Gaelic Ulster in the Middle Ages: History, culture and society, by Katharine Simms, Four Courts Press, 656 pp, €65, ISBN: 978-1846827938
“Your visit was brief, O’Neills!” One of the great poems of Fear Flatha Ó Gnímh opens like this, surprisingly (Gearr bhur gcuairt, a chlanna Néill). It is surprising because the O’Neills had been “visiting” Ireland for over a thousand years, making the country feel the shocks of their energy. But when Ó Gnímh composed his poem (at some time after the Nine Years War, 1594-1603, the Flight of the Earls, 1607, and the Ulster Plantation, 1609) they had suffered disaster, downfall. The poet believed that this was because they had been too proud and unbending. They were like the yew tree that had tried to stand up straight in a mighty storm and, after it was flattened, saw to its amazement a little feeble reed standing upright before it, unharmed because it had bent before the wind. To yield prudently before one was overwhelmed was very much in the spirit of Gaelic kingcraft. Inflexibility was untraditional. The poet suggests that, had they not been so stiff-necked, the O’Neills might have continued their “visit” for a good while longer.
Was it so? Or was it not so? This is one of the questions that give permanent fascination to the theme of Gaelic Ulster. Inevitably, the O’Neills are the dominant thread in the political narrative that forms the first section of Katharine Simms’s Gaelic Ulster in the Middle Ages. Like them or not (and the author doesn’t like them much), the O’Neills were impossible to ignore. Other power-holders in Ireland could never be sure what they would do next year or next month, or in which of their mutations they would show new energy and ambition.
Gaelic Ulster in the Middle Ages is the fruit of half a century’s study of Irish history, specifically Gaelic Ulster and Gaelic Ireland. One may detect the influence of many trends of thought from those decades, with some other trends that have been in currency for centuries. The book has old-fashioned merits. There is no gratuitous jargon; instead of a tedious essay on methodology we are given plain statements of what is planned. Though the work is intended mainly for an academic audience, anyone at all may read it with a bit of application. The style is sober, lucid, serious with a vein of irony, energised by the author’s interest in her material. Contents are threaded together effectively in thematic chapters on the various centuries or time-periods taken sequentially, then on kings, the church, poets, men of art in general, warriors, women, and everyday life.
The author makes extensive use of poetry written in the Irish language (of which she has assembled the single largest collection, in her online Bardic Poetry Database). In knowledge of sources no one else, I think, is so well-equipped and armed. How are the sources viewed overall, broadly?
My own work relies heavily on annals, genealogical tracts and verse eulogies, composed by bardic poets and historians working under the patronage of the Gaelic chiefs. Texts such as these form excellent sources for the ideology and culture of the chieftains’ courts, but are less reliable guides to their factual history, inevitably catering to the biases of their patrons. Records of foreign observers, Irish churchmen and Anglo-Norman administrators can be more reliable, though again, allowance must be made for bias, ethnic or ecclesiastical.
This perspective is crucial. It defines the book, and it justifies the dominating presence of Gerald of Wales in the introduction. Why begin a book on Gaelic Ulster with Gerald of Wales, one might ask? A great writer, undeniably, but Ulster had some of those too; one could begin, say, by drawing on the wealth of Giolla Brighde Mac Con Midhe’s poetry. And yet, given the author’s assumptions, her choice is logical. Gerald was a brilliantly articulate foreign observer at a crucial point in time, the moment of the English invasion. One can call him the first great foreign observer. He famously levelled the charge against the Irish which, even in the twentieth century, was of all others the most wounding, resented and dreaded: that they were historical laggards, they had not achieved the improving developments which distinguished other more civilised peoples.
This judgment is examined dispassionately. The keynote section of the introduction is entitled “How archaic was Gaelic Ireland?” If the question is so framed, it suggests that Gerald’s charges, however loaded with bias, are likely to contain a core of truth. Admittedly, the author shows that Gerald exaggerates and has too neat an idea of progress; her discussion is understated, and it leads to the mild conclusion that Ulster was perhaps the most “conservative” part of Ireland. And yet, with an expert light touch, here she sets the tone. Katharine Simms sees history in the light of the great imperative of progress. At this point in the story of Ireland (the point where the English invade), progress, reform, enlightenment, cultural values, are thought to come principally from outside, and the English invasion, whatever its associated damage, is regarded as a forward leap.
Late in his life Donnchadh Ó Corráin began to see these matters differently, and specifically the twelfth century reform of the church (which overlapped the invasion). Culturally the reform process was disastrous, Ó Corráin argued, and rather than “reform”, what happened to the Gaelic church could more truly be described as “asset-stripping”. His challenging thoughts find no echo at all in this book, where the positive value of the church reform is taken as plain fact. (If the author has a more than usually warm regard for the poet Giolla Brighde Mac Con Midhe, it is because she believes, in my view wrongly, that Giolla Brighde was a supporter of the “reform”.)
The chronological account in the first 200-odd pages of the book has undeniable value. The author sees Ulster/Ireland as a huge chessboard or brannamh-board, rather as the poets sometimes did, except that she sees things more from the black team’s side. Her alert awareness of the possible significance of each individual move for the English colony animates her narrative. One will gather the advice that she would have given to key players at crucial moments, had she been there. Compared to the last ambitious effort in this thematic territory by a Trinity College historian, the dreary History of Medieval Ireland by Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven, this is infinitely more readable. Every reader will learn a good deal from the information provided, whether or not he/she accepts all elements of the broad overview.
I would like to offer some thoughts about the position on the great Irish game-board in the mid-fifteenth century, depicted vividly in this book. By that time the O’Neills had clawed back most of the lands and powers that the English earldom of Ulster claimed at its peak. With a view to solving this problem among others, King Richard II came to Ireland with a mighty army in 1394. He intended that the Ulster earldom would be relaunched and would take back the O’Neills’ reconquests (just for a start!). A number of factors conspired to ruin his plans. Firstly, the O’Neill prince of the time showed excellent judgment and toughness. Secondly, the energetic new Earl of Ulster met an untimely death in Leinster. And thirdly, King Richard himself came to grief, following a disastrous second expedition to Ireland in 1399.
