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.