Medieval Myths about Ireland

The fanciful Welshman

Gerald of Wales (sometimes referred to by his Latin name, Giraldus Cambrensis) was a very interesting chap for many reasons: his grandmother was a mistress of Henry I, his father is the ultimate ancestor of the Barrys of Cork (who are famous for their tea), he was a monk, and he lived in Paris for a time. Oh, and he wrote a book (Topographia Hibernica, “The Topography of Ireland”) which denigrated the Irish and provided centuries of imperialists with invented fodder to argue that the Irish could not take care of their own affairs, and so should be given a kindly hand in doing so… Yeah… Anyway… Gerald visited Ireland twice, in 1183 and 1185, but doesn’t seem to have strayed very far from the Norman strongholds of Cork, Waterford, and Dublin: at one point he says that the interior of Ireland has many high mountains, which it does, except for the one small detail that it doesn’t. But we’ll let that slide, because, as you will soon see, this is not the strangest notion Gerald had about Ireland, not by a long shot.

I think Gerald was told a few Tall tales by an Irishman…

Gerald wrote that, not only do Irish badgers dig and scrape out holes in the earth for refuge and defence, some of them are born to serve (Bk. I, ch. 19). He informs us that one badger will hold a stick in its mouth and lie on its back while others pile dirt and stone on it. When fully loaded, the other badgers would then grasp the stick in their own mouths, as a handle, and drag the bizarre living bucket out of the sett. Apparently Welsh beavers did something similar…

The Welshman was also told that nothing poisonous lived in Ireland, and that any venomous creature that brought to the island immediately died, sometimes explosively (Bk. I, chs. 21-25). The appearance of a frog in Ossory (a kingdom which lay between Leinster and Munster) was taken as an evil portent of the coming of the English to Ireland… He also notes that this strange inability of poisonous animals to live in Ireland decided to whom the Isle of Man belonged: since poisonous reptiles live on it, Man must be British, not Irish (Bk. II, ch. 48).

The islands in the lakes, and around the coast, of Ireland appear to have had some unique properties (Bk. II, chs. 37-39). There was an island in a lake in north Munster where, if any female creature set foot upon it, they would instantaneously die. On another island, nobody could every die, but when they grew withered and worn and tired of life they sought help to transport them off the island (medieval precedence for assisted suicide?). On an island off the coast of Connacht innumerable corpses had been left out in the open air, where they remained without corruption or decay for centuries, such that men could recognise their ancestors by their faces. Oh, and for some strange reason, mice hated to be on this island, to the point that they would throw themselves into the sea once they realised where they are.

Apparently ravens could not alight upon the earth, or eat,  anywhere near Glendalough on the feastday of Saint Kevin (3 June), because, when the saint was living, a raven spilled his milk, and he cursed all ravens (Bk. II, ch. 61). Gerald also relates the interesting properties of a certain bell which was kept in the land of Mactalewus: if it wasn’t exorcised each night with a specially composed prayer, it would appear the next morning many miles away in the church at Clonard in Meath (Bk. II, ch. 66). Perhaps Irish monks were fond of pranking one another after a few too many sips of whiskey…

Gerald, after examining some of the miracles of Irish saints, concludes that:

“… just as the men of this country are, during this mortal life, more prone to anger and revenge than any other race, so in the eternal death of the saints of this land that have been elevated by their merits are more vindictive than the saints of any other region.” (Bk. II, ch. 83)

Yeah, he’s not wrong there; Irish saints seemed to have been more ‘Dirty Harry’ than ‘turn the other cheek’.

Some nice things that he said,

Gerald reckoned that the very air of Ireland promoted good health, such that there was little need for doctors (Bk. I, ch. 26), and that anyone who lived in Ireland never suffered from any sickness or ailment, other than death. Which is nice of him to say, but Irish Law made explicit provisions for doctors, hospices, and the care of the sick. He did note the rain (how could he not?), but that this was actually a good thing, since the overall climate was good for one’s health (he had some very nasty things to say about dry, sunny places!).

The Irish were, Gerald reckoned, incomparable when it came to music, and that the Welsh and Scots strive to emulate Irish music (Bk. III, ch. 94).

And some not-so-nice things…

Gerald did write that the Irish have

“… beautiful upright bodies and handsome and well-complexioned faces… fully endowed with natural gifts…”

but also that

“their external characteristics of beard and dress, and internal cultivation of the mind, are so barbarous that they cannot be said to have any culture… They are a wild and inhospitable people. They live on beasts only, and live like beasts. They have not progressed at all from the primitive habits of pastoral living… 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” (Bk. III, ch. 93)

That’s a little harsh, Gerry; just because the Irish didn’t have the same settlement patterns as you were familiar with doesn’t mean they were beasts. And, by the time the Anglo-Normans invaded, there were a few cities dotted around the island. Maybe Gerald was a prescient Conservative who didn’t like all this hippy communal living, eco-friendly worldview of the Irish… Ah, probably not.

