Monday, March 16, 2015

Medieval Ireland

by E.M. Powell

Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona daoibh- Happy Saint Patrick's Day to you all!

Saint Patrick

Yes, it's the day when much of the globe celebrates all things Irish by a) donning green and b) taking leave of their senses. Fair enough. As an Irish person, it's nice to see that the small island from which I hail is so widely/wildly celebrated, and I was very pleased that I could snag today's posting date to add to the acclaim.

Much has been written about Ireland's history, but not many people are aware of a history of Ireland that was written in the 12th century, Topographia Hiberniae, or The History and Topography of Ireland. It was written by Gerald of Wales, a cleric and chronicler at the court of England's Henry II. (In case anyone's disappointed, please be assured that there will be snakes.)

Topographia Hiberniae

Partly Anglo-Norman and partly Welsh and a member of the hugely powerful and successful fitzGerald family, Gerald wrote seventeen books and planned several others. He wrote the Topographia following two visits to Ireland in 1183 and 1185. It is a remarkable work, shedding light on many aspects of medieval Irish life and society. However, it is at all times Gerald's light, and Gerald was on the side of the conquerors. Bearing that in mind, let's look at the Ireland of 850 years ago from a man who was there.

The island of Ireland

Gerald divided his book into three parts. the first part he called The Position of Ireland. For the medievals, Ireland was the most westerly point in the world. Sorry, Americas, but there was simply nothing else. As Gerald so beautifully puts it: " Beyond these limits, there is no land, nor is there habitation either of men or beasts- but beyond the whole horizon only the ocean flows and is borne on in boundless space." He describes Ireland as about half the size of "greater Britain and ...more round."

Atlantic Ocean, Spanish Point Co. Clare, Ireland
© Copyright Angella Streluk

Ireland's natural resources greatly impressed Gerald. He writes of rivers of magnificent size, with their "abundance of fish...beautiful lakes full of fish of magnificent size...a kind of speciality here." The fertile land and the mild temperatures, along with the ease with which grass could be grown also pleased Gerald: "The grass is green in the fields in winter, just the same as in summer." But like so many visitors to Ireland, Gerald quickly found out what made all that green in the first place: the Irish weather. (Or as we natives like to call it, the rain.) Gerald is not happy: "[The harvest] can scarcely be reaped...because of the unceasing rain. For this country more than any other suffers from storms of wind and rain... There is such a plentiful supply of rain, such an ever-present overhanging of clouds and fog, that you will scarcely see even in the summer three consecutive days of really fine weather." 

Lough Leane, Killarney, Co. Kerry
© Copyright Ian S

Gerald was cheerier about the plentiful supply of birds and the lack of mammals that would pose a threat to man. He even mentions snakes, (I did promise), or rather, lack of them. He assures us that "Ireland has no serpents or snakes, toads or frogs, tortoises or scorpions."  His readers will also have been relieved to know "It has no dragons." For those of you waiting to see if Gerald has the definitive answer on Saint Patrick and the snakes issue, Gerald provides one. But you may be disappointed: "Some indulge in the pleasant conjecture that Saint Patrick...purged the island of all harmful animals. But it is more probable that from the earliest times...the island was naturally without these as well as other things." 


The first part of the Topographia is a wonderful read, in that so much of it is recognizable as the Ireland that still exists. The second part is also remarkable but in a way that is less based in reality. In it, Gerald relates The Wonders and Miracles of Ireland.

Under Wonders, we have reports of a small island where corpses don't rot. A bearded woman with a mane on her back at the court of the King of Limerick. A priest who conversed at length with a wolf. A whale that was found with three gold teeth. Wonders, indeed, but the lake that was formed in a flood because the people were addicted to bestiality is probably the show stopper.

Wolves from a Medieval Bestiary

Moving swiftly onto Miracles, Gerald includes (among many others), the fleas banished by Saint Nannan, a cross in Dublin that speaks the truth and the inextinguishable fire of Saint Brigid. My personal favourite is The Mill that Women Do Not Enter. The mill in question was carved by Saint Féchín, and women weren't allowed in. But an archer of Hugh de Lacy (de Lacy was Henry's man) dragged a woman in "and lustfully violated her there."  Happily, according to Gerald, the archer was "stricken in his member with hell-fire in sudden vengeance and immediately began to burn throughout his whole body. He died that same night." Good for Saint Féchín, I say. 

Ruins of the 7th C St Féchín's church, Omey Island Galway, Ireland
© Copyright Oxana Maher

The third part of the Topographia is where Gerald gets up close and extremely personal with the Irish people. Its title is The Inhabitants of the Country. One gets a sense of what is to come when he begins it by restating the legitimate claim that the kings of Britain have over Ireland. Following a brief mention of "beautiful, upright bodies and handsome and well-complexioned faces", there are positives no more.

Firstly, the Irish are "barbarous..and cannot be said to have any culture. they are a wild and inhospitable people...they live on beasts only and live like beasts." Secondly, they are lazy, "think that the greatest pleasure is not to work and that the greatest wealth is to enjoy liberty." Gerald really gets into his stride with the third national trait, which is incest: "This is a filthy people, wallowing in vice." Fourth has us always treacherous, and he warns "You must be more afraid of their wile than their war." The fifth is the tendency to "always carry an axe as if  it were a staff...beyond being raised a little, it inflicts a mortal blow."  

