Leinster Road Trip: Borris and St Mullins

I happened upon St. Mullins while on a day trip from Dublin.  I had a vague idea of where I was going but nothing really definite other than finding Borris House, ancestral home to the MacMurrough-Kavanaghs, descendants of the kings of Leinster (including infamously Dermot MacMurrough, he who invited in the Normans).

We found the narrow arched gateway to the demesne after a quick spin down motorway and along the kind of untroubled winding undulating country road you find in the Irish countryside.  It was a glorious sunny fresh day.  Borris House was stunning, set airily on a low bluff overlooking pastoral fields and distant mountains, mature trees standing at a respectful distance so as not to block the fine proportions of the house.  It was reminiscent of Downton Abbey, without the TV kitsch. We’ll have to come back for the tour as the house itself was closed for a private wedding.

One of the more notable occupants of the seat at Borris was Art MacMurrough Kavanagh, born with severely shorted or deformed arms and legs in 1831. His mother, Lady Kavanagh, treated him as a normal child, teaching him to write and draw with his mouth and engaging local doctors to fit him out with a wheelchair and saddle.  She did a good job as evidenced by his adventurous travels as a young man.  More than a good job in fact for she eventually cut off his income when she learned that he was being entertained by odalisques in Anatolia.

This should not have come as a surprise to her for the bold Art had been something of a local Lothario according to local legend; when he succeeded to the The MacMurrough seat back home, he assured a reluctant local bride that their offspring would be fully formed by pointing out his progeny among the local peasant population.  Such lore I learned from one of a number of plaques at the delightful cafe by the banks of the Barrow, of more anon.

Lady Kavanagh was herself an impressive woman, seizing her widowhood with gusto and sweeping off on travels to Europe with her daughter and two of her three sons when they were young teenagers.  Her appetite for adventure whetted, she made her way to Egypt and the Middle East, haggling transport from locals to bring her by boat up the Nile and by camel around the Holy Land, penetrating as far inland to reach Petra (see my blog on my own visit there here).  In fact her collection of artefacts forms the core of the National Museum’s ancient Egyptian collection today.

Maybe the spirits of Lady and Art Kavanagh still loom within Borris House for a local told me in hushed breath that the entrance hall is always markedly chilly, even on the warmest day.

Just outside Borris, we went for a walk along the Barrow Way, the river turned to a stately canal by a series of twenty three locks.  The Barrow is one of Ireland’s great river systems, second only to the Shannon.  At one end it is connected to the Grand Canal in Dublin.  At the other it connects with New Ross, joining its sister rivers the Nore and Suir, before entering the sea.  Almost 90 km of the Barrow’s length is tidal.

We resumed our travels to Graiguenamanagh to see the enormous Cistercian Abbey of Duiske there, built by the great Norman knight, William Marshall, Lord of Leinster through his marriage of Dermot MacMurrough’s granddaughter Isabel (herself daughter of Strongbow and Aoife). In fact New Ross owed its origins to Marshall when he built a bridge there and fostered his new borough as a port to serve his Leinster capital Kilkenny via the very navigable Barrow.  Duiske Abbey has had a number of restorations, more recently an oaken roof constructed using Medieval techniques.  The Abbey is swallow up by the town now but in its medieval prime Cistercian buildings and fields would have swept down to the Barrow creating a great centre of learning but also of agriculture, river management and crafts.

After an indifferent lunch which filled the stomach but not the spirits at a riverside cafe, we decided to head to St Mullins, marked in the red icons as a place of historic interest on the Ordnance Survey map.  We had seen St Mullin himself in Duiske Abbey in a lively statue complete with an ox’s head between his legs.  This bovine addition derives from his famous accomplishment of ending the Leinstermen’s tribute of ox to the High King of Ireland.  St Mullin was of royal blood, a ‘rí-deamna’ or king-in-the-making.  Not to take away from the man’s vocation but becoming a monk was a smart move in those days because it meant that your brothers were less likely to blind or even castrate you to disqualify you as competition in the vicious regnal wars that dominated Irish politics for hundreds of years.

What a delight St Mullins turned out to be.  Perched on a rise in a bend in the Barrow, it comprises a cluster of early Christian ruins, including the circle of foundation stones for a round tower, and Church of Ireland chapels (one houses the interpretative centre).  It’s graveyard is home to heroes of 1798.  And beside it is a dramatic knoll, part of a man-made mote and bailey constructed by the first Normans to invade Ireland.  This mote and bailey belonged in fact to Raymond Le Gros, the pre-eminent battlefield warrior in the taking of Wexford, Waterford, and Dublin at the outset of the Norman invasion of Ireland between 1169 and 1170.

A short walk down a boreen takes you to the Barrow river itself and a cluster of buildings by the idyllic river’s edge, including the ruin of a large grain store testifying to the river port’s commercial life up to the nineteenth century. St Mullins marks the reach of the tidal portion of the river. Today St Mullins is the terminus of the Barrow walk, a 190 km meander from Dublin that can be cycled or walked. Rental cottages are available at http://www.oldgrainstorecottages.ie. People basked in the spring sunshine on outdoor tables, dining on lunch provided by the Mullicháin Cafe as a nearby cherry tree waved its blossoms gently in the air.  Now this was the place we should have had lunch! Another reason to return.



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Before Anglo-Irish Relations, there were Angevin-Irish Relations

Ireland’s absorption into the Angevin Empire reminds us to be careful about taking at face value Ireland’s shorthanded origin myth of eight hundred years of oppression. Our story is richer and more nuanced than that. It involves more complicated motivations than simple imperial oppression. We had more agency as well as more complicity in our fate. And our story as part of the Angevin Empire played out within the arena of European affairs whose influence on our fate has often been marginalised by the focus on our relationship with England.

