Finding Ireland’s dreamtime and history in Irish Place Names

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Eamonn McKee

Ottawa, January 2020


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Ireland’s Economic Resilience, Canada’s Market Opportunity

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

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

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


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

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

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

This public deficit impact

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In short, we’re pretty much like Canada.




4 December 2020

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Impressions of Ireland-Canada: Building on Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best wishes,


Eamonn McKee

Ambassador of Ireland

13 November 2020

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To Canada!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With best wishes,


Eamonn McKee

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


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Nassau Street, Walking Dublin’s Thingmote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Conquest and Ireland’s Great Dance with History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Norman Invasion of Ireland: A Good Word for Strongbow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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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.



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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.


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