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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Princess Nest, Ireland’s Forgotten Mother

Princess Nest?  You’ve probably never heard of her.  So it’s a bold claim to label her one of our forgotten mothers (aren’t they all eventually?) As well as being bold, it probably doesn’t make much sense. How can a woman be mother to a nation?  I’m not saying that she was the only one.  But I do claim that her influence was quite direct and formative in the development of Ireland, through her lineage; how her sons and grandsons changed Ireland during their lifetimes, and how their descendants played critical roles in our history.

So let me explain and if you stick with this, you’ll have earned a little bit of esoterica which might come in useful next year.  Why?  Because next year is the 850th anniversary of the arrival of the Normans in Ireland. And if you’re persuaded, then it won’t be esoterica but an important element in our national story.

When William the Bastard defeated Harold II at the battle of Hastings in 1066, Anglo-Saxon England came to an end as William seized the crown and became William the Conqueror.  His Norman knights swept the old order aside and imposed themselves as feudal overlords of England. Harold’s sons fled to Wexford, bringing with them their father’s battle standard as a gift to their host.

For the Normans, holding land was the basis for their feudal way of life – the manner in which it was held, parcelled out, organised, and inherited.  Each estate was a building block in a hierarchy whose summit was the crown, itself held by men (mostly) who combined in their physical person the actual and symbolic divine right to rule.  Normans coveted land as the sole basis of their social standing. When they could not inherit it, they used their martial prowess to seize it.  After victory in battle, they quickly threw up a temporary fortification (the mote and bailey).  They would then build more permanent fortresses and manors, organising the land, enfeoffing it with supporters, building villages and markets, and generally creating an aristocratic lifestyle and a recognisably medieval way of life. Their non-inheriting sons would in turn be compelled to find new lands to conquer and repeat the pattern.

So it was that after the conquest of England, Norman lords pushed into Wales where they encountered the Celtic Welsh kings. The last independent Welsh king, Rhys ap Tewdwr, of Deheubarth (south Wales, including that long peninsula that reaches toward Ireland), was killed around 1090 in battle by Bernard de Neufmarche –  a marcher (frontier) lord from Normandy.  Deheubarth was then open to the Normans and the lordship of Pembrokeshire was created by the crown.  Rhys’s son, Gruffydd, fled to Ireland where he spent some of his youthful years. He would eventually return to Wales and regain a small foothold in Cantref Mawr, tradition seat of the clan. His son, the Lord Rhys, would emerge as a powerful Welsh leader and put such pressure on the Normans that one Earl of Strigoil would look across the sea to Ireland for fresh lands to seize – he is known to us as Strongbow.

Nest, Rhys’s daughter, probably about 15 years of age at the time, found herself as a prize in the court of William “Rufus” II, William the Conqueror’s heir. There, Princess Nest’s beauty caught the eye of his younger brother Henry, renowned Lothario and later Henry I.  In about 1103, she bore him a son, Henry FitzHenry aka Henry FitzRoy. As princes do with women of no political use, Henry then married her off to Gerald FitzWalter, Constable of Pembroke Castle.  She bore him three sons and two daughters,  Angharad and Gwladys.

At this time, surnames as we know them were forming and her sons were to be known as sons of Gerald – FitzGerald.  Her son, Maurice, would team up with another son of Nest by a subsequent relationship, Robert FitzStephen.  The half-brothers would lead the vanguard of the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169 after Dermot MacMurrough, the ousted King of Leinster, solicited the help of Henry II and Strongbow in regaining his kingdom.  In fact, by agreeing to go to Ireland, Robert was released from the captivity of the Lord Rhys, the nephew of Nest – Wales was nothing if not a small world!  Maurice was about 60 at the time, Robert much younger, but both were bereft of opportunities at home.

Promised Wexford and its surrounding lands by Dermot (in contempt of Brehon law), Robert FitzStephen led the first arrivals, landing at Bannow Bay with the clear intention of taking Wexford not only as a prize but as a key beachhead.  With him was Robert de Barry, a grandson of Nest, son of Angharad, Robert FitzStephen’s half-sister. Mark the arrival of the first Barry in Ireland – his brother Philip de Barry would come some years later.  FitzStephen’s main lieutenant was Maurice de Prendergast and both were reinforced by the arrival of Dermot MacMurrough with a force of 500 Irish from his seat at Ferns.  Possibly persuaded to do so by their bishops, the people of Wexford surrendered to Dermot MacMurrough and renewed their vows of allegiance to him.

Alerted to these alarming developments, Rory O’Connor, the High King of Ireland, came to agreement with Dermot that Dermot would reign again as King of Leinster so long as his foreign allies left Ireland.  Shortly thereafter, Maurice FitzGerald arrived with reinforcements but Rory stayed his hand.

In May 1170, Dermot and his Norman allies were joined by another force led by a grandson of Nest, Raymond FitzGerald, known as Raymond le Gros for his stocky build.  Raymond was a son of William FitzGerald (Maurice’s brother); to note, William’s daughter forged the Carew lineage.  Raymond was a young knight in the service of Strongbow and acting as the advance guard of the main force being assembled in Pembroke.