The fact that Ireland’s status within the Angevin Empire is not widely recognised is certainly a reflection of the passing nature of that strange entity. This also demonstrates our fixation on the Anglo-Irish relationship and how that perspective influences our hindsight. Yet the arrival of the Normans in Ireland was very much rooted in the politics of the Angevin Empire, not of England. Angevin intrigues defined the Norman presence in Ireland, defined Angevin-Irish relations as it were.   Angevin-Irish relations set and defined the nature of the Norman presence in Ireland and its relationship with the English crown for the following four hundred years.  What then was this Angevin Empire?

The Angevin Empire stretched from the Scottish borders to the Pyrenees, embracing England, Wales and a seizable chunk of what would become France. It was centred on Normandy and run by a powerful Norman lineage that ran from William the Conqueror to Richard the Lionheart and King John.

During the late 11th and throughout the 12th centuries Western Europe was emerging from the Dark Ages in the lee of the Viking raids. 1066 had been a pivotal year for England when the fortunes of war determined whether it would be consolidated as part of a Nordic entity centred on the North Sea or be taken over the Normans. William the Conqueror settled the matter at Hastings and imposed Norman rule on England and most of Wales. The Franks were emerging as a dominant political force that would eventually forge France. Surnames were coalescing into their modern forms. The Christian Church had preserved reading, writing and learning and its educated officers served as the seedbed for the bureaucracy of the emerging secular governments. Papal authority in Rome sought to centralise and bring order to Church affairs through the Gregorian reforms, pushing monasticism to the sidelines. The Church understood that its future depended on strong centralised secular government and took great pains to encourage this while preserving its own power and influence. Indeed much of European history up to the modern age would be shaped by the dynamic between the papacy and the emerging nation states. In short, this is the ur-period of modern Europe.

The Angevin Empire was a fleeting but highly consequential construct built around one of the most remarkable figures of early medieval European history, namely Henry II.  His titles included Count of Anjou, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and king of England. He was also a vassal of the king of the Franks, Louis VII of the House of Capet. Henry’s father was Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, hence the ‘Angevin’ appellation. His mother was Matilda, daughter of Henry I, King of England and son of William the Conqueror.

Henry II was then a great grandson of William, the first Norman king of England. Had his mother claimed the throne as Henry I intended, Henry himself might simply have succeeded to the English throne. However, Matilda was not a popular woman in England and women in general were not strong claimants. That left an opening for Henry I’s nephew, Stephen of Blois, to claim the kingship.

The succession dispute split the English nobles into two warring camps. Stephen had neither the support nor the acumen to impose his will on the entire country. The ensuing period of civil conflict was destructive enough to be dubbed the ‘Anarchy’ by later historians. In his mid-teens, Henry led two excursions to England in support of his mother’s claim (his father Geoffrey of Anjou remained aloof from the conflict). On his return to France, he secured his title as Duke of Normandy by paying homage to Louis VII.

Henry’s next move was a bold one. In May 1152 he married Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the richest, most beautiful and most charismatic women in Europe. And bold indeed it was; Eleanor had been Louis’ wife and Queen of the Franks. When she married Henry it was only two months since the annulment of her fifteen-year marriage. She was also eleven years older than Henry, with two daughters by Louis. That she had failed to produce a son convinced Louis reluctantly to agree to the annulment from a woman about whom it was said he was passionate (though she did not reciprocate by all accounts). On annulment, in secrecy and high drama, Eleanor made it to Poitiers (evading a kidnap attempt by Henry’s younger brother), for a simple marriage ceremony to Henry.

Henry had not sought Louis’ permission for the marriage as he ought to have done and while relations between the two men were patched up it was unlikely that the sting of this humiliation was ever fully drawn. Eleanor went on to produce a bevy of sons for Henry. In fact Louis and later his son Philip would play on the tensions between Henry’s sons to incite open rebellion by and among them against their father.

Entrancing as Eleanor was, Henry’s marriage made strategic sense for in gaining control of Aquitaine he not only secured about half of France but got control of the castles that could have threatened his other lands had Eleanor married someone else. The marriage made sense for Eleanor too: Henry was not only young and passionate but also one of the leading lords of Europe with a claim to the throne of the England. Unlike her colourless marriage to the increasingly ascetic Louis, her union with Henry would produce eight pregnancies and some of the most famous sons in western European history in Richard the Lion Hearted, King John and Henry the Young King.

Having established such a powerful base on the continent, Henry turned his attention to claiming the throne of England. That he did so with relative ease was due to a number of factors. The ‘anarchy’ was rapidly burning itself out with local peace deals increasingly evident on the part of financially drained and tired nobles. There was simply little appetite among the barons for a major conflict and much of the Henry’s maneuvers between the winter and summer of 1153 were skirmishes.

Secondly, the Church was keen to broker a deal and settle matter, the better to bring order to its own affairs there in consort with a stable monarch. Thirdly, Stephen’s first son died so succession from him was under doubt. Without a major battle being fought, a deal was struck to pass the throne to Henry on Stephen’s death. Stephen obliged sooner than expected, dying in October 1154. In December, accordingly, Henry and Eleanor were crowned at Westminster.

Thus was born the Angevin Empire under Henry II, a cross-channel conglomeration of domains held in the person of Henry through inheritance, marriage and artful opportunism. Henry was twenty-one years of age.

To solidify his hold on the throne, Henry invoked not only his descent from Henry I and William the Conqueror but in particular recalled Henry I’s commitment to the rule of law.  This became a consistent theme of his reign.  It also reflected Henry’s own “tidy mind”, as his biographer, W.L. Warren, described it.  For though Henry was a man of restless physical energy he was also well read and devoted to imposing law and arbitration.  He did much to lay the foundation for English common law, both through the system of travelling royal justices and new structures at the court.  He struck a careful political balance between the rights of the crown and of the barons.

Henry held his empire together through constant and astonishingly speedy travel; much listening and politicking; a knack for quickly seizing castles; and a commitment to imposing his authority through the rule of law. His court followed him and were forced to do so often at short notice and chaotically; Henry’s travels, like his intentions, were hard to predict and done at short notice. Henry kept his own counsel.

