Medievalism and the Gaelic Revival

As I prep for my Irish history class next semester, I’ll share with you the paper I presented at the medievalism conference last fall at Georgia Tech. No notes, as it was a conference paper – apologies!

It is a truth generally acknowledged that nineteenth-century medievalism went hand-in-hand with nineteenth-century nationalism. The Roman Empire was universal, but European nations had their origins in the Middle Ages, and nationalists saw great value in illuminating those origins by means of buttressing their nations’ identities and distinguishing themselves from their neighbors. Such scholarly efforts as the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, the Rolls Series, or the publications of the Early English Text Society were, at least in part, aspects of this project. That political nationalism – that is, the idea that every nation deserves its own sovereign state – led to a great deal of self-righteousness, xenophobia, and violence goes without saying, although I don’t believe that our entire discipline is thereby morally tainted – I take it for granted that illuminating the past is a good thing regardless of the uses to which it is then put. That cultural nationalism – that is, the standardization and promotion of allegedly national customs – involved a great deal of invention and of effacement of minority or local traditions also goes without saying, although as Anthony Smith pointed out, nationalists were not free to make things up out of whole cloth; they had to promote things that were already familiar in one way or another with a large subsection of their respective nations.

One of the more successful nationalist movements in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was that of Ireland. The Irish Parliamentary Party, founded in 1871, and dedicated to achieving Home Rule for Ireland, eventually succeeded in getting a Home Rule Bill passed in 1914 right as the United Kingdom entered the First World War. Suspended for the duration of the hostilities, the Bill was obviated by the Easter Rising of 1916, which eventually led to the formation of the Dail Eireann and its successful prosecution of a war of independence against the British – although at first the Irish had to settle for Dominion status within the British Empire, and for the partition of their island for the sake of a concentration of unionists in the northeast, an issue that is still with us.

Adjacent to this political movement was a cultural one known as the Gaelic revival. By the late nineteenth century the British Empire was an economic and political juggernaut, and British culture, at least to the British and to a substantial number of Irish, was self-evidently superior to any local customs. Speaking English would open doors, and allow a kid from rural Ireland opportunities that other people would never enjoy. But as everyone knows, British rule of Ireland, dating back to the twelfth century, was unjust and at times terribly oppressive, and the deliberate effacement of Irish culture for the sake of the British empire could be seen an example of “gaining the world but losing one’s soul.” Throughout the nineteenth century, therefore, numerous Irish people attempted to revive aspects of the Irish medieval past as an antidote to British influence. Chief among these was the Irish language, a form of Insular Celtic designated Goidelic that was a powerful symbol of Irishness, given that no one else spoke it. British administrations and even the Catholic Church had promoted the use of English over Irish, which itself had taken a major hit when the Irish potato famine had killed hundreds of thousands of native speakers and forced the emigration of hundreds of thousands more. Even many Irish people felt that the language was an embarrassment, a non-literate peasant’s language and a relic of the past. Nonetheless, it is a shame when a language dies out entirely, and a series of organizations throughout the nineteenth century sought to reverse this trend, starting with the Ulster Gaelic Society in 1830, followed by the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language in 1876, the Gaelic Union in 1880, and finally the Gaelic League in 1893. Each successive organization was a little less learned and a little more activist – that is, the Ulster Gaelic Society might have been interested in publishing editions of medieval Irish texts, but the Gaelic League wanted to promote the actual use of the language on a daily basis by ordinary Irish people. Douglas Hyde, founder of the Gaelic League and a future president of Ireland, spoke of the “Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland” for the sake of self-respect. To this end the League published the Gaelic Journal, but more importantly a weekly newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis, rendered in English as The Sword of Light, and numerous books in Irish. Its national organization and numerous branches throughout the country promoted the daily use of the language, through classes and conversation groups, and lobbied for its inclusion as a compulsory school subject and requirement for admission to the National University of Ireland. This activism bore fruit under the Irish Free State, when knowledge of Irish was made compulsory for schoolteachers and civil servants. The Irish Constitution of 1937 names Irish as the first official language of the country, and it is currently protected and promoted in various ways by the Department of Education and the Department of Culture, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht.

Unfortunately for Irish nationalists, their language project was not nearly as successful as, say, the revival of Hebrew was among Jewish immigrants to Palestine. My personal feeling is that there is something structural about the English language that impedes its speakers from easily learning other languages, which means that once English takes hold of a population it is difficult to root out – and Irish is not the most easy language to learn anyway, if you are approaching it as non-native speaker. Furthermore, Irish is complicated by the fact that it is subdivided into three major dialects, giving lots of opportunity for mutual incomprehension. Thus, of necessity, a large body of Irish medievalism took place through the medium of English. This movement went by a number of names, including the Irish Literary Revival, the Irish Literary Renaissance, or the Celtic Twilight. Medieval Irish myths were translated into English and published, such as by the Ossianic Society, founded in Dublin in 1853, whose members sought to translate Irish literature from the “Fenian period of Irish history,” “Fenians” being the “fianna,” small, semi-independent warrior bands of Irish mythology, particularly as depicted in the Fenian Cycle, where some of them are led by the legendary Finn Mac Cool. Modern authors took this material as a source for their own works, including Lady Augusta Gregory’s rendering of the myth of the hero Cuchulain, or several works of William Butler Yeats which referenced the myth, such as his poem Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea (1892), or the play On Baile’s Strand (1904). Yeats had founded the Irish National Literary Society in 1892, to publish such works, and he, Gregory, and others founded the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899 and then the Abbey Theatre in 1904 as a vehicle for staging Irish plays by Irish writers, many of them medieval in their theme. Some Gaelic League members were suspicious of this effort for taking place through the medium of English, but there can no doubt about the national sentiment of its members.

