Bally – Baile (place, home, town, townland)

Bally is one of the most common components of Irish place names, numbering some 6,400.  However, precisely what it means is complicated.  It takes Flanagan some six pages to explain.  Originally it appears to have meant simply a place.  It might even have meant a fort.  Joyce records that that may be why the lighthouse at Howth is called the Bailey because it was built on a promontory fort know as baile. In Cormac’s tenth century Glossary, Flanagan notes, baile is glossed as ráth or fort.

From ‘place’ baile evolved to mean homestead or settlement, referring most likely to the cluster of settlements rather than the unit of land around them.  The arrival of the Normans and the phonetic similarity to villa may have helped ensure its survival as the Normans settled in and adapted to Gaelic society.

Perhaps more directly, the new monastic orders that arrived in Ireland in the mid-12th century, prior to the Normans in 1169-70, had used baile to record grants and endowments of land, content that the term meant a specific unit of land. These are the first records of the use of the term for that purpose.

By the middle of the 11th century, then, when these records began to be kept of who had title to what land, Bally came to describe geographic units.  Again the size was not standard, reflecting the fact that baile was being used to describe the land around settlements of any size.  This evolved so that townlands, the smallest geographic unit, were often called Bally-this or that. Very often baile or bally was associated with a family name, presumably the chief who had possession of the land.  As villages and towns were established, it came to mean one.  The town in question could be of any size, echoing its loose definition of scope and its original meaning of place. 

In the east, as Joyce notes, Bally can be shortened to Bal, as in Balgriffin, Baldoyle, and Balbriggan.

In modern Irish usage, baile means home as in ‘tar abhaile’, come home, or ‘mo sheoladh baile’, my home address. 

So identified with Irish towns and villages that writers often resort to it when dreaming up fictional towns.  Tom Murphy’s 1985 play, Bailegangaire (Baile-gan-gaire, town without laugher) earned its name from the plot.  The BBC’s series (1996-2001) was set in the fictional Ballykissangel which somehow derived from its Irish fictional place name Bally Coisc Aingeal, the town of the fallen angel.  Go figure.  I never watched it so I can’t help there.

From the ridiculous to the sublime, W.B. Yeats used it when creating the name of the Norman tower he purchased and restored near Gort, Co Galway: Thoorballylee, Túr (tower) baile Ó Laoigh (surname).

The biggest Baile needs a separate blog: Baile Áth Cliath, Dublin.


23 January


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Lis (Lios) – Fort

Along with rath and dun, lis means a fort, more specifically the place around a dwelling.  As Joyce notes, where rath may have begun as referring to the rampart and lis to the internal space, that distinction faded over time. Lis is common to 1,400 place names (Joyce) but the distribution is mysterious.  It displaces rath in the north yet is rare in the east, and along the west coast, notably absent from Donegal.  There are heavy clusters in counties Cavan, Monaghan and Roscommon.

Lis has less status that dun (or the rare Daingean, fortress, as in Dingle) or rath and it does not appear in the epic tales, or feature much in the great books of law passed down.  It is often combined with a colour – bán, dubh, buí, ruadh, white black, yellow, red – or size, mór or beag, as in Lismore and Lisbeg. Lis can appear at the end of the place name in its genitive form, as in Moyliss (moy, a plain), Knocknaliss (cnoc, a hill),  and Gortalasse (gort, a field).

The diminutive Leasán or Lisheen appears in twenty townlands, says Joyce; Lissen Hall near Swords is a good example. Lissadell, famed influenced on W.B. Yeats, means Lios-an-doill, the fort of the blind man (Joyce). The definite article appears too as in Lisnamuck in Derry, the Fort of the Pigs (Lios na Muc).           

As Flanagan points out, Lis is often combined with uisce, water; possibly because the ditch outside the rampart was filled with water as an extra defence. Of the twenty-five or so instances of the, most appear only in the west; Lissaniskey for example, Lios an Uisce in counties Cork, Tipperary and Roscommon. If it was a strong fort it might earn the prefix dur, giving us durlas as appears in the anglicized Thurles, Co Tipperary, translated by Flanagan as stronghold.

Lis is at times associated with a name, like Liscolman, or Listowel, Lios-Tuathail, Co Kerry. The Norman Lisrobert, occurs in Co Mayo.  Indeed, it appears that in some instances the Norman conquerors took over an existing lis and built their own fortification on top, such the motte-and-baily at Lismahon, Co Down, and the castle at Liscarroll, Co Cork.



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Rath (ráth), Ring Fort


Rath (Ráth) is a really interesting place name component because it is very common (appearing in about 700 townlands), is transliterated directly into English, and reaches back into our ancient past and its mysteries.

Built during the Iron Age (700/600 BC to 100 AD), a rath is a fort, a circular rampart often enclosing a dwelling comprising several buildings (residence, kitchen, housing for calves, sheep and pigs, and a kiln for drying corn). In place names, rath applies to the whole settlement. 

Less commonly found but also a ring-fort is lios, which tends to appear in the north and is rare in the southeast (Flanagan).  Joyce suggests that originally rath applied to the rampart and lios to the enclosed area, a distinction lost over time (Social History, vol. II, p. 59).

As enclosed spaces raths functioned as residences for the nobles (all landowners) and non-noble freemen with property (though not land), known as bó-aire, meaning a cow chief.

Dún solely refers to the residence of the king (rí) or chieftain but raths served as royal residences too, for that purpose called ríráth generically.

Raths without evidence of buildings may have been used as enclosures for cattle to keep them safe at night.  In Gaelic Ireland, wealth was measured in cattle which in turn determined status in society.  Client relationships were forged through the exchange of cattle. Ireland had wolves so predation was a risk but the real danger to cattle came from kings raiding each other to seize cattle. Ireland’s epic the Táin Bó Cúailnge, concerns the tale of the cattle raid of Cooley and rivalry of the royalty of Connaught and Ulster concerning the possession of the greatest bull in Ireland. Rathcroghan (Cruachain) in Co Roscommon features a lot in it, as the royal residence of the chief protagonist, Queen Maebh.

