Geoffrey Keating’s Foras Feasa ar Éirinn

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Gaelic Ireland, Issue 1 (Spring 2001), Volume 9

Foras Feasa ar Éirinn is a history of the kingdom of Ireland, written by Geoffrey Keating, an Old English Catholic priest from south County Tipperary, and completed in about 1634. It tells the story of Ireland from the creation of the world to the coming of the Normans. The original version was written in Irish, and was first published in full by the Irish Texts Society in the early twentieth century. It had earlier circulated widely in manuscript in Irish, English and Latin. A version published in English in Dublin and London in 1723 and regularly reissued was an adaptation rather than a direct translation of Keating’s history.

The author

Little is known about the life of the author, who worked as a secular priest in the diocese of Lismore having been educated in France. A plaque erected in his memory in 1644 at a chapel known as Cillín Chiaráin, in Tubbrid, County Tipperary, is one of the most tangible links to the historical person of Geoffrey Keating. Most of the folklore about him cannot be traced back to the seventeenth century but is drawn primarily from eighteenth-century printed sources, the accuracy of which cannot be tested. Yet, although the historical Keating is no longer familiar, his writings have had an influence on Irish language and literature probably as significant as Shakespeare’s in relation to English. In particular, his role in shaping Irish people’s perceptions of their own identity, their country, their history and their religion has been very influential. The work had its critics from a very early stage. The Irish Franciscan John Colgan, in the 1630s, expressed disappointment at the vague and often anonymous nature of its Irish sources, and in the 1680s Sir Richard Cox described Foras Feasa as ‘an ill-digested heap of very silly fictions’ that had no evident value as history. Nevertheless Keating’s portrayal of Ireland as an ancient and worthy kingdom had enormous attractions for his contemporaries. It told the story of the kingdom of Ireland at a time when the idea of an Irish kingdom mattered a great deal to contemporaries. In consequence, though it may tell us relatively little about early Irish history that cannot be gleaned from other sources, it reveals a great deal about Keating’s own seventeenth-century world.

Political context

There was a general restructuring of political and social allegiances in the aftermath of the 1603 treaty of Mellifont that concluded the Nine Years War, and coincided with the death of the last Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I. When the Stuart king, James I, came to the throne in 1603 there was concern among all sections of Irish society to find a workable political framework on which to build a new society. From the perspective of an Old English historian, it was important to provide an appropriate historical underpinning for the legitimacy of the political stance of the Old English Catholic elite within the framework of the new Stuart kingdom of Ireland. The cultivation of a shared belief in a particular historical mythology was part of the process of preserving social order at a time of political and social transformation.
Keating’s Foras Feasa, which focused on the antiquity of the kingdom of Ireland, quickly became the agreed version of the Irish past for Catholics of his generation. It integrated lineage, language and landscape to mould a new sense of Ireland and of Irishness. Over time, Foras Feasa gained favour with all those for whom a sense of their own Irishness had political or cultural importance. Thus by the early eighteenth century it was a sought after text (in English translation) among the families of recent settlers who had made their homes in Ireland regardless of their religious allegiance or ethnic origins.
The polemical preface to Foras Feasa, with its forthright criticism of authors who had denigrated Ireland, was designed to appeal to the reader’s sense of Irishness. The enormous impact on popular consciousness of the fact that Foras Feasa alerted readers to the reality of conflicting interpretations of the past should not be underestimated. In a country that hovered between kingdom and colony, as Ireland did in the seventeenth century, readers understood the significance of alternative readings of the past.
Just as a Counter-Reformation Catholic preacher would dispute the arguments of his ‘heretical’ antagonists, in his preface Keating took issue with earlier writers who had provided inaccurate portrayals of Ireland, or had presented the Irish people in an unfavourable light. He accused hostile commentators, most especially Giraldus Cambrensis, of concentrating on the lower orders rather than on the Irish kings and nobility. In his litany of hostile authors, Keating included the Old English palesman Richard Stanihurst, not because of his ethnicity, but because in his writings about the Irish he had rejected the Gaelic inheritance which Keating used as the core of his myth of the Irish past.
Keating saw history as the key to the cultivation of the idea of Irishness among the Old English community. He carefully reconstructed the story of an ancient kingdom of Ireland, moulding the narrative to suit his own social and religious agenda. Keating’s work combined the Leabhar Gabhála Éireann (Book of the taking of Ireland) framework and the genealogical record of the kings of Ireland derived from the Réim Ríoghraidhe (Succession of Kings) with traditional poems and stories about the exploits of particular king heroes. In this way he provided a historical narrative that appeared familiar and therefore authentic. For those Irish who were of Anglo-Norman ancestry, the narrative continued sufficiently far into the twelfth century to provide them with an honourable place in the story of the kingdom of Ireland. By placing the Normans as the last of a series of outsiders who had come to Ireland from abroad, as the Tuatha dé Danann, the Clann Mhíleadh and others had done, Foras Feasa linked the Old English Catholic community in Ireland, who were of Norman descent, directly into the Irish origin myth, thereby affirming their status in the modern Irish kingdom.
Keating’s account of the origins of the Irish kingdom and people formed the backdrop on which was superimposed a view of the Irish church that was appropriate to the ambitions of Irish diocesan Catholic-Reformation clergy. This linking of religion and history portrayed an understanding of Irish Catholicism that had meaning in the secular as well as in the spiritual lives of Keating’s elite readers. His emphasis on traditions of piety, hospitality and generosity to the church, which was integral to Keating’s portrayal of early Irish civilisation, had a contemporary purpose. He constructed a vision of a Catholic people bonded together by both moral and social obligations. He asserted the confidence of Irish Catholics in the future of their church and indicated the structures and role appropriate to that church in contemporary society.