In the medieval Ulster Cycle, the hero Cuchulain, as a boy, “went forth with his hurley and his ball.” He encountered a group of boys who “threw their three fifties of balls at him, but he caught them all against his chest. They threw their three fifties of hurleys at him, but he warded them off and took an armful on his back.” Whatever this describes, it is apparent that by the time of the Statutes of Kilkenny, imposed by the English crown in 1362 in an attempt at preventing English settlers from going native, the Irish played “horlings, with great sticks and a ball upon the ground, from which great evils and maims have arisen.” (The statutes enjoined that settlers draw bows, and throw lances, and participate in other gentlemanlike games instead.) The antiquity of hurling, and the fact that the English had tried to ban it, was irresistible to Irish nationalists, and it became the main focus of the Gaelic Athletic Association, founded in 1884 in Thurles, Co. Tipperary, by Michael Cusack and six others. Hurling was still a rural pastime in nineteenth century Ireland, played with sticks and a ball in many local variants. The GAA’s task was to standardize a set of rules for the game, so that any team anywhere could play any other team, and to organize those teams into leagues. In this way the GAA was no different from similar contemporary organizations in Britain and America, such as the National Association of Base Ball Players, the Football Association, or the Rugby Football Union. The hurling game that the GAA formalized eventually featured a fifteen-man side, a 90 by 150-meter field, two methods of scoring (in the net for three points, over the net for one), and various permissible ways of handling and passing the ball. In order to counter the popularity of the two British codes of football (that is, soccer and rugby), the GAA devised its own code, which it christened Gaelic football. It deliberately used the same size of field, number of players, and methods of scoring as hurling, and seemed to be a compromise between soccer and rugby, solving certain problems of both – it allows handling the ball by hand, forward passing, and physical contact between players, but not tackling or rucking. Most importantly, both hurling and Gaelic football were cast as ineffably Irish and would transform the young men playing them into healthy, tough, and self-respecting members of the Irish nation. These sports were certainly cast as more manly than the effete, non-contact, and very British sports of soccer and cricket.

The GAA set itself to promoting not only these putatively Irish sports, but the Irish language and Irish music and dance as well. If the Irish are known for anything, it is for their distinctive style of music, and for their bardic tradition dating back to the Middle Ages. To the twelfth-century Gerald of Wales, the Irish were “incomparably more skilled in playing musical instruments than any other people.” Their movements were quick and lively, and their melodies sweet and pleasant. “They glide so subtly from one mode to another, and the grace notes so freely sport with such abandon and bewitching charm around the steady tone of the heavier sound, that the perfection of their art seems to lie in their concealing it.” Gerald mentions the tympanum and the harp as being the two instruments of Ireland; Henry VIII chose the harp as the heraldic symbol of Ireland when he elevated the country to the status of a kingdom in 1543, in order to impose his Reformation on it. The Statutes of Kilkenny alluded to the Irish bardic tradition when it forbade “Irish agents” like “pipers, story-tellers, bablers, [and] rimers” from coming among the English settlers, on the principle that they were acting as spies. This rich and anti-English tradition was, like hurling, an important aspect of nineteenth century Irish cultural nationalism, and the Gaelic League sponsored an Irish arts festival called the Oireachtas na Gaeilge from 1897. Based on the Welsh Eisteddfod, the festival featured readings of original poetry and the performance of traditional Irish music.

Nationalists promoted other aspects of medieval Irishness, such as the distinctive Celtic interlacing patterns found in medieval manuscripts, distinctive Irish typefaces, and medieval symbols like the Irish wolfhound and the Irish round tower (which contrasts with the square Norman tower). But it is important to note that, like Renaissance humanists, Irish nationalists admired a certain period in the past, but cherry-picked what they wanted from it, and even then changed it quite a bit to suit their own situation. The sports and the language were going to rescue the Irish from the shame of “West Britainism.” Nationalists, though, did not see that it was necessary to revive medieval dress, styles of housing, or modes of production – the conveniences of the modern world allowing them the leisure to revive the Irish Middle Ages in other ways. The distinctive Irish style of horseback riding (that is, no saddle or stirrups), mentioned both by Gerald of Wales and in the Statutes of Kilkenny, also went unnoticed. Religion was off the table. Whether Catholic or Protestant, Irish nationalists saw no need to attempt to revive the Celtic Christianity that had caused so much trouble at the Synod of Whitby, or which “saved civilization” in the words of Thomas Cahill. The distinctive role of monasteries, the unique penitential system, and the novel calculation of the date of Easter were not seen as fit for revival. The Roman Catholic Church had ended these things, but here was an international body that most Irish nationalists could get behind, especially as it was not a Church that many British people belonged to. Finally, no one sought to revive any medieval Irish forms of law or government. The organization of the country into tuatha (basic geographical units containing about 5000 people), ruled by petty kings, then provincial kings, and then a high king, all governed by the Brehon Laws, was not an issue in the way that language was. The organization of the country into counties under Common Law was too useful or entrenched to be seriously challenged.