Raths are often situated on low hills. Rathdrum, the fort of the ridge. Since Ráth is pronounced ‘raw’ in Irish (Joyce), you find it as Ra in English.  Raheny, up the road from Clontarf, for example. Joyce gives it as Eanna’s rath, but Flanagan gives it as Ráth Eanaigh, the fort of the march as does Not to be confused with Raheen, Ráithíní, little forts.

Ranelagh, Raghnallach, Ragnal’s place.  Ramelton, Ráth Maeltain, Mealtan’s place. Raphoe, Ráth Bíoth, fort of the hut.

Rathgar is Ráth Garbh or rough fort: Rathgar is rough no longer and is one of Dublin’s premier suburbs.

Rathfarnham, where I live, had been a village outside Dublin up to the start of the twentieth century but is now absorbed as a suburb.  It is interesting because while Joyce translates it as Farannan’s Rath, Flanagan gives us Ráth Fearnáin, Rath of the alder.

Joyce and Flanaghan agree that Multyfarnham refers to Farannán’s home but Joyce says it is Farannán’s mills (muilte) while Flanagan says it the summit of Farannán’s house (mullach, a summit, tighe a house).  Checking the database, Joyce is correct about Multyfarnham and Flanaghan correct about Rathfarnham.

Rath can also feature at the end of the place name.  Ardara, Co Donegal, in Irish is Ard-a’-raith, meaning the height of the rath. Drumragh, Co Tyrone, the ridge of the fort. Corray, Co Sligo, is Cor-raith, the round/pointed hill of the fort or rath.


Main Sources:

Irish Place Names, Deirde Flanagan and Laurence Flanagan (Gill &Mcmillan, 1994, 2002)

The Origins and History of Irish Names of Places, P.W. Joyce (The Educational Co of Ireland, 1869-1920)

A Social History of Ancient Ireland, P.W. Joyce, (M.H.Gill & Son, 1920).

In Search of the Irish Dreamtime, J.P. Mallory, (Thames and Hudson, 2016)


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Finding Ireland’s dreamtime and history in Irish Place Names

The components of Irish place names are recurrent; for example Kill, Clon, Rath, Glen, Clock, Mullach, Carrick, and Lough (respectively church, meadow, fort, valley, stone, summit, rock, and lake.  ‘Ard’ means high, ‘bally’ means a homestead, place or town, ‘knock’ means a hill, and ‘doon’ or more commonly ‘dun’ means a fort.

Irish place names are most often portmanteaux of these descriptive parts. The combinations produce myriad variations. Necessarily so because there are more than 64,000 townlands in Ireland (the smallest geographic unit ranging from a few acres to a few hundred) and millions of place names.

Many place names originated in what has been called the Irish dreamtime, before recorded history, and are associated with myths, legends, and leading figures. Many others derive from the time of recorded Irish history, notably the arrival of writing and Christianity in the fifth century and then a major influence on place names with the arrival of the Normans, English, and Scottish settlers from the twelfth to the eighteenth century.

Irish places names are then lodestones for our language, history and folklore.  

For the next while I’ll be tweeting how to decode Irish place names and telling their stories. I’ll choose places that have the most common components, along those that are prominent or have interesting backgrounds.  Some will feature simply because I know them. I’d be happy to look up suggestions.

A word on the sources. P.W. Joyce’s The Origin and History of Irish Place Names proved to be very popular when it was published in 1869. Joyce followed this up with a second volume a few years later and a third volume in 1920. It was pioneering work, done within the limitations of research at the time. Joyce travelled about the country collecting oral histories and stories and checking pronunciation (to confirm orthography).  The stories helped ensure the proper interpretation and the correct etymology.  He relied on and acknowledged the research of great linguists and scholars of old Irish, notably figures like John O’Donovan, Eugene O’Curry, and particularly for his work on place names, the Rev. William Reeves.

These experts and sources, along with the census, the collections in the Royal Irish Academy, and the Ordnance Survey of Ireland (maps of course being so essential), were his tools.  

There is however a caveat.  The late Deirdre Flanagan (née Morton), editor of the Bulletin of the Ulster Place-name Society, lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast and an expert on Irish place names reckoned that up to one third of Joyce’s translations are in error.  To be fair to Joyce, he makes it clear time and again that the process of decoding place names is fraught, prone to error, and requiring informed guesswork. To double check Joyce therefore, I am using Irish Place Names (Gill and Macmillan, 1994, 2002) by Deirdre and [also late] Laurence Flanagan (Keeper of Antiquities at the Ulster Museum).   However, that does not mean that Flanagan is accurate in all things.

Where there is a dispute between the two, there is the fantastic, the place names database created by Dublin City University.

A good example is Multyfarnham, Co. Westmeath. Joyce and Flanaghan agree that Multyfarnham refers to Farannán’s home but Jocye says it Farannán’s mills (muilte) while Flanagan it as the summit of Farannán’s house (Mullach, a summit, tighe a house). Flanagan’s doesn’t sound right. Logainm gives it as Farannáin’s Mill. Joyce translates it as Farannan’s Rath, Flanagan gives us Ráth Fearnáin, Rath of the alder. Logainm translates fearnáin as alder. Score one all!


Eamonn McKee

Ottawa, January 2020


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Ireland’s Economic Resilience, Canada’s Market Opportunity

Having been tested by the global financial crisis over a decade ago and the now by the Covid-19 crisis, Ireland’s economy has shown tremendous economic resilience.  It came back strong from the former and signs are that we will bounce back robustly from the current difficulties. 

That makes Ireland a great bet for Canadian businesses looking to diversity their markets and build their global portfolio.  We’ve a very business friendly approach to all business, whether large corporations or SMEs. Ireland and Canada have a lot in common and CETA is already spurring our bilateral economic relations. Come Brexit in January, Ireland will be an ideal platform for entry to the massive EU market and all the global markets embraced by the EU’s 70 preferential trade deals.  And if there is one lesson for business from Covid-19, it is the need to diversity markets and supply chains.