Occasionally Henry would convene a great Council to resolve matters of state. He convened one soon after his coronation at Winchester in 1155. It was there that an invasion of Ireland was discussed, the same year that the English pope Adrian IV issued Laudabiliter, the famous or infamous papal edict authorising an invasion of Ireland, its governance under Henry II, and the imposition of Gregorian reform on an Irish church stubbornly clinging to its old ways in regard to marriage, celibacy and land holding.  No copy of this document exists but it is clear that it was in Rome’s interest to extend its reforms to the Irish Church: That could only really be done on the foot of conquest by Henry.

It is difficult to say how serious were the discussions about Ireland at Winchester.  Henry’s mother reportedly counselled against it, arguing that the Irish were barbarous and immune to governance, a headache not worth the effort.  Whether such a fateful decision would have rested on her view alone is doubtful.  Conscious of the difficulties faced by the marcher lords in Wales against a nascent native rising, Henry may well have concluded that an attempt to subdue Ireland would prove both difficult and expensive.

Yet the issue of the Papal bull Laudabiliter suggests more serious intent. Had Henry solicited this one might indeed conclude he was looking for cover for an invasion of Ireland. Certainly Irish nationalists have long taken a dim view of England’s only Pope issuing such a license. To them, naturally enough, it smacked of a conspiracy by the rapacious English. Goddard Henry Orpen in his venerable Ireland under the Normans (1911), suggests that Henry’s eventual return to Ireland with a large invasion force some sixteen years later suggested the fulfilment of a long held ambition. While Irish nationalists rejected Orpen’s characterisation of Ireland as endemically anarchic and bloody before the arrival of the Normans, they embraced the idea that possession of Ireland was a prize long nursed by Henry.

This interpretation is challenged forensically and I think convincingly by Henry’s biographer W.L. Warren (Henry II, Yale English Monarchs: 1973/200). According to Warren, it seems more likely that Laudabiliter was procured by the English Church to encourage Henry to invade Ireland. For they understood that only military force could set the context for the imposition of Gregorian reforms on what they regarded as the disgrace of the Irish Church. The See of Canterbury regarded Ireland as falling within its remit and it had therefore an obligation under God to bring reform and renewal to Ireland.

Warren writes: “That Pope Adrian was ready to support such a move by Canterbury is not surprising: besides being an Englishman, he was the pope who revived the high-Gregorian programme for the reform of church government after half a century of doubt and muddle at Rome. The revolutionary effect of this programme was to dethrone monasticism as the pace-setter of Christendom and to give the bishop of Rome real powers for the direction and control of the Church’s life-powers which were to be exercised, in the first instance, through the local bishops” (pp 196-7).

Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury met with a polite rejection of this bid at Winchester, attributed by chroniclers to Matilda’s objection but in reality most likely reflecting Henry’s lack of interest. Had he been seriously interested, his mother’s objection would hardly have dissuaded him alone, much as he valued her advice.   Henry’s continental domain was far more in need of his attentions and he would in fact spend more of his life there than in England. In the following years England was left for long periods to the ministrations of Eleanor as effective regent.

Ireland next comes to Henry’s attention in 1167 when Dermot MacMurrough arrived at his peripatetic court, probably in Aquitaine. Dermot had had to search and high and low to find the busy and fleet king. In soliciting Henry’s help Dermot had nothing to lose. His enemies in Ireland had invaded this stronghold in south Leinster and forced him to flee. Sailing from Youghal, he had found shelter and support in Bristol from Robert FitzHarding, an eminent man who had sided with Matilda during the Anarchy and was a trusted mentor and friend of Henry II. At Aquitaine, Dermot made his pitch; with an Angevin army at his back he could conquer Ireland and hold it as king offering loyalty to Henry.

What Dermot got from Henry were many gifts and a letter offering permission to Norman lords to support him in his efforts in Ireland. While not exactly what he wanted, Dermot converted this eventually into Strongbow’s successful expedition to Ireland in 1170. With remarkably few men and resources, the Normans confounded the Irish with tactical speed and martial prowess, seized Leinster, captured Dublin, and put the High King’s besieging army to flight. Married to Dermot’s daughter, Strongbow was poised to become a local king in Ireland.

Quite why such few men could wreck such havoc and secure such speedy success is knotty story. Suffice to say that without centralised authority and the kind of resources that go with it (from fortified cities to bureaucracies and revenues) the Irish were uniquely vulnerable to the precise and organised application of force that was a specialty of the Normans. With their relatively primitive methods of warfare, the Irish were little match for the most formidable warriors in Europe, warriors who were moreover familiar with the tactics of Celtic societies thanks to their experiences fighting the Welsh.

The stunning and rapid success of Strongbow no doubt came as much of a surprise to Henry as to the Irish. It was undoubtedly a distraction from his main concern to hold his nascent Angevin Empire together. But he had a more immediate need to avoid being in continental Europe. He was being held accountable for the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket.

To understand how Henry had been so instrumental in this act, one must put it in the context of Henry’s efforts to forge the Angevin Empire. Had it endured as a true empire might, Henry himself might rank more prominently in the pantheon of great European leaders.  Eventually however it would be occluded by the rise of France under Louis VII and then Philip, Henry’s rivals from the House of Capet. Henry was in fact a vassal of these kings and there is no real sign that he seriously contemplated a direct challenge.  In fact he backed down from such when he retreated from the siege of Toulouse in 1160.  Had he forced the issue and seized Toulouse, Henry’s domain would have stretched from the Scottish borders to the Mediterranean, through the most fertile and rich lands in Europe, a wedge through England and France that linked up with the ports and trade on the Mediterranean coast.  It would have represented one of the greatest trade routes with all of the taxes and impositions flooding Henry’s treasury.  With this wealth, he would have been able to mount a formidable challenge to the Capetians and their stronghold in Paris. Europe’s future had turned on Henry’s decision to respect his feudal obligations and withdraw the siege.