Ancient Irish Warriors- as imagined in the 1920s

If only it were some nifty axe-work we were accused of. Gerald has more. He cites the example of a new and outlandish way of confirming kingship by the Irish in Ulster (where he never went). A white mare is brought before the ruler, who has intercourse with the animal, slaughters it, then boils up the meat and has a bath in the broth, "quaffs and drinks of which he is bathed...just dipping his mouth into it round about him." The Irish Church isn't spared either. Gerald despairs that all the Irish saints are "confessors and there is no cement the foundation of the church with his blood, not a single one." 

Gerald ends by countering his earlier statements about handsome Irish people. Yes, there might be some. But he has never seen so many suffering from defects and "turn out in a horrible way."  What can the Irish expect? They are a people "that is adulterous, incestuous, unlawfully conceived and born, outside the law, and shamefully abusing nature herself in spiteful and horrible practices."

So positives no more, except for an unexpected section in the third part of the Topographia where Gerald acknowledges and praises the Irish as highly skilled and talented musicians. Mind you, even this is qualified with a statement that the Scots have probably overtaken them.

Irish Harp

What to make of the Topographia, with its praise for a country but its condemnation of a people? Well, as I remarked at the start of this post, Gerald was on the side of the invaders. And if you make those you seek to conquer less than civilized, less than human, then you have the sword of justification in your hand. It's a very powerful weapon and has never been sheathed for very long in human history. The history of Ireland is no exception. The Topographia records some sadly prescient words to that effect, attributed by Gerald to Tatheus, Archbishop of Cashel in Ireland.

The Rock of Cashel, seat of the medieval Archbishopric
Public Domain Courtesy of John Sullivan

Gerald was bemoaning  to Tatheus the fact that the Irish had never produced a martyr. Tatheus replied: "But now a people has come to the kingdom which knows how, and is accustomed, to make martyrs. From now on, Ireland will have its martyrs, just as other countries."

Reading them with the hindsight of eight centuries of Irish history, these words are heartbreaking. And what did Gerald make of them? They were, according to him, "sly." 

Cosgrove, Art, ed: A New History of Ireland Volume II, Medieval Ireland: Oxford University Press (2008)
Duffy, Seán: Ireland in the Middle Ages: Palgrave Macmillan (1997)
Gerald of Wales: The History and Topography of Ireland: Penguin Clasics (1982)
Otway-Ruthven, A.J.: A History of Medieval Ireland: Ernest Benn Limited (1968)

All images are public domain unless otherwise stated.


Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), E.M. Powell is the author of medieval thrillers The Fifth Knight and The Blood of the Fifth Knight which have been #1 Amazon bestsellers in the US, the UK and Australia. She is working on the next novel in the series, Lord of Ireland, based on the Lord John's disastrous 1185 campaign in Ireland.
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  1. Thanks for your contribution to St Patrick's day. It was entertaining and informative - and insightful.

    1. Many thanks for letting me know you enjoyed it, Linda- much appreciated.

  2. Most interesting piece. Geraldus Cambrensis is so often quoted as gospel.

    1. Thanks, DJ- and I'm sure that was his intention!

  3. Very interesting! Thank you for sharing! (Also, I'm very excited to see a new book is forthcoming!!)

  4. Insightful post. Shared on FB and Tweeted.

  5. Gerald was the sly one. Could he have really believed all he was writing about the Irish, or was integrity sacrificed to the "greater good" (i.e. the success of the ongoing conquest) ? As has been observed in many conflict situations since, "The first casualty of war is truth".
    Good post.

    1. Thank you, Arthur. Gerald was a very intelligent man and I doubt very much if he believed it all but knew what he was trying to achieve in his writings. He was, after all, from the family of the first Cambro-Norman settlers in Ireland. So biased, certainly. But still fascinating to read and without his accounts, we would have very few records of Ireland as it was at the time.

  6. I enjoyed your article so much that it has inspired me to get some books from the library by Peter Tremayne so I can re visit Sister Fidelma - now if only I could pronounce the words and names properly!!

    1. Thanks, Donna! Sister Fidelma is (I believe) a little earlier again. A couple of other people have recommended the books to me. As for pronunciation, I wouldn't like to claim to be an authority with my dreadful schoolgirl Irish!

  7. Yes, last year I did a post on the Geraldines and their contribution (subsequent to Gerald's!) to Ireland and Irish nationalism. I agree that he casts light on the Ireland of his day, no matter how imperfect/biased it might be.
    As a matter of interest (and curiosity) what is your family connection to Michael Collins? I hope to "do" West Cork (Bael na Blath and all that) during the coming Summer. It has been years since I was last there.
    Thanks again (Biochas)

    1. That's what I love about this blog. We all have so many interests that areas not considered mainstream (and often equally fascinating) get an airing.
      As for the Collins connection, my great-grandmother, Mary, was Collins's sister. Mary married a Patrick Powell, my great-grandfather.
      Tá fáilte romhat and enjoy gorgeous West Cork- but don't forget your brolly!

  8. Thanks for the information Emily. It rains (sometimes) in Meath too, so a brolly (and wellingtons) are must have equipment.


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