Here are the facts, a quick take on Ireland’s fiscal and economic health and a look ahead to 2021.  Unfortunately, I have to mention the dreaded Brexit, the Grinch that stole more than one Christmas! 


As of August, the Exchequer recorded a deficit of over €9 billion, a deterioration of €8.8 billion on the same period last year.  The deficit to date is driven primarily by increased public expenditure, particularly in the areas of health and social protection, as a direct result of the pandemic. Total net voted expenditure of €43.2 billion at end-August was 21.0% or €7.5 billion ahead of profile.

Tax revenue has, on aggregate, performed above expectations due to resilient Income Tax and Corporation Tax receipts, but nonetheless shows a year-on-year decline, with particularly steep falls seen in VAT and Excise duties, reflecting the fall in personal consumption.

The Government has intervened on an unprecedented scale to support the economy, including a stimulus package of €5.2 billion in July, targeted at the most affected sectors with the objective of getting as many people back to work as quickly as possible.

This public deficit impact

The budget deficit impact is in line with most other European countries. However, Ireland is committed to remaining in the ‘middle of the pack’ and restoring the public finances to a credible and sustainable footing so not to risk becoming a fiscal outlier over the longer term. 

This we believe is the wisest course, avoiding any dramatic retrenchment that hinders recovery while retaining our bond market credibility. The result is shown in the market: our costs of borrowing are at historic lows.  We retain at least an ‘A’ grade status with all major sovereign debt rating agencies, with all forecasting a stable outlook. It signals too confidence that Ireland has the capacity to recover from the effects of the pandemic just as robustly as we did from the financial crisis.


The Irish economy entered the Covid-19 induced crisis from a position of strength, with GDP growth of 5.6 per cent recorded in 2019.  In the Stability Programme Update in April, the Department of Finance forecast a decline in GDP of 10.5% for 2020 (15% of modified domestic demand), with GDP growth of 6%.

The contraction in the second quarter of 2020 was less severe than anticipated, due to the earlier than expected reopening of the economy and robust export performance.  This reflected Ireland’s sectoral strengths in pharma, Medtech, digital services and financial services generally.  However, the hit was still huge, with a fall of 6.1 per cent far surpassing the 4.7 per cent decline recorded in the fourth quarter of 2008 when the GFC impacted us.  So a huge hit but not as severe as in the UK, Eurozone and the US where GDP declined by respectively 20, 12 and 9%.

In terms of unemployment, the situation is a tad complicated and the CSO has provided a helpful note on it here.  In essence, simply receiving Covid-related income support does not meet the EU definition of unemployment.  Using the standard definition (actively looking for work), indicates an employment rate in November of 7%.  Including Covid-related payments means that we went from full employment at the beginning of the year to an unemployment rate of 29% by April, pegged back to 15% by now. So we can probably expect that once Covid restrictions are lifted in 2021, employment levels in Ireland will show resilience, particularly as domestic demands returns with a vengeance.

In terms of trade, we see also signs of resilience.  The CSO reports that exports increased by almost €1.5 billion in September bringing value of goods exported to €14bn, an increase of 12% when compared with September 2019. The value of goods exports for the period January to September 2020 was €122bn, an increase of 8% when compared with the first nine months of 2019.  Much of this resilience is due to exports of Medical and pharmaceutical products, up 17% and accounting for 40% of the total value of goods exports.  Our food sector also showed resilience, up 5%. We took a hit with exports of electrical machinery, apparatus and appliances down by 8%. Overall, goods imports dropped by 7% in the first three quarters of this year so our overall trade balance is looking healthy.

On services, we simply cannot see the picture for 2020 yet because of the lag in statistics.  It is a much more problematic exercise gathering services data.  However, services comprise half of our exports and we have very strong digital services.  According to the DHL Global Connectedness Index, Over the twelve months to mid-2020, cross border internet traffic increased by almost 50%, double the previous average.  (If you want a confidence boost about the future of globalisation, read Gillian Tett’s take on the Index in the FT here.)  I’d hazard that when we do see the figures, Ireland will see resilience there too simply because Covid has acted as an accelerant for digital services that were already powering ahead.  

News just in this morning from the Central Statistics Office; the economy bounced back sharply in the third quarter with growth of 11% and all sectors experienced resurgence, particularly those with a domestic focus; consumption, construction, distribution, and hospitality.  Exports also saw a hop of 5.7%.


There is no  gainsaying it, Brexit is going to be a hit on our economy.  However, because we rely on Britain for only 14% of our trade (down by magnitudes historically) and because we are so globally integrated, we will weather the disruption come January in good shape in macro-economic terms. 

Because the hurt will be felt most by our indigenous sector and SMEs, the Government have €340 million set aside for support and mitigation.  New logistical arrangements are in place to get our goods directly to the EU rather than via Britain.  The Government has also established a €3.4 billion Recovery Fund to stimulate increased domestic demand and employment in response to COVID-19 and Brexit. The Recovery Fund will allow the Government to react swiftly and flexibly to provide support for infrastructure development; reskilling and retraining; and investment and jobs.

We might see a few bumpy quarters ahead but the prospects for the Irish economy are to my mind great.  Why the confidence? 

The sectors we are strongest in are the sectors of the future; life sciences, Medtech, pharma, ICT, financial services and services generally, digital services, and high quality/high value ethical food. We are investing in our infrastructure through Project Ireland 2040.  We are investing in our overseas footprint and market presence in Global Ireland.  We are investing in the talents and training of our people through Future Jobs.

We are committed members of the EU, the Single European Market and the Eurozone, the strongest most integrated region in the world today, stronger than most of the world’s largest countries. We share the EU vision for a future that is green, economically sustainable, digital, financially robust, innovative, and welcoming of talent.