The stage appeared to be set for a major new advance by the O’Neills. But just at that moment they were crippled by internal divisions. Furthermore, they were challenged by the ambitious O’Donnells. The mainstream O’Neills recovered, as they always did. But before that happened a new player appeared in the Irish game, a politician of a new type.
Great colonial lords, who had grown up in Ireland and were familiar with the interactions of the Irish principalities, began to play the game in a new way, from the colonial side of the board. They were able to accept the reality of O’Neills, MacMurroughs etc as enduring powers, while aiming to keep the upper hand themselves. They could play marriage politics and territorial politics; campaign, submission, hostage and service politics; regional balance-of-power politics; castle and frontier politics; agreement, cheating-on-agreement and halfway-respecting-agreement politics. And in the process they could take on contours recognisable in the older history of Ireland.
The first of these new politicians was James Butler, the 4th Earl of Ormond. Simms gives a memorable description of how, as acting viceroy, he faced down a challenge by Henry O’Neill in 1452. To forward his political ambitions in western Connacht-Ulster, Henry had chosen to marry the widow of an O’Donnell, who was also the daughter of MacWilliam Burke of Mayo. In order to do this he was obliged to set aside his current wife, Gormlaith Kavanagh, who happened to be Ormond’s niece. A dangerous piece of marriage politics!
Ormond “took his army on an impressive circuitous hosting around the Gaelic lordships of the midlands and north of Ireland from the beginning of July to late August 1452, recovering the castle of Laois from the O’Dempseys (Uí Dimasaig), receiving the submission of O’Connor Faly, lord of Offaly, and achieving the release of de Bermingham, baron of Cadbury, County Kildare, who had recently been captured by O’Conor Faly. Ormond then turned north and received submission and military service from O’Farrell of Longford, with further submissions from O’Reilly of Cavan and MacMahon of Monaghan. Then he marched to meet the O’Neills and forced Henry O’Neill to set aside MacWilliam Burke’s daughter and take back Gormlaith Kavanagh as his legitimate wife. It was an impressive achievement at the end of a long and influential career …”
The Earl of Ormond’s hosting, as described above by Simms, inevitably brings to mind the great armed tours of Ireland by some of the High Kings (Muirchertach Mac Lachlainn in 1156-’57, or the tenth century “Muirchertach of the Cloaks”, or Brian Boru). The author is well aware that this thought is evoked, but her reservations about the kind of Gaelic-colonial blending which it implies are too deep to allow her to discuss the thought openly. She is therefore unwilling to give his due to a man who revelled in that thought and who composed the most interesting political commentary to be found in fifteenth century Ireland. I refer to Tadhg Óg Ó hUigínn and his poem addressed to that same Earl of Ormond, Aoidhe in Éirinn an Iarla, /sé ar eachtra gach éin-bhliadna (“The Earl is a stranger in Ireland, since he’s abroad every year”).
Simms knows the poem, needless to say. She quotes a few verses, but only as a reflection of the Earl of Ormond indulging his most dangerous temptations. However, the poem is far more than a mirroring of Ormond’s thinking. Tadhg Óg, who died in 1448, must have composed it in the last two years of his life. At that time Ormond’s conflicts with the Talbots, his English-born enemies in the colony in Ireland, had become virulent. He was accused of treason and forced to spend a year defending himself in London. Tadhg Óg provocatively greets him on his return (Ormond has been acquitted, but one of the enemy Talbots still holds the position of viceroy).
The poem comes in four distinct movements. The opening eight-verse passage begins by saying that the Earl has been out of Ireland so often he is now a stranger, he needs introduction. And yet, even as a stranger, he brings brightness and peace to Ireland, and Nature itself responds with enthusiasm — fish fill the rivers, the woods are vivid … But his ship has been carrying him to foreign lands till the ship itself is weary … The theme is introduced, and repeated several times, that England is engaged in unwelcome competition for the presence of our Séamas. And swiftly in two verses he is woven into the legends of kingship: “Banbha, Cobhthach’s wife, spent a year in mourning” while he was away; “Éire, wife of Art, missed her hero …”
The seven-verse section that follows is a block of information, most of which is confirmed in English records and can be found in learned books and articles of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His English enemies had plotted against Ormond, aiming to get him out of Ireland. He was removed from the office of viceroy, and his influence in Irish politics was entirely eclipsed for a year. The Earl had to spend that year in England, making his defence. He challenged his accuser to a duel, with his fortune depending on the outcome; the other party accepted, and there was intense interest in England in their clash, which was to take place in Smithfield in London. However, the king of England felt it his duty to prohibit the second party, “the transgressor”, from taking this action.
Next comes a six-verse section which makes the point that the Earl is a famous English war hero, therefore he must be acquitted of everything, even supposing he has broken some laws! Ormond is given credit for the capture of a town in France (Rouen, presumably, where indeed he had served at the siege in 1418). But this hero of England’s Hundred Years War is an Irishman, and the poet does not intend to forget it. When he went to France to Gleann na bhFuath (“Vale of Horrors” ‑ some sort of reference to Vallée de Seine near Rouen?), he was like Dá Thí going to the Alps; his hosting was more difficult than the foreign exploits of Niall of the Nine Hostages; his French hosting could be compared to High King Criomhthann’s …
The fourth and concluding part, with twelve verses, is the most interesting of all. Ormond is now advised on his future conduct. Remember, the poet tells him, you have options. The English of Ireland are only using you; they depend on you for protection but give you nothing in return. So why not teach them a lesson? Let the Gaelic princes take over Ireland! They are always ready to do so, if not restrained. And in fact, the poet says, such a change would be good for Ireland: if native princes (approved by you at the hillside assemblies) were to take control, that would cure Ireland’s ills. Unless you are made viceroy and properly recompensed for your efforts, you need not prevent your English opponents in Ireland from being overwhelmed. Let them know that you must be their over-lord, or else.
The ideas flung out in this poem may or may not be unbalanced: Katharine Simms would certainly pass that judgment. But it cannot be denied that Tadhg Óg has a more complete vision of Ormond as a political being, not only than any other writer of his time, but even than any historian from that day to this. We have, first of all, Ormond simply as a charismatic figure who stirs the Irish imagination; then Ormond as a great politician of the English colony, in bitter conflict with an enemy faction; Ormond as defendant and prospective duellist in London; Ormond as a man of great credit at the English royal court, with the fame of a hero of the great French war; and finally Ormond as the key politician in Ireland, who has open-ended relations with the Gaelic princes (therefore he is not purely dependent on the colony and need take no nonsense from colonists), and who, in his unique time and circumstances, is a natural to be some sort of ard-rí.