But what about political nationalism? What was the relationship between the medievalist cultural revival and the desire for independence, procured either constitutionally or violently, and ending up in the very modern forms of either Home Rule, or complete republican independence? Most cultural organizations eschewed politics, at least openly. The Gaelic League made no formal statement on how Ireland was to be governed. But the Gaelic League was also the school of revolution. Many future political leaders first met through the League, and the majority of the signatories of the declaration of the Irish Republic in 1916 were members of the League, including Patrick Pearse, who had been very active and had served as the editor of its newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis. The GAA, as well, was not ostensibly political, and yet it was infiltrated by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret society dedicated to overthrowing British rule in Ireland, who recruited through it, largely on the principle that strenuous physical activity was ideal preparation for armed rebellion. During the war of independence, some GAA teams were simply undercover units of the Irish Republican Army. In both of these cases, therefore, we see an illustration of the principle that “politics is downstream from culture.”

Anyone studying Irish history will find it difficult not to sympathize with the Irish. But their oppressors were also the bringers of modernity. The question that every Irish nationalist had to grapple with was: how can we retain our self-respect while still living in the twentieth century? How can we be unmistakably Irish while maintaining some manner of relevance? The answer was the selective medievalism of the language, the literature, the sports, and the music, all of which admittedly involved a certain amount of invention, but which were otherwise compatible with modern life. The English language may have opened doors, but one’s own language is a most powerful symbol, a sentiment with which other colonized peoples of Europe, such as the Finns, Hungarians, Czechs, or Poles, would certainly agree. A language goes to the very core of one’s being, but it’s flexible enough that one can still live in the present while speaking it. Organized sporting leagues, as well, are very modern, but why not organize them around something putatively Irish, instead of British? Katherine Sims wrote that the “neo-medieval fantasies indulged in by enthusiasts are easy to caricature” but “if the return to an imagined Gaelic world represented for some an escape from the pressures of modernization, for others language revival was the means by which Ireland could enter the modern world, without losing its identity.” (Others have noticed this effect as well: Jackson Lears pointed out how turn-of-the-century American medievalism served to reinvigorate American capitalism.)

Of course, as with all other forms of nationalism, Irish nationalism, whether cultural or political, was exclusive. Nationalism excludes those who aren’t members, or at least rearranges social values so that some people who aren’t judged to be Irish enough lose out. Even if the Irish were the subaltern in their relationship to the English, plenty of Irish people did not mind speaking English, and having to learn Irish in middle age in order to keep one’s job as a civil servant could not have been fun. Furthermore, citizenship in the United Kingdom and British Empire did open doors, and to many people Irish independence must have seemed like the Brexit of its day, although trade and emigration were not drastically impaired with independence. And yet, it’s not as if no injustice existed before independence, and the pride and self-respect of self-government, and the state promotion of putatively Irish customs, were welcomed by a healthy majority of Irish people. The fact is that many academics are too willing to see only the bad side of nationalism, when in fact, like religion, it has positive as well as negative qualities. The revived Middle Ages that underlay the Irish national project may have been selective and reconstituted, but they were not in and of themselves harmful – and the publication of Irish medieval texts or works of literature based on them a great service to scholarship and humanity.

Confederate Flag News

1. From Facebook, a graphic illustrating some proposals for a new flag for the state of Mississippi, in order to replace the recently-defunct Confederate-themed one. I like wavy with no wreath myself, but they’re all good designs, and historically meaningful to boot. 

Then there’s the Mighty Magnolia flag, which has even more designated meaning (click the link and scroll down).

The graphic, shared on the Facebook group Flags and Vexillology, includes the motto “In God We Trust,” because the state legislature made it a requirement of the new flag. But writing doesn’t make for a good flag and I hope that the new flag does not include it (quite apart from any questions about the separation of church and state that always attend the appearance of IGWT). 

2. From the Washington Post (hat tip: Tom Martin), news of a Confederate exile community in Brazil of all places:

RIO DE JANEIRO — To Marina Lee Colbachini, it was a family tradition. Each spring, she would join the throngs who descended on a nondescript city in southern Brazil, don a 19th-century hoop skirt and square dance to country music.

The theme of the annual festival: the Confederate States of America.

It’s one of history’s lesser-known episodes. After the Civil War, thousands of defeated Southerners came to Brazil to self-exile in a country that still practiced slavery. For decades, their descendants have thrown a massive party that now attracts thousands of people to the twin cities of Americana and Santa Bárbara d’Oeste to celebrate all things Dixie. The Confederate flag? Everywhere.

On flagpoles and knickknacks. Emblazoned on the dance floor. Clutched by men clad in Confederate battle gray. Decorating the grounds of the cemetery that holds the remains of veterans of the rebel army — the immigrants known here as the confederados.

In a country that has long been more preoccupied with class divisions than racism, the Confederate symbols, stripped of their American context, never registered much notice. But now, as the racial reckoning in the United States following the killing of George Floyd inspires a similar reexamination of values in Brazil, that has begun to change.

More at the link

3. Apparently some supporters of Ireland’s Cork County GAA like to wave Confederate flags at football and hurling matches, on the principle that Cork is in the “south,” and that red is the main Cork county color. I recall seeing a video playing at the GAA museum at Croke Park and being puzzled about the appearance of some Confederate flags in the stands. I guess Cork was playing! The county GAA board condemned the practice in 2017, and recently announced that it will confiscate any Confederate flags that supporters try to bring in. 