In the immediate future, Ireland will be part of the EU’s massive stimulus package, a total of €1.8 trillion – yes, that is CA$2.8 trillion – to help rebuild a post-COVID-19 Europe that will be greener, more digitised. and more resilient than ever.

Above all, I am confident because the Irish people are looking to the future, not to the past.  We understand the lessons of history.  That cooperation and making friends are better than going it alone, without partners. 

That change and adaptation are good and that the best innovation comes from sharing not competition (think Covid vaccines). 

That talent is to be welcomed – today some 17% of people in Ireland are foreign born and one in eight don’t speak English at home.

We value free trade, globalisation, the rule of law, and the universal applicability of human rights.  We put a high value on well-being and equality.

In short, we’re pretty much like Canada.




4 December 2020

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Impressions of Ireland-Canada: Building on Progress

Thanks to invitations from the Irish Chambers of Commerce and from other Irish organizations, media outlets, and Embassy contacts, I’ve had the chance to introduce myself. And from those exchanges get to know a bit about my new surroundings.  Here are a couple of reflections from my various engagements.

One of the themes of those discussions has been the enhancement of Irish Canadian relations over the years. 

We can see this with the opening of the Consulate General in Vancouver under the leadership of CG Frank Flood, assisted by Jennifer Bourke and the team there. Their presence has catalyzed our presence out west, building strong relations with the community there. It was great to meet leaders of the Irish organizations there virtually recently.

Note too the step up with twenty-three high-level visits to Canada since 2017! Thanks to the efforts of my predecessor Jim Kelly and the continuing leadership of the Deputy Head of Mission John Boylan and the relentless creative energy of Laura Findlay.

Covid may have interrupted the physical manifestation of our bilateral relationship in terms of visits but development continues apace.  Check out the very healthy social media traffic for example.  And of course join in! 

There is tremendous vitality in the Irish community here, from coast to coast. Many people and organizations have deep roots and a rich heritage here but all have welcomed and supported a new generation of Irish.  Such a response is not always a given but it certainly is the spirit here in Canada.

The Irish communities and their leadership appreciate the support from the Irish Government, operationally the support from the teams here at Ottawa and Vancouver and the funding made available from the Emigrant Support Programme.  Additional ESP funding this year signals the Government’s ongoing commitment.  Building on the great work of former Minister for the Diaspora, Ciarán Cannon, the new Minister, Colm Brophy, has been outreaching to organizations here, to learn of their experiences, perspectives, issues. and ambitions. 

We should have a refreshed Diaspora Strategy soon to put a new framework on this relationship for the coming years.  I should add that, based on my experience overseas, Ireland has one of the most developed and engaged relationships with its Diaspora.  And like all my postings, it is the first resource to which we wandering diplomats turn.

Canadians of Irish heritage are enormously passionate about their roots.  They love to talk about it and they love to have an opportunity to help.  An amazing response that opens doors and generates opportunities from government to business to culture and more. 

This pride in Ireland and in being Irish, it has been remarked to me, has really blossomed from a time when British, French, and Scottish identity was predominant in Canadian public discourse.

This got me to reflect on the impact of the Northern Irish Peace Process.  One of the outcomes of that has been the historic reconciliation between Ireland and Britain.  Though the word is often invoked with less than convincing justification, historic is an apt description in this instance.   The visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland in 2011 and then the reciprocal visit of the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins in 2014 to the UK were hugely symbolic – in intent and design – of the healing of historic wounds and the restoration of normal relationships.  The Good Friday Agreement made that possible.

Did this epic moment in turn cast its benign significance elsewhere, including on these shores?  I imagine that it did.   Canada’s ancestry as a nation state has its roots in Britain’s empire (a shared heritage with France). Its jurisdictional relationship with the crown is enduring. Its membership of the Commonwealth happy and robust. Hitherto, Ireland’s relationship with Britain sand in particular the Crown remained disturbed and unfinished by partition. 

The Good Friday Agreement, its endorsement by both parts of Ireland in an act of national self-determination in May 1998, paved the way for Anglo-Irish normalization in foundational ways.  It removed niggling uncertainty about how to approach Canada.  The stitching up of those old wounds and normalized relations with the Crown took something complicated if ineffable, out of the equation.

I have been forcibly struck too by the fact that Ireland and Canada share so many values in terms of rule of law, human rights, the international order, democracy, multilateralism and UN Peacekeeping, rules-based free trade, and so on.  Strong too is the sense of the value of the Transatlantic relationship, the notion that if Canada was on the other side of the ocean it would be a member of the EU, as someone once quipped.

This too is in part due to Canada’s Irish heritage.  Think of Thomas D’Arcy McGee and his commitment to diversity as part of Canada’s identity and polity. Think too of the commitment to democracy and the love of the law that Irish emigrants brought with them everywhere (our love of consensus and of the law is deep in our cultural ancestry, going back thousands of years to Gaelic society and the Brehon Laws). 

And coming from a small nation, we instinctively value the international rule of law in the face of Great Power rivalry and self-interest. Canada may be one of the largest countries on earth but it is loved because it bears itself with the courtesy and dignity of a small nation.

Exploring Indigenous Canada has been fascinating both in terms of its experiences and how Canada has wrestled with it, reaching for fairness.  Though I am only at its very fringes, I can see resonances with Ireland’s experiences, even if the fate of Gaelic Ireland was decided centuries ago, arguably a process that began this year 850 years ago when the Normans invaded. Vault forward to today and you have the wonderful story of the Irish national Lacrosse team ceding their place to allow the Iroquois Nationals participate in the International World Games.

Fascinating too is that period when Canada was explored and mapped, an enterprise that was only possible with the forging of the expertise and technical knowledge of both the indigenous people and Europeans.

And the beaver, the beaver! Where would Canada have been without the magnificent beaver?

