conquest over a long period… by usage and experience the natives gradually became skilled and versed in handling arrows and other arms” (Expugnatio Hiberniae tr. Scott and Martin, Bk. 2 sec. 34).
There were, of course, great Anglo-Norman heroes of arms such as John de Courcy, who was delighted to find that his deeds had been predicted by a renowned Irish prophet, Columcille. “John himself keeps a book of prophecies, which is written in Irish, by him as a kind of mirror of his own deeds” (Expugnatio, Bk. 2 sec. 18). Unfortunately, what the prophets had to say was in some respects disappointing. “The Irish have four prophets, Moling, Berchan, Patrick and Columcille, whose books, written in Irish, still circulate among the people. They speak of this conquest… But they hold out no hope of a complete English victory, with the whole island subdued from shore to shore and fortified with castles, much before judgment day” (Bk. 2 sec. 34).
To give King Henry enough to satisfy him, so that he could take himself back to England; to get the Normans listening to Irish prophecies, and buying Irish praise-poems and so on; and as soon as possible to plant the thought in their heads that to conquer the whole island would take them till the Day of Judgment, they would have to live with complication – were there Gaelic churchmen who saw this as their best course? (And yet it’s hard to respect them for allowing the Papal Legate, on behalf of them all, to traduce the Gaels in an official document, which presumably was sent to the Pope.)
The Results of Reform/Invasion
Anyhow, for a variety of reasons but mainly because of the great conservative and assimilative power of Irish culture, the very worst didn’t happen. “The indigenous monastic forms came under great pressure and seemed to disappear, or at least fall below the horizon” (Ó Corráin, p. 119), but this was a development of the reform, which was in progress before the invasion. Over time, though, the Arrouaisians/Augustinians who took over many of the old houses to a large extent went native, like the Franciscans later on.
The erenachs weren’t easy to dislodge, and even when they lost their ecclesiastical status they continued to be landholders and men of hospitality and culture. And in time the reform movement ran out of energy, and the unreformed could breathe again. “The Gregorian reform imposed a relatively shallow superstructure on the pre-reform church, and beneath the carapace much of the early medieval indigenous church survived” (p. 120).
Ó Corráin doesn’t think the reform brought any improvement in pastoral care for the laity (“the reverse is more likely”, p. 121), or that it made the clergy more moral (“concubines took the place of clerical wives who, however, reappeared after some time”, p. 122). The foreign monastic orders didn’t produce any saints and they never equalled the cultural achievements of the older houses. But the Irish church now had the formal structures of “the contemporary European model”, and “the business of souls (and the properties attached to it) was put on a better business footing” (p. 122), and many were satisfied with that. Overall, though, the effects of reform-plus-invasion were negative:
“The English invasion brought the evil of racism to Ireland and the Irish church, and divided the population into those who had the benefit of English law (the colonists and those who could pretend to be such) and those who did not (the Irish, unless granted English law by royal charter). The impact on the Irish church was disastrous.
One suspects that the lower clergy, in Gaelic Ireland and far outside it, lived their lives and went about their business much as they did before the reform, but with the necessary nod to the new order. And the laity kept their saints, sites, cults and devotional practices as they had been long before Hildebrand” (p. 122).
The Gaels and the Cult of Progress
All in all, this is an energetic and long overdue defence of the good name of Gaelic Christianity. Or a renewed defence, to be exact. What Ó Corráin has to say is largely a restatement and expansion of arguments made by Geoffrey Keating at the end of his history of Ireland. The UCC professor neglects to acknowledge this, but he does at least have the good grace to throw in a reference to Keating’s “great history of Ireland, Foras Feasa ar Éirinn” (p. 72).
Ó Corráin revels in describing the concrete material interests and power ambitions of Popes, bishops and reforming monks. But what about all those historians who accepted their charges against Gaelic Christians and repeated them, and elaborated on them, down through the ages to the present? The UCC professor thinks they were either pious or naive, most probably the latter! (p. 2). He too must be a naive historian if he thinks that’s sufficient. The historians don’t live apart from material interest and ambition and structures of power.
It was not for nothing that Geoffrey Keating called Gerald of Wales “the bull of the herd” of all those who had vilified the Irish. His descriptions gave a long perspective and depth to the idea of the Irish as barbarous, or unmodern, or inadequately progressive. I can’t help feeling that Gerald’s writings may have been tampered with in Elizabethan times, though everyone seems to accept them as fully authentic. The following passage from the Topography has a suspicious ring. It sounds a lot more like, say, John Davies than somebody writing four centuries before his time. O’Meara, the translator, says it’s from a 12th century manuscript – is he entirely sure?
“(The Irish) have not progressed at all from the primitive habits of pastoral living.
While man usually progresses from the woods to the fields, and from the fields to the settlements and communities of citizens, this people despises work on the land, has little use for the money-making of towns, contemns the rights and privileges of citizenship, and desires neither to abandon, nor lose respect for, the life which it has been accustomed to lead in the woods and countryside…
Even gold, of which they are very desirous – just like the Spaniards – and which they would like to have in abundance, is brought here by traders that seek the ocean for gain…
They think that the greatest pleasure is not to work, and the greatest wealth is to enjoy liberty.
This people is, then, a barbarous people, literally barbarous. Judged according to modern ideas, they are uncultivated… Their natural qualities are excellent. But almost everything acquired is deplorable” (History and Topography sec. 93).
Descriptions like that, whether or not they are doctored, were substantially accepted and re-elaborated by historians in the 16th and 17th and 18th and 19th centuries. Their writings helped to justify a destruction of Irish society and culture far more extreme than anything the Normans ever dreamed of. Maybe some of the historians were naive. Did none of them have interests?
In the following issue I will review the latest book by Vincent Morley, The Popular Mind in Eighteenth Century Ireland. Morley argues that the poetry composed in Irish in the 18th and 19th centuries is not irrelevant to Irish history, in fact Irish history cannot be understood without it. Academic trends that say or imply otherwise are treated with justified contempt: Irish Historical Studies, the “new British history”, and Jurgen Habermas’s “public space” theory, to name three. And yet, although he strains against prejudices that have grown and mutated in English and Irish schools from the time of Gerald of Wales, Morley himself is confined by academic blinkers – as regards the academies he is much more naive, I fear, than Ó Corráin. But more about this next month.