Myth and history

Keating appears to have heeded Cicero’s warning to historians that those who did not ‘embellish their facts’ would be mere ‘chroniclers and nothing more’. It is evident from his theological writings, Trí Bior-ghaoithe an Bháis [Three Shafts of Death] and Eochair-sgiath an Aifrinn [Key to the Defence of the Mass], that Keating was a skilful preacher who had a good understanding of the power of story-telling in communicating fundamental truths to general audiences. That awareness of the communicative power of story underpinned his historical writing also. Myth and legend were not something peripheral to Keating’s historical text. Traditional stories were intentionally incorporated into his historical framework as part of the origin legend of the Irish people. The more elements of traditional lore that were knitted into Keating’s reconstruction of the past, the more convincing would be his history as the ‘true’ history of the Irish people.

Scottish precedent

Keating’s history was written in the context of other national histories that were in circulation in early modern Europe. Hector Boece’s Scottorum Historiae (Paris 1527) was one of the works Keating had in mind when he said that he wished Ireland to have a national history such as other nations have. Boece’s history had as its framework a list of Scottish kings and depicted the Scottish people as loyal Christians never veering from the true faith. Boece’s narratives of war and defence were a mechanism through which national identity was delineated and defined. The king was depicted as a central symbol of that identity. Boece’s work is very closely paralleled by Keating’s choice of the succession of kings of Ireland as the framework around which the Foras Feasa was constructed.

The kingdom of Ireland

The idea that the king was chosen by the people, and not by right of heredity was emphasised in Foras Feasa:

We do not read in the seanchas that there was ever any king of Ireland from the time of Slainghe to the Norman invasion but a king who obtained the sovereignty of Ireland by the choice of the people, by the excellence of his exploits, and by the strength of his hand [FFÉ, iii, 182-83].

The implication was that there was a contract between king and people, an idea found in texts associated with the idea of kingship in Ireland from as early as the eighth century. This concept of kingship as involving a contract between sovereign and people came to have a very significant role in seventeenth-century Irish political thought.
The kingship framework also permitted a conscious division into distinct eras, marking progress through time. In the Irish context, the framework of the succession of kings absorbed change in a way that allowed Keating establish the Norman kings as the legitimate successors of the Gaelic kings. It allowed Keating make the case that the Irish people chose a Norman king, rather than a Norman king having chosen them. The kingship framework also reflected the expectations of Keating’s contemporaries about how Irish history should be narrated. Keating’s particular focus on Ireland as a kingdom, with a long history, gave him scope to establish the idea of parity between Gaelic kings and their Briton and Saxon counterparts. Such a case for the status of the kingdom of Ireland was a core objective of Foras Feasa and one of the reasons for its lasting popularity.
The ‘invasions’ framework of the early part of Keating’s narrative history was drawn from the early medieval text known as the Leabhar Gabhála with its strong biblical overtones. This was combined with material from the Dinnseanchas (placelore). The story of the origins of the kingdom of Ireland was narrated as the story of successive kings interspersed with mention of the emergence of lakes and rivers. The Irish kingdom was depicted as having been peopled by a race of the highest pedigree, bound together by bonds of kinship, language and geography, that had their origins in scripture. Within this framework Keating retold popular stories about successive king heroes. There was an implied continuity through the ages, a point that was central to the construction of a modern myth of the kingdom of Ireland.
In Keating’s view of the past there were three distinct epochs of kingship in Ireland. Ireland before Christianity was the first era, firmly brought to a close with the coming of Patrick. The second great era was that of the kingdom of Ireland in the early Christian period down to the coming of the Normans. The final period of kingship began when Henry II of England acquired the sovereignty of Ireland, and continued to Keating’s own day. Keating devoted particular attention to establishing the legitimacy of the claims of the Norman kings to the sovereignty of Ireland, but only after he had characterised the nature of Irish kingship in considerable detail through the stories of the individual exploits of kings.