Finally, there is the blossoming bilateral economic relationships and the question of how to generate more collaboration on this front in the context of challenges like Covid and Brexit.  That’s a big chunky theme to which I will return in a later blog.

For now, let me just say that it’s been a real pleasure engaging with organisations and their members, albeit on digital platforms.  I look forward to the time that I can travel and meet people. 

In the meantime, stay in touch and I hope you enjoy my occasional blogs to let you know what’s happening here at the Embassy, the Consulate in Vancouver, and at home.

Best wishes,


Eamonn McKee

Ambassador of Ireland

13 November 2020

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To Canada!

I am honoured and delighted to serve as Ireland’s Ambassador to Canada.  Representing Ireland here in this great country is both an honour and a privilege.

Canada rightly takes pride in its commitment to rights and fundamental freedoms and to the values of international order and the rule of international law.

Ireland and Canada share long, complex and intense relationships with Britain, relationships that have evolved and changed over the years to the point now of genuine partnership. 

Both Ireland and Canada enjoy close and productive relations with the United States today, against an historical background where Irish emigrants in both countries played key and often decisive roles in politics, society, business and culture.

The depth of Irish heritage in Canada, the contribution of the Irish to the development of Canada as a society and as state, the deep ties and vibrant relations today between Ireland and Canada provide a rich and enriching agenda for all of the team here at the Embassy in Ottawa and at the Consulate in Vancouver. 

Building on their great work, and that of my predecessors, I hope to enhance and expand our relations, culturally, socially, intellectually, and economically.

People-to-people contacts have increased enormously between Ireland and Canada in recent years, boosted by renewed emigration, the opportunities afforded to Ireland by EU membership and CETA, and the increased number of political visits in each direction.

I know all of us in Team Ireland, including our colleagues in Enterprise Ireland and the IDA based in Toronto, will continue to build and expand on this renewed relationship in the years to come.

In that effort, we have the enormous support of our seven Honorary Consuls and the tremendously vibrant Irish community across Canada.

Economic relations between Ireland and Canada have also blossomed.  CETA promises even greater advances as that Agreement beds in and its opportunities are seized.  This will be vitally important work for both Canada and Ireland as we wrestle to bring about economic recovery in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

I am looking forward to travelling across Canada when opportunity allows and to meeting all of our friends, partners, and communities. With almost one in seven Canadians boasting Irish heritage, I know this will be no mean feat, but I look forward to meeting and communicating with as many of you as possible.

In the meantime, in this brave new world of Zoom calls and digital outreach, I hope to find ways to virtually engage with your communities, and look forward to doing so.

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to wish you well in these difficult times and to hope that you and your families stay safe and well. 

With best wishes,


Eamonn McKee

Note: Dr. Eamonn McKee became Ambassador of Ireland to Canada in October 2019. He virtually presented his credentials to the Governor General, Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette, on the 13th of October 2020.


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Nassau Street, Walking Dublin’s Thingmote

The Danish Vikings who founded and settled Dublin built an artificial hill.  The Thingmote was a considerable feature, some forty foot high, situated outside the city walls.  Today its location is marked by the Ulster Bank at the junction of Suffolk Street and St Andrew Street.  A ‘thing’ is an assembly of Viking freemen and their leaders.  The Danish parliament today is called the Folketing.  The Althing is Iceland’s national parliament, the oldest continuous assembly in the world founded originally around 930 AD. A mote or motte is a raised area of land, (the motte and bailey was a fortified hill and field used by Normans), hence Thingmote.

The Thingmote was the centre of Viking political, judicial, and ceremonial life in Dublin.  The king of the Vikings sat on top and in ranks below him his sons and nobles.  This assembly decided matters political and judicial.  Prisoners of war were ceremonially killed here, sacrifices to Viking gods like Odin and Thor, their god of war.  Games and archery contests were held on the flat land beneath it, as Peter Somerville-Large notes in his wonderfully vivid history, Dublin.

When Henry II came to Ireland in 1171 to seek the submission of his own Norman lords who had just seized Leinster and its three Viking cities of Wexford, Waterford and Dublin, he set up a temporary royal palace beside the Thingmote.  There he lavishly entertained the Gaelic Kings over Christmas as he sought their submission too, successfully it turned out. While Henry had brought a large army with him, it was mainly for show and he didn’t attempt a complete invasion of the country.  While he left Leinster to Strongbow, Henry took control of the cities as royal domains.  He granted a royal charter to the Dublin to encourage immigrants from Bristol, which had played a key role in the Norman invasion and had had a long trading history with Dublin. The city would remain the key to the survival of the colony, Dublin Castle never taken.

Meanwhile, as the Normans settled in, the Vikings, or as they were known the Ostmen (men from the east), moved out of the city to Oxmantown.  Oxmantown was their suburb on the north bank of the Liffey.  They left their Thingmote behind and gradually faded from the history of the city they had founded.

The Thingmote endured as a very visible feature between the city and the developing campus that would become Trinity College.  It remained undisturbed as Dublin developed as a Medieval City.  However, the Dublin we know today really only began to take shape during the Restoration period when James Butler, the fabulous Duke of Ormonde, returned to Dublin in 1662.  As Charles II’s new viceroy, Ormonde saw to the development of the city as trade and migration generated an unprecedented era prosperity.  Ireland’s interests were sponsored and defended by Ireland’s parliament which itself became a key to Dublin’s development as one of the leading cities of Europe.  Dublin never really recovered from the abolition of this native, albeit Protestant, parliament that had traced its roots  back to 1297.

Sir William Davies came to own the land around College Green and in the 1680s began the levelling of the Thingmote, carting its bulk to raise what is now Nassau Street as that area had been prone to flooding.  Somerville-Large: “Now it was raised by eight or ten feet, a plateau still to be seen if the height of Nassau Street is compared to College Park.”

So when you walk along Nassau Street you tread on the remains of the Viking Thingmote, literally and figuratively Dublin’s very foundations.