The Starry Plough

An interesting article on HubPages from Liam A. Ryan, about Ireland’s Starry Plough flag. Excerpts:

The original Starry Plough flag was first adopted by James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army in April 1914. The original design had the symbol of a gold ploughshare with a sword as its cutting edge and the seven stars of the Ursa Major constellation superimposed upon it, with a green background. This flag is also carried by the Irish Republican Socialist Movement although the various factions of the Official IRA used it quite prominently as a de facto logo in the not so distant past. The original Starry Plough was designed as the military ‘colours’ or standard of the Irish Citizen Army and this explains its slightly oversized appearance when reproduced on conventional flag dimensions. In recent times the Provisional Sinn Fein splinter group Éirigi have to a certain extent re-claimed the ICA version of the Starry Plough flag.

The modern-day Starry Plough design with its striking seven white stars on blue background made its first appearance during the 1930s as the emblem of the Republican Congress. The Republican Congress of the 1930s was a Left-wing Republican political construct created by Peadar O’Donnell and others in the hope of placing Irish Republicanism on a more overtly Leftist trajectory. Since then, the modern day Starry Plough has been intrinsically and rightly linked to Irish Republican Socialism.

Various Irish Trades Unions have adopted both versions of the Starry Plough or incorporated them into their emblems over the years. The Irish Labour Party at one stage used it as their party logo, on a brownish-red background but have since ditched it, along with any pretence at being remotely a Socialist party after habitually paddling in the murky waters of coalition government with Fine Gael, a party who spawned Ireland’s only significant fascist movement, the Blueshirts.

The Communist Party of Ireland’s youth wing, the Connolly Youth Movement, have used the Starry Plough in their banners. One of the most iconic images from the early ‘Troubles’, showed militant Belfast Official IRA leader, Joe McCann, armed with an M1 Carbine, with the Starry Plough flag flying beside him at the battle of Inglis’ Bakery in the Markets area of Belfast.

The Workers Party use the early Starry Plough design (which is also known as the Plough and Stars) in their party logo and for some time that version of the flag was closely associated with the Stickies [members of the Official IRA after the Provisional IRA split from it – JG]. However, over this past two decades the original Starry Plough flag has been carried by the Irish Republican Socialist Movement during demonstrations and in Colour Parties, along with the modern Republican Congress version of the flag – the instantly recognisable 7 stars on blue background.

All contemporary Irish Republican organisations, including Provisional Sinn Fein, Republican Sinn Fein, Saoradh, the 32 County Sovereignty Movement and others carry the Starry Plough flag during parades, although it is more for traditional symbolic purposes than any real political commitment to Connolly’s Marxism. During a Free State army commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising, one of their colour parties carried the original Starry Plough standard of Connolly’s Marxist militia, the Irish Citizen Army. One may very well ask what connection the Free State armed forces could ever claim to have to the Revolutionary Socialist flag of a worker’s militia, the ICA.

In recent years a version of the Republican Congress Starry Plough with a red background has become increasingly popular, especially after its very public appearance at the funeral of veteran Derry Republican Socialist, Seamus ‘Chang’ Coyle. Although it is unlikely that the red background ‘Plough will ever replace the more established designs, it certainly complements them. With a border poll becoming an increasingly popular issue in Ireland and Irish reunification a serious possibility, the Starry Plough flag may well take on an even increased significance as the rallying standard of the Irish working class, as envisioned by James Connolly and Seamus Costello.

I’m curious about the existence of the IRSP/INLA, three of whose members died on hunger strike in 1981. Why would you join this party and its “military wing,” and not Sinn Fein/PIRA? The latter claims political legitimacy from the Easter Rising of 1916, the Second Dial, and opposition to the Anglo-Irish Treaty/Irish Free State. I understand the historic importance of James Connolly and the ICA, but making Irish republicanism more “socialist” was what caused the PIRA to split from the “Stickies” – it was ultimately a distraction from the real business of a united, 32-county republic of Ireland.

I wonder what sort of feuding went on between the PIRA and INLA…

Avicenna in Ireland

From Atlas Obscura:

Found: A Medical Manual Linking Medieval Ireland to the Islamic World

Knowledge transcends borders.

AN EXCITING LINK BETWEEN MEDIEVAL Ireland and the Islamic world has been discovered on two sheets of calfskin vellum lodged into the binding of a book from the 1500s. The sheets hold a rare 15th-century Irish translation of an 11th-century Persian medical encyclopedia. For 500 years, they sat in a family home in Cornwall with no one the wiser to their origins.

“I suppose [the owners] just took a notion to photograph it with their phone and they sent the photograph to one of the universities in England, who sent it to another university, and eventually it got to me,” says Pádraig Ó Macháin, who has spent his life with medieval Gaelic manuscripts and leads the modern Irish department at University College Cork. For him, identifying it as a medieval Irish medical text was a cinch, but he needed a little help to determine its source.

Ó Macháin, founder of Irish Script on Screen, Ireland’s first deep digitization project, where the manuscript and many more old Irish texts can be seen, shared the fragment with Aoibheann Nic Dhonnchadha, a specialist in Irish medical texts at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. She identified it as a passage from the first book of the seminal five-volume The Canon of Medicine.Written by 11th-century Persian physician and polymath Ibn Sina, also known as Avicenna, the work is considered the foundational textbook of early modern medicine. While many references to Ibn Sina and his work pop up in old Irish medical texts, this is the only known evidence of a full translation of his encyclopedia. He originally wrote in Arabic, and the Irish rendition is likely translated from a 13th-century Latin version by the prolific Gerard of Cremona. “This is one of the most influential medical books ever written,” says Nic Dhonnchadha. “So the fact that it was being studied in Ireland in the 15th century was certainly a link to the Islamic world.”