Her clear view of the big picture forces Simms to acknowledge the logic of “fifteenth century Home Rule”. As political leaders of Ireland, the Ormonds and FitzGeralds had their merits. They protected the colony, while making conceivable a political system that encompassed both colony and Gaelic Ireland, and specifically Gaelic Ulster. But she finds it deplorable that an English viceroy might encourage his Gaelic allies to attack English enemies of his who were “otherwise loyal subjects” ‑ even though such people had brought accusations of treason against the 4th Earl, for one. Could such “chastisement” (as Tadhg Óg thought of it) also be part of a fruitful political development? The idea is ruled out of court.
Even if she will not engage with his thinking, Simms to her credit acknowledges that with poets like Tadhg Óg or Giolla Brighde one is conscious of encountering “trained minds”. But somehow she cannot resist saying that Tadhg Óg “several times refers to his problems with alcohol”. Of the three examples she gives, one is from the poet in his devout mood, regretting that instead of pious exercises he has given his time to frivolous pleasures ‑ so the problem is on the metaphysical plane, not necessarily the physical; a second refers to reckless words spoken in drink and causing a quarrel, which often happens to drinkers who are not alcohol-dependent; and a third, from Tadhg Óg’s moving poem about the break-up of the poetry schools in late spring, hinges on the following verse:
Do dhioghladh do dheochaibh bróin
mo threise ’na thigh chomhóil;
má dho-rinne mé macnas
is tinne, a Dhé, an díoghaltas.
Osborn Bergin translates: “My prowess in his banqueting hall has been punished by draughts of sorrow; if I have lived riotously, O God, the punishment is sorer.” This verse must be taken metaphorically. The person referred to is the poet’s elder brother Fearghal, who was his teacher of poetry, and whom he remembers with a deep sense of loss. In reality, Fearghal did not have a literal, physical banqueting hall. The Ó hUigínn family kept a guesthouse, but as Simms notes elsewhere, the fare in such places, provided free of charge, was basic, and it would not include carousing. The banqueting hall Tadhg Óg refers to is poetry. In the same spirit it was said of Aed Ó Forréid, the eleventh century poet-historian and bishop of Armagh:
ól na thig threabhraid go trén
(In his ornamental house men drink mightily.)
Generally speaking, it’s a fault in this book that the author gives less than their due to the poets. She has much acquaintance with them, but limited regard. Influential essays of hers express rather contemptuous opinions: “Bards and Barons”, for example, where she says bluntly: “Bards did not influence their patrons’ culture and politics, they reflected them”. It isn’t clear that she’s moved far from such positions.
“The maintenance of an ancient and privileged class of professional praise-poets is perhaps the single most distinctive feature of Gaelic society in Ireland and Scotland in the later Middle Ages”: put like this, one sees only the tip of an iceberg. What is truly distinctive is how vernacular poetry wove itself right through a Christian culture, including poetry and law, while still remaining capable of producing Táin Bó Cuailnge. A good pointer to what happened is something the author notes in passing but does not stop to consider: the oldest surviving examples of literary Irish are in a standard, non-dialect language. How can that be? There is surely no standard without an exacting work of standardisation. Therefore organised high-level cultural activity, on an island-wide basis, must have existed for a very long time before we have records. All the indications are that this was activity by poets, that it was bound up with
ord fileadh innsi Éireann
the order of poets in the island of Ireland
(a line from a Leinster poet, as it happens, but it could be any poet).
To refer to members of this order as “court poets” or “personal poets”, as Simms does, is to reduce them beneath their proper dimensions. All of these poets had a sense of Ireland, which lived in creative tension with their service to some given man of the given place and moment. By promoting local energies, they knew they were contributing to a greater Irish culture. Some shape of Ireland would emerge from the multitude of local strivings, the cultural animation, self-esteem and optimism that each locality and region and province rightfully ought to have. (Of Leinster a poet could say persuasively: I don’t know what finer land could be found, unless it were Paradise.)
The most eminent poets, such as Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh or Tadhg Óg Ó hUigínn, are seen to compose for patrons all over Ireland, and some of those patrons had mutually incompatible aspirations. Every poet had this multiplanar aspect, at least potentially. If Gofraidh Fionn urges the MacCarthys to drive the English out of Ireland, while he urges the FitzGeralds to complete the conquest of Munster; if Tadhg Óg tells the English-derived Mac William Burke that his charter entitles him to half of Ireland, meaning first and foremost Ulster, while he tells the young Henry O’Neill that the weakness of the Gaels is the only charter the English ever had, and he should consolidate his hold on Ulster in preparation for moving south … should we call them hypocrites, cynics, opportunists? Before doing so, we might ask if our minds are equipped to judge what we are judging. It may be that we are too narrowed by the totalising conceptions of modern politics (of which so-called “totali-tarianism” is only the extreme) to appreciate these genuine pluralists, these cheerful multipolarists.
By contrast, Simms is an excellent guide to the mind of King Richard II and his Earl of Ulster and chosen viceroy, Roger Mortimer. On these topics she writes more convincingly than others (including, in this respect, that admirable historian Edmund Curtis). When he made his remarkable expedition to Ireland in 1394-’95, Richard appears to have intended to solve two principal problems: Art MacMurrough in Leinster and the O’Neills in Ulster. MacMurrough chose to fight, but he took a bad beating and soon submitted. After extensive discussions, during which envoys from O’Brien, MacCarthy and other southern princes were apparently urging them to fight, the O’Neills decided on voluntary submission and engagement. These O’Neills preferred the wisdom of the reed to the reckless pride of the yew.