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Conquest and Ireland’s Great Dance with History

In the scale of iniquities, how does the Norman conquest of Ireland rate? Is it to be regarded as the start of eight hundred years of oppression, culminating in the Great Famine, the nearest we Irish came to annihilation? Was Dermot, as he was damned by generations, truly the fons et origo mali, the source and origin of Ireland’s evil?

Conquest.  Let’s start with that unfashionable word.  It is a word that is not used much today.  It has been consigned to history, like some old habit long in abeyance.  Yet the word is worth ongoing consideration.  Around it pivots the great moral question of history, made pervasive and relevant by the sheer predominance of conquest in the world’s historical narrative.  By what right, by what calculation of cost and benefit to the conqueror and the conquered, could conquest be justified?

By what right do technologically superior nations or more warlike peoples arrive on the shores of less technically or martially enthused ones and take them over, often assisted of course by the diseases they bring?

At base, there is no ‘right’ at issue, merely the reality of power, an elemental capacity to take territory from others, the better to promulgate one’s own species.  Possession of territory is a living imperative for all life.  Evolution is driven by it and so humans are not exempt.

Yet the imperialism of Western Europe sought to justify its expansion in the Americas, Asia, Africa and Australia by a moral yardstick; sometimes religious, sometimes the more secular but ethically satisfying  ‘progress’.  There were evidently qualms in the minds of conquerers by this need for justification.  So a rationale was not long in the making as a companion to conquest.  The Normans needed to justify their invasion of a fellow christian people.

Irony seems to light a word but irony there was in using Christianity – that mildest and most pacifist of ethe  – to justify Western expansion across the globe.  This was allied with a profound notion that progress was linear, that Western Europe was top of the social evolutionary chain, and that other societies were just a little tardy, a tardiness that benign European rule could correct.

That such correction involved brutality, genocide and exploitation were mere side effects of doing God’s work; no omelettes without broken eggs. More than that, progress was a revelation of God’s divine plan, history the evolution of His intentions for man. Hegel created his philosophical system around this notion and Marx would apply it to economics.  ‘Progress’ had ready-made uses for imperialists and ideologues generally.

Darwin would add another layer to the appreciation of ‘progress’, a scientifically based revelation of immutable laws of nature.  German nationalists seized on this to justify their European war in 1914, as later would Hitler and the fascists; “inferior” peoples must give way to “superior ones.”

Add in Malthusian ideas about other inexorable economic processes that dictated that population always outgrew the means of sustenance (think Ireland), and a healthy dollop of racism, and you have all the ingredients for Hitlerism; by which I mean the early aims of his European war to secure territory and the resources (minerals, oil, grain) for his Third Reich, not the later and consolatory one of genocide.

To reconcile its value system of Christianity and democracy, the modern West needed to establish its right to conquest. The West justified it as the White Man’s burden, the obligation to bring what conquering nations identify as progress – order, Christianity, medicine, economic development, and government. Think that’s passé? Not so, by a long shot.

If you think they’re old ideas, remember the US invasion of Iraq and the ideas of the neoconservative ideologists in Washington that counselled it. Think too of some of the advocacy of Brexiters about the glories of British imperialism only to be regained once free of the EU. Think of American and European populism and its underpinnings of xenophobia and fear.

How much of conquest has to do with the patriarchy? To judge by the number of women leading imperialist ventures over the centuries, evidently everything. It takes a certain male determination to turn Christian precepts – love, compassion, charity, forgiveness, tolerance, turning the other cheek, the almost deliberate antipathy to Roman virtues that glorified conquest and death in battle – into justification for war and expropriation – the classic Roman tropes. The role of the patriarchy in conquest is so pervasive, it defies analysis.  Conquest is a male characteristic.

The conquests of the past and indeed more recently define the very world order of today.  They divide globally the North from the South, organise the voting blocs in the United Nations, define the alliances of powers great and small, and form the foundation for the rules of world trade, deemed free only insofar as the mightiest blocs tolerate it so.

For England and later the British, the conquest of Ireland was a debut for its future global assertions. The moral issues of conquest were played out in Ireland as they would be up to the present day. By what right did Strongbow claim to be heir to the Lordship of Leinster?  Only by a right of marriage in his society that was alien in Ireland. By what right did the Normans hold Dublin, Wexford and Waterford?  By right of successful occupation.  By what right did they seize and settle land?  By Norman and feudal rights, not Gaelic and Brehon ones.

How did the Irish right cede these rights? Through technical inferiority in warfare; through their culture which directed their energies to forms of activity, including regnal wars, that made the island vulnerable; through a distaste for urban concentrations that led to ignore their value as centres of power; through a form of law that was based on tort, on law as a precept for settling relationships not a code for the common good sustained by a state; through a failure to centralise power and impose authority which could have marshalled resistance to the Normans; above all by an insularity and bravado that shielded them from the momentous events in the archipelago and nearby Continental Europe.

The Irish kings were quick to use the Normans in their own local squabbles, much to the advantage of the Normans.  And they were quick to pay homage to Henry II as their king, again one senses because, inter alia, it was better to have a distant king than a local overweening one, all the better to preserve the autonomy of their own little kingdoms (Irish county pride has deep roots!)

If one regards the nation state as the militarisation of society, the garnering of the monopoly of violence to the instruments of government, one can see that its centralised organisation makes it virtually unstoppable in the face of tribal and disparately organised societies.  So Ireland in the 12th century; so later South American, North American, African and Australian indigenous peoples.

If the conquest of Ireland did not achieve the annihilation of the Gaelic Irish – as conquest virtually did in the Americas, for example – that was largely because it unfolded in stages, allowing the natives to learn and adapt.  Geraldus Cambrensis, the Cambro-Norman reporter-cum-historian of the conquest, could see this happening already in the early 1180s.  The Gaelic Irish were learning to counter the Norman advantage in arms.  And as Geraldus wrote with some perspicacity, this meant that complete pacification of the Irish under Norman rule – at least as far west as the Shannon – would be impossible.  The colony would not be secure otherwise, he pointed out.  Indeed, the Gaelic did indeed push the Normans back, so much so that by the 14th century there were real doubts about the very survival of the colony.  The colony survived because it hung on to Dublin and the Pale and in extremis received grudging support from the Crown.

