Friday, March 1, 2013

The Origin of "beyond the Pale"

Where does the expression “beyond the Pale” come from?
 by Arthur Russell

The expression "beyond the pale" is often used to describe activities which are unacceptable or otherwise outside of the bounds of what passes for “normal” or civilised behavior. As a phrase it is thought to have come into vogue following the publication of ‘History of Polindor and Flostella’ by John Harrington which contained the line
“Both dovelike roved forth beyond the pale to planted myrtle walk”
It was used in this work presumably to describe the illicit meetings of lovers.

The actual origin of the notion of a “Pale” comes from the shrinkage of the area under English domination in Ireland during the late medieval period (as shown in the accompanying maps). This area was defined by a series of rampart ditches and fences which the administration caused to be built to encompass territory it felt it could defend against encroaching raids from the surrounding Gaelic clans.  These defenses were sometimes supported by mottes with watchtowers, wherever the terrain allowed them.
Note – The term Pale was later applied to a similar Pale territory developed by the English King in an area he controlled around Calais in Northern France circa 1360, and which was finally won back by the French in the early 16th century.

In the first decades after their invasion of Ireland in 1169, the acquisitive Norman adventurers managed to take over and occupy large tracts of the South-east, midlands and North-east of the island in a relatively short time. The tide of conquest and occupation began to turn in the middle of the 13th century and witnessed the return of Gaelic clans to lost territories and the gradual shrinkage of English controlled lands. This continued right through the late 13th, 14th and most of the 15th centuries.

There were a number of reasons for this, some due to the fact that Gaelic chieftains succeeded in learning how to defend their interests against the militarily superior invaders; some due to a lessening of interest by the English themselves in pushing forward the boundaries of the first colony of what was much later to become the British Empire. “Gaelicisation” was further driven by the Bruce invasion of 1315-18 which came within a whisker of driving the English colonists out of Ireland altogether. This war encouraged many Gaelic chiefs to retain bands of professional, heavily armoured ‘gallowglasses’ from Scotland (a Gaelic expression which means ‘foreign soldiers’) to supplement their own armies of native “kerns”, who were more adept and suited to guerilla warfare fought in forests and difficult terrain, where heavy armour was not so advantageous.

The marked lessening of colonial interest had several origins on the English side. Possibly the most potent was the fact that many of the original invading families adopted Irish mores and customs and were as likely to intermarry with native Irish in preference to partners from their own stock. Some aspects of the old Gaelic legal system also suited their purposes better than the rather rigid feudal system they had brought with them and were supposed to impose on their new patrimonies. Resulting from this many became independent kings and chieftains, rather than Lords and Earls beholden for their titles on a faraway and sometimes disinterested English king. 

An expression that came into vogue to describe this was that many of these families had become “more Irish than the Irish themselves”. There is ample evidence that old Norman families such as Fitzgeralds, Desmonds, Burkes, Butlers, Nangles, Fitzmaurices, Prendergasts, Costellos, (even Russells!) increasingly considered themselves to be Irish rather than English.

Coupled to this was the almost chronically unstable political situation in England itself which preoccupied so many English monarchs during those centuries; which did not allow much attention or resources to be focused on the “troublesome isle” and their tentative claims to their colony to the West. 

A critical influence was the impact of the Black Death which reached Ireland’s shores in 1360, hitting the towns and cities established by the invaders more than it did the relatively isolated and rural based Gaelic clans. Whole settler families and communities simply disappeared over a short period as the virulent plague swept through ports and areas of trade and commerce. This watershed event led to the Peasants' Revolt in England led by Wat Tyler, which also has some resonance in colony society in Ireland, and loosened many of the feudal bonds that tied serf to master, and master to his King. 

Fault-lines in Ireland's population:
Irish medieval society could well be divided into three distinct parts – the Gaelic or native Irish (“wilde Irish”) who continued to observe traditional laws and customs; the “old English” who were becoming increasingly alienated from the mother country and were adopting Irish ways; and “new English” who looked to England and abhorred Irish customs and practice, as well as their own countrymen who were gradually becoming “more Irish than the Irish”. Indeed new influxes of people from the mother country considered most "English Irish"(Anglo Irish) as little better than "barbarian Irish"; to the extent that many Anglo Irish were regarded as "English by the Irish, and Irish by the English". It was not a comfortable position for them to fill. 

 In 1361, King Edward III sent his son, Prince Lionel, to Ireland to reverse the decline of English influence. Despite several forays and offensives into Gaelic territory, he failed to make any impact. In 1366, he convened a Parliament in Kilkenny where the so-called ‘Statutes of Kilkenny’ were passed. These laws attempted to divide the two cultures by forbidding the colonists to adopt Irish language, dress and customs. Intermarriage was particularly forbidden unless the Irish partner adopted English ways. The native Irish were considered to be “beyond the Pale” in their own land as far as these laws were concerned.
The laws made no impact as the native Irish ignored them and most colonists were too imbued in Irish ways to accept them.

King Richard II in Ireland:
Art MacMurrough comes to parley with the English led by the Earl of Glouchester

Thirty years later (1397), King Richard II landed at Waterford with a massive force of over 30,000 men with the objective of restoring the colony. His most notable foe during this campaign was Art MacMurrough Kavanagh, the Gaelic King of Leinster. (Art MacMurrough Kavanagh was a direct descendant of the infamous Dermot MacMurrough, the man responsible for inviting the first wave of Norman invaders to Ireland in 1169). Art led the English army on a merry chase through the glens and mountains of Wicklow, harrying them at every opportunity; eventually forcing them to conclude a peace treaty of sorts which did little or nothing to give Richard even a facade of success for what he had planned to be a decisive and glorious affirmation of his authority in Ireland. After two wasted years of campaigning in Ireland achieving nothing, Richard returned to England to face the Bolingbroke threat and eventual death from starvation as the prisoner of King Henry IV, who had deposed and replaced him on the English throne.  

The Pale
The area of direct English influence in Ireland had by then shrunk to a narrow area immediately around and north of the city of Dublin. It stretched as far north as the walled town of Dundalk and inland no more than 20 miles. Even at that, the region was under constant threat from the nearby Gaelic clans; McMahons, O’Reillys, O’Rourkes, O’Farrells, Dempseys, O’Moores, O’Tooles, O’Byrnes among others. Some of the clans even allowed the colonists to continue to exist on sufferance in the towns, hamlets and farms close to them; as long as they paid them a ‘black rent’ (protection money?). The security of the area which came to be referred to as “The Pale”; required the burghers who lived in the frontier areas to work on a voluntary basis to build and maintain the defences in their immediate areas, in an effort to keep the Irish from raiding and encroaching on their territories.
The Pale area itself was a daunting place to try to live anything like a normal life. Even more daunting were the areas immediately surrounding the Pale, which provided refuge not just for Gaelic clansmen intent on raiding, but for rogues and outlaws from all sides who lived and prospered in the twilight world of what had become bandit territory on the frontier between competing and warring cultures.
No wonder the hapless Palesmen (and women) needed a physical barrier to help them define what was within – and what was “beyond the pale”. 

Life at the interface of the two cultures in medieval Ireland is featured in my book 'Morgallion' which depicts how a native Gaelic community engages and tries to coexist with a neighbouring settler community; making the compromises that people have to make to make life possible. The novel is set at the time of the Bruce invasion (1315-18), which had the objective of replacing English rule in Ireland with the monarchy of Edward Bruce, the younger brother of the victor of Bannockburn, King Robert Bruce of Scotland. 

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating post! And thanks for including the map--I loved it.


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