Appeared in Winter 1999-2000, Vol. XXIV-XXV

In 1183 a Welshman called Gerald Giraldus Cambrensis traveled to Ireland. A scholar in a family of soldiers, he came to see for himself “the primitive origin” of the Irish race; to investigate “the popular rumors of the land” so that he might understand a strange and irrational people. Giraldus’s mission was not disinterested. He came to vindicate the Anglo-Norman invasion that had occurred fourteen years before; to show that Irish wretchedness needed English reform. His findings justified the journey. The people were indeed backward. They had “little use for the money-making of towns.” They were lazy: “the greatest pleasure is not to work and the greatest wealth is to enjoy liberty.” As for religion, they seemed incorrigibly attached to aboriginal forms. Consider their saints. If objects of devotion merely objectify the desires of the devout, then Irish holy men and women were like the Irish themselves: sour, bad-tempered, vindictive and crude:

It appears to me very remarkable, [Giraldus wrote] and deserving of notice, that as in the present life the people of this nation are beyond all others irascible and prompt to revenge, so also in the life that is after death, the saints of this country, exalted by their merits above those of other lands, appear to be of a vindictive temper. There appears to me to be no other way of accounting for this circumstance but this: As the Irish people possessed no castles, while the country is full of marauders who live by plunder, the people, and more especially the ecclesiastics, made it their practice to have recourse to the churches, instead of fortified places, as refuges for themselves and their property; and, by divine Providence and permission, there was frequent need that the church should visit her enemies with the severest chastisements; this being the only mode by which evil-doers and impious men could be deterred from breaking the peace of ecclesiastical societies, and for securing even to a servile submission the reverence due to the very churches themselves, from a rude and religious people.

Those who wish to construct the history of Ireland as “otherness” in conflict with authority could do worse than begin with Gerald of Wales.

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