A nation in medieval Ireland? Perspectives on Gaelic national identity in the Middle Ages

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2005), Medieval History (pre-1500), Reviews, Volume 13

A nation in medieval Ireland Perspectives on Gaelic national identity in the Middle Ages 1A nation in medieval Ireland? Perspectives on Gaelic national identity in the Middle Ages
(British Archaeological Reports, British Series, 367)
Thomas Finan
(Archaeopress, £29)
ISBN 1841716006
The question of ‘identity’ in medieval Ireland is all the rage these days, and not simply in the sense of commanding a great deal of interest. For several decades now, a debate on this most fascinating yet intangible of topics has been simmering away and at times has become quite impassioned. In 1999 the discussion spilled out of austere academic volumes onto the pages of this very journal, in a set-to between Steven Ellis and Kenneth Nicholls (HI 7.1–2, Spring/Summer 1999) on the issue of just how ‘Gaelicised’—the word itself is contentious—the descendants of the original Anglo-Norman invaders were by the end of the Middle Ages.
The English community in late medieval Ireland has received more than its fair share of attention to date, so it is a welcome change to see Thomas Finan training the spotlight on the Gaelic population in this book. Finan presents his argument thematically, devoting a chapter each to bardic poetry, settlement patterns, the church and legal systems in medieval Ireland in the period c. 1200–1400. The chapters are extensively illustrated with maps and tables, and are supported by endnotes and a bibliography (but, alas, no index).
The challenge facing anyone writing about Gaelic national identity is to reconcile the apparent contradictions between how people liked to be portrayed, for instance in bardic poetry, and the reality behind the big talk. The fragmentation and conflict that were commonplaces of the Gaelic polity leave the researcher wondering whether it is possible to talk of a ‘nation’ at all. This is why the punctuation of Finan’s title is significant. The author soon answers his own question in the affirmative, but not before rooting the argument in the various twentieth-century theories of nationalism. Many medievalists shy away from theoretical work, so Finan’s brief discussion of the different schools of thought is refreshing. The author negotiates a path between the extreme positions of modernists (who see nations as recent creations) and primordialists (who trace nations back to time immemorial), instead associating himself with ethno-symbolists, who emphasise myths and symbols of national significance. Finan rightly explains that ‘nation’, in a medieval sense, need not be equated with the modern nation state. By exploring the motifs that recur in bardic poetry, he demonstrates that it was possible for the Gaelic population to share a keen sense of national identity based on ‘a common history and tradition and a particular geographical space’ (one might explicitly add language to his list), even though they ‘never formed a cohesive, sustained front against the Anglo-Norman [sic]’ (p. 28).
Conflict between natives and newcomers is necessarily a major theme for Finan, given that his discussion covers the two centuries after the Anglo-Norman invasion. It is strange, then, that having reached a finely tuned understanding of Gaelic national identity in the section on bardic poetry, where he successfully embraces the contradictions, Finan is more ambiguous in his interpretation elsewhere. Sometimes he says that racial tension sprang from localised or personal conflicts. In the chapter on the church, for instance, Finan attributes the thirteenth-century conflict within the Cistercian order in Ireland to the attempts by the order’s international chapter to discipline its Irish houses. He writes that these ‘conflicts . . . did not necessarily result from ethnic or racial strife’ (p. 88). Yet, later, he seems to say the opposite. As he puts it: ‘These disputes were consequences of divisions of national feeling, not the causes of national conflict; these conflicts were more symptomatic of a national division within society’ (p. 115). The point is significant enough to warrant greater clarity. The problem is perhaps caused by attempting to explain racial tension in terms of a simple cause-and-effect relationship. Such is the complexity of these issues that neat patterns are unlikely to be convincing. In other words, some of Finan’s later chapters would have benefited from the more nuanced approach he brought to his chapter on bardic poetry.
That is not to say that he is wrong to discuss the complicating factors, the reality behind the national rhetoric. Indeed, he could have greatly expanded in this direction, and in particular explored more of the rich fourteenth-century material, such as the military obligations that bound Gaelic chiefs to the earls of Ulster, Kildare, Ormond and Desmond. With a terminus date of 1400, it would also have been appropriate to discuss the significance of the 1394–5 expedition of King Richard II (1377–99) to Ireland, during which the king accepted the submissions of most of the Gaelic chiefs. Rather than confusing matters, investigation along these lines might well have enhanced Finan’s picture of Gaelic national identity by bringing cooperation as well as conflict within its parameters.
These reservations aside, there is much in Finan’s approach that is novel, particularly the way the author utilises a broad range of techniques to aid his research and bring new slants to the discussion. His chapter on bardic poetry, for instance, makes use of the Catalogue of bardic poetry, a computer database compiled by Katharine Simms of Trinity College, Dublin, and Finan’s explanation of how this database operates should be useful to those unfamiliar with this invaluable resource. Likewise, his chapter on settlement involves very complex statistical analysis made possible by a computerised ‘Geographic Information System’ (GIS). GIS is a well-established tool among archaeologists, but there can be few historians who are confident enough to combine it with the more traditional method Finan adopts in his chapters on the church and legal systems in medieval Ireland. Even here, where the author’s techniques are more familiar, there are new perspectives to be found, such as when Finan borrows ideas from legal anthropology to explain the use of legal systems as a form of identity.
Given the originality of Finan’s methods and the obvious lengths to which he went in compiling his data, it is regrettable that a number of minor shortcomings were not cleared up before publication. Responsibility for some of these must be shared by the editors of the series in which this volume is published. Some of Finan’s many statistical tables seem to have been designed originally to be printed in colour. Rendered in black and white, it is difficult for the reader to distinguish between the different shades of grey and decipher the information (e.g. fig. 2.1, p. 14; fig. 3.8, p. 65). There are also a great many inconsistencies in spelling that distract the reader from the author’s arguments, for instance prophecy of ‘Berchán’ or ‘Bearchán’ (p. 19); ‘Cathal Crobderg’ or ‘Cathal Crobdergh’ (pp 20 and 82); ‘William Marshal’ or ‘William Marshall’ (pp 81–2). Finally, dates are frequently misprinted. Of course, the only historian who is guaranteed escape from this trap is the one who never publishes. Nonetheless, some of the misdated events are so well known that the trouble seems simply to be carelessness. Diarmait Mac Murchada’s notorious appeal for aid to King Henry II (1154–89) occurred in 1166, not 1168 (p. 79); the annals record that dynasts from Connacht and Munster gave Brian Ó Néill ‘the kingship of the Gaels of Ireland’ in 1258, not 1260 (p. 83); and Finan is correct when he changes the date of the ‘Papal Remonstrance’ of Brian Ó Néill’s son, Domnall, to 1317 (p. 102) from the 1310 he gives earlier (p. 100).
Despite this, Finan is to be commended for doing what so many of us fail to do. Although we hear a great deal of talk nowadays about interdisciplinary approaches, genuine efforts to move beyond the chatter are all too few. This is one such attempt to marry the latest innovations in database technology and statistical analysis to traditional methods of research. Finan’s work further benefits from a willingness to use a healthy amount of theoretical work (there is always a danger of overdosing the reader with theory) to enrich his interpretations. As such, his book offers much that is new and it may encourage other researchers to act in a similarly broad-minded spirit in the future.
Peter Crooks


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