In 1927 Curtis published a volume of official records from Richard’s time in Ireland, including letters from Irish princes to the king, several of them from Niall Óg O’Neill. These letters “together bring us as close as we can ever hope to come to understanding the minds of the medieval Ulster chieftains”. Katharine Simms says. Rather a chilly response to these remarkable documents, which are lucidly written, though of course, like all political letters, from an interested standpoint. For me they bring to mind what an earlier fellow of Trinity College Dublin, Arthur Browne, once wrote: “The Irish of the reign of Elizabeth are represented as quite ignorant and barbarous. Read the letters of their chiefs to the Spaniards, in the Pacata Hibernia, and judge.” In my opinion, precisely the same thing can be said about these earlier letters: “The Irish of the reign of Richard II are represented as quite ignorant and barbarous. Read the letters of their chiefs to King Richard, in Curtis’s Richard II in Ireland, and judge.”
Anyhow, what the author correctly gathers from Niall Óg O’Neill’s carefully but clearly expressed letters is that he wanted to try the experiment of being subject directly to King Richard, that powerfully armed ard-rí of the moment. He wished to be recognised as his tenant-in-chief in Ulster, without being subordinate to a colonial earl. That was not at all King Richard’s purpose. Though prepared to give O’Neill some grudging recognition and a knighthood (not an earldom, not a barony, but a knighthood!), he insisted on the new earl, Roger Mortimer, being O’Neill’s overlord. To underline things, he appointed Mortimer (who had been English-based till then) as his viceroy. And Mortimer had predatory designs which he didn’t bother hiding, and which O’Neill was protesting about even before the king left Ireland.
Simms is entirely in sympathy with all of this. Her only criticism is that it was not pursued with entire consistency: certain agreements contained ambiguities which might have enabled O’Neill to claim too much. But O’Neill, at least, was not being asked to leave his home province. That was precisely what was demanded of Art MacMurrough. Under threat of extinction, MacMurrough was forced to agree that he and all his followers would leave ‑ physically remove themselves from, abandon forever ‑ the entire province of Leinster and go somewhere else, to conquer new lands from “Gaelic rebels”! Simms is prepared to allow that this scheme was “somewhat impractical” (Curtis called it “fantastic”).
Whether or not one shares her point of view, the author’s clear presentation is useful. Not by any means useful, however, is a special idea that she has contributed to the picture of this period. She maintains that the Gaelic kings, as part of a cult of spartanism, went barefoot even in the dead of winter and on ceremonial occasions. This theory is peculiarly Simms’s own, and it features a number of times in the book. One cannot say that it is pressed on the reader heavy-handedly, but a little of this will go a long way when taken up by others. Darren McGettigan (Richard II and the Irish Kings) has said rightly of Niall O’Neill senior and junior and Art MacMurrough: “These three men were successful, ambitious and capable kings, who achieved a great deal of real substance.” But when we are told that Niall Óg O’Neill and Art MacMurrough went barefoot in winter to show how tough they were (McGettigan himself accepts this and spins it as best he can), inevitably their credit is lowered. Like it or not, there’s something quaint, bizarre, unserious, about barefoot kings in northern Europe in the late Middle Ages. It’s a comical thought. All too well it blends with old Gerald’s image of the king mating with the mare, and with a long line of English thinking, down to and including in the twentieth century, which represented the Irish of those times as being nearly or actually savage.
In the article where she launched her “barefoot kings” theory, Katharine Simms offered precisely two pieces of evidence. One is an account by a foreign observer, the other is a picture. The observer was a Catalan viscount, a self-avowed lover of “strange and wonderful” things, who visited Lough Derg in 1397. Hoping to be astonished, he succeeded beyond his expectations (the devils there were magnificent). Earlier, more than one prominent person had warned him that he would meet savage people on the way. Actually, no one hurt a hair of his head, and O’Neill, the king of the savages, gave him a general safe-conduct and an invitation to join him for Christmas. O’Neill and his people were, however, satisfactorily savage.
The first very striking thing was that in O’Neill’s court there was nowhere any bread. The people ate only beef. Our pilgrim says this several times, he gives it particular emphasis: these people never had bread, they did not sow corn. His statement is incredible. I cannot find mention in any of the annals of a famine in 1397. Actually, in that very year Archbishop Colton set out on a visitation of the diocese of Derry. He began at Ardstraw, which was in or around O’Neill’s sphere of influence, and there he and his entourage were given bread, butter, milk and meats, and cloths, straw and grain for the horses. In Ardstraw, then, there was so much grain they could spare some for the beasts, but O’Neill didn’t have any bread in his court at Christmas!
The Catalan pilgrim also said that the common people drank water, while the great lords drank milk (at Christmastime, be it understood), and that O’Neill’s court had no wine. This, I suppose, is less outrageously incredible. One would scarcely expect the O’Neills, not possessing a great stretch of the west coast, to have as much wine as the O’Donnells, whose contemporary king was Toirdhealbhach an Fhíona, “Turlough of the Wine”. But they would have had some few cupfuls, surely, at Christmas? Or could it be that they thought this foolish pilgrim was not fit to be given any, since the stuff was precious (wine went well in a golden cup, as the poets often said)? But no, that was not their style! Once again, I feel that Viscount Ramón de Perelhos is telling a tall tale.
The pilgrim says that he saw a great deal of nudity, if not nudism. Men and women alike showed their shameful parts without shame, as freely as they showed their faces. This was true even of the queen’s handmaidens. And furthermore, the king, the queen, the great lords, and even the bishops and abbots, all went barefoot. Supposing it were true that the practice of going barefoot in winter was part of a spartan cult, one might ask why spartanism had to be imposed on women, or indeed on bishops. But actually, blessed though he was with imagination, Katharine Simms’s theory was the last thing that occurred to the Catalan pilgrim’s mind. When he professed to see barefoot lords, he was not seeing spartans. He was seeing people who were amazingly, thrillingly poor; people who were wonderfully, exotically benighted and savage. He therefore made no distinctions of sex or combatant status. There may be a reason why he is worthy of more credit when he says they had no shoes than when he says they had no bread, but I do not see what it could be.