Raymond landed at Baginbun in May 1170 and quickly proved himself a supreme battlefield commander, defeating a local Irish-Norse army sent to expel him from the headland of Baginbun.  Greatly outnumbered, he won a stunning victory, killing about 500 and capturing 70.  Raymond wanted to spare the prisoners but Strongbow’s uncle, Montmorency (evidently along to look after Strongbow’s interests), said clemency was a luxury they couldn’t afford.  All 70 died a brutal death and their bodies were flung into the sea.

By now, the Norman invasion was inexorable and Strongbow landed with his main force at Passage in August 1170, quickly overwhelming Waterford (who had resisted in fear after the massacre at Baginbun), slaughtering a good many, and taking Aoife, daughter of Dermot, as his wife.  Thereby, Strongbow established his claim to the Lordship of Leinster after Dermot either died or became king of Ireland (another promise made ultra vires, as neither feudalism nor English law existed in Ireland).

Milo de Cogan, who arrived with Strongbow, was another grandson of Nest, son of her daughter Gwladys. In September, Milo and Raymond seized Dublin by rudely interrupting the mediation by Archbishop O’Toole between the besieging Strongbow and the Danish King of Dublin, Haskulf. Milo also saved the Norman occupation of Dublin the following spring with a timely sally against a force of mercenary Norse supporting Haskulf’s attempt to retake Dublin.  Haskulf was captured and, in response to his defiant insults to his Norman captors, the Normans cut off his head there and then.  The Danes, or Ostmen, of Dublin were expelled beyond the walls to the north side of the river, hence Oxmantown. Thus ended Dublin’s Viking connection.

We know quite a lot about the Norman invasion thanks to another grandson of Nest, Gerald de Barry, son of  her daughter Angharad and her husband William FitzOdo de Barry.  Gerald, as a cleric and historian, would famously chronicle the Norman invasion of Ireland and record his impressions of Ireland and the Irish.

Altogether, Nest’s offspring would therefore include the Fitzgeralds, Fitzmaurices, de Barrys, de Cogans, and Carews. The FitzGeralds would create two dynasties in Ireland (earls of Desmond and Kildare) and effectively rule Ireland, technically on behalf of the English crown, until they were deposed by the New English under Henry VIII in the sixteenth century.

So it was that Edmund Curtis in his history of Ireland referred to Nest as the “queen bee of the Welsh-Norman swarm.”  It is interesting that this is the only treatment that Nest receives from Curtis.  Nor does she feature much in any of the histories.  This treatment at the hands of almost exclusively male historians is too dismissive and here’s why.

Nest’s sons and grandsons were the key agents in the Norman invasion of Ireland.  They were the first to cross the sea and establish the critical beachhead of Wexford and then Baginbun.  They battled against ferocious odds to hold on until Strongbow arrived with his main force, almost a year and a half after Maurice. Strongbow, out of favour with Henry II and very probably against the King’s instruction, was necessarily crafty and patient as his position depended on the success of this audacious adventure.  Had Maurice and Robert faltered, or had the High King mustered effectively against the Normans, Strongbow would in all likelihood not have risked crossing the channel.  He was gambling with his reputation and remaining resources in Ireland; he was gambling just about everything.

Taking ‘medieval’ to describe a particular type of European culture rather than a chronological period, medieval Ireland was a creation of the Normans.  They took the towns of Wexford, Waterford, and Dublin from the Ostmen and developed them through city charters, the emergent English common law, and investment.  The Normans built castles and sponsored a new wave of abbey building.  They established manors and new forms of agriculture, introduced taxation (King John’s Tower in Dublin was built as a treasury) and bureaucratic government.  They created permanent villages, developed markets and improved ports.  The Normans ended the Irish slave trade and replaced it with new trade through improved links with towns like Bristol and Chester.

Gaelic Ireland stayed wedded to its pastoral, raiding ways and regnal wars, eschewing primogeniture and urban living, all the while adhering to their Irish language, Brehon laws, customs, and culture.  It was clearly an attractive life and Normans were quickly Hibernicised, such that by the fourteenth century, the Statutes of Kilkenny were passed to try to save the English colony from complete Gaelicisation.

The source of political power of the FitzGeralds was their ability to negotiate between the two societies within Ireland, the Norman and the Gaelic, and between the English crown and the many sources of contending power within Ireland.  They applied Brehon or English law, depending on which was most advantageous to their interests.  This capacity was pretty much in their blood, from the marriage of Nest and Gerald de Windsor.  Like the Normans who intermarried in Wales, they forged an affinity with the society within which they had seized lands, the better to hold those lands and pass them on securely. The story of Nest and her intermarriage with the Normans prefigured what would happen a century later in Ireland.

This was most clearly so in the case of Aoife, Dermot MacMurrough’s daughter.  Her marriage to Strongbow in Waterford, in the days following its capture, was a revolutionary event.  It audaciously declared that Strongbow would become Lord of Leinster and holds its lands under feudal norms.  It defied the norms of Gaelic society, both in terms of how power and land were held as well as passed on.