An unexpected consequence of Henry’s withdrawal was a breach with his Chancellor and bosom friend, Thomas Becket.  Becket, who had raised and led a large force of knights in the campaign, had urged Henry to press home his attack on Toulouse, even with Louis inside the citadel.  Louis had come to the aid of the Count of Toulouse, daring his vassal Henry to break faith with his solemn feudal oath of loyalty.  With his advice so publicly rejected, it was only a matter of time before Becket would have to quit as Henry’s chief advisor.  Yet in easing Becket out by granting him the Archbishopric of Canterbury in April 1161, Henry fashioned a rod for his own back.  Becket turned from glamorous and powerful member of the court to an ascetic religious devotee who put himself forward as a champion of the Church against the State’s incursions on their traditional rights.

Over the better part of a decade, Becket’s pointed obduracy did neither the Church nor the State any favours and Becket managed by his unrelenting defiance of Henry to upset both sides.  Evidently Beckett may have changed in appearance and commitments but one aspect of his character did not change, however much the outward form did – his pride.

It is not a recorded fact of history that Henry actually uttered the famous imprecation “who will rid me of this turbulent priest!” But whatever he said that December 1170, a group of knights took it literally as an invitation to assassination and travelled post haste to England.  Henry realised their fatal mission too late to stop them.  There were some comic-tragic scenes as the four knights waited in the Cathedral with other petitioners looking for the Archbishop’s advice and support.  Words were exchanged between the haughty Becket and the apparently hapless assassins. Becket could have disappeared into the stony labyrinth of corridors and chambers but he did not hide.  With a defiant and dramatic gesture he knelt to pray.  A sword  swung, slicing off his cranium. Another sword pinioned his brain and threw its delicate pulp to the floor.

Henry would never really escape the shadow of this murder, though the Church was not long in absolving him.  There is no doubting his remorse at the death of this friend, at the awful personal alchemy that had turned their friendship to animosity.  A papal interdict was on its way to impose a punishment on Henry. Against the backdrop of condemnation across Europe, Henry prepared to travel to Ireland and deal with Strongbow.

Henry assembled a formidable force at Pembroke. If Strongbow’s success in Ireland was a distraction, it seems in the circumstances to have been a welcome one. The outcry in Europe needed to settle down. Moreover, in going to Ireland Henry appeared to offer the kind of intervention that was essential to reforming the Irish Church. Indeed Pope Alexander III warmly welcomed Henry’s intervention there. Warren: “He wrote to the Irish bishops, to the Irish ‘kings and princes’ and to Henry himself hailing it as the will of God.” Henry’s Irish adventure was currying favour just when and from where he needed it.

By including siege equipment, Henry’s preparations signalled his real intentions. He meant to take Dublin, the castles and the ports if the Normans holding them were unwilling to hand them over to royal control. Strongbow arrived in Pembroke from Ireland and told him what he wanted to hear. He would surrender everything in return for being allowed to hold Leinster as a fief (Warren, p 200). Henry travelled to Ireland determined to ensure this outcome. He met with no opposition from either Normans or Gaels. Save for Rory O’Connor, the High King, and the kings of the north, the Irish kings, Irish clergy and Normans alike offered submission and recognition to Henry as their lord. Henry focused on imposing order on the Normans. He brought over Hugh de Lacy to control Meath and Dublin, making him effectively viceroy. Along with Dublin, Waterford and Wexford were brought under royal garrison. Strongbow was to hold Leinster as a lord.  Henry was intent on ensuring that on one Norman would emerge as a dominant force in Ireland.

Henry’s arrangements in Ireland were consistent with his policies throughout the Angevin Empire in ensuring royal control over cities, ports and castles. He had greatly reduced the number of castles held by barons in England as part of his pacification for castles represented resistance to central control. Any lord could hold land but only trusted lords could hold power. Strongbow’s old allegiance in the Anarchy still haunted and poisoned his relationship with Henry.

In terms of the Irish, Henry proceeded with very considerable delicacy. He did not demand homage but rather loyalty and tribute, an obligation that was personal and without feudal significance in terms of land tenure. Warren interprets this as a lesson from his attempt to exert control over the Welsh with as little force as possible (pp 201-202).

Thus it was that when Henry made terms with the High King of Ireland, Rory O’Connor, in the Treaty of Windsor in 1175, Rory offered his loyalty not his homage and recognised Henry as Lord of Ireland. In not becoming a vassal of Henry, Rory was free to be High King. Henry hoped that this model would be as successful in Ireland as it had been in Wales where the native kings, having offered loyalty to the English crown, had been able to exert their dominance as local rulers over their kin.

Alas not so in Ireland; Rory was High King in name only and his lack of dominance in Munster threatened a return to the kind of free-for-all land grab that offered rich pickings for adventurous Norman lords. Henry wished to avoid this but he was caught on the horns of a dilemma. To exert full control of the situation, he would need to launch a full-scale invasion. He was not willing to undertake that expense. On the other, he was not prepared to let the Normans loose and potentially create a rival kingdom. Between these options Ireland was effectively partitioned between the lands held by the Normans and the rest of the country under the Irish kings. The Irish kings were so intent on their internal regnal wars that they were happy to engage the support of Normans in their conflicts. And the Normans were happy to do so because it provided them with opportunities to seize land, which they did frequently, albeit in a piecemeal fashion. Though distrusted by Henry, Lords like Hugh de Lacy and Strongbow, attuned to native ways, were able to balance Norman and Irish interests when discharging their duties as Henry’s viceroy but the situation was inherently unstable.