Irish sovereignty

The Ireland of Keating’s historical imagination was a kingdom that absorbed waves of outsiders. The story of Ireland in Foras Feasa did not portray the indigenous population as resisting newcomers. Rather was it that the newcomers successfully established an entitlement to the sovereignty of Ireland. Quoting directly from the Latin of Giraldus Cambrensis himself, Keating asserted that ‘from the first, Ireland has remained free from the invasion of any foreign nation’, a quotation he valued so much that he repeated it later [FFÉ, i, 16-17, 82-83]. The reader was supplied with the context in which to interpret this statement:

From these words it is evident that neither Arthur, nor any other foreign monarch, ever had supremacy over Ireland from the beginning till the Norman invasion: and moreover, he asserted, it is not conceivable that the Britons had any control over Ireland, since even the Romans did not venture to meddle with it, and it is not alone that the Romans, or other foreigners, had no control over Ireland, but it is Ireland that was a refuge to the other territories to protect them from the violence of the Romans and other foreigners [FFÉ, i, 16-17].

There was a clear distinction in Keating’s mind between the idea of tribes arriving in Ireland and establishing themselves there, and the notion of a foreign power gaining control over Ireland. To protest that he is being illogical here is to misunderstand how historical myth is constructed. In Keating’s account, successive tribes had arrived to inhabit Ireland and they were the legitimate precursors of the modern peoples of Ireland. These peoples were the link between the island of Ireland and the peoples of Old Testament times. Particular emphasis was placed on the story of Míl, father of the Gaeil, and his descendants the ‘Clann Mhíleadh’.
Irish origins were traced through Míl to the Scythians. The worthiness of these origins was made abundantly clear. ‘Great was the bravery and the valour which was among the people of Scythia’. They were ‘never subdued by any dominion’. ‘They had heard of the power of the Romans, and [yet] had never felt it’. Moreover, it was from Scythia that ‘other countries used to receive institutes and laws and ordinances’ emphasising that these Scythian origins were a source of civility [FFÉ, i, 228-29]. Not only were the people of Ireland never conquered by the Romans, they were descended from a civilisation older, and thus worthier, than the Romans, Greeks or Egyptians. The origin of the Irish language was explained in similar terms as one of the world’s first languages. Keating thus presented his readers with an idea of Ireland as a truly ancient, independent, kingdom, exceptional in Europe in not having succumbed to Roman influence, and therefore to be more highly prized. It was in giving substance to such arguments that the antiquity of the origin legend found in the Leabhar Gabhála was important.

Stuart kings of Ireland

In a rare reference to the contemporary era, Keating reminded his readers that the present king of Ireland, Charles I (1625-49) and his father James (1603-25) ‘came from the Scotic race (that is to say, from the posterity of Maine son of Corc son of Lughaidh, who came from Éibhear son of Míl of Spain)’ [FFÉ, i, 208-09]. Keating referred to Charles I as ‘the king we have now’ (an rígh so againn anois) in a manner which made plain that he was entirely comfortable with the idea of one king for the three separate kingdoms of Scotland, England and Ireland. The validation of Charles as rightful sovereign was achieved by reference to Milesian genealogy and a long-established mode of inauguration on the Lia Fáil. Such thinking reflected early seventeenth-century values as expressed by a variety of Gaelic poets, including Eochaidh Ó hEodhasa and Fearghal Óg Mac an Bhaird.
The Stuarts per se, however, were not Keating’s central contemporary concern. Though Keating regarded himself as ‘Irish’, his own Norman ancestors could not be portrayed as Milesian, and therefore could not easily be depicted as a branch of the Irish genealogical tree. Secondly, if the kingdom of Ireland was to be portrayed as having a continuous existence from earliest times to the present, the legitimacy of monarchs since Henry II as sovereigns in Ireland had to be established. Given the particular emphasis placed by Keating on the idea of Ireland as an independent kingdom that had never been subject to any higher secular authority in the pagan or early Christian era, his treatment of the coming of the Normans was crucial.