The Normans formed an embryonic Irish government under the Crown.  Their state council would form the nucleus of what would become the Irish parliament.  Their house of Lords developed over the intervening centuries a distinctive Irish identity that was often in conflict with the Crown in Ireland, particularly on the issue of who had the right to initiate legislation, which in turn was emblematic of the deeper issue of whether Ireland’s interests or the rights of the Crown were predominant in Ireland.  Their influence in the House of Lords survived even as the chamber absorbed the parvenus of the New English and Cromwellian settlers in the seventeenth century.  Norman identification with Ireland and distinctly Irish interests formed the seed bed for the ideas expressed by Grattan and more radically by Lord Edward Fitzgerald.

There is a strange echo too in the stories of Nest and Dermot McMurrough.  Nest captivated Owain ap Cadwgan, a Welsh princeling, who raided and kidnapped her and her children.  Her husband and a few companions escaped, apparently using the toilet chute. Owain eventually returned Nest to her husband, Gerald, and, not for the first time, fled to Ireland.  In the topsy-turvy world of Welsh-Norman intrigue and war, Owain was eventually knighted by Henry I, Nest’s former lover, and agreed to support him in suppressing the revolt by Nest’s brother, Gruffyd.  Gerald was also supporting the King’s campaign, but killed Owain upon their encounter.

There was more consequence to the parallel story in Ireland.  In 1152, Dermot MacMurrough kidnapped Derbforgaill, the wife of the king of Breffni, Tieran O’Rourke, and the daughter of the king of Meath. Neither Dermot nor Derbforgaill were spring-chickens so it is as likely they had their own agendas.  Derbforgaill may not have been an unwilling victim as it is said she took most of her furniture with her.  Certainly Dermot might have seen her as a route to the kingship of Meath, a strategically critical area in the swaying balance of regnal wars in Ireland. Like Nest, Derbforgaill eventually returned to her husband.  The Brehons decreed that Dermot pay O’Rourke compensation in gold.  He didn’t and thus continued the bitter feud between them.  When the balance of power swung in O’Rourke’s favour in 1166, he settled his feud by exiling Dermot.  This in turn led to Dermot’s solicitation of help from Henry II, and the Norman invasion of Ireland.

While neither might have launched a thousand ships, both Nest and Derbforgaill were to be known as the ‘Helens’ of their homelands for these colourful episodes in their lives.

Princess Nest clearly had many qualities that helped her survive tumultuous times as her society was turned upside-down by Norman invasion.  History as it was written then – or indeed ever –  was not kind to women, even when they occupied positions of power and influence.  So we know little of Nest.  We do know that her immediate descendants took great pride in her and their lineage to her.  Gerald de Barry writes his history of the invasion such that the FitzGeralds and other relatives predominate, even at the expense of Strongbow (and particularly Montmorency).

Through the strength of the familial lines to which she gave rise, Nest was one of the great influencers in the development of Ireland’s history and indeed that of the British-Irish archipelago. The Tudors trace their line to her.  And through the FitzGeralds, so too could the Kennedys, giving Nest a reach to the US and the twentieth century.

Yet it is in Ireland that Nest’s influence was most direct and formative.  It is impossible to reconstruct the Norman invasion of Ireland without the critical leadership and influence of her sons and grandsons. Without FitzStephen and FitzGerald, it’s unlikely that Strongbow himself would have taken the fateful steps that led him to Ireland.  There might well not have been a Norman invasion at all.  And it is impossible to imagine Ireland’s historical narrative without the Normans.  Try to imagine Ireland without the FitzGeralds, or all the other Norman cognomens that abound in Ireland past and present. This is not a value judgement as to whether that is a bad or a good thing.   It is to say that our history would have been very different. However, I would hazard that Ireland would eventually have been invaded by the Tudors simply because they regarded Ireland as an exposed flank likely to be exploited by their arch-rivals, the Spanish, as indeed it was.

Have I persuaded you that Ireland is unimaginable without Princess Nest? That, if she was not the mother of us all, then mother of quite a few and through them an elemental ingredient in our history? I may not have persuaded you that Princess Nest is a lost mother of Ireland but perhaps you’ll grant that she deserves to be better known here. In knowing about her, we know more about ourselves.

 

 

 

 

 

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Brexit and the Significance of the Downing Street Declaration

The outstanding achievement of Albert Reynolds and John Major was the Downing Street Declaration, agreed twenty five years ago today.  Its significance has been overshadowed by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement but the GFA would not have been possible without the Declaration.  Why?  Because the Declaration offered the solution to the causal origin of the conflict in Northern Ireland, namely the denial of Ireland’s national determination through Britain’s imposition of partition.

With the antic Loki of Brexit now playing havoc with relations on these islands, to reflect now on the Downing Street Declaration is a salutary exercise.

Back in 1993, there was a palpable sense that the IRA’s campaign was winding down after almost a quarter of a century.  This was due in no small measure to John Hume’s strategic vision and sterling courage in embarking on the Hume-Adams dialogue, despite the horrendous public abuse heaped on him from some quarters.