Henry’s last attempt to resolve the situation in Ireland was to end the partition by establishing an Irish kingdom under his son John. Ireland was an opportunity to help sort out Henry’s succession as between his rival sons. John arrived in 1185 and was so effective at alienating both the Normans and the Irish that he had to withdraw within nine months, just before papal approval for his reign had arrived from Rome. This failure was highly consequential for it left Ireland balanced between its Gaelic sphere and swathes of Norman domain that demanded the protection of the crown if and when threatened by the native Irish. It also left Rome unhappy for Henry had made little serious effort to reform the Irish Church.  John though kept the title of Lord of Ireland so when he became king of England in 1199, the title passed to the crown, passed down to his successors.

Warren judges that if Henry’s policy in Ireland was a failure, he is at least absolved of the charge of “acquisitive ambition”. Yet he cannot be absolved of the consequences of his intervention both in granting Dermot the original license to recruit Norman mercenaries and in his subsequent hapless attempts to manage their presence.

For the Normans in Ireland, as they famously and ruefully understood, they were English to the Irish but Irish to the English. Crown control in Ireland would be exercised as economically as possible through the kind of skilful diplomacy pioneered by Hugh de Lacy. The family that would most successfully balance the partition between Norman and Irish were the FitzGeralds, exploiting the uneasy existence of both Norman and Gaelic laws to expand their own territorial holdings. They had landed as one of the core family groups in the original invasion in 1169 and 1170. The success of the FitzGeralds over the next four hundred years would make them the most influential family in Ireland and absolve the English crown of much expense or concern about Irish matters while they held sway.

However, the limitations on the Norman presence in Ireland meant that as a group they were in turn vulnerable to absorption by the wider Gaelic society in which they operated and into which they married; becoming as was famously described ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’. By the time Tudors emerged, the Normans in Ireland had become the Old English and their commitment to their Catholicism damned them in New English Protestant eyes as disloyal and treacherous as the native Irish. When the Tudors launched a major effort to conquer and colonise Ireland, the Norman Irish would suffer much as the native Gaelic did in the wars and dispossessions that ensued.

The arrival and enduring presence of the Normans in Ireland was shaped then by the politics of the Angevin Empire.  Certainly they seized vast tracks of land but given the prevalence of wars among the petty Irish kings it can hardly be said that they disturbed any kind of prevailing peace. Where Norman influence was strongest, greater peace and stability tended to prevail.  Moreover, the Normans brought much to Ireland that could not be found in a Gaelic polity that was tribal, rural, and pastoral in its makeup.  They  brought cities, towns, castles, harbours, villages, cottages, manors, markets and new farming.  They vastly boosted Irish overseas trade.  They endowed Abbeys and increased exposure to European culture at a time when Europe was undergoing something of a renaissance in learning.

Did the Normans then interrupt and effectively thwart a nascent Irish state as nationalists argued? Can the Normans be held accountable for something that did not happen?

I am not sure that they can.  There is really little evidence in Ireland of the centralising forces shaping their European neighbours.The incessant regnal wars in Ireland continued with little evolution toward a nation state that could ultimately resist the invasion of the Normans or the predations of the Tudors centuries later.  This was in no small measure due to land tenure: in feudal Europe land tenure was contingent on loyalty and this acted as a serious incentive to fulfil obligations and duties and a disincentive to rebellion.  Irish kings, whether at the local, provincial or national level, had little or no such leverage relying instead on Brehon laws and customs, enforced by hostage taking and raids.  The higher up the chain of kingship one went, the weaker the obligations became.  Another key weakness was inheritance: the failure of primogenitor to emerge as an accepted method for succession as it had done in Western Europe during the 12th century.  Absent primogenitor, succession in Ireland was determined by force, a combination of personal and military power in virtual ceaseless competition within and between extended families. And so too consequently did the practice of sibling blindings and other mutilations to reduce the competition within families, not to mention the killing of hostages.

Instructively, Brian Ború may have defeated the Danes in 1014 but Dublin stayed a Viking settlement rather than become capital of a Gaelic Irish society.  The Irish seemed as indifferent and diffident about cities in 1014 as they were in 1170 when Strongbow tenuously held Dublin. Again this points to a critical distinction between Ireland and her neighbours: the Romans never came to Ireland.  Unlike her nearest neighbours England and France, for example, Ireland had no palimpsest of urbanity and Roman laws and organisation to force the pace of centralisation and state building.

Ború’s family had quickly disintegrated as a political force after his death at the scene of battle.  In the one hundred and fifty five years between Clontarf and the arrival of the Normans, no subsequent contender for the High Kingship really came close to making that title meaningful.  Had one done so he might have quickly repulsed the small band of Normans and eliminated the need for Henry to assert Angevin control over his Norman lords in Ireland.

Even here there is room for doubt: the High King Rory O’Connor mustered a large force outside Dublin which even if not the reputed 30,000, it would have vastly outnumbered the Normans.  Yet it was put to flight by well timed sallies from three small companies of Normans and Rory slinked home westward to his Connaught fastness. As we have seen, when Henry II arrived in 1171, he was met with something like relief by the Irish who sensed an opportunity to put order on the ferocious and successful Norman adventurers that Dermot had invited into their midst.

It is still fascinating to conjecture what Ireland might have been like without the Normans and inclusion within the Angevin Empire.  Orpen offered this as a neat summary of this counter-factual fancy, the better to dispose of it: “Had Ireland been allowed to go her way unheeded by Europe, she might in time, and after much suffering, have evolved a better ordered system with some hope of progress in it, and the world might have seen a Celtic civilisation where Celtic imagination and Celtic genius, free and unfettered, would assuredly have contributed something towards the solution of human problems, which, as it is, mankind has missed forever.  But it was not to be.”


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Downing Street Declaration 23 Years On

As Pat Hynes reminded us, 15 December marked the 23rd anniversary of the Downing Street.  Pat wrote that “That year of 1993 and in particular the weeks leading to the declaration, had been particularly brutal in terms of violence, with events like the Shankhill Road Bomb, followed by the Greysteele Bar attack, as well as the daily count of murders across Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom.”  Supported by a small group of officials, the then Taoiseach Albert Reynolds undaunted and determined looked for a path from conflict to peace.  

