Tuesday 16 March 2010

Beyond the Pale; English Perceptions of the Irish

Negative English attitudes towards the Irish date as far back as the reign of Henry II. One could do no better here than examine the things written by the chronicler Gerald of Wales, who visited the island in the company of Prince John. As a result of this he wrote Topographia Hibernia (Topography of Ireland) and Expugnatio Hibernica (Conquest of Ireland), both of which remaind in circulation for centuries afterwards. Ireland, in his view, was rich; but the Irish were backwards and lazy;

They use their fields mostly for pasture. Little is cultivated and even less is sown. The problem here is not the quality of the soil but rather the lack of industry on the part of those who should cultivate it. This laziness means that the different types of minerals with which hidden veins of the earth are full are neither mined nor exploited in any way. They do not devote themselves to the manufacture of flax or wool, nor to the practice of any mechanical or mercantile act. Dedicated only to liesure and laziness, this is a truly barbarous people. They depend on their livelihhod for animals and they live like animals.

Gerald was not atypical; for one can find similar views in the writings of William of Malmesbury and William of Newburgh. When it comes to Irish marital and sexual customs Gerald is even more biting, "This is a filthy people, wallowing in vice. They indulge in incest, for example in marrying-or rather debauching-the wives of their dead brothers."

Even earlier than this Archbishop Anselm accused the Irish of 'wife swapping', "...exchanging their wives as freely as other men exchange their horses." You will find these views echoed centuries later in the words of Sir Henry Sidney, twice Lord Deputy during the reign of Elizabeth I, and in those of Edmund Tremayne, his secretary. In Tremayne's view the Irish "commit whoredom, hold no wedlock, ravish, steal and commit all abomination without scruple of conscience." In A View of the Present State of Ireland, published in 1596, Edmund Spencer wrote "They are all papists by profession but in the same so blindingly and brutishly informed that you would rather think them atheists or infidels."

This vision of the barbarous Irish, largely born out of a form of imperialist condescension, made its way into Laudabiliter, one of the most infamous documents in all of Irish History, by which Adrian IV, the only English Pope, granted Ireland to Henry II, "...to the end that the foul customs of that country may be abolished and the barbarous nation, Christian in name only, may through your care assume the beauty of good morals."

All and every method was to be used in this 'civilizing mission' over time. In 1305 when Piers Bermingham cut off the heads of thirty members of the O'Connor clan and sent them to Dublin he was awarded with a financial bonus. His action was also celebrated in verse. In 1317 one Irish chronicler was of the view that it was just as easy for an Englishman to kill an Irishman as he would a dog. Later when the English control of Ireland shrunk back for a time to The Pale around Dublin, all beyond was considered as given over to savagery, hence the expression 'Beyond the Pale'.

What we see here is the same thing that appears time and again, throughout the whole world, and over all time: it begins when an entire community is condemned as barbarous; it ends with the justification of all and every method in the creation of 'civilization', no matter how barbarous. It is against this background that one must place the Cromwellian Conquest and all that followed, in both Hell and in Connaught


  1. Ana, someone mentioned this on your MyT blog and I thought I'd take a look ... I don't suppose I'm particularly welcome, but I may as well say that it's a good post. Conquest came on the back of propaganda; it continued thus for centuries. It's not hard to establish that Gselic Ireland before and in parallel with the Anglo-Norman conquest was much more complex and certainly less uniformly 'barbarous' than these accounts would allow. It was merely different, with its own customs, law and language, and needed to be denigrated in order to justify the conquest, as you point out.

  2. My mum is from Mayo, Cromwell is a man whose reputation hasn't eased with time lol.

    There was a BBC documentary not so long ago about how the Irish saved British civilisation (maybe they should have added a regret) - revolving around Christianity teaching literacy and Latin etc etc, and how it gave the English and Scots the tools to develope their societies. It was about Irish missionaries who attempted to Christianise the Anglo-Saxons after England became pagan after Roman withdrawal. Anyways, there was apparently competition between Irish Christianity, and the Christianity after the re-establishment of the Catholic Church. One Anglo-Saxon king apparently remarked after rejecting Irish Christianity that Ireland was nothing more than an insignificant nation on the peripherals of the west, and that England would be better off where they can operate at the heart of Europe. I think, this must be the only time when the English were Europhile lol.

    The Irish can be quite sore about the English mocking them, but, that only makes it more irresistible from my POV :).

  3. Brendano, of course you are welcome; I do not bear grudges, but you did make me angry. I just wish that you would accept me for what I am, as I accept you. Yes, perhaps some of my work on My T can be dismissed as 'propaganda', but I always base my conclusions on a hard core of fact. No matter; my thanks and happy Saint Patrick's Day. :-)

    Jimmy, I feel sure the compliment is returned. :-))

  4. Thanks for that, Ana. Happy St Patrick's Day yourself. :-)

  5. Have a good one and don't spend the whole day fighting on My T. :-)

  6. No, not colonialism, just some praise for the impact of the British Empire overall. Still, do not expect consistency from me, OC. :-))

  7. Hi, I just wanted to know the source of the illustration you used for your blog, showing the Irish as cannibals.
    Thanks in advance

  8. Hi, Elo. It's an illustration from Hans Staden's sixteenth century account of cannibalism in Brazil. Not Irish cannibals at all!