Black and Tans, Charles II, dehumanization, English-Irish relationship, Gerald of Wales, history, imperialism, IRA, Irish history, John O’Meara, Punk Rock Jesus, religion, Sean Murphey, Sexual Rhetoric, The History and Topography of Ireland
It’s difficult for Americans to really understand a relationship that goes back, literally thousands of years. It’s the pitfall of being such a young nation. While we may have relationships that can be traced back at least two centuries ago, in the weight of the associations that exist between the people of Europe, we’re talking about interactions that occurred even to the point of the Roman Empire. It’s impossible for us to really comprehend it. One day perhaps. This examination is meant to help my American readers because we’ll be discussing the relationship that exists between England and Ireland.
I was Teaching Assistant for one of my English professors this semester, teaching a course that covered English literature from the period of 1798 to the twenty first century(Romantics, Victorians, Moderns, Post-Moderns, and then whatever the hell period we’re in now). As we were reading the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (which I would highly recommend if you get the chance) we arrived at the chapter when Victor lands off the coast of Ireland. In the novel Victor has been accused of a murder and my professor noted to the students that one of the possible reasons the Irish are portrayed as nasty and cruel is because the English have a long complicated relationship with Ireland. The English tended to view the Irish as subhuman. This was one of those moments where, it’s not the light bulb turning on, but more the dimmer switch being turned all the way up; you were aware on some level of this fact, but having someone else speak it out loud suddenly makes everything clear.
The English’s tendency to treat Ireland, and many other territories as inferiors, is probably the textbook definition of history. This may at first be rooted back to the fact that Ireland was an unconquerable territory for the longest time. Whether it is something in the air, or in the DNA or Irish people, the island has stumped any and all foreigners who attempt to conquer it. The Romans for example didn’t even bother with the island (they were having enough problems with the English locals). And it wasn’t until the 1100s that the English, the Normans specifically, decided to finally try and take the place. What followed was well over 900 years of oppression, depending on which side of the Irish Sea you find yourself on. While there are some English who would suggest that their treatment of the Irish people was not as bad as some people would like to suggest, the Irish would respond with the fucking IRA.
But I’m not interested in giving long history lesson of Irish-English relations, for there are men and women highly more qualified than me to give one. My interest is instead to review a work that, should anyone wish to begin studying this relationship, they might want to start with this simple tome.
The History and Topography of Ireland by Gerald of Wales is everything the title promises. A history and topography of the island of Ireland. Well that’s everything, hope you enjoyed.
The history of Ireland given in this 127 page translation by John O’Meara is magical yet honest interpretation of the Ireland. The reader must understand going in that the author, Gerald of Wales, is writing this tome to please the King of England Charles II, while reporting on the territory of this newly conquered land. It is at times straightforward, and, to speak from the point of view of the casual reader, REALLY…REALLY…BORING… (*snore*). The reason for this is because when giving topography of a place there is no real room for dramatic re-imagining. Observe an early passage:
The land if fruitful and rich in its fertile soil and plentiful harvests. Crops abound in the fields, flocks on the mountains, and wild animals in the woods. The island is, however, richer in pastures than in crops, and in grass than in grain. The crops give great promise in the blade, even more in the straw, but less in the ear. For here the grains of wheat are shriveled and small, and can scarcely be separated from the chaff by any winnowing fan. (33).
(*snore followed by bumbling snort*) Sorry. Dosed off there for a minute. But while this may be painfully boring (like, omg, how painfully is painfully, you know, like, you know), it would be important to a new monarch responsible for such figures and information. If Charles needed a steady supply of crops, this description of the territory would provide him insight on whether to rely on Ireland. This description also serves as travel companion. Observe an understanding of zoology:
Of all kinds of reptiles, only those that are not harmful are found in Ireland. It has no poisonous reptiles. It has no serpents of snaked, toads, or frogs, tortoises or scorpions. It has no dragons. It has however, spiders, leeches and lizards—but they are totally harmless. (50).
This description precedes a long musing on the part of the author in which Gerald argues that poison is incapable of reaching Ireland’s shores. The first part ends and Gerald moves on to the more fascinating aspect of Ireland and that is the magical elements that inhabit this new territory. There are islands that rise from the ocean and disappear before they can be reached. There is another island where corpses do not rot and are left in the open to be observed. There is description of a woman with excessive body hair and even a beard to match. There is a well that turns men gray. There is a woman who sleeps with a trained goat, I know I know just wait. And there’s also something about a man’s penis setting on fire after he tries to rape a woman in a sacred mill.
What was that last part?