“This is a filthy people, wallowing in vice… They do not avoid incest. They do not attend God’s church with due reverence. … men in many places in Ireland… debauch the wives of their dead brothers.” (Bk. III, ch. 98)

Ah well now, this is just a misunderstanding. Under Irish law it was not uncommon for a man to marry his dead brother’s widow: this was mostly to insure that property stayed within the family, and to ensure her, and her offspring’s, rights were protected. As for not attending the church with due reverence… Well… I’ll let that one lie…

Propaganda

Gerald has a very long list of the vices of the Irish, but he affirms that Ireland is a lovely place. Can you see what he is doing? He is basically offering an argument to his patron, Henry II, that the English should just move in; the Irish aren’t up to much, and sure they don’t hardly use the land at all, it’s a good thing to take it from them. Here we have one of the roots of the colonial myth that has been imposed across Africa, the New World, Asia, and Eastern Europe by Imperialists for centuries. The Topographia Hibernia was accepted as an accurate work on the history and culture of Ireland for hundreds of years, read and reread by successive generations, quoted endlessly to justify the subjugation of the Irish. This, among other reasons, is why history, as an academic discipline, is vital: lies and half-truths are entertaining, and engaging, but they are also misleading, and often cloud real issues. While Gerald’s work is valuable for many reasons (he records in great detail certain aspects of Irish and Hiberno-Norman life, music, and culture, and his attitudes are very indicative of the time), it is also a reflective device: the Topographia Hibernia is propaganda, pure and simple, and though we might laugh at his strange notions now, some still endure in various guises. We can see how he carefully laid his argument, how he planned the myth of a bountiful land left wasting by its native inhabitants. The discipline of history does not accept a written text as gospel, it interrogates it, it seeks out every contradiction and flaw, every accuracy and concordance. This is a very useful skill to have, to be able to analyse in detail the politically motivated writings of long dead authors, which may or may not have had tremendous historic repercussions, not only because it offers some insight into the past, but because we see the same propaganda alive and well in the modern world. You don’t see it? Can you think of any nation that, for ‘historic’ reasons, is subjugating or terrorising another? Can you think of a political party that demonises its opponents? How about a culture whose role in society is sidelined because it doesn’t fit in with the approved ‘norm’? Gerald was writing from a position of imperialistic vitriolic prejudice, a malady which continues to infect the human condition, which can only be shorn away by reason, and the acceptance of all humanity in its wonderous variety.

Advertisements

5 responses to “Medieval Myths about Ireland

  1. Pingback: The 7 wonders of Fore « bluedeckshoe.com

  2. I read Gerald for the first time a couple of years back, in a class called From Conquest to Plague. It was fascinating, and raised in my mind many of the questions you pose in your ending. I thought a lot about Gerald’s claims regarding the Irish and how similar they were to European claims and assumptions about the Native Americans. Who, in many ways, actually had a superior culture. Having also read a lot of anarcho-primitivist stuff, I couldn’t help but make some favorable comparisons. I’m quite sure Gerald didn’t intend it, but I came away from his “history” thinking the Irish sounded quite nice, as well as comparatively sensible. Oops.

    • I can’t say I ever really knew anything about Native Americans, except what TV taught me (!!), and then I moved to Canada and was flabbergasted to learn how complex and varied the First Nation cultures were. Those that lived in coastal BC were, to my mind, rather similar to medieval European cultures. I couldn’t help but identify (in some small way) with the plight of the First Nations when my (white) housemates began to complain about how much land ‘the Indians’ took from them. Yes, how much land the *natives* took from the *colonists*. One of them said it in such a fashion which implied that he expected me to agree; I reminded him of his ancestorial homeland’s (England) attitude towards mine (Ireland), and how I might hold the strange notion that colonialisation and the subjugation of peoples might not be the best thing… The means by which native culture is denegrated, reduced, even mocked, is a very old aspect of conquest, even the Romans did it (Julius Caesar’s short book on Gaul is… interesting; a masterpiece in propaganda). And, yes, some of the attitudes that Gerald is mocking seem perfectly reasonable to me, but maybe that’s only because I am one of the crazy Irishfolk he is trying to surpress… (I was going to make fun of his Cambro-Norman ancestry, and then I recalled my family name, and that my ancestors may have met the bould Gerry, since they too were Norman invaders. Ah, but then they, as the saying goes, became more Irish than the Irish themselves).

      What is an ‘anacho-primitivist’ when they are at home?

  3. Great little summary of the endless entertainment that is Gerald of Wales. I recall a course I had at UCD where he was often at the end of many jokes, while we evaluated and recognised the value of his work. I would point to literary accretion – as is evident in some great saga material – but that’s just not as prevalent here…

    The mountains bit is brilliant. A bit serendipitous, finding this blog!

  4. He’s some craic is Gerry.

    Fun observations i made from Topicgrahpica are, in relation to the assertion about no poisonous thing being able to set foot in Ireland. The book of Leinster’s recension of Lebor Gabala Erenn relates a tid bit about the Fir bolg when slaving away in Greece carrying earth from Ireland in their eponymous bags. Said bags full of Irish dirt was repellent to any poisonous reptile. R.A.S. Macallester who did one of the few translations of it opined that this could be an alternative explanation for the the absence of snakes in Ireland that was previously attributed to Goideal Glas and later to Patrick.

    Also, as an Irish musician myself I was always tickled by his description of Irish music which could have been written about any session in Ireland today.

Comments are welcome, nay, encouraged!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s