The second item is more difficult to explain. It is a picture of Art MacMurrough on horseback, arriving for talks with the Duke of Gloucester, who was representing King Richard on his second expedition to Ireland in 1399. Under his mantle MacMurrough wears a scarlet tunic that comes down as far as his ankles. His feet are bare, and he is wearing spurs on his bare heels. To my mind, his barefootedness clashes badly with the serious and credible account of him, by the French historian Jean Creton, which the picture accompanies. Creton portrays him as an extremely able leader, who indeed on this occasion “out-fought and out-thought” King Richard, as McGettigan puts it. The French writer was present at the scene, and he leaves us in no doubt that the Leinster king made a powerful visual impression. He does not say, or in any way hint, that MacMurrough went barefoot. There could be various explanations for the picture. The Parisian illustrator may have misunderstood Creton’s description, or Creton himself may have mistaken something he saw. It is likely that there were flashes of bare ankle while MacMurrough was riding. The shoes he wore were doubt-less light, unlike English boots, and the mode of attaching the spurs would have been different.
There is another, more famous narrative of King Richard’s time in Ireland, which we ought to consider closely. It seems certain that, if Irish kings of the time had customarily gone barefoot, the narrator in this instance must have mentioned the fact. Bare feet would have been this narrator’s business. He was Henry Crystall, a knight, from the English colony in Ireland, who spoke to the French historian Jean Froissart. Crystall had once been captured by the Irish of Leinster and had lived with them for several years. When King Richard made his first expedition to Ireland, this man was employed, he said, as an expert for a special purpose. A grand ceremony was in preparation, where the kings of the four provinces, O’Neill of Ul-ster, O’Connor of Connacht, O’Brien of Munster and MacMurrough of Leinster, would all be knighted. First, though, these kings must as far as possible be turned into Englishmen. All four were lodged together in a house in Dublin, and Henry Crystall was appointed to live with them and instruct them. His job was “to govern and bring them to reason and to the usage and customs of England”, as rendered in Lord John Bourchier’s old translation of Froissart.
Crystall gave them two or three days to thaw out. On the fourth day he began by having them sit at a special table, away from their poets and artists, who normally sat beside them at meals; the kings didn’t like this at all, but Crystall insisted, saying it was the English way, which eventually they accepted. Crystall taught them to ride like Englishmen, with saddles. He taught them to wear gowns of fur and miniver, instead of their scruffy mantles. He tried to teach them to speak nicely. (But although he did his very best, they were irredeemably rude.) Crystall had the kings in his keeping for more than fifteen days. Eventually, on March 25th, 1395, all four of them were knighted at St Thomas’s Abbey in Dublin.
Crystall told his story well, and it was superbly related by Jean Froissart. It has been read and enjoyed for centuries. (On learning that his friend Thomas Wharton is reading Froissart, the poet Thomas Gray enquires (letter, January 23rd, 1760): “Pray, are you come to the four Irish kings that went to school to King Richard the 2nd’s Master of Ceremonies”?) However, the official records published by Edmund Curtis make it clear that the whole story is moonshine. A combined knighting of the four provincial kings would have been a major feat of synchronisation, if nothing else; it would have been the centrepiece of all those records of King Richard’s meetings with kings and princes. But there is no mention of it, not a whisper.
On the contrary, we find Niall Óg O’Neill meeting the king at Drogheda on March 16th, when he’s supposedly in the middle of his induction course in Dublin; then on March 24th, a day before the alleged multiple knighting, he writes a letter to the king from Lisloney, near Armagh. As for O’Connor of Connacht, it is clear that he did not meet the king until April. And what sense could it possibly make to equate MacMurrough with the three others, since they were to be confirmed in at least some part of their historic territories, while he was to be evicted? As far as King Richard was concerned, he was therefore a removal problem, not a candidate for knighthood. He would have to be kept focused on removing himself and his followers, and he certainly could not be allowed to squander two precious weeks to attend a good manners course in Dublin.
O’Neill and O’Connor definitely, and O’Brien probably, were knighted on separate occasions. Henry Crystall doubtless was at hand. In an antechamber he may have assisted the king of the moment to straighten his hat and gown. From something like this he spun his elaborate story. But colourful as his tale is, for our purposes here we must note one striking omission. Crystall says that the Irish kings had to be taught to wear breeches, because typically they went bare-legged. But he does not say that they went without shoes. Now, wasn’t shoelessness an extremely serious flouting of English usage and custom? If indeed it had been the custom of Irish kings to go barefoot, is it possible that their self-styled etiquette master could have failed to mention this detail?
More important than Crystall’s silence, however, is the silence of native Irish writers. After all, Katharine Simms accepts that the poets and annalists are excellent sources for “ideology and culture”. Wouldn’t a spartan cult of bare-footedness qualify as ideological? The poets should have celebrated it, surely? There was indeed a cult of spartanism and the poets do indeed celebrate it, but they do not seem to mention bare feet. At least, the author, who may perhaps have searched her Bardic Poetry Database for evidence on this point, does not provide any examples.
I think there may possibly be some counter-examples. Niall Mág Shamhradháin was lord of the small principality of Tullyhaw in Cavan from 1344 to 1362. A poet, praising his lower extremities, said this:
Glún corr nár cuireadh ar ais
aige os chionn chalptha solais;
mín-traigh óg ag ú Earca
le líntair bróg bláith-greanta.
(His round knee, never turned in flight, / is over his bright calf; / Earc’s grandson has a smooth shapely foot / that fills a finely-made shoe.)
But the mid-fourteenth century is, perhaps, a little early. We are told that the barefoot spartan cult was in full swing about 1400. So let’s take a prince who must certainly have been part of it, Turlough O’Donnell, whose ruling period overlaps the suggested date by twenty years at either end. Being known as “Turlough of the Wine”, one assumes that the man liked his pleasures. The poets, however, warned him that those had to be earned. Fulang annróidh adbhar sóidh, “hardship endured is the makings of pleasure”: Ruaidhrí Ruadh Ó hUigínn spells things out plainly in a poem that begins with this line. For a potential high king, Ó hUigínn says, “if he suffers awhile in darkness, the misery will help him mightily!” Should he bang his knee on a wooden spear, his pride as a lord will not be lessened. His finger in the thong of a javelin is the sign of a gold ring; a hard helmet is the sign of a future crown. “All the trouble you got in a covering of grey armour, you will get it back in tribute from Athlone!” Turlough is praised for leading the heroes of Tirconnell in bitter winter weather; he has spent time in wilderness, woods and glens.
Le siobhal oidhche bhfuar bhfliuch
Walking on cold wet nights …
and now it seems that some barefoot word must follow (supposing he doesn’t have shoes): cosnocht, coslomnocht, lomchosach, something like that … But no, nothing of the kind!