More at the link.

The Centennial of the Armistice

Lapel poppy as sold by the Royal Canadian Legion.

For the past four years we have been observing the centennials of the various events that comprised the Great War, including the Battle of the Somme (July 1, 1916) and the Battle of Vimy Ridge (April 9, 1917). Today we mark the end of it: on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918, an armistice went into effect, ending hostilities on the Western Front, which had thus far killed over three million people and wounded over eight million, all started by some damned fool thing in the Balkans. And, as everyone knows, the settlement that ended the war simply set the stage for the next one: the Treaty of Versailles was not as fair as Wilson had promised in his Fourteen Points, nor as punitive as it needed to be to ensure that Germany did not rise again. So just as the Great Famine of 1315-22 weakened the immune systems of a whole generation of Europeans, and made the Black Death of 1346-51 more virulent than it otherwise would have been, so also did the First World War lead directly to the Second, which then overshadowed it in cultural memory.

Garden of Remembrance, St. Paul’s Cathedral churchyard, City of London, November 11, 2010.

This is especially true in the United States, which only joined the First World War in 1917, and only as a result of a potential threat as revealed by the Zimmerman Telegram. The United States also joined the Second World War “late,” i.e. over two years after Germany invaded Poland, but it did so as the result of a direct attack on its naval base at Pearl Harbor. The Americans played a significant role in defeating Nazi Germany; they played an even bigger role in the defeat of Imperial Japan, including through the use of the atomic bomb, which they had developed at great expense. So it’s only natural that, to an American, the Second World War means more than the First.

The Cenotaph, Whitehall, 2018.

It’s somewhat different in Britain and the Commonwealth. Once the United Kingdom declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, all the Empire, even the Dominions, immediately followed, and fought, and bled quite profusely, for the sake of Britain’s allies on the continent. For well-known reasons, the war bogged down into a bloody stalemate where the advantage was always to the defense, and it soon became obvious that this was going to be a war of attrition – the first side to run out of men and materiel was going to be the one to lose, and this is more or less what ended up happening. Four years of mass industrial slaughter on the Western Front was deeply traumatizing, and gave birth to rituals of remembrance that Americans generally don’t share: the sanctification of November 11 (at first designated Armistice Day, and now as Remembrance Day), the wearing of a lapel poppy* in the run-up to this, the ceremonial placement of wreaths of poppies at war memorials on the day itself, and the two-minute silence at 11:00 AM. (November 11 may be Veterans’ Day in the United States, but memorializing the war dead is the function of Memorial Day in May, which derives from the Civil War. The VFW occasionally sells poppies, but the practice is nowhere near as ubiquitous as it is in Canada or the United Kingdom.) Of course, as with the United States, the UK and its Commonwealth also remember the Second World War, and probably to a greater extent, given Churchill’s refusal to make a deal with Hitler, his inspirational speeches, the evacuation of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, D-Day, and an unconditional surrender forced on a monstrously evil regime.

Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey. Wikipedia.

All the same, the First World War does loom larger in the Commonwealth than in the United States. And it deserves to be remembered, in both places. As pointless as all the killing was, the Great War turned out to be the Great Divide, and represented the real end of the nineteenth century and the birth of the twentieth. When the dust settled, four empires – the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman – had fallen, and many smaller nations won their independence. Communists took over Russia, and the stage was set for what Henry Luce called the American Century. Women were granted the right to vote in both Britain and the United States. Perhaps most importantly, the Great War shattered European self-confidence, and caused the mainstreaming of skepticism, pessimism, and “uncertainty” (one of the reasons, unfortunately, why Britain and France did not stand up to Hitler until it was too late).

Diamond War Memorial, Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

So I was pleased to learn that a World War I memorial is being planned for Washington DC. From a BBC article about it published last year:

“The Great War” was overtaken in the national consciousness by the Great Depression and World War II, says Edwin Fountain, vice-chairman of the WWI Centennial Commission. The commission has been authorised by Congress to build the new memorial in Washington, DC, as well as increase awareness of the war.

“The Centennial is the last best opportunity to teach Americans that World War I was in fact the most consequential event of the 20th Century,” he says. “It had effects that we live and struggle with today, overseas and at home.”

“The debate about the role of America in the world, the balance between national security and civil liberties, the place of women, African Americans and immigrants in our society – all those issues were vigorously discussed during WWI.

“You cannot contribute to those discussions today without understanding our historical roots.”

Gable end mural, Northland St. (arbitrarily renamed “Thiepval St.”), Belfast, Northern Ireland.

At the same time, how the war was fought, and not just its aftermath, deserves closer attention too. If anyone knows anything about the Great War, it is an image largely created by Remarque’s great autobiographical novel All Quiet on the Western Front. Historian Dan Snow recently countered several myths about it, including that most soldiers died, that it was the bloodiest conflict in history to that point, that the upper classes got off lightly, and that soldiers lived in the trenches for years on end (in truth, they were cycled out regularly).

Mural, Glenwood St., Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Still, it was no picnic, as a recent article in the Economist reminds us:

The first world war was not just a grand tragedy. For the 67 million who fought, it was a sordid hellscape. Few of the ten million killed in combat died from a “bullet, straight to the heart”, as pro forma telegrams to relatives put it. Many more bled to death in no-man’s land, their wails lingering for days like “moist fingers being dragged down an enormous windowpane”, as a British lieutenant wrote of the Battle of the Somme. Traumatised survivors sometimes slept in open sewers, and begged for their mothers as superiors ordered them over the top.