Henry II had at any rate set the template for the conquest; enough resources to maintain suzerainty but never enough to complete the conquest. Even Tudor ferocity would relent and seek to engage local Gaelic loyalty.  The Tudors were motivated more by concerns that Ireland presented an exposed flank to its Continental enemies, primarily Spain and then later France. Like the Normans before them, the New English that arrived in Ireland formed an elite that needed the local Irish to actually farm the land.  Successful plantation of settlers was confined to Ulster.  Irish fertility quickly refilled the demographic slumps from the wars and starvation that dominated the 16th and 17th centuries.

So the Irish never faced such disproportions of technology, way of life and demographics, as say Native Americans did.  Hitler was impressed and inspired by how America cleared out Native Americans, without global opprobrium.  His conquest of Poland, Ukraine and eastern Russia entailed plans of killing 35m to 40m to make way for German settlers.  Only Russian resistance at Leningrad and Stalingrad put paid to this particular dream of conquest and colonisation. Not a hundred years separates us from the frustration of plans of such malignancy.

For all that can be said in mitigation of the Normans and later the New English in not actually wiping out us Irish, there is still something remarkable about our story.  We survived and our particular assemblage of social values and personal orientations endured.   Pre-Norman Gaelic Ireland survived throughout the Middle Ages in all its vital characteristics.  Its aristocracy, and the native courtly culture that went with it, was done in by the Tudors and the Flight of the Earls.  Bereft of its leadership, Gaelic society continued in cultural expression, language, and social mores.  It took the catastrophic Great Famine to really kill of so many of its characteristics, particularly the language.  Besides dealing a near fatal blow to spoken Irish , the Famine also provided an opening for the adoption of a particularly repressive form of Catholicism that came to dominate land, marriage, and society.  The iron triangle of farm, church, and pub defined Ireland until the Celtic Tiger.

That post-Famine, Catholic, rural, patriarchal, heterosexual social order has disintegrated in my lifetime. In its place there is a verve, a creativity, a joie de vivre, yes a bravado and pride, to Ireland today.  Gaelic Ireland has reclaimed its soul with a liberating whiff of pagan hedonism about it. Our great dance with history goes on.

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Norman Invasion of Ireland: A Good Word for Strongbow

“I have not thought it part of my duty to pass moral judgements on anybody….To understand an action he must regard it from the point of view of the actor and with reference to the circumstances in which the actor stood.”

Gooddard H. Opren, Preface to Ireland Under the Normans 1169-1333 (1911, 1920)

I’ve written before about Strongbow’s reputation in Ireland.  If it amounts to much – and it doesn’t really – it is a portrait of an indecisive and hesitant man who belatedly joins the invasion a year after its begun, marries the local princess Aoife, and then fades from the scene.

I think this is a misreading.  I’d argue that Strongbow was an archetypal Norman lord, a man who found himself in a very tricky situation and boldly extricated himself.  He showed the qualities that made the Normans such a formidable force from Western Europe to the Middle East – vision, preparedness, calculation, and audacity deployed with great precision.

Strongbow as a sobriquet had nothing to do with bows and arrows: nobles trained as mounted cavalry with lances and swords. It may have been one inherited from his father, Gilbert de Clare, or indeed imposed by posterity, even perhaps a corruption of his seat, Strigoil or Striguil, now Chepstow.

Strongbow’s name was Richard de Clare and his title Earl of Strigoil.  Like his father, he was a marcher lord, meaning that he lived and warred at the borders of the realm, between England and Wales.  Marcher lords enjoyed a considerable degree of autonomy, acting as local judicial figures and pretty much at war or at least on guard constantly.  Richard’s domaine Pembrokeshire, southern Wales (Deheubarth to the Welsh).  He craved his father’s title, Earl of Pembroke. In feudal society, an earl was second only to a duke, the highest rank short of royalty.

However, the king, Henry II, was unlikely to grant it to him. Henry II had come to the throne via his mother, the Empress Matilda, Henry I’s daughter.  When Henry I died without a male heir, the crown was contested between Matilda and his nephew, Stephen of Blois.  Matilda had grown up in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor and her heavy German accent and apparent lack of charm didn’t win her many allies, not enough to secure the throne.  Nor could Stephen accrue enough support for an outright win. The ensuring civil war, dubbed the Anarchy by Victorian historians, lasted from virtually the start of Stephen’s reign in 1135 until his death in 1154. By prior agreement, Matilda’s son Henry (Duke of Normandy via his father Geoffrey from whom the Plantagenets descend) assumed the throne on Stephen’s death.

The problem for Strongbow was that his father, Gilbert, had supported Stephen.  Stephen had in fact made Gilbert the First Earl of Pembroke.  Henry II then had two reasons not to recognise Richard as the Second Earl; the earldom had been created by Stephen and had been occupied by those who had sided against his mother.  Henry was not a man likely to admit Strongbow into his favour, though he would tolerate Richard as a marcher lord on the edges of his realm.

Strongbow faced local pressures too.  The Welsh were resurgent under the Lord Rhys (Princess Nest was his aunt), pushing back against the Norman colony.  The threat was serious enough for Henry II to mount several expeditions but the campaign of 1165 ended ignominiously under drenching rain and Welsh aggression.  In a rare military setback, Henry II sued for terms and returned most of Rhys’s territory.  Their compact turned into an alliance with Rhys even being granted the role of Justiciar in 1171, effectively the governor of south Wales.  This was all very bad news for the Cambro-Norman colony.