Another poem to the spartan Turlough begins, Fada a-dertar na deich rígh, “The ten kings have been spoken of long enough!” That is to say, there were ten kings of the O’Donnell line who became high kings of Ireland, and it’s time for number eleven. Turlough (whose father was called Niall) seems promising. He is praised for being a dogged campaigner, the kind of man who sleeps with a spear in his hand. Specifically:
Ó tainig Mac Néill anall,
a ngéill nachar glac an ghill,
bróg rochorr gan bhuain dá bhonn
uaidh sonn na cochall na cinn.
(Since Niall’s son arrived / [never unfree, but he bound others!], / without taking his too-tight shoe off his foot, / he has led the warriors.)
Cochall is the warrior’s hooded cloak; ro-chorr here must mean “too pointed” or “tapering very much”, ie too tight at the toes. I am not aware of any published translation of this poem, and others will render the verse differently. But all translators, I think, will be forced to allow that the spartan prince is being praised, not for going around without shoes, but for never taking them off even when they hurt.
The fact is that it was perfectly possible to be a spartan in shoes. A poem by Eochaidh Ó hEodhusa, composed about 1600 for a certain Tadhg Ó Ruairc who was ill and confined to bed, puts the matter beyond doubt. The bed-ridden Tadhg is teased about his immobility; he is told that he’s like a captive, bound and fettered. Eochaidh then calls up an image from his spartan past:
cúis tuirse mar táithe i nglas
fa gnáithe i n-as cuisne an chos.
(A fetter-like hardship more usual for you / was having your foot frozen in a shoe.)
In summary, Gaelic spartanism was for use, not show. It was a discipline intended to toughen people, not a piece of theatre. For social and ceremonial occasions milder or more cultivated modes were appropriate, as the poets liked to explain. A tough-guy parade of spartanism on ceremonial occasions would belong to a less refined culture than Gaelic Ireland possessed. It is unfortunate that Darren McGettigan’s praiseworthy efforts to restore deserved credit to Gaelic kings will be undermined by the attribution to them of a barefoot cult that is, frankly, nonsensical.
To say that Gaelic Ulster in the Middle Ages is a warts-and-all portrait would be understating things. Warts are sought out assiduously and highlighted. The author has an eagle eye for anything quirky or bizarre in Gaelic culture, as reported by foreign or, in fairness, also native observers. And undoubtedly her discoveries add colour to her book and stimulate the reader’s attention. One might ask only whether the portrait is always just or reasonable.
I am not thinking, say, of the idea of a Gaelic fashion of toplessness, because this is arguable. Simms suggests that the Catalan pilgrim at O’Neill’s court had encountered women going topless, but the viscount’s own words convey more than this. He says distinctly that they went bottomless as well: the poorer people went “totally naked”, though mostly under a mantle. However, a more credible observer does claim to have encountered a topless mode. A Habsburg archduke who arrived in Kinsale in 1517 found that the young and unmarried women there were typically, under their cloaks, bare to the waist. Breasts were what met his eye: good, bad and indifferent, he had never seen so many in his life. But he seems to associate this fashion with the town-dwelling English population, not with those he had been taught to regard as “wild Irish”. Or is it possible that the civil town of Kinsale had been overwhelmed by wild Irish fashion? (Though not by shoelessness: the archduke noticed that topless townswomen had a fine range of pretty shoes.) In some ways the topless woman depicted in Simms’s Plate XVI, from the early sixteenth century by Lucas van der Heere, has more the look of Kinsale than, say, Carrignavar. (Though admittedly, she is barefoot.)
The Armada survivor Captain Francisco de Cuellar, a few decades later, describes things differently. Gaelic women wore only a shift to cover them, a mantle, and a piece of cloth wrapped round their heads. They dressed very badly, in his opinion, but cover themselves they did. Cuellar makes no distinction between rich and poor, young and old, married and unmarried. Or is it that delicacy inhibits him from reporting all he sees? Anyway, one can acknowledge that the evidence here is conflicting and there is ample scope for argument.
In a different league from Cuellar and Archduke Ferdinand is Fynes Morrison, a favourite source for Simms, who says he has “the eye of a trip advisor”. Here is one of the things he claims you can see if you travel in Ireland: “The wives of Irish lords often drink till they be drunken, or at least till they void urine in full assemblies of men”. He tops even that, perhaps, with the statement that in Cork city “I have seen with these eyes young maids stark naked grinding of corn with certain stones to make cakes thereof”. Simms, anxious to help the reader, elucidates this: “The advantage of working naked was that, in addition to the back-breaking labour involved, another disagreeable aspect of the task was that the dust and chaff flew everywhere and became lodged in one’s clothes.”
Katharine Simms, one suspects, has limited experience of this kind of work, and she may not have grasped all aspects of the psychology of those people who do it. The points she mentions are doubtless considerations. However, the discomfort and damage to one’s garments involved in working with clothes on has not usually been thought sufficient reason for not wearing any at all. It is well known, I suppose, that women and girls often worked naked to the waist in the English coal mines in the early nineteenth century (but let us remember that they were enclosed in underground tunnels, not working in full view of passing travellers). And even in the tunnels they wore trousers, though the trousers were bound to get dirty. “Friend Fynes’s veracity cannot be dealt with here,” as Standish O’Grady says in passing in Silva Gadelica; suffice it to say that, whenever friend Fynes tells us things of this kind, before I believe him I would like to have some supporting testimony. For the naked mill-girls of Cork there is, as far as I know, none.
A book like this was not likely to omit John Derricke. Four centuries on, his caricature of a Gaelic feast in The Image of Ireland (1581) is still brilliant and vicious. There is MacSwiney of Fanad, his wife and some others, miserable-looking at a meagrely-supplied table out of doors; near one end of the table, two men stoking a fire under a cauldron and two others cutting a carcass; a reciter declaiming a poem, a harpist playing, a hound energetically gnawing a bone, and two farters farting, all at the same time. Simms appears to present this as a fair representation, documentary evidence; she is careful to point the reader towards the ancient laws, to show that professional farters did exist. Does she understand that there was a time and a place for everything, and that Gaelic society was not quite so tone-deaf as to let farters do their farting while a poem was being recited or a harp was being played? If she does in fact appreciate this, she has disdained to share her insight with her readers.