Norman kings

The arrival of Henry II in 1172 marked the beginning of the third great epoch in Foras Feasa. To give Henry II’s position an appropriate constitutional legitimacy Keating focused on the notion of an assignment of sovereignty through the papacy. He claimed that Donnchadh mac Briain Bóroimhe, king of Ireland, had visited Rome on pilgrimage. There, together with the nobles of Ireland, Donnchadh had ‘consented to the bishop of Rome’s having authority over them’ [FFÉ, iii, 6-7]. Keating placed this event ‘about seventy-seven years before the Normans came to Ireland’. There are problems with these assertions. First, the chronology is incorrect, Donnchadh mac Briain had died in Rome in 1064, more than a century before the Normans came to Ireland. Secondly, no earlier source claimed that Donnchadh was king of Ireland. He was merely one of the Dál gCais kings of Cashel and Munster. Thus this episode appears to have been a deliberate fabrication, but one Keating repeated later in his narrative. The idea that the papacy had sovereignty over Ireland was crucial to his argument concerning the legitimacy of the Norman invasion—it was a politically significant fiction.
In Keating’s scenario, therefore, Ireland had not been conquered by the Normans. Rather Henry II had been welcomed by clergy and nobility as a monarch whose obligation it was to protect those over whom he had been legitimately assigned sovereignty by the pope. Then Ruaidhrí Ó Conchubhair, king of Ireland, had agreed to Henry’s role as lord and protector, and the legitimacy of the Anglo-Norman kings was thereby established. The reality of conflict was explained away as constituting the atrocities of a small minority who had ultimately been punished by God for their misdeeds and had no descendants among the Anglo-Normans of Ireland. The Gaeil who had resisted them were exonerated from blame on the grounds that they had not been justly treated and that, given good government, they were a peace-loving, law-abiding, civilised people. It was important in this climax to Keating’s narrative that both Gaeil and Gaill, who together were construed as ‘Éireannaigh’, were shown in a favourable light.

Conclusion

The idea that Ireland had always been a separate kingdom unto itself ‘like a little world’ was at the core of Keating’s view of the history of the Irish people [FFÉ, i, 38-41]. His history cannot always be relied on as an accurate account of what actually happened in early Ireland although it was sufficiently scholarly to serve for generations as a convenient synthesis of early Irish history from indigenous sources. It is abundantly clear that its purpose was not merely to be scholarly. Rather, Foras Feasa ar Éirinn is a carefully constructed political narrative, and the ‘very silly fictions’ it incorporates served a highly political purpose. Because the idea of an ancient, autonomous, kingdom of Ireland was at its core, it remained popular for generations afterwards. Irish political communities who shared the idea that Ireland should have the status of kingdom rather than colony, turned to Keating for the historical underpinning of their political aspirations. It became popular among Irish Protestant readers in eighteenth century but it was, in essence, the myth of the origins of the Irish Catholic nation.

Bernadette Cunningham is Deputy Librarian of the Royal Irish Academy.

Further reading:

B. Cunningham, The World of Geoffrey Keating: history, myth and religion in seventeenth-century Ireland (Dublin 2000).

G. Keating, Foras Feasa ar Éirinn: the history of Ireland, D. Comyn and P.S. Dinneen (eds.), 4 vols, Irish Texts Society (London 1902-14).

B. Ó Buachalla, Aisling ghéar: na Stíobhartaigh agus an t-aos léinn, 1603-1788 (Baile Atha Cliath 1996).

B. Bradshaw, ‘Geoffrey Keating: apologist of Irish Ireland’ in B. Bradshaw, A. Hadfield, W. Maley (eds.), Representing Ireland: literature and the origins of conflict (Cambridge 1993).v

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