One of those officials was Séan Ó hUigínn, a towering figure in the peace process during its formative phase.  What is often lost sight of in conflicts is the ideological or normative issue at stake.  Violence and its inevitable condemnatory political response often suggests that the violence itself is the problem.  Irish governments consistently and rightly understood that in fact the problem in Northern Ireland was political and the violence would only be ended through negotiation based on a sound understanding of the political issues.  

Séan took this to its logical conclusion, diving deep with shamanistic verve into the conflict to come to its core, namely the violation done to national self-determination by the imposition of partition.  He formulated a response that would address that wound and used that to construct a process of negotiation that he personally guided from the heartlands of the republican movement to the corridors of Downing Street.  The outcome was the Downing Street Declaration.  It produced the IRA ceasefire in 1994, less than a year after its promulgation.

The Declaration achieved this by setting out the principles agreed by the British and Irish Governments: that the consent of the people of Northern Ireland was required for unity with the South; that the British Government had “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland”; that 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”; that 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; that the achievement of peace must involve a permanent end to the use of, or support for, paramilitary violence and a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods.

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

The Good Friday Agreement and its endorsement in the joint referenda held North and South in May 1998 realised the prescription for peace set out in the Declaration.  By the time we negotiated the GFA, Séan had moved on and the talks were lead by Dermot Gallagher who formed a talks teams of experts in various dimensions of the conflict.

Before all of this, Reynolds and Major knew that they were tantalisingly close to an historic peace.  They 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: “…..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.”

You can read the full text of the historic Downing Street Declaration here.

By the time we reach the 25th anniversary of the Downing Street Declaration in 2018, we will find ourselves in changed circumstances thanks to Brexit that will directly affect the architecture of the GFA which in turn is based on the principles distilled and described in the Downing Street Declaration.

We should have a clearer idea by then of what the Brexit decision will mean for the border, for our relations with the UK and with Northern Ireland.  Thanks to documents like the Declaration and the agreements that flowed from it, we have a very clear analysis and prescription to guide our response to that coming challenge.




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Eurozone Needs Convergence and Ambition

This column by the FT’s Martin Wolf offers some startling and stimulating insights about the Eurozone and its discontents.  He identifies two major failings within the Eurozone (I say ‘within’ because can we really say by whom?)

The first is low demand which has dampened both growth and inflation.  Related to this is the divergence in GDP: between 2007 and 2016, Germany’s real GDP per head at purchasing power parity rose by 11% yet it stagnated in France and fell in Spain by 8% and by 11% in Italy.

The second failure is the inexorable rise of Germany’s current account surplus, reckoned to be 9% this year.  Within the Eurozone, Germany’s surplus is someone else’s deficit.

Stepping back, it is clear that the 2008 crisis tested the Eurozone.  We in Ireland woke up to the fact that risk was going to be disaggregated as our banks faltered and we were on our own as the bond market turned against us.  Advance eight years and we find that Italy’s banks are facing serious problems with €360bn of debt, of which some €170bn is held by Italian citizens.  While the Eurozone has made strides toward a more resilient banking network, the trouble in Italian banking is disinterring some old headlines about the fate of the euro.  As Wolf writes, the Eurozone needs conference.  It also needs ambition.

“What the Eurozone needs most is a shift away from the politics of austerity”, writes Wolf.  That to me makes a lot of sense.  From a macro-economic point of view, money is cheap, inflation low, growth fragmented, and demand weak.  From a political perspective there is clearly a need for the ‘system’ to deliver: whether fair or not, the EU is seen as the system.

From another perspective we as societies need to wage war on climate change by dramatically reducing carbon, generating sustainable energy, greening our urban centres and life styles, and mitigating the effects of climate change’s Valkyries – the storms, rising tides, flash floods and droughts that warn us of what’s ahead.


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Halloween for Adults

What’s not to like about film noir: it is halloween for adults. Lovely little piece this from the Guardian, link here.  I’d highly recommend reading the comments for a fuller treatment of the subject. The role of gender needs to be surfaced in thinking about noir: any time smart women are automatically up to no good should set off alarm bells. In the Maltese Falcon, surely one of the best scripts EVER, Spade is clearly attracted to Ruth/Brigid, entertained by her lying and transparent attempts at manipulation. Nonetheless, he sends her to prison and possibly the gallows because of his honour code; because you can’t let your buddy’s death go without a settling of accounts, even if you have been messing around with his wife. Yet the snappy dialogue and the presentation of humans in all their flaws and confusion rescues and elevates film noir far above and beyond the tired clichés and tropes of Hollywood. In summing up, perhaps the best comment on the article is a single rhetorical question (Dataportal): “Aren’t we all weird detectives in a lonely city?”

Happy (?) Halloween!



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Export Trade Council looks to Asia and a New Asia Pacific Strategy

On Tuesday, the Government approved the proposal by Charlie Flanagan, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, to start work on the two cross-sectoral regional strategies, namely Asia-Pacific and the Americas. Both of these will fit into the broader trade policy, Trading Better, on which work has also started.

Last week, Minister Flanagan convened at Iveagh House a meeting of the Export Trade Council (which includes the Ministers and State Agencies involved in trade and members of the private sector). The Minister was keen that the Council focus on Asia for a number of reasons.

The Council’s discussions would usefully feed into the cross-sectoral strategy for the Asia Pacific region. He himself had travelled to a number of countries in Asia and is very aware that we have been making progress there in trade terms. Brexit has highlighted the exposure of Irish business to the Sterling market and the need for market diversification. And, as can be seen in facts and figures in the press statement attached below, Asia continues to be a global economic powerhouse.