Her opinion that “prostitutes were part of a much wider group of low-status entertainers” is arguable. It depends how one thinks of the women called méirdrigh. Gráinne FitzPatrick (wife of Edmund Butler, Viscount Mountgarret, who died in 1602) was praised by a poet as a general patron of artists and of méirdrigh specifically. She is the best wife in Ireland, the poet tells us,
Re díol cléire, re díol méirdreach
bhíos go taobh-nocht tón-luaimneach
(“for paying artists, for paying méirdrigh / who have bare flanks and frisky bottoms”)
Simms observes, I think ironically, that the lady must have made her payments to prostitutes out of charity, not for their work. But no suggestion of charity can be found in the context: this is all about Gráinne paying performers. Evidently the méirdrigh were a recognised class of minor artists, therefore they must have had a public act. Like many exotic dancers, they may often have engaged in prostitution on the side; certainly they were thought of as “easy”. But it is not really likely that the act of prostitution was their typifying, identifying performance. I suggest that they may have had some kind of lively striptease act.
With the broad-minded FitzPatricks and Butlers who were patrons of the arts, we come to the phenomenon known as “Gaelicisation”: the adoption of aspects of Gaelic culture by members of the English colony. Donnchadh Ó Corráin has an interesting remark on this topic in his book on the church reform. “I believe that the cultural Gaelicisation of the English colonists, a remarkable phenomenon that has yet to attract serious research, was the work of the traditional churchmen.” I would be more inclined to say that it was the work of the traditional poets. Not that I want to draw any sharp dividing line between poets and churchmen (especially when one includes the erenachs, those cultured functionaries who, to Simms’s evident surprise, kept the local churches in good condition in the not-very-reformed parts of Ulster, for example the diocese of Derry).
What interests me here is that, as recently as four years ago, Ó Corráin felt he could say that no serious work had been done on Gaelicisation. Wasn’t Katharine Simms, with her comprehensive command of the sources, superbly placed for such an enquiry? Gaelicisation is such a huge fact of Irish life in these centuries that willy-nilly she bumps up against it repeatedly throughout the book. Encountering it, she is brisk and ironic and quickly moves away. She prefers not to look at the topic closely. Why? Not from any lack of intellectual energy or confidence, that much is clear. She seems rather to feel that this type of blending cannot be viewed positively, that it is more a degeneration. The English administration and steadfast citizens of the Pale held this opinion, of course, but it has also found favour in modern English thinking (expressed powerfully in Ireland by GH Orpen).
If all that really mattered was finding the way to the Promised Land of our own familiar modernity, to which Gaelic culture is believed incapable of contributing substantially, then of course this view is defensible. But it may be that Bartolomé de las Casas was right, and that European modernity took a wrong turning. This militant modernity, with its profound disrespect for “exotic” people and their cultures, and its predatory attitude towards them (exemplified at its worst in Opium Wars, etc.) may be found to have costs that outweigh its benefits. If so, then perhaps what Ireland needed was more Gaelicisation rather than less, and it might have been well for the world had this pattern been paralleled elsewhere.
There is much more in the book that I might argue with, including an idea taken over from FJ Byrne’s brilliant Irish Kings and High Kings, that Ulster in the eleventh and twelfth centuries became “a backwater”. This is too much the economic determinist view of things, dismissing mind and imagination. Down to the seventeenth century, any representative Gaelic Ulsterman would have treated the view that his province was a backwater as deluded. There was a continuing sense that, whatever the contention might be, Ulstermen would be in there contending; “normal for them is challenging”, in the words of a late fourteenth century poet (As gnáthaigid geall do chur).
I leave it till last to say something about the title. The author explains what she means by “Ulster”, but not what she means by “Middle Ages”. Someone may say: why should we need explanation, when we know that “Middle Ages” are simply the times in the middle between times thought of as ancient and times thought of as modern? The end of ancient times is usually dated from the fall of the Roman empire in the fifth century, but modern times may begin with Gutenberg’s printing press, or Columbus’s Caribbean landing, or Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, or whatever else the writer prefers. In his Key to What the Irish Wrote (Clavis litterarum Hibernensium) Ó Corráin brings the Middle Ages into the middle of the seventeenth century, using the term medieval “in a different sense”, as he puts it. If the Four Masters, Keating and Colgan are considered an integral part of the thousand-year body of writing that he has been tracking, then it seems that the same time-label must be applied to all.
Katharine Simms appears to end her Middle Ages with the suppression of Silken Thomas’s rebellion (1530s), which is as good a date as any other. Following “the imposition of an unwanted religious reformation”, an important part of the colony was alienated. The Leinster FitzGeralds were destroyed politically, prefiguring the later and much more thorough destruction of the FitzGeralds of Munster. They were replaced as viceroys by a series of violent Englishmen. By this stage the sign of extinction was over Gaelic Ulster, Simms believes. With some further brisk reflections on progress and backwardness, she hastens to wrap the story up in an epilogue. “Gaelic Ulster as they had known it was over” by the time of King James I.
But it wasn’t. Gaelic Ulster, which was supposed to be dead and buried, erupted in vigorous life in 1641. It was only the Cromwellians who finally crushed it, as a force that could aspire to shape all Ireland and might change the configuration of Irish politics in an instant. For most of the 1640s Gaelic Ulster gave up none of the luxuries of its tradition, it indulged them all. There were the two great competing O’Neills, Eoghan Ruadh and Phelim; the many-branched O’Donnells (O’Donnells too were O’Neills, as any poet could explain); the all-Ireland hostings (by Eoghan Ruadh’s army). There were major poets of incitement (Gofraidh Óg Mac an Bhaird) and brilliantly scathing soldier-poets (Toirdhealbhach Ó Conchobhair). There was, it appears, a serious exploration of the option of transferring the sovereignty of Ireland to some latter-day, hopefully more successful Edward Bruce, a European Catholic prince.