They guarded what slivers of humanity and dignity they could. At Compiègne today visitors can view silver rings from the trenches bearing initials (LV, MJ, SH or G) or four-leaf clovers; pipes with marks worn where teeth once clenched; a tube of insect-bite cream; letter-openers fashioned from shell casings, the names of yearned-for correspondents etched into their blades (“Marguerite”, “Mlle Rose-Marie”). A certain stoic humour also played its part. “I was hit. I looked round and saw that my leg had shot out and hit the fellow behind me (who got rather annoyed about [it])” wrote Charlemagne’s great-grandfather in his diary in 1915, just outside Ypres.

The article goes on to note that (emphasis added):

The first world war happened because a generation of Victorian leaders took for granted the stable order that had prevailed in most of Europe for decades. They should have read their history books. Yet the war was also a tale of forces beyond the power of any leader, however well-read; of nations and continents not as trains on history’s railway lines, run by drivers and switchmen, but as rafts tossed about on history’s ocean, dipping at most an occasional oar into the waves. Fate was the real grand homme of the “Great War”. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 would not have happened had his driver not taken a wrong turning in Sarajevo. The German army’s initial advance was halted at Nieuwpoort by a Belgian lock-keeper who flooded the surrounding marshlands. Political twists in Berlin, not crushing defeat on the battlefield, pushed Germany to sue for peace in 1918.

I am chary of drawing “lessons” from history, but it seems in this case that history really does provide us with an instructive example.

Memorial to Lt. Col. John McCrae, Guelph, Ontario, 2015.

* The poppy as a symbol of remembrance derives from the poem “In Flanders Fields” by Lt. Col. John McCrae of Guelph, Ontario, who was serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and who died of pneumonia in January, 1918. He was by no means the only English-language war poet: the First World War produced a remarkable amount of poetry from the viewpoint of its participants, a product of the war taking place after the advent of mass literacy but before other forms of entertainment relegated poetry to a niche interest (see Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory for more on this). I was pleased to see the memorial to sixteen representative war poets in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey this summer, including the greats Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen.

Sadly, the poppy is “political” in some parts of the world, and not just because people believe that it justifies war. Among the nationalist community in Northern Ireland, the poppy represents “Britain’s War,” and thus represents British imperialism and British oppression. Nationalists, as noted, wear lilies in memory of the Easter Rising, and will generally refuse to wear poppies, even going so far as to taunt those who do.

UPDATE

Arms of the Archdiocese of Dublin, in St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral.

Micheál Ó Comáin, a herald of arms at the Genealogical Office in Dublin, informs me that the Chief Herald is not taking sides in the fundamental divide between the Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. As reported earlier, the Church of Ireland arms of the Archdiocese of Dublin and Glendalough, that is:

Azure, an episcopal staff in pale or, ensigned with a cross pattée argent, surmounted of a pall of the last, edged and fringed of the second charged with five crosses pattée fitchée sable

must now be differenced by a bordure Or, while the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin gets the arms without any difference at all. Would this be to suggest that the Roman Catholic Church is more legitimate than the Church of Ireland? Just because the pre-Reformation Church was “Catholic” does not mean that the current Roman Catholic Church is its actual successor – that case could be made just as easily for the Church of Ireland, which possesses most of the pre-Reformation church buildings, and which represents legal institutional continuity, even if most Irish people didn’t become members of it.

Wikipedia.

No, all that happened is that “a certificate in favour of Cardinal Archbishop Desmond O’Connell ratifying and exemplifying his personal arms impaling the undifferenced diocesan arms was issued during his incumbency [1998-2004]. The diocesan coat appearing on a such a document and duly recorded in the Register of Arms is tantamount to a Confirmation.” In other words, the Catholic Archbishop simply beat the Protestant Archbishop to the registration, forcing the Protestant to difference his archdiocesan arms when he got them confirmed in 2016.

The Irish in America

The Wikipedia category “Irish emigrants to the United States (before 1923)” contains some 872 entries – that is, people notable enough to merit a Wikipedia article. This is really quite remarkable. Two of them have recently been brought to my attention, and deserve to be better known. From Wikipedia:

Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore (1829-1892) was an Irish-born American composer  and bandmaster who lived and worked in the United States after 1848. Whilst serving in the Union Army during the Civil War, Gilmore wrote the lyrics to the song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” This was published under the pseudonym Louis Lambert in September 1863…

In many ways Gilmore can be seen as the principal figure in 19th-century American music. He was a composer, and the “Famous 22nd Regiment March” from 1874 is just one example of his work. He held the first “Promenade Concert in America” in 1855, the forerunner to today’s Boston Pops. He set up “Gilmore’s Concert Garden”, which became Madison Square Garden. He was the Musical Director of the Nation in effect, leading the festivities for the 1876 Centennial celebrations in Philadelphia and the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in 1886.

Ron Good adds (having heard RTE’s P.S. Gilmore: Ireland’s First Superstar):

He made adjustments to the inclusion of instruments in bands (i.e. the addition of woodwinds) which resulted what we know today as concert bands. He also used anvils specially made in England which gave off sparks when struck with the hammers of dozens of faux blacksmiths.  Also used artillery pieces to add excitement.