Violence calls so much attention to itself that it seems like it is actually the problem.  A facile conclusion is reached; ending the violence is the solution.

However, key Irish officials like Sean Ó hUigínn and his team at Iveagh House knew that, in fact, the causal origin of the violence had to be addressed.  In the context of a divided island and a divided society in Northern Ireland, how does one offer the prospect of an assertion of national, all-island self-determination?

The Declaration set out the key principles agreed by the British and Irish governments to achieve this: that the consent of the people of Northern Ireland was required for unity with the South, and that the British government had “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.”

However, the key part of the text is this: it was “for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self-determination.” In other words, the settlement would be endorsed by the people of the island as a whole, thus binding up the original caesura of partition.  And indeed the legitimacy of the Good Friday Agreement derives in the main from its endorsement in two simultaneous referenda on this island.

Under the Declaration, this would be no mere exercise in the metaphysics of statecraft.  In practical terms, both governments would create institutions and structures which reflected “the totality of relationships” and which, while respecting the diversity of the people of Ireland, would enable them to work together in all areas of common interest.

And of course, the achievement of peace must involve a permanent end to the use of, or support for, paramilitary violence as well as a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods.

Even Articles Two and Three of the Irish Constitution, our doctrinal expression of Ireland’s territorial integrity was open to reformulation in the event of a settlement, according to the Declaration. For an Irish nationalist leader to engage this issue was political leadership of a very high order indeed on the part of the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds.

Reynolds and Major appealed to all sides to grasp the opportunity for a new departure that would compromise no position or principle, nor prejudice the future for either community. In the stirring words of the Declaration’s concluding paragraph: “On the contrary, it would be an incomparable gain for all. It would break decisively the cycle of violence and the intolerable suffering it entails…..these arrangements offer an opportunity to lay the foundations for a more peaceful and harmonious future, devoid of the violence and bitter divisions which have scarred the past generation. They commit themselves and their Governments to continue to work together, unremittingly, towards that objective.”

But don’t let the high flying rhetorical flourish distract you.  The Declaration cut to the very belly of the beast of the conflict.  It wrestled with fundamental concepts and interpreted them such that the Declaration provided the map toward a new constitutional status for Northern Ireland and a new set of relations within the British-Irish archipelago.

And now Brexit, an anarchic genie released by a sorcerer’s apprentice, a Prime Minister who simply didn’t know the potency of the forces he was summoning. (It’s not clear that Cameron knows yet what he’s done.) Brexit is the ideological equivalent of a nuclear bomb, a chain reaction that changes and consumes all that it encounters.  Hyperbole?  I wish.

It took two governments, the support of a world superpower, and the propitious environment of the EU project – borderless frontiers and all – to contain the hostile beasts of Northern Ireland’s conflicts and divisions.  Our recent and current political leadership has been a stalwart custodian of the means and legacy of our hard-won peace.  Sadly, some of that has been forgotten in the melée of Brexit across the water.

Yet somewhere in the future, men and women of statecraft will wrestle with Brexit’s contagious fallout  They will need vision, insight, calls to higher principles, and infinite determination.  As they weary at a task that will be so all-consuming, they can look back on the Downing Street Declaration for inspiration.

Eamonn

 

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Looking at Strongbow

The giant painting of Strongbow’s marriage to Aoife hanging in the National Gallery of Ireland is one of the few epic renderings of an Irish historical event.  (We don’t do epic, as Garry Hynes recently remarked in a documentary on Druid’s production of Shakespeare’s history plays which she directed).

The painting has it all: the ruins and smoke of fallen Waterford; the Irish prone in death or submission; a mother laments to heaven over her dead child; a harpist is silenced; the serried ranks of victorious and impassive Normans; even what looks like a small brass band celebrating.  In the centre, a triad of bride, groom and priest.

The priest looks and points heaven-ward.  The bride is modestly looking to the ground.  Like the fallen Irish in the foreground and her train of bridesmaids, Aoife is ablaze in light.  The Normans are a dark shadowed band across the centre.  Light and dark meet at the touching hands of bride and groom.

Maclise is making a point, literally in the artistic sense, perhaps symbolically about our history. In the Norman invasion of Ireland, forces of light and dark met under God’s eye in a divine plan that we cannot know.

Strongbow’s head is tightly coiffed in a steel helmet, its inhuman polish highlighted by a dazzling spot of white paint.  Yet it is hard to make out his features, cast as they are in shadow.  He is a knight embodied but unknown.

Whether intentional or not, Maclise portrays Strongbow as our history has done.  We barely know one of the most consequential figures in our history.

The nationalist struggle imposed constraints and demands on our interpretation of our history.  Memory and analysis were distorted for its purposes.  As we exit that and are freer to look back with a clearer eye and less clouded mind, we should take a fresh look at Strongbow.

Like so much of the story of the Normans in Ireland, Richard de Clare, Lord of Strigoil, known as Strongbow, deserves more attention.  Strongbow’s treatment in history has tended to get short-shrift for a number of reasons.

