The PhD Diaries: Identities in Transformation
A Return to 1169: The Seedbed of the Anglo-Irish Relationship
Sitting on a sofa in a villa in Nerja – a town in the province of Málaga, Spain – I gently pressed a cold Tetley’s teabag on my left eye. A non-waterproof sun cream led me here. I scrolled, one-eyed, through the results of a Google search on ‘eight-hundred years of oppression’. A once oft-heard expression in Ireland, and one which was as likely to be uttered from the mouth of a much-maligned great uncle at a family gathering as it was from the mouth of an even more maligned history teacher. In retrospect, this simple act of research was a stepping stone to a much more complex series of questions related to the foundations of the Anglo-Irish relationship and the longue durée of its political and socio-cultural dynamics.
While pondering the Anglo-Irish relationship and its history, I asked myself the question: What did it mean to be Irish or English during the latter quarter of the twelfth century? While the question was specific to the medieval past, there was, in it, a latent series of introspective questions that I had to ask myself. Moreover, the process of self-identification is congruent and not absolute, often relying on the acceptance that an identity has a past in order to legitimise its existence in the first instance and then one’s membership in the second. It is perhaps unsurprising then that the scholarship of Eoin MacNeill (1867–1945), Gaelic revivalist, politician, and sometime Chair of Early Irish History in University College Dublin, focused on Ireland’s ancient and early medieval past as he sought to add scholarly credence to the long and illustrious history of the Irish people, who were then in the midst of seeking independence from British governance. After all, Ireland had a past which pre-existed the coming of the English. But it was this widely perceived point of no return which interested me.
Since the English landed on Bannow Island at the mouth of Bannow Bay, County Wexford, in May 1169, contact between the two largest islands of the Hiberno-British archipelagic region has been dramatic and complicated. Indeed, the shared history of the peoples of Ireland and Britain over the past 850 or so years has been, in the main, narrated as one of binary opposition. The coloniser vs the colonised; the English (and later British) vs the Irish. However, while the English exercised immense influence on Irish political, economic and socio-cultural affairs since the latter quarter of the twelfth century, R. B. McDowell regarded such influence, vice versa, as being ‘sporadic and limited’ (Historical Essays [1938–2001], 2003, p.124). While it feels impudent to go against the opinion of the great historian and former Junior Dean of Trinity College, it is clear that Ireland’s influence on England, while of a softer power, has been profound and far-reaching.
My doctoral research aims to get to the bones of one aspect of the Anglo-Irish relationship: English views of Ireland and its people during the first century or so of English involvement in Irish political affairs, c.1169–c.1272. The historiography of the period has suffered, in more ways than one, from an over-reliance on the vitriolic and propagandist accounts of the ecclesiastic and historian Gerald of Wales (1146–1223), author of the first books ever written on Ireland, and the man who shaped English perceptions of the Irish more than any other. Yet there are a great many of Gerald’s contemporaries who have, too, addressed various elements of Irish affairs in their histories and chronicles of the high medieval period. What is more, these writers’ attitudes towards – and opinions on – Ireland and its people were more nuanced and varied than historians have traditionally allowed, thus complicating the binary narrative of medieval Anglo-Irish history.
In reality, medieval English views on Ireland and its people were more complex and varied than the Geraldine paradigm dictates. The existence of negative, positive, and altogether indifferent attitudes towards Ireland and its people must be accepted as being representative of the spectrum of possible views of Ireland and its inhabitants. This is as true of the medieval period as it is of the present day. The past can have long-lasting effects on how national identities are expressed especially in terms of international engagement. This is true in the cases of Ireland and Britain; Israel and Palestine; Pakistan and India, amongst many, many others. Interestingly, my search for a more nuanced understanding of Irish and English identities has simultaneously made me more sympathetic to the English point of view and more patriotic as an Irish person. Moreover, it has become clear to me that to get to the roots of what it means to be Irish is to accept our irrevocable ties with England. In many sectors, we compare ourselves to our English neighbours. This inclination is readily exemplified at present as the Republic of Ireland’s responses to COVID-19 are usually compared in the first instance with our archipelagic neighbours rather than our continental ones.
Having spent the past four years researching various aspects of the Anglo-Irish relationship in the high medieval period, I have come to the realisation that anyone hoping to understand what it means to be Irish must also, at the same time, attempt to understand what it means to be English, for the interconnected histories of the two make such an approach a necessity. It is important, therefore, to return to the beginnings of English political involvement in Ireland to gain a sense of where we were, where we are, and where we would like to be in the future. The Anglo-Irish relationship has a complex and dramatic past, and its present situation – most notably complicated (and agitated) by post-Brexit trade negotiations – is no different. One can predict the future relationship between the two will be much the same. Yet despite the obvious difficulties of past and present relations, one would do well to remember how far Anglo-Irish relations have improved since the Good Friday Agreement. As someone who is proud to describe myself as Irish, the ambition is always to strive towards respectful and positive communication and engagement with my English neighbours across the pond; yet, there is nothing quite as rousing as the healthy competitiveness and craic that comes with a Six Nations match between the two.
Now that I reflect upon the happenstance of my early researches on the subject, the fact that I availed of the UK’s largest tea company for some respite rather than Lyons or Barry’s is perhaps emblematic of the intrinsic connections between the Irish and the English, and their enmeshed histories and cultures. (Forget the fact that both of Ireland’s above-mentioned tea brands are virtually impossible to purchase in Nerja!) However, perhaps there is also something quite telling about the fact that the teabag was on my eye and not in a mug…
Daryl Hendley Rooney
Daryl Hendley Rooney is a PhD candidate in the School of Histories and Humanities. He is a recipient of the Cluff Memorial Studentship and was an Erasmus Mundus Action II Israel scholar (2015). Daryl earned his B.A. in English and History, as well as his M.A. in Medieval Studies, at University College Dublin. His doctoral research examines how the Irish were constructed as 'other' by writers in early Plantagenet England, c. 1169–c. 1272. Focusing upon the works of Roger of Howden, William of Newburgh, Gerald of Wales, Gervase of Canterbury and others, this dissertation examines the insights these historians provide into the spectrum of medieval attitudes towards Ireland and its people during the first century of English conquest in Ireland.