Also from Wikipedia, we have notice of:

Thomas Francis Meagher (“Marr”; 1823-1867) was an Irish nationalist and leader of the Young Irelanders in the Rebellion of 1848. After being convicted of sedition, he was first sentenced to death, but received transportation for life to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) in Australia.

In 1852 he escaped and made his way to the United States, where he settled in New York City. He studied law, worked as a journalist, and traveled to present lectures on the Irish cause. He married for a second time in New York. At the beginning of the American Civil War, Meagher joined the U.S. Army and rose to the rank of brigadier general. He was most notable for recruiting and leading the Irish Brigade, and encouraging support among Irish immigrants for the Union. By his first marriage in Ireland, he had one surviving son; the two never met.

Following the Civil War, Meagher was appointed acting governor of the Montana Territory. In 1867, Meagher drowned in the swift-running Missouri River after falling from a steamboat at Fort Benton.

What a fascinating character.

News from Dublin

A couple of items that I’ve just discovered:

• The relic of the heart of St. Laurence O’Toole, which had been stolen from Christ Church Cathedral in 2012, has been recovered and will be unveiled in a new setting on November 14, 2018. From the Diocesan website:

The heart of St Laurence O’Toole goes on permanent public display in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, from November 14, 2018. This occasion will be marked by free entry to the cathedral from 9:30 am to 2:30 pm, welcoming the people of Dublin to view the heart of the city’s patron saint.

A special ecumenical service of dedication and thanksgiving marking this historic occasion will be held that evening  at 5:45 pm. The Archbishop of Dublin, The Most Revd Dr Michael Jackson, will first bless and dedicate the redesigned grounds incorporating the new stone labyrinth. Following this the Archbishop will preside at a service of Festal Choral Evensong, sung by the Cathedral Choirs, during which he will bless and dedicate the new resting place of the heart of St Laurence O’Toole. This service will be open to the public and all are most welcome to attend.

St Laurence’s heart will be housed in a specially designed art piece, crafted by the renowned Cork–based artist Eoin Turner.

Commenting on this upcoming special day of celebration, the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, The Very Revd Dermot Dunne, stated, ‘I am delighted that we have two such tremendous reasons for celebration at this time. We are deeply grateful for the grant funding from Dublin City Council and Fáilte Ireland that has enabled the redesign and landscaping of our grounds. Further it is my great privilege and joy at this time to be able to return the heart of St Laurence to the people of Dublin.’

From Wikipedia:

[The relic] was recovered in Phoenix Park in 2018 after a tip-off to the Garda Síochána. Media reported that the unidentified thieves thought it was cursed and caused family members’ illnesses.

• As of two years ago, the arms of the United Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough (i.e., in the Church of Ireland) have been differenced with a gold bordure. From the website of the National Library of Ireland:

The relevant English text reads:

Whereas petition hath been made unto me [Colette O’Flaherty, Chief Herald of Ireland] by the Most Reverend Doctor Michael Geoffrey St. Aubyn Jackson, Archbishop of Dublin and Bishop of Glendalough, Primate of Ireland, setting forth that certain armorial ensigns have long been used and borne by the United Dioceses of Dublin and Glendalough and do not appear to have been recorded in my office as pertaining unto the said United Dioceses and that he is desiring that the said arms might now be confirmed unto it with such differences as I might find appropriate.

This is most interesting. Ecclesiastical heraldry has traditionally been beyond the concern of secular heraldic authorities; only in the twentieth century was there a drive to get Anglican diocesan coats of arms regularized through the College of Arms. In Ireland, as noted earlier, there are two more-or-less identical church structures, one sponsored by the Church of Ireland, the other by the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, both claiming legitimacy and both employing the same heraldry. I’m curious about the politics here – what prompted the archbishop to get these arms confirmed by the Chief Herald of Ireland, and why did he agree that they should be differenced? Did the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin beat him to it? (Unfortunately the Genealogical Office does not have an online register of grants and confirmations that it has made, unlike the Canadian Heraldic Authority.)

Irish Discoveries

A couple of interesting finds on Wikipedia:

Conolly’s Folly is an obelisk structure and National Monument located near MaynoothCounty KildareIreland. The folly was built within Castletown Estate (containing Castletown House), which contains two follies, both commissioned by Katherine Conolly, the philanthropic widow of Speaker William Conolly, to provide employment for hundreds of the poor of Celbridge when the famine of 1740–41 was at its worst.”

The Wonderful Barn is a corkscrew-shaped building on the edge of Castletown House Estate, formerly of the Conolly family, in CelbridgeCounty KildareIreland. The barn itself is formally in neighbouring Leixlip. Flanked by two smaller dovecote towers, the barn was built with the stairs ascending around the exterior of the building. The barn was built in 1743 on the Leixlip side of the Castletown Estate.

“Several purposes are suggested for the unique structure:

“One theory is based on the custom in Georgian times of using doves as a delicacy when other game or animals were not in season, and suggest its use as a dovecote.

“The height of the structure would also lend itself to sport shooting, supporting another theory of its use as a shooting or gamekeepers tower.

“The tower is seen from the east windows of Castletown House, so it filled that vista, possibly as a folly.

“However, a central hole through each of the floors supports the generally accepted theory of its use as a granary. The barn was built in the years immediately following the famine of 1740-41, as there was a need for new grain stores in case of another famine. The Conollys owned Kilmacredock and rented it out, so the barn was also useful for their tenants.”