Much of this has to do with the dismissive way that he was treated by the first historian of the invasion, Geraldis Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales).  Gerald de Barry, to give him his proper name, was kin of the FitzGeralds on his mother’s side through his grandmother, the famed Princess Nest.  The FitzGeralds, took their name and much familiar pride from Princess Nest (“the queen bee of the Norman Welsh swarm” as historian Edmund Curtis noted with a hiss) and one of her husbands, Gerald of Windsor.

Along with another of her sons (by a different father), Robert FitzStephen, the FitzGerald’s formed the advance guard and key group of the first wave of Norman invaders.  Gerald was therefore keen to give prominence to their role in his account of the invasion of Ireland, the Expugnatio Hiberia – at Strongbow’s expense.

Secondly, Irish historians took some pleasure in deriding Strongbow as weak and hesitant, the better to ensure that the invasion could not be seen as heroic or adventurous.  It had to be a bad thing all round, begotten by MacMurrough’s treachery and led by a spineless interloper.

Thirdly, Strongbow died in 1176 only six years after arriving in Ireland, of sepsis from a wound on his foot.  His son by Aoife died young so he left no male line.  He had begun the sub-infeudation of Leinster but this was not advanced enough to leave much an historical trace.

The formative Norman influence in Leinster was William Marshall who married Isabella, daughter of Strongbow and Aoife.  From 1200 onwards, Marshall led the development of the colony.  He built Tintern Abbey, Ferns Castle, and Hook Lighthouse as well as creating New Ross.

Fourthly and decisively, the Norman invasion was in hindsight conflated with the brutal Tudor invasion of the 16th century. It is as if our heroic struggle against English colonisation was burnished by extending our misery back to the 12th century.

We hold to this idea despite being happy to recite the dictum that the Normans in Ireland – French speakers who were already cross-bred with the Welsh – became more Irish than the Irish themselves, happy as they were to marry locally and adapt to their new environment from the outset.

We hold to it despite too that FitzGerald and any other name beginning with Fitz is regarded as an Irish name, along with a host of other Norman and Flemish ones like Russell, Simmons, Barry, Prendergast, Tyrell, Dillon, Butler, Beamish, Cogan, Lucey, Shortall, Hussey and Stapleton.

And we hold to it despite the fact that Irish families of Norman lineage remained Catholic in the face of the aggressively Protestant Tudor “New English”.

While not ignoring the predations of the Normans in seizing land and warring in Ireland, more prosaically, the Normans brought to Ireland villages, towns, proper cities, manors, organised agriculture and estates, commerce, the end of slavery as a business, vastly increased trade with Europe, the consolidation of church reform, and a new era of Abbey building along with new forms of monastic life and orders.

The Normans created and sustained the Irish House of Lords and parliament that would help shape Irish nationalism until that great chamber was abolished by Britain in 1800.

In contrast, the English embrace their Norman heritage and rightly so.  It was the Normans who created the English state as we know it, from its foundation in common law to the careful balance between crown and aristocracy (Magna Carta et al) that endured until the modern transition to parliamentary democracy beginning in the 17th century.

The Normans above all brought pragmatism to England, steering it away from the distorting passions of ideology that wreaked such havoc in Europe.

Until of course June 2016 when ideology was foolishly injected into the English body politic.  How shocking the speed with which that particular virus paralysed their system!

Now it is the pragmatism of Europe and Ireland that is trying to save the UK from a terrible mistake of its own making.

But I digress.  Instead of talking about eight hundred years of oppression, let’s agree to shorten it by half and finally welcome into our narrative our Norman family.  They’re all around the place.

So when you’re again in the fabulously renovated National Gallery, pause before Maclise’s great rendering.  Try a thought experiment.  Try to consider it a family portrait.  It’s not that easy.  What you feel is the weight of nationalist interpretation pulling you back into its own familiar gravity.

I’ll do some PR on Strongbow’s behalf shortly.  That might help.

Eamonn

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Power without Authority in Ireland, III: 1800 and the Secular Vacuum

If even the prospect of getting swallowed up in global war in 1939-40 was insufficient to generate some national discipline, no wonder de Valera was left puzzled.  How could you run a country without some authority?

More profoundly, how could he, as a revolutionary nationalist, shape Ireland to reflect the ideas of his generation, a generation that had finally realised the country’s independence?  De Valera had fought, risked death, schemed and strategized to free his country so that it could realise itself as a Gaelic speaking society based on small self-sufficient farms, economically as independent of the outside world as possible, committed to the international rule of law, and a national paragon of social order, fairness, values and spiritual fulfilment.

There was precious little evidence that this was actually happening.  The Irish language continued its decline, as did rural depopulation while emigration for better jobs and lives overseas continued unabated. The economic war had if anything underlined Ireland’s dependence on Britain and the outside world for trade and vital imports.  World War II would do so emphatically.  And there was even less evidence that the Government had the authority to run the country, much less revolutionise it.