There was also the bad relationship of Gaelic Ulster with Leth Mogha, the southern half of Ireland, which was the fatal flaw in Gaelic Ireland. In the 1640s it was at its most inflamed. On one level, this was expressed in the fantastic fact that the most gifted of the contemporary O’Briens, Murchadh Ó Briain, Lord Inchiquin, was the military leader of the Munster Plantation and for several crucial years an ally of the Parliamentarians. But even within the Kilkenny Confederation, the Ulstermen were at odds with the subtle MacCarthy, who was the guiding brain of Catholic royalist politics. By the time the O’Neill ard-rí (Eoghan Ruadh) reached agreement with Leth Mogha’s ard-rí (the contemporary Earl of Ormond), it was too late.
Katharine Simms is concerned to say that Gaelic Ulster has vanished comprehensively in a physical sense: there are very few stone structures or ruins from its final centuries. This reminds one that the poets had a sense of the transience of mere physical power, not less intense than that of the Shelley who wrote “Ozymandias”. By some poets this was projected into celebration of Christianity (Oengus the Culdee proclaiming that Tara is gone, Eamhain Macha is gone, but the church of Armagh is flourishing, etc). But Giolla Brighde Mac Con Midhe, for example, says that although the physical power of past heroes is long gone, they survive in the poetry that praised them.
In the nineteenth century, in most of Ireland, the Gaelic centuries stirred the imagination. “The Island of Saints and Scholars” is the stock image of how the past was viewed then, but really it was “the Island of Saints and Scholars and O’Neills and Brian Boru”. The titanic efforts of the later O’Neills, Hugh and Eoghan Ruadh, took their place with other inspirations. We know all the paradoxes involved, but even in such up-to-date practical men as the editors of The Nation, the O’Neills appear to be not quite gone: they exert force as an aftershock. Without this imaginative stirring, it seems that Ireland must have settled down as a drab and chronically depressed West Britain. So the question of whether there was anything more permanent than stone or bronze should not be dismissed out of hand.
Exasperated by his dealings with Fenians like O’Donovan Rossa, who would not fit into the patterns he thought proper for modern European revolutionaries, Friedrich Engels once observed acidly to Marx: “Ireland must always be the sacra insula, which must on no account get mixed up with the profane class struggles of the rest of the world!” It may be going slightly too far to say that the spirit of Engels hovers over this book, and yet … Gaelic Ulster, one feels, tests the author’s patience. If so, then the stamina with which she sustains this extensive and unsentimental survey is admirable. Gaelic Ulster, Gaelic Ireland, assuredly may be seen differently. But this is a clear and thorough presentation of one of the ways it may be seen.
Note on sources
Here I refer only to the poems quoted and one or two other things less easily come by.
Ó Gnímh, Gearr bhur gcuairt … : ed. B Ó Cuív, Celtica 2; Tadhg Óg, Aoidhe in Éirinn … : ed L McKenna, Aithdioghlaim dána; Do dhioghladh … : from Anocht sgaoilid na sgola, v 17, ed O Bergin, Irish Bardic Poetry; Ól na thig: from Uasalepscop Éireann Aedh, v 11, e G. Murphy in S. O’Brien ed, Measgra i gcuimhne Mhichíl Uí Chléirigh.
Ord fileadh … : from Dá rann dég mo dhúthracht d’Aodh, v 6, ed S. Mac Airt, Leabhar Branach; Leinster and Paradise: Iomdha uaisle in iath Laighean, v 7, in L Mac Cionnaith ed, Dioghlaim dána; Gofraidh Fionn to McCarthys and FitzGeralds: cf Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh, Poems to the English / Dán na nGall, edited by me; Tadhg Óg on Burkes’ charter: Do briseadh riaghail ríogh Sacsann, v 14, in Aithdioghlaiim dána; Tadhg Óg to Henry, “Weakness is charter”: Dileas breath do bhreith le seilbh, v 16, in ibid,
Irish kings’ letters to Richard II: in E Curtis ed, Richard II in Ireland 1394-5 and the Submissions of the Irish Chiefs; A. Browne, “the Irish of the reign …”: Miscellaneous Sketches, cited by J O’Donovan in Journal of the Kilkenny and South-East of Ireland Archaeological Society (1856) NS Vol 1 No 1, p. 205; “wine goes well in a golden cup”: e.g. Dileas breath do bhreith le seilbh, v 6, as above (cubhaidh fíon i n-easgra óir).
Glún corr …: from Fadógh ar gríosaigh gnaoi Néill, v 35 in L McKenna ed, The Book of Magauran; Fulang annróidh adhbhar sóidh: in J Fraser and JG O’Keeffe, Irish Texts II (Le siubhal oidhche …, v 16); Fada a-dertar na deich ríg: in ibid (Ó tainig Mac Néill …, v 7); cúis tuirse …: from Dealg athalaidh othras Taidhg, v 28, in Dioghlaim dána.
“Friend Fynes’s veracity …”: Standish O’Grady, Silva Gadelica I, p xxiii, fn; re díol cléire, re díol méirdreach … : J Carney ed, Poems to the Butlers, p 100; As ghnáthaigid … : from Dá roinn comhthroma an chrích Néill, v 14, in L McKenna ed, Aithdi-oghlaim dána; Giolla Brighde on heroes surviving in poetry: A thechtaire tig ón Róimh in NJA Williams, ed, The Poems of Giolla Brighde Mac Con Midhe.
Those interested in the story of the Catalan pilgrim Ramón de Perelhos have at least three English translations to choose from: by Alan Mac an Bhaird at the ucc.celt website (where Captain Cuellar and Archduke Ferdinand will also be found); by Dorothy M Carpenter in M Haren and Y De Pontfarcy ed, The Medieval Pilgrimage to Saint Patrick’s Purgatory; and by JP Mahaffy in Hermathena 40 (1914); Archbishop Colton’s provisions at Ardstraw: W Reeves ed, Metroplitan Visitation of the Diocese of Derry p 11 (“panem, butyrum, lac et carnes, focalia, stamina, atque blada pro equis”).
John Minahane has most recently edited a selection of the work of Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh, the fourteenth century master-poet (ard-ollamh) of Ireland: Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh, Poems to the English/ Dán na nGall (Aubane Historical Society 2020). His earlier books include: The Christian Druids: on the filid or philosopher-poets of Ireland (Howth Free Press 2008); The Poems of Geoffrey O’ Donoghue / Dánta Shéafraidh Uí Dhonnchadha an Ghleanna (Aubane Historical Society 2008).