Yes, Gerald describes a sacred Mill hand crafted by a saint that no woman is allowed to enter. However, a passage is described when an invader of Ireland named Hugo de Laci allows his troops to run wild. A certain archer grabs a young woman and drags her into the mill to rape her (which, unfortunately, he does but stay with me here its gets good after this). The archer did not know the myth, and so violated the mill. The response is, well, just awesome:
An archer dragged a woman into the mill and lustfully violated her there. He was stricken in his member with hell-fire in sudden vengeance and immediately began to burn throughout his whole body. He died the same night. (90-1).
You just want to read that scene over and over again, and wonder why the hell you don’t see shit like that in Games of Thrones.
But so what? Why should I care? It sounds like a boring book about some English dude writing about Ireland and telling fantasy stories. How does this really have any relevant merit to the real world? Well my lovely challenger, this book is important for the reason I began with England and Ireland’s troublesome relationship. You’ll note that Gerald was an Englishman, and the introduction to the Penguin Edition I cite here goes into some detail. Gerald hardly left the rooms in which he wrote about Ireland, and the purpose of writing was to please Charles II, that’s why the third part of the book is perhaps the most hilarious and troublesome part. There is a passage that sums up the effort of the last third of Gerald’s book, and tell me if you spot the problem:
This is a filthy people. Wallowing in vice. Of all peoples it is the least instructed in the rudiments of Faith. They do not yet pay tithes of first fruits or contract marriages. They do not avoid incest. They do not attend God’s church with due reverence. Moreover, and this is surely a detestable thing, and contrary bit only to the Faith but to any feeling of honour—men in many places of Ireland, I shall not say marry, but rather debauch, the wives of their dead brothers. They abuse them in having such evil and incestuous relations with them. In this (wishing to imitate the ancients more eagerly in vice than in virtue) they follow the apparent teaching, and not the true doctrine, of the Old Testament. (106).
Wow. Just…yeah dude. That was intense.
While I’m sure there are many in England that no longer believe this, and I’m not just saying that because my second highest readership audience are the English, this attitude was the predominant attitude of many in the English aristocracy for centuries. But if you look at Gerald’s language you observe just how the rhetoric is operating. There are at least two uses of the word incest, and he also employs their lack of seriousness to “the church.” Both of these suggest to the reader, who is again, the King of England, that the Irish are subhuman monsters and therein lays the real purpose of the work.
It part of the human condition to desire position and social relevance. The dominant paradigm operating here is that as long as you are higher than someone else in this world, you possess merit. For years the English held sway over the country of Ireland, and their bitter treatment of the Irish is what in turned eventually spawned the Irish Republican Army, otherwise known as the IRA (you know, those gun sellers in Sons of Anarchy). If you seem doubtful, just Google the term Black and Tans and see what you get. The English occupation allowed a sense of entitlement that, for some, allowed such dehumanization to become part of the established rhetoric of what it meant to be an Englishman. Gerald Wales did not spawn this attitude; he was merely a symptom of it.
As I stated before, I am not Irish, nor am I English, so I am limited in my understanding of how deep this relationship goes in terms of cultural consciousness. All I have really, to work with is art.
Recently I wrote a letter to a dear friend about a graphic novel entitled Punk Rock Jesus, and within the graphic novel there is the character Thomas, a former IRA member. In one of the flashback passages that show his training his uncle gives the boy the history of the cause:
“Hundreds of years ago, Ireland was ruled by fierce tribes. No one dared to attack. Even the Romans, who controlled most of the known world, left our land alone after they had conquered England.
But eventually it was conquered by the British. Rich Protestants settled in the North and for generations kept our countrymen down by treating them like second class citizens. They even took our crops and let the people starve to death. Belfast and the surrounding countries were hit the hardest.
In World War One, thousands of Irishmen were forced to fight for England. After the war, a few of the soldiers decided to use their training to start their own war against England’s occupying police force, the RUC—Royal Ulster Constabulary.
Eventually they forced the British to allow Southern Ireland to become an independent state. But in Ulster, the northern counties or Ireland, the war goes on.
This is your war, Thomas.
I suppose I should get to the damn thesis already. The History and Topography of Ireland is an essential read to any and all who are interested in the politics between England and Ireland. While it may not add any insight to contemporary details, it does give the reader an insight into the early relationship that was beginning between peoples. It is a text conflicted by the complications of ethnicity, for after all, it is an Englishman describing the territory from the comfort of a closed room.
Gerald’s work is fascinating, or at least it is to a super-nerd like me, if only for the early description of Ireland and the wonder that it inspired. The book is a short, strange little tale you could knock out in an hour, if only to discover the fact that cocks crow in Ireland differently than they do in England.