On the contrary, it appeared that authority was diffused among a whole range of sectors and special interests, leaving little if any to central Government.  Institutions, associations, unions, sectoral interests, subversive elements, even Government Departments all cherished their claims to unique autonomy and authority.  The system, such as it was, was highly siloed and highly territorial.  It was as if when the British left in 1922, Irish society decided it had had enough of central authority, even if a central authority of their own making after 1921. How had this come about?

Perhaps tellingly, de Valera did not address underlying causes in his radio broadcast.  He did not have far to look when it came to one of the chief causes of his Government’s vitiated authority.  The dominant alternative source of national authority was the Catholic Church.  And de Valera not only failed to challenge it, he accepted and in many ways facilitated its continued authority.  He had enshrined its “special position” in his Constitution.  Indeed, de Valera could not extricate Christianity and ‘right way of living’ from his conception of the state.  From God, to the individual, to the family to the state was a progression unified by the divine will and man’s ethical response to it.

Yet I would hold that the role of the Catholic Church in Ireland was not the only or perhaps even prime reason for the weakness of central authority in Ireland.  To understand this requires a leap of imagination, a counter-factual analysis because it is about an absence, not a presence like the Catholic Church.

I am referring to the abolition of the Irish parliament under the Acts of Union in 1800. Acts were passed in the Irish and British parliaments, the former abolishing itself, the latter absorbing the peers and parliamentarians of the former.  As the benches were ripped out of the only purpose built parliament in Western Europe (sold quickly to the Bank of Ireland in 1802), the better to seal its fate, the Irish members of parliament decamped to London.

Though coated in the language of union and mutual identification, encouraged by what proved to be false assurances of Catholic emancipation, the abolition of the Irish parliament by Britain was in fact an act of clear sighted imperial interests whose aim was to forestall the evolution of Irish government.

The Irish parliament was not best-loved at the time and is not fondly remembered today, if remembered much at all.  Its limitations were themselves a product of imperial suzerainty.  The actual government in Ireland – the Ministers of State – was appointed by the Lord Lieutenant from the membership of the Irish Privy Council.  Those in Government in Ireland, though talented men, spent much of their energy controlling the parliament though bribery and corrupt influence like conferring titles, pensions and well paid jobs.  It could only continue to do this if the momentum toward reform under Grattan and others was resisted.  For as one historian (Edmud Curtis) put it, Ireland “had a sovereign parliament, and parliaments which have asserted a large measure of right, generally go on to claim more” (Edmund Curtis, A History of Ireland, 6th edition, 1950, p.323).  As the 18th century drew to a close, Prime Minister Pitt believed the limit to British management of the Irish parliament was fast approaching.

The British excuse for the abolition was war with France and rebellion in Ireland. Against the backdrop of the French Revolution, the rebellion of 1798, fears that swathes of Irish Protestants might actually be attracted to the establishment of a state based on republican principles (as the Scotch-Irish had demonstrated in America), Britain snuffed out the Irish parliament.

Yes the parliament was corrupt and unrepresentative.  And Catholics had little reason at the time to love it; if the price of emancipation was the loss of an Ascendancy institution so be it seemed to be the attitude. If they could find equality within a greater United Kingdom, Catholics safely now a minority, then so be it.  (Hence the support Catholic Church for the union).  Catholic Ireland was not to know that this was an illusion, that the promised emancipation would be postponed and resisted for decades, that Irish careers in British administration, government, law and the army would be denied because of anti-Catholic bigotry that would last into the twentieth century.

The underlying Brisith reason for the abolition of the parliament was the very same Irish reason to lament its passing.  The Irish Parliament was being reformed and would inevitable demand that the government of Ireland be accountable to it, at least for domestic matters.  Eventually that would mean at least shared control of ministerial appointments.  Catholic emancipation would come eventually and outvote the Protestant Ascendancy.  And if a more representative government was achieved and ran Irish affairs for Ireland, then it was not hard to see this becoming too a demand for real equality in international matters like trade, war and peace, and diplomacy.

Arguments are made that Ireland’s economic fortunes were not damaged by the Acts of Union, that post-war recession and financial rectitude were inevitably adverse one way or another.  Yet it is hard not to escape the contrast in the broad economic narratives of Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In the 18th century, Ireland’s population had grown from 1.5m to 4.5m. Exports of linen measured by the yard had gone from 0.5m to 47m. Total exports in value went from £550,000 to £5m.  Under the Irish corn laws between 1784 and 1846, labour intensive Irish tillage agriculture boomed, producing the wealth that built the grand Irish houses of the Ascendancy and a new emerging Catholic business and middle class.

In the 19th century, pasturage returned, farms subdivided, the potato proliferated as a subsistence crop for over half the population, the unprotected textile industry collapsed in the face of industrialised products from England and Belfast.  Demands of the Irish middle class for good government were unheard in a British House of Commons where Irish MPs number 100 of 600.  The House of Lords was actively hostile to Irish interests and would be a determining influence until its power was broken by the crisis over the 1909 People’s Budget and the subsequeent Parliament Act of 1911.  In contrast, the British Reform Act of 1832 gave the British middle class political power and a government responsive to their needs.  The great humanitarian, social and economic cataclysm of the Famine, profoundly damaged Ireland’s development, unleashing forces that cut its population in half and altered for the worse its economic and social development.