Gerald of Wales

Enjoyed a good discussion on Gerald of Wales’s History and Topography of Ireland in HIS 323 this past week. Geraldus Cambrensis (c. 1146-c. 1223) was born in Pembrokeshire, Wales, studied at Gloucester and Paris, was ordained a priest, acted as an agent of the archbishop of Canterbury in Wales, and then became a royal chaplain to King Henry II. In 1185, Gerald was chosen to accompany Henry’s son John, who had been named Lord of Ireland, on his first expedition there. The Topographia Hibernica was the result. His descriptions of natural phenomena, and especially his credulity about marvels and freaks of nature, remind me of Herodotus, but this book has a specific agenda – essentially, to justify Henry’s claim to Ireland. He specifically mentions the claim in 92, referencing Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain:

As the British history relates, the king of the Britons, Gurguintius, son of the noble Belinus and grandson of the famous Brennius, when returning from Denmark, which his father had formerly conquered, and which, when it had rebelled, he himself had again brought into subjection, found at the Orkney Islands a fleet which had brought Basclenses there from Spain, Their leaders approached the king, and told him whence they had come and the reason for their coming, namely to settle in a country of the West. They were urgent in their request that he should give them some land to inhabit. Eventually the king, on the advice of his counsellors, gave them that island that is now called Ireland, and which was then either entirely uninhabited or had been settled by him. He also gave them pilots for their expedition from among his own fleet.

From this is is clear that Ireland can with some right be claimed by the kings of Britain, even though the claim be from olden times.

Secondly, the city of Bayonne is on the boundary of Gascony, and belongs to it. It is also the capital of Basclonia, whence the Hibernienses came. And now Gascony and all Aquitaine rejoices in the same rule as Britain.

The kings of Britain have also a newly established double claim. On the one hand the spontaneous surrender and protestation of fealty of the Irish chiefs – for everyone is allowed to renounce his right; and on the other, the favour and confirmation of the claim by the Pope.

For when Jupiter started thundering in the confines of the western ocean, the petty Western kings were frightened by the thunder and averted the stroke of the thunderbolt by sheltering from it in a peace.

Do you find this convincing? The double claim from olden times seems a bit of a stretch. It is true that many Irish kings submitted to Henry, and Pope Alexander III confirmed Henry’s position as Lord of Ireland. (As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, it would have been great if Henry II had properly followed up on this grant and exercised good lordship over Ireland – for starters, not outsourced it to the feckless John.)

The rest of the work follows the usual imperialist script of praise for the land coupled with the disparagement of the people who live there. For instance, “The land is fruitful and rich in its fertile soil and plentiful harvests. Crops abound in the field, flocks in the mountains, and wild animals in the woods” (2). The country “is well supplied with beautiful lakes, full of fish and very large” (4). And not only are there no venomous snakes in Ireland, there are no poisons at all! The land is so pure that poisonous reptiles brought to Ireland die instantly, and Irish boot thongs can be employed elsewhere as antidotes to poison (21-22, 24). The climate is the most temperate of all countries, and there is little need for doctors, given how healthy the air is (26). 

But the people! Some of them are good. There are a few saints, who perform miracles (61-62, 64-65, 68). The clergy are in many points praiseworthy (and should have more power than monks) (104, 106). They are excellent musicians (94), and can throw projectiles accurately (93). But one woman of Limerick had a beard and a mane down her back (53), and a man of Wicklow looked like a man, but had the extremities of an ox, i.e. hooves for hands and feet, and two holes directly on his face where his nose should be. He was likely the product of bestiality between a man and a cow, because in Glendalough another man-cow was born of a similar union (54). In Connacht, a woman entrusted with keeping one of the king’s prize goats ended up fornicating with it (56). Indeed, bestiality and incest are particular vices of the Irish. Furthermore:

• they are not carefully nursed after birth
• their clothes are made in a barbarous fashion
• they do not use saddles or spurs when riding horses
• they go naked and unarmed into battle
• they are a wild, inhospitable people, still mostly pastoralists
• they have no idea about city living
• they don’t realize the potential of their fields for crops
• they don’t mine any of the metals or minerals that abound in Ireland
• they don’t weave flax or wool, and in general do no work at all (93)
• they are ignorant of the rudiments of the faith (98)
• they don’t keep their word, and will physically attack you when they can (99, 101)
• great numbers of them are blind by birth, lame, maimed in body, or suffering some natural defect. This is what you can expect from a people “adulterous, incestuous, unlawfully conceived and born, outside the law, and shamefully abusing nature herself in spiteful and horrible practices” (109).

The only solution, therefore, is to colonize the place, to take advantage of its natural riches and to improve the habits of its benighted inhabitants.

Some of the students in HIS 323 noted the similarity in between this book and the rhetoric surrounding Manifest Destiny in nineteenth-century America, especially the notion that the natives don’t keep their word. I would say that the book not entirely useless as a source – the Irish pastoral lifestyle probably did strike the English as rough and backward, and I would not be surprised if the taboo against bestiality was weaker in Ireland than in England, i.e. it might not have been just something that Gerald made up. The Irish style of horseback riding is confirmed by the Statutes of Kilkenny, and the fact that Gerald is willing to give credit to the Irish for whatever good qualities they have makes his criticism of them somewhat believable.

However, you can tell he’s definitely accentuating the negative. Moreover, the legitimacy of English rule is an entirely separate question. Even if the Irish were as bad as Gerald says, the English could have done much better as rulers of the place than they actually did.

(Quotations from Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, trans. John J. O’Meara [Penguin, 1982])