As the wheel of fortune turned against Strongbow, another local magnate, in Ireland, was in trouble.  Dermot MacMurrough, king of Uí Chinnseallagh (Southern Wexford) and sometime king of Leinster, found himself uncharacteristically isolated when Rory O’Connor became High King of Ireland. Dermot had been allied with his father, the great Turlough Mór O’Connor, but father and son had been at odds.  Dermot’s bitter enemy, Tiernan O’Rourke, allied with Rory, seized his chance and Dermot was sent into exile in 1166. Rory was now in a powerful position and poised to be Ireland’s first High King in more than name only since Brian Ború.  He faced a strategic weakness in that his base in Connaught was on the other side of the island to Dublin, the emergent capital.

Meanwhile Strongbow met with Dermot who bore a letter patent from Henry II approving aid in Dermot’s quest to regain his kingdom. The temptation was as sweet as it was dangerous for Strongbow. Dermot’s offer of fertile land aplenty in Ireland for Strongbow and his men was enticing for a colony under such pressure. Yet Strongbow could not be sure of military success is the wilds of Ireland, however much experience he and his followers had of fighting the Welsh. Nor could he be sure that Henry would tolerate his reach for a new lordship. The costs of failure would likely mean a precipitous fall in status from which recovery would be unlikely under the cold eye of the king. Yet success could also mean the ire of the king, annoyed at Strongbow’s boldness is seeking a virgin lordship beyond his realm.

Clearly, Strongbow could see the possibilities. Leinster, unlike most of Ireland, was well known across the sea, particularly in Wales, Bristol and Chester which traded with the settlements of Wexford, Waterford and Dublin.  While urban settlements were disregarded by the Gaelic Irish and not well fortified, the Normans understood that cities were the key to conquest and sources of revenue to pay for war, debts and trade.

The Norman approach to warfare was in its professionalism formidable: disciplined formations aided by archers and heavy cavalry won engagements decisively; this was  followed by the quick erection of fortifications to hold land seized in battle; and then settle it with followers.

In contrast, the Irish fought wearing little armour, bareback on horses, used darts and stones rather than archery, and moved quickly to raid and return home.

With marriage to Aoife, Strongbow would have a claim under feudal law, to the title of Lord of Leinster. With the Cambro-Norman colony under such pressure, he would likely not be short of followers to enfeoff lands won by the sword.

The sequence of events testifies to Strongbow’s stealthy approach.  Dermot goes back to Ireland first, re-establishes his rule in Uí Chinnseallagh, and raids around Dublin without much response from Rory.  The Cambro-Norman FitzGeralds lead the way in seizing Wexford and then the headland of Baginbun near Waterford.  The forces they bring with them are small but elite and prove devastatingly effectively against the far looser style of Irish warfare.  Risking the ire of Henry II, Strongbow goes ahead with the invasion of his main force and once he lands in Ireland, almost two years after Dermot’s return, his forces lose no time in seizing Waterford and marching on Dublin.  Strongbow clearly knows what he’s about; with these three cities under his control, he is master of Leinster. Once seized, Dublin remains in foreign hands for 750 years, from 1170 until January 1922, with the short exception of Easter week, 1916.

Henry II follows up with his own arrival in Ireland in 1171, accompanied by a mighty force that has more pageantry about it than military intent. Strongbow submits to him and surrenders the cities to the crown: Strongbow can have Leinster but not the means to power in Ireland.  Henry woos the Irish kings who mostly submit to him as their Lord.  Henry imposes his own men in authority over Strongbow, like Hugh de Lacy. In his Connaught fastness, Rory O’Connor holds out until he agrees a treaty with Henry II.  He will be the last Gael to aspire to the kingship of Ireland.

Despite conspiracy theories and beliefs, the Norman invasion was not an ambition of the English crown.  In fact, a proposal to invade Ireland had been put to Henry some years previously and he had passed up on the chance.  When he did come to Ireland, he did so to ensure that Strongbow would not contend to create his own rival kingdom.  He was also ducking the censure of Rome for the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett. Henry II settled with the partial invasion of Ireland he had found there, content to have Irish kings submit to him, and then returned to England and the trials of holding his Angevin domain together.

How does the Norman invasion fit into the broader developments in Europe? It is important to see it in this wider context.

The fall of the Roman Empire and the dissolution of order that came in its wake allowed the Viking age.  Defeat at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 frustrated the creation of a Viking kingdom in Ireland.  The Anglo-Saxon defeat of Harald Hardrada in September 1066 under the leadership of Harold II put paid to the last chance of a new Viking kingdom in England and indeed brought to a close the Viking Age.  The following month, Harold II faced a formidable new foe in the form of the Normans under William the Conqueror at the battle of Hastings.  Norman victory was a pivotal event for it meant that the centre of European influence moved decisively from the north to the south, to Rome, the spiritual and very often political centre of the Normans.  Western Europe and its nation states as we know them began to take shape under the dual influence of kings and popes.

The engagement of Ireland in this wider narrative in Western Europe lurched forward with Strongbow, Henry II and the Normans arrival in Ireland. The partial invasion that followed, often facilitated by rival Irish kings using Normans to sway battles in their favour, created two Irelands, a Norman and  Gaelic.  Their interaction would drive politics until the hammer of the Tudors fell on the island.

Yet this is not the full story.  There were other forces at work in both Ireland and England that were moving to bind Ireland into the revolution and reforms underway in 12th century Europe.  They were driven by a belief that Ireland was violent, unstable and morally degenerate.

Its tempting to think that Dermot McMurrough saw himself as a harbinger of a more Europeanised Ireland, with he as king of Ireland under the benign and somewhat removed suzerainty of Henry II.  Dermot died in Ferns in May 1171, too soon to realise his grander ambitions.   So Strongbow stands alone as the decisive figure whose audacity pivoted Ireland toward England and the mainstream of European developments. Indeed, the Norman colony he founded in Ireland would have its ups and downs but its influence was decisive in shaping our modern history.

Yet its drama conceals the work of those other forces at work which conspired to dramatically change Ireland and its relationship to Europe.  More anon.





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