With the Acts of Union then, instead of looking to its own economic and social advancement, Irish political energy was side-tracked to Westminster and the fight, first, for Catholic Emancipation and then repeal of the Union.

Instead of having a national political forum for Catholics and Protestants to find political rapport under the reassuring suzerainty of the British crown, relations between nationalists and unionists would be manipulated and decided in the wider and ultimately more toxic environment of British politics where the question of the union would eventually be used cynically by the Tories in their struggle against the Liberal Party.

Instead of developing local departments to provide public services like health and education, London lazily yielded those to the Catholic Church.

Instead of looking to Ireland’s indigenous economic development as a local parliament would have, even, if not especially, one dominated by Protestants, London allowed Ireland, outside of Belfast’s industrial base, deteriorate into a subsistence agricultural economy before the Great Famine, and, afterwards, a live cattle exporting pasturage with little economic value added.

Instead of dealing humanely with the Great Famine, as a local parliament would assuredly have done, London turned a cold and imperious eye on the suffering as but an outcome of over-population and Catholic sloth.

Instead of fretting about wholesale emigration as a great national haemorrhage, London was relieved that such a potentially rebellious people were taking themselves off across the great Atlantic, getting absorbed into its own burgeoning cities, providing cheap labour for its industrial complex, or joining its imperial garrisons around the world.

For the critical one hundred and twenty years after the Act of Union, when other Western countries were developing at an exponential rate, Ireland was bereft of a political centre around which to organise itself, a political centre that in its enabling and domestically focused legislative powers would have created a whole corpus of administration that would have accumulated and acquired for the capital and its politicians real authority.

As the Georgian mansions of Dublin emptied out of their gentry, the silversmiths and lace makers went out of business, and the city lost its political relevance.  No wonder that local interests gathered to themselves their own authority, from the Church, employers and unions to new and powerful non-governmental organisations like the GAA.  As far as any countervailing centre of authority was concerned, there was no there ‘there’.

Nationalist leaders took over the country after a long political and military struggle.  The War of Independence was necessitated in response to Britain’s determination to protect its imperial ego and in part to create Northern Ireland (see Ronan Fanning, Fatal Path).  That in itself generated a impoverishing reduction in the definition of Irish identity.  (Though the process of recovery has been underway at least since the 1990s, I’d worry about Brexit’s negative influence).

With independence, the Government faced profound challenges, not least ex post facto justification for the struggle in the first place.  They had to make Ireland a better place than they had found it.  Yet to do this job, they had won power but not inherited authority.  Getting things done meant a complex negotiation with those who had acquired authority under Britain’s neglective watch, most conspicuously the Church but les obviously a host of other economic and social interests.  Change would be slow and complex, some notably and usually state run national projects notwithstanding like electrification under the ESB.  Choosing a very sensitive electoral system ensured that government was ever alert to the public mood but perhaps also senstive to the complexity of atomised authority.  The decades after independence would become a dispiriting slow march in contrast to the febrile excitement of the pre-independence struggle.

Therein lay the paradox of government in independent Ireland, power without authority.

 

 

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Power without Authority in Ireland, II: Church, State and Vested Interests

When in 1940 de Valera pondered the lack of governmental authority, he did not have far to look for one of the underlying causes.  It’s actually embedded in his radio broadcast; his invocation of Catholic ethos the better to sell his argument that society is founded on a surrender of authority to government.  The dominant alternative source of national authority, one that pre-existed the establishment of the state, was of course the Catholic Church.

Since de Valera could not extricate Christianity and ‘right way of living’ from his conception of the state and man’s place in it, he was not going to challenge the Church’s authority.  From God, to the individual, to the family to the state was a progression unified by the divine will and man’s ethical response to it.  So not only was de Valera not going to challenge this powerful rival for authority, he facilitated its continued authority and embedded its role in his Constitution.

For de Valera, Catholicism was inseparable from Irish identity.  Or to put it another way, he saw the Irish people’s devotion to Catholicism, contrary to all the social and economic advantages of conversion to Protestantism and a comfortable place in the British Empire, as confirming his conviction that being Catholic and being Irish were inextricable. De Valera saw in Ireland’s centuries’ long struggle a sign of divine providence that the Irish were meant to be Catholic.

Moreover, like many people, de Valera believed that early Irish Christianity had saved civilisation during the Dark Ages. There is a strong historical case to back this up of course.  However, de Valera believed further that the Irish needed to replay this mission as a new Dark Age beckoned – one of materialism, fascism, and war.  Independent Ireland would be beacon of spirituality, frugality, and the right of living.  On this thesis, de Valera had little company but there was widespread support for the identification of Catholicism with Irish identity. The Eucharistic Congress of 1932 gave expression to this strong public belief.

How had this come about?  How had Catholicism and its institutional expression in the Catholic Church acquired such an authoritative position?

I’d propose four key factors behind it.

