Tag Archives: Irish people

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…


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.


Patrick, Destroyer of Worlds.

The Apostle of the Irish.

Saint Patrick is, at best, an enigmatic figure, mostly myth and very little fact. The apparition of this historical character which is held in the public mind is Saint Patrickvague at best, and there are many half- and mis-truths circulating on the Internet and the bookshelves about him. While several of the fantastical elements of his legend have been dismissed from popular consciousness, many more persist, and while there has been a substantial amount of investigation as to who the ‘real’ Patrick was, the myth is sustained. This is, to a certain degree, understandable; fantasy is sometimes more fun than reality, that’s why we made it up. I believe, however, that the history of Patrick, and the manner in which his myth has been used, is far more interesting than the myth itself.

A Guide for the Perplexed.

If you find any of the following ‘facts’ in a book, put it down and walk away; if someone informs you of them, please enlighten them;

1. Patrick was born in Scotland on a specific date (385 is the popular one), began his mission to Ireland on a specific date, and died on a specific date. Sorry, but no; there are no dates for Patrick or anything he did, except that his conversion efforts probably began after 431. He was born in Roman Britain, somewhere on its north-west coast, which includes bits of modern-day England and Wales. And the year of his death is recorded four times in the Annals, which is impressive, since even Jesus (supposedly) only rose from the dead once.

2. He studied at the monastery of Lérins in France, or was a student of St Germanus of Auxerre. No proof for this whatsoever. Not a shred. This little ‘fact’ was invented hundreds of years later to provide this rogue preacher with an honorable pedigree, and to ‘prove’ that he was a legally ordained bishop, and not just some random guy who heard voices.

3. Patrick’s mission covered the whole island of Ireland. Sure, but only if by ‘the whole island’ you mean ‘Connacht and Ulster’. There is no good reason to believe he ventured into Leinster or Munster. Again, this was inserted hundreds of years later by the writers of Armagh who were doing their level best to make themselves top dog over all the Irish churches.

4. He converted all of the Irish to Christianity. Nope. Wrong again. There were already Christians in Ireland, so many in fact that Pope Celestine dispatched a bishop from Rome to rule over this flock in 431, a man named Palladius, who is specifically referred to as ‘the first bishop of the Irish’ by the chronicler Prosper of Aquitaine. These Christians were in Leinster, and so the theory goes that the mission of Palladius was subsumed into the myth of Patrick over hundreds of years so that Armagh could claim the entire island as being under their authority.

Oxalis acetosella

Image via Wikipedia

5. The shamrock/trinity thing. Again, no evidence. Or for the snakes thing (but nobody ever really believed that one anyway, right?), or for his battling with druids, or converting High-Kings at Tara (there weren’t any High-Kings at the time, and they wouldn’t have lived at Tara, it was a ceremonial site). Some reckon that the banishing of snakes is symbolic of his getting rid of the native paganism (which he didn’t, it survived til at least the 7th century) because the druids painted snakes on their bodies. There is no evidence for that, and since there were no snakes in Ireland that image may have been unfamiliar to the native population anyway. He didn’t invent the Celtic Cross (I really don’t know where a certain channel that specialises in history got that one from), and he didn’t superimpose Easter over native traditions, but this would, in fairness, at least follow the well-established pattern of how Christianity co-opted local traditions, although the Paschal celebration had a habit of wandering, and no-one knows what calendar Patrick used.

6. He’s a saint. Oh no wait, he isn’t. Not officially anyway. He was never canonised, but that’s just the old-school way of doing things; many saints were never officially canonised, but given a blanket get-into-heaven-free card. And once he began appearing in stained-glass windows in churches, and people started having parades, and naming things after him, it would have been rather hard for the Vatican to say “ah, hang on, he’s not on our list”, so Patrick is, in a sense, a saint by popular consent, which is how sainthood was decided before the Church started taking the fun out of faith with rules, tithes, and sin.

7. Patrick cunningly converted the Irish with wordplay by replacing their worship of the sun with veneration of the Son. That is just stupid; neither he nor the Irish spoke English, no-one did, it hadn’t been invented yet. And you can’t change any combination of grian or sol into mac or filius (the Irish and Latin for sun and son respectively) by any stretch of the imagination. And besides, the worshiping of things would have been anathema to a Christian; the sun may have been a symbol of Christ or God, but to worship it as God would have been heretical.

8. He was the first Protestant. Again, not invented yet. There have always been schismatics, heretics, dissenters, and reformers in the Christian Church, but Protestantism refers to a very specific movement which began when a man nailed his thoughts to a door over a thousand years after Patrick died. To call Patrick a Protestant is deeply historically inaccurate. He is venerated by the both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches (to varying degrees), and several Protestant Churches, and was accepted as a saint long before all these Churches formally split up to pursue their own careers.

Patrick wanted Us All Dead.

What do we really know about Patrick? Very little, but enough to build a historical figure more interesting than the myth. His second appearance in Ireland seems to have been due to a personal call from God, rather than being dispatched on an official mission from Rome. So right from the start, Patrick is a free radical in the Christian Church. He did convert people, build churches, and all that, but may not have been a popular figure after his death as his cult largely vanishes until Armagh stoke the fires a few hundred years later for their own ends. The most fun possibility about Patrick, in my opinion, was that he was trying to kill everyone. Seriously. Apocalypticism was really popular in the 5th century; some missionaries hoped to accelerate the return of the Messiah by going to the extremes of the Earth to convert whoever they found. Patrick, considering that he wrote a letter defending his actions in Ireland against the disparaging remarks of bishops, might well have been one of these apocalyptic charismatics, not unlike certain elements of American TV evangelism. What may be a wonderful irony is that, because of this letter, Patrick was remembered while the bishops, who may have been the true founders of Christianity in Ireland, were forgotten. Patrick was probably an evangelical Christian who went rogue, a fact that Armagh airbrushed out in their great myth-building books about him, inventing a good and orthodox Christian hero who performed magic tricks. And he didn’t wear a pointy hat.