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IRELAND and ENGLAND

(Part 1: The Middle Ages)

 Until very recently, histories of Britain were actually histories of England. A reader might have been forgiven for believing that the affairs of Scotland and Ireland had no importance in the history of the British Isles. As for the Netherlands, Portugal, Saxony, Lübeck, Morocco... you won't even find them in the indexes. Just correcting these false impressions has provided the motivation for some first-rate historical writing in recent years.

 I must also excuse myself, as an ignorant and arrogant Englishmen, for jumping in where angels are terrified of treading. In my defence I offer the excuse that according to my DNA I am one quarter Irish. The records provide no explanation for that. Maybe a recent forebear succumbed to sweet murmurings of “acushla” [a chuisle = “(my) vein”] and “alanna” [a leanbh = “(my) child”] in an all too receptive ear.

 Ireland has not always been an impoverished victim on the outer fringes of the British Isles. The last place in Western Europe where it was possible to get an education in Greek was Bangor, Co. Down. Irish immigrants created Scotland. Ruling families in Wales had Irish backgrounds. Indeed some of the stories in the Mabinogion are of Irish origin. The Lleyn Peninsula in North Wales is so called because it was populated from Leinster. There was a considerable Irish colony in North Devon. St Piran, the patron saint of Cornwall, is really St Ciarán. St Ives in Cornwall (in Cornish Porth Ia) takes as its foundation legend the story that St Ia crossed the sea from Ireland on a leaf. (I have not been able to explain “leaf”. Perhaps it was slang for “curragh”).

 What we now think of as the Celtic Church, because it did not belong exclusively to Ireland, found itself at loggerheads with the Church of Rome. An outward quarrel over the correct date for Easter masked a more fundamental disagreement over church organisation. The Celtic Church relied on holy men to set themselves up as hermit monks. These men would become the nucleus of monasteries; they themselves would be designated “saints”. The name for a church set up by such groups was cill after the Latin cella, meaning “monastic cell”. Place names like Cill Airne (Killarney) or anywhere in Scotland or Ireland beginning “Kil” indicate how Christian pioneers dictated the pattern of settlement. The Manx for “church” is still keeyl, referring to both the building and the organisation.

 Compare this arrangement with the Roman hierarchical system, where the appointed bishop was the prime administrator. Where the Roman system prevailed, the word for “church” in both senses derives from the Greek phrase ecclesia kyriake, usually translated as “The Lord's Assembly”, though the word ecclesia, cognate with the Latin exclusio, meant “locking out”. The early church was a club for members only. Anyway, once the Western Empire collapsed (AD 478), the Bishops of Rome saw it as their responsibility to keep the Empire going as a religious establishment. (See St Augustine's “City of God”). Augustine was sent to Britain (AD 597) not to convert the pagans as is often imagined, but to convert the local Christians to the Roman style of administration. Kings were glad of bishops to run their fledgling civil services and to impart legitimacy to their original status as leaders of armed gangs. The most monumental decision was made at the Synod of Whitby (AD 664), where the romanisers prevailed over the Irish clergy based in Iona. The Irish were not helped by the Welsh, who, still smarting over their lost lands, boycotted the proceedings.

 The next massive upheaval came about probably through global warming. Scandinavia became more habitable, and an increased population, taking advantage of the newly invented longboat, established a trading empire from Dublin to Kiev. The flexible, tough, clinker-built longboat (Welsh llong = “ship”, Irish bád = “boat”), could cross the Atlantic under sail or oars, could navigate small rivers, and could be ported, using rollers, between river systems. Even so, when the Norsemen discovered Iceland in AD 870 they found Irishmen living on the most southerly islands (Vestmannaeyjar = “Irishmen Islands”). Presumably they were monks. Ireland, now cut off from England by religious disagreements, was attached to Constantinople by the Norse ship-borne trading empire. To this day it is said that 60% of the place names in Western Scotland are actually Norse, though spelled as if they were Gaelic, or in a subsequently anglicised form. The Norse divided Ireland into its four provinces, and they founded as trading stations Dublin, Wexford, Waterford and Limerick. (The latter was as far up the Shannon as it was conveniently possible to take a laden longboat). The “ford” in Wexford and Waterford is not the English ford (river crossing) but the Norse fjordr (sea inlet). The Norse personal name Olaf occurs in Russia as Oleg and in Scotland as mac Amhlaibh (Macaulay).

 Ireland was not a passive colony of the Vikings. Local Irish leaders asserted themselves whenever they could, culminating in Brian Boru's victory (and death) at Clontarf in 1014. (Bríann fell ok helt velli “Brian fell but held victory”). Dublin remained a Norse city under its own king. The Irish had attempted to reduce the prevalance of warfare by appointing a recognised successor (tanaiste) to the overall King (Ardrí). But this only caused more fighting, since there were two offices rather than one to quarrel over. It was perfectly natural for warring nobles to seek assistance from their friends and relations in Wales, as they had done for centuries. So it was no big deal when Dermot McMurrow asked Strongbow, Earl of Pembroke, to help him out. Unfortunately for him, and for Ireland, the Earl of Pembroke was not a Welshman but a Norman, and a vassal of the King of England. That is how all the troubles started.

 The Norman king of England, Henry II, was very well aware that the French kingdom was massively weakened by the fact that the Dukes of Normandy could call on the resources of the Kingdom of England in any disputes. He certainly did not want the Earl of Pembroke to play the same game by establishing a power base across the Irish Sea. So in 1155 he persuaded the English Pope Adrian IV (Nicholas Brakespeare from Abbots Langley) to authorise an invasion of Ireland. In 1171 he landed with his army at Waterford. The Pope had invested him with the title “Lord of Ireland”. An important consideration from the Pope's point of view was that he expected Henry to impose Roman Christianity on Ireland. The Irish were not good Catholics! His right to confer the title “Lord of Ireland” derived from “The Donation of Constantine”, a document in which the Emperor gave the Bishop of Rome temporal authority over central Italy plus all the islands off the west coast of Europe. This document, from which the Kings of England derived their authority to rule Ireland, was shown to be a forgery by Cardinal Valla in the 1490's. (It is said that when Valla confronted Pope Julius II with his discovery, Julius replied “I am not in the least surprised”).

 Henry II could not swallow up the whole of Ireland. In fact, English power was restricted to Dublin and, on and off, most of Leinster. There are some interesting linguistic points to be observed. The first is that nobody of any consequence spoke English. Nobody on the English side spoke Irish. The Dubliners spoke Norse. Communication with the city authorities had to be conducted either in Norse or in Latin. Until the early nineteenth century a language was spoken in Co. Wexford that was derived from Old English but which was radically different from Modern English. It was spoken by the descendants of Henry's abandoned common soldiery.

 And that is how it remained, largely. The Lords of Ireland built a big fence round Dublin (the Irish Pale) to keep the Irish out. Greater ambitions petered out because of wars elsewhere (Wales, Scotland, France) or within England. Besides, physical communications between Ireland and England, as opposed to Ireland and Wales, or Ireland and Scotland, were very difficult. We have to wait until Tudor times to see greater efforts by the Kings of England to assert their authority.

Contacts

Email (admin): JimW@mough.co.uk
Email (wisdom of the aged): JohnW@mough.co.uk