The Minister invited our Ambassadors from Tokyo (Anne Barrington), Beijing (Paul Kavanagh) and Bangkok (Brendan Rodgers) to offer a scene setter for the discussions. Brendan could not make it because of the death of the Thai king so Maeve Collins, Asia Pacific Director General, ably filled in to brief on ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations.

There is no doubt that the potential for Ireland to increase its trade with Asia is enormous. However the discussion at the Council was framed in realistic terms about what it takes to convert that potential into real gains.

Our footprint there in diplomatic and state agency presence is comparatively light, though it has vastly improved in recent years. Asia is not a monolith but highly variated by region, nation and business culture. Relationships at all levels need to be built because government and business are closely related. High level visits by Ministers are critical to confirming the relationship and opening doors. (For example, the uptick in interest in Ireland by Japanese companies follows several high level visits and that is no coincidence, as Anne pointed out.) Irish companies need to scale to meet the demands of sustaining an export drive there and in meeting market demands. Given the complexity of local business culture, Team Ireland needs to operate there cohesively. Ireland’s visibility in the region is low and we have to take very concerted efforts to raise that and to brand Ireland effectively.

We are taking Asia seriously. The Minister for Food, Forestry and Horticulture, Andrew Doyle, joined the discussion with insights from his recent trip to Vietnam and Korea. Minister for State for Financial Services, Eoghan Murphy, also contributed fresh from promoting IFS 2020 in Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai and Tokyo. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Mary Mitchell O’Connor was not at the Council this time because she was heading to the US (and plans to be in Asia before the end of the year). Richard Bruton, Minister for Education and Skills, was on his way to China to accept Ireland’s award as a ‘Country of Honour’ in Beijing at the China Education Expo (more details here).

With contributions from the Departments, IDA, Enterprise Ireland, Bord Bía, Tourism Ireland and Science Foundation Ireland, the ETC’s discussions last week were rich and insightful and they will feed into the formulation of the cross-sectoral Asia Pacific regional strategy. Maeve is ably leading this process, supported by a working committee and with input from stakeholders.

Brexit of course featured in the discussion on Asia with a key point being that Ireland offers certainty for business where the UK now presents uncertainty. Japan had been blunt to the UK on this point, as Anne noted, and Paul confirmed the opportunities for Ireland in China as a result, so long as we convey the message that Ireland’s future is with the EU.

At the end of the Council, the Minister Flanagan launched the New Collaborative Research Funding Partnership between Science Foundation Ireland and the National Natural Science Foundation of China. As the Minister said in his remarks: “I am delighted to announce this major partnership between Science Foundation Ireland and the NSFC, particularly on the day of an Asia-Pacific focused Export Trade Council meeting. I have no doubt that the links Ireland is forging with partners in China in the areas of science and technology will be of tremendous benefit as we strive to diversify the breadth and reach of Irish trade in years to come, and will support jobs in both countries.” More information on this high significant Ireland China partnership is here.

After such a productive exchange we were pressed for time but Minister Flanagan took the opportunity to brief on Brexit related developments closer to home, including his meetings in the UK and Europe and preparations across government, notably on identifying our core interests. Finally, addressing an issue raised by the private sector at a previous Council, Minister Murphy briefed on his work to address the issue of insurance costs which adversely affect Irish competitiveness.



DG Trade, DFAT

27 October 2016


Press Release


Minister Flanagan secures Government approval to commence work on new cross-sectoral strategies for Asia-Pacific and The Americas


This morning (Tuesday), the Government approved a proposal by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan TD, to commence work on two new whole-of-government cross-sectoral strategies for Asia-Pacific and The Americas within the remit of the Cabinet Committee on Economy, Trade and Jobs.

Minister Flanagan stated:

“The timing for these new strategies, promised in the Programme for Government, is appropriate as, in the aftermath of the UK referendum vote, we move to consolidate our bilateral and trade relationships with established partners and find new trade opportunities with growing markets.”

On opportunities in Asia-Pacific, Minister Flanagan stated:

“I am very excited by the potential for Ireland to develop real, lasting and strong economic and social links with these growing regions. There was a keen interest in Ireland at the ASEM Summit which I attended in July.  Total exports of goods and services from Ireland to the Asia Pacific region exceeded €20 billion in 2014 and continues to grow. As a trading nation it is vital that Ireland seeks opportunities to meet growing demand for imported goods and services in the region.  In the past 20 years, China and India have almost tripled their share of the global economy and increased their absolute economic size almost six times over and become substantial contributors to global economic growth.

“Nine of the 10 fastest growing mega-cities in the world are in Asia.  In years when economic growth in the western world was muted, many countries in Asia achieved consistent average annual GDP growth rates in the range of 5% to 8% per annum. The Asia Pacific region is home to more than half of the world’s population, millions of whom have been lifted out of poverty in the last decade and a growing percentage of whom are middle class.  The region is also home to some of the youngest populations in the world. India alone is home to one sixth of the world’s population with some 1.3 billion people, more than 50% of whom are under 25.  As Europe ages, we must look East to secure our own future. 

“What happens in the Asia Pacific also directly affects the wider world, and it matters in particular to a small, open economy such as Ireland. Particularly now, in light of the UK referendum, the Government is determined to do everything possible to develop and capitalise on Trade, Investment and other potential links with the region. The rise of China has continued and China is now a key driver of global economic growth as well as an ever more engaged global player, with a population of 1.35 billion people and a GDP of over €10 trillion.  Total trade between Ireland and China was worth approximately €8 billion in 2014 and it is a key market for Irish agri-food exports.

“Japan is a mature developed economy and is still the world’s third largest, and continues to be one of our key trading partners and the largest source of FDI into Ireland from Asia.  Trade with Ireland was worth over €7 billion in 2014.  Japan as well as having great potential for Irish exporters, is an important springboard to other Asian markets. South Korea was the first country in the Asia Pacific region to have a fully operational Free Trade Agreement with the EU. Since the coming into effect of the FTA, EU exports to Korea have increased by 55%. In the same period, Irish exports to Korea have almost doubled.

