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Home Uncategorized Recovering Princes, Respected Prelates, Reduced Poets

Recovering Princes, Respected Prelates, Reduced Poets

John Minahane
Princes, Prelates and Poets in Medieval Ireland: Essays in honour of Katharine Simms, Seán Duffy (ed), Four Courts Press, 600 pp, €49.50, ISBN: 978-1846822803 There are several Irish families, Bart Jaski remarks in the opening essay of Princes, Prelates and Poets, who can trace their ancestors continuously, father to son, back to the sixth or seventh century, supported by fairly trustworthy historical documentation. One will not find families like that in all parts of our globe. “To my knowledge, this is unique in Europe and probably rare in the rest of the world,” Jaski says. But this is just one aspect of an uncommonly rich historical culture, which may also fascinate those of us who have no great interest in personal pedigrees. Ireland’s fifth century, and practically any century thereafter, remains enigmatic. The material one can draw on for argument is vast and varied, many-faced, and frustratingly incomplete. New controversies keep emerging, and the polemics of the past can flare up afresh when someone has a new insight. And again, one does not find that this is so everywhere. In the collection under review Donnchadh Ó Corráin has a lively argument on a point of fifth-century history: when St. Patrick says that he paid for safe-conduct through the various territories, does he indicate that these payments were made to kings or to Brehon lawyers? Ó Corráin continues his attack on the intellectual legacy of Daniel A Binchy, declaring with a forcefulness worthy of Binchy himself that “Binchy’s tribes and tribal kings have no place in Irish history”. I agree with this, and I think it’s a pity it couldn’t have been said while the doughty professor was alive, just in case he might possibly have had something to say in reply. Understandably, in a large book of essays like this there might not be a snug fit between title and contents. The sixteenth century is not usually thought of as medieval, yet a number of contributors in the Poets section focus on the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with Pádraig Ó Macháin even making a swoop into the twentieth. Should we give the editor credit for not taking his tidy title too seriously? Or must we suspect that the poets of Ireland are thought to be medieval irrespective of date? Actually, the notion of “medieval” puts time in a framework which those poets would not have accepted. Maybe one day somebody…

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