The first was that in the 19th century the British Government devolved responsibility to the Catholic Church for much of Ireland’s health and education services.  It was a good deal for both.  London found it cheap and a relief of responsibility, not to mention avoiding endless battles with the Church over ethical issues likely to arise from a largely Catholic country being ruled by a Protestant one.  For the Church it conferred on it responsibility for its flock from the cradle to the grave and gave it unique secular as well as spiritual authority over the Catholic population.

Try dissenting from an institution that blessed your birth, educated you, restored you to health, married you, did the same for your children and then buried you.  Additional benefits accrued if you were male; the system bulwarked the patriarchy and kept woman in highly confined roles and subservient in relationships.

Secondly, the Catholic Church, in cooperation with society, policed sexuality and more particularly fertility.  This was an exceptionally important role in post-Famine Ireland where the inheritance of the undivided farm by one son was such an overriding desideratum.  Fertility, even female beauty, was seen as a subversive of th is social order.  An unwanted pregnancy threatened ordered inheritance, a vital social and economic imperative that was seared into the collective by the Great Famine.  When a pregnancy outside marriage did happen, the Church had the institutional responses to deal with it, from Magdalene laundries and reformatory schools to orphanages and adoption systems.

Inheritance, marriage, and fertility shaped our emigration patterns too.   In contrast to the Litvak Jews arriving in New York who were married young and had children, the Irish were young and single.  They were shipped off before any inheritance complications arose from passion and pregnancies.

The third factor was that nationalist identity became increasingly synonymous with being Catholic, a process that intensified as Home Rule moved centre stage and unionists hewed ever closer to their British identity in resistance.  On the nationalist side, the process intensified particularly from 1916 onwards as the nationalist struggle stripped away the complexities of Irish identity.

This brings us to the fourth factor, namely partition.  Partition enabled the new Irish state to identify as a Catholic one and avoid any tricky questions about how to embrace alternative non-Catholic forms of nationalist identity.  It was a particularly bitter blow to those from Protestant backgrounds and who had been prominent in the nationalist revival from the fall of Parnell onwards, not to mention the Protestant community generally living in the south.

Had a government of a non-partitioned Ireland to create a polity that embraced a large Protestant community, it is clear that the Catholic Church could not have had a virtual monopoly in health, education and public moral discourse.  Aside from the economic damage, this was one of the great wounds inflicted in Ireland by partition socially and politically.

So the Catholic Church had been a nationalist institution long before there was a national government. The newly independent state had to establish itself in the spaces not already occupied by the Catholic Church.  And where government did chose to act it had to contend with the countervailing interests and authority of the Church and those who found it convenient to ally with it.

The key to being influencial in Ireland, to shaping outcomes to suit particular vested interests, was understanding where authority lay and how to manipulate it to your own ends.

There was no clearer public example of this than the controversial Mother-and-Child Scheme, generally misinterpreted as a prime instance of church authority being wielded over government, in short a clash of church and state.

The Mother and Child Scheme had been conceived and developed by the Department of Health as a response to the fact that Ireland had one of the highest levels of infant mortality in Western Europe and much of this was caused by gastro-enteritis: unhygienic practices that could be put right, at least in part, by state support for and education in maternal care.

This idea of such a clash struck me as odd in a society where in fact church and state were in a happy alliance. It prompted me (back in 1986) to dig deeper into it, the results of which were published in the journal of the Irish Historical Society.

My interpretation was that it was really a clash between the state and the vested interests not of the church but of the private medical practitioner.  The notion that this episode represented a clash of church and state obscured what was really at stake: the defence of private practice and associated incomes on the part of doctors against state medical services.

The Irish Medical Organisation quietly organised against the scheme.  Its members feared that it was the thin edge of the wedge as the state took over family practices.  ‘Whoever gets the mother and child gets the family’ was darkly whispered.  The development of the NHS in Britain seemed to point the way to a new future of state provided health services.  Behind the scenes, the IMO astutely used fears that state medicine would led to the provision of godless services.  It mobilised the bishops against the scheme.  It was no contest and the Inter-Party Government backed down.

The doctors weren’t the only ones to see opportunities in the role of the church.  The fantastic career of Joe McGrath and the wealth that he accrued was tied up intimately in the church’s role in health care provision.  IRA bank robber and bodyguard to Collins during the Treaty negotiations, this was a man who knew how the system worked.  Ostensibly to help fund the health services, he and his buddies created the Hospital Sweepstake and made themselves fabulously wealthy.

It would have taken a far more powerful central government, a more determinedly secular generation of revolutionaries, to disrupt the distribution of authority in Ireland vis-a-vis church state relations.  Though he grasped the point about authority, and understood that the government had less than it needed, de Valera was the last man in Ireland prepared to tackle the government’s primary competitor for authority.

Yet I think this is not really the whole story.  The emergence of the Catholic Church as such a force in Ireland from the mid-19th century onwards had to have a conducive environment.  Or to put it another way, its success suggests that it did not have a competitor for authority, at least in those arenas of social and personal life that concerned it.

For an explanation, in the next blog we’ll look deeper into Ireland’s history, back in fact to 1800 when Britain abolished our national parliament.

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