The ASEAN Economic Community – established in late 2015 – aims to develop greater economic integration among ten countries in South East Asia, and presents significant potential over time for enhanced trade opportunities in a region which has a combined market of US$2.6 trillion and over 620 million people. In 2014 Ireland’s total trade with the ASEAN region was €4.6 billion. 

The Asia Pacific region also includes Australia and New Zealand, countries with which we have long standing and strong historical ties, as well as growing people-to-people, education and business connections.”

On opportunities in The Americas, Minister Flanagan stated:

The Americas region provides Ireland with some of our largest export markets and sources of inward investment.  Hundreds of thousands of visitors from the region come to Ireland each year to holiday or study.  The region – especially Canada – became home to thousands of young Irish people during the recent economic crisis, helping to refresh Irish communities and trans-Atlantic links.  Canada is also a key partner in terms of FDI, exports, education exchange and tourist numbers visiting Ireland. The US will remain one of the primary sources of FDI into Ireland, as well as a vital export market.  The US alone is also the second largest tourist market in terms of visitors to the island of Ireland.  The US is the largest single country of origin for international students in Irish higher education institutions. Students from the US comprise 19% of full-time international students studying in Ireland.

“St. Patrick’s Day provides a unique opportunity for Ireland to showcase what we have to offer to both Canada and the United States.”

“Latin America and the Caribbean also present enormous opportunities for Ireland, with a combined population of 643 million people, GDP of $US5.1tn and a burgeoning middle class. It’s a key target as part of our trade diversification agenda, and with EU trade agreements already in place with Central America, the Caribbean, Colombia, Peru, Mexico and Chile, there is a solid framework in place for Irish exporters to do business with the region.

“In 2015, total goods trade with the Latin American and Caribbean region was worth €3.59 billion, up 11% on 2014, with two thirds of this being Irish exports. Weextended our footprint in this part of the world in 2015 with the opening of a trade-focused Consulate General in Sao Paulo, adding to Embassies in Buenos Aires, Brasília and Mexico, as well as IDA and Enterprise Ireland offices in Brazil.  The Latin American region was also identified as a priority for the new commercial attaché scheme, and recruitment processes for new commercial attachés are underway in Brazil, Argentina and Mexico.

“The strategies are not only about trade, but will also look at deepening political and people-to-people relationships. Already, Ireland works closely with like-minded countries in Latin America and in the Asia Pacific region in the multilateral arena. Many countries in these regions, like Ireland, have a proud tradition in the area of disarmament, and we cooperate very closely at the UN. Ireland is currently engaged in work to support the peace process in Colombia, drawing on the lessons learned in Northern Ireland.”

Work on these Strategies will now begin in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade under Minister Flanagan’s direction and will sit within the broader Government strategy on Trade, Tourism and Investment.



Press Office

25 October 2016

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Trade has been the Antidote to War in Europe

Business men and women, trade officials and EU bureaucrats don’t often see themselves as peace builders. Yet that is the real outcome of their professions.

Without the trade they foster and make possible, the continent would not just be poorer but more violent. This might sound like a bold claim but let’s briefly put the achievement of EU trade and the single market in context.

Aside from the Nuremburg trials and the lesser known mass upheavals of people as nation states reorganised themselves behind new borders (a grim tale recounted in Tony Judt’s Postwar, A History of Europe Since 1945), Europe did not really focus on reconciliation and peacebuilding per se. The moral framework of the war was too obvious and the exigencies of reconstruction and then Cold War too pressing. Rather, Europe’s post-war leaders understood that a peaceful future depended on trade.

Winston Churchill led with the way when in 1946 he called for a United States of Europe: “The structure of the United States of Europe, if well and truly built, will be such as to make the material strength of a single state less important. Small nations will count as much as large ones and gain their honour by their contribution to the common cause.” The first step was the formation of the Council of Europe in 1949 with its focus on human rights and democracy.

Two of the leading post-war architects of the EU, Robert Schuman and Jean Monet, looked first to the two products that made modern warfare possible, namely coal and steel. Within the framework of the 1947 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (since 1995, the WTO), they forged the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, the foundation for the common market. Its purpose was set out in the Schuman Declaration; to “make it plain that any war between France and Germany becomes not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible.”

The Schuman Declaration also made clear that a united Europe would be built layer by layer: “Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity”.

Thus followed the foundational EU document, the Treaty of Rome in 1957.  The Customs Union was created in 1958. In 1993, the single market was completed by the Maastricht Treaty allowing the free movement of goods, services, capital and people.

Within the Schengen Area, people from 26 countries (22 out of the 28 EU member states) cross borders without passports. Economic and monetary union began in 1999, followed by the launch of the euro which today is used by 19 member states. In 2009, the Lisbon Treaty looked to enhance the effectiveness of EU institutions and decision making processes.

The construct that emerged has proven to be robust and attractive to other European states. The EU dealt effectively with the greatest challenge it faced since 1945 with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the collapse of Soviet Bloc and the absorption of twelve new member states as a result.

The founders of the European project certainly aspired to a supranational pooling of sovereignty. There has been progress toward this but it has been very carefully, even gingerly progressed in foreign policy and security for example. The UK has played an important role in that process and Ireland has defended its interests well.

But make no mistake about it, in terms of pooling sovereignty the greatest progress has been made in trade: the single market is the beating heart of the European Union.  And the single market is the four freedoms.  It is from this perspective that the UK wish to alter its immigration regime will be judged by fellow member states.

Nowhere else on earth have sovereign nations pooled their trade laws, tariffs and customs, regulations and standards, and binding arbitration with the depth and comprehensiveness of the European Union.

And against the backdrop of Europe’s violent preceding centuries, nowhere else on earth has shown so dramatically how trade can be used as the antidote to war.



DG Trade, DFAT

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