Cultural exchange and identity in late medieval Ireland: the English and Irish of the four obedient shires

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 6 (November/December 2018), Reviews, Volume 26

Cambridge University Press
ISBN 9781107128088

Reviewed bySimon Egan

Simon Egan is a postdoctoral fellow in medieval history at the University of Glasgow.

The debate surrounding the extent to which the original Anglo-Norman conquistadores of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries were assimilated into the socio-cultural world of Gaelic Ireland remains divisive to this day. The discussion centring on this topic was famously reignited within the pages of History Ireland in 1999 by Steven Ellis and Kenneth Nicholls. Ellis argued that the colonial nobility retained an identity distinct from the native Irish and thus—by implication—remained loyal to the English crown throughout the later Middle Ages. Nicholls, by comparison, noted that, although the colonists regarded themselves as ethnically different from their Irish neighbours, many settlers became ‘Gaelicised’, i.e. heavily assimilated into the Gaelic cultural landscape. Importantly, Nicholls also asserted that one’s Anglo-French ancestry did not necessarily equate to loyalty to the English crown in the fifteenth or sixteenth century.

Nevertheless, the debate surrounding the concept of what Nicholls dubbed the ‘Ellis two-nation theory’ (of Gaeil versus Gaill) has to a large extent generated more heat than light. The arguments put forward by both authors held the promise of further research into this contentious area; with few exceptions, however, scholars have done little to advance this debate. Scholarly opinion regarding the assimilation/acculturation process instead remains entrenched within opposing schools of thought mirroring the stances taken by Ellis and Nicholls respectively. This recent study by Sparky Booker is therefore a welcome addition to the corpus of literature underpinning the history of Hiberno-English interaction in late medieval Ireland. More importantly, it represents the first monograph-length study to scrutinise the assimilation/acculturation process within that ‘most English’ part of the island: the four ‘obedient’ shires of Dublin, Louth, Meath and Kildare.

The book itself is divided into six chapters, an introduction and conclusion, and accompanying tables and maps. The introduction offers a helpful overview of the historiography and literature centring on cultural assimilation and exchange in medieval Ireland; the author also pays close attention to recent trends and conceptual frameworks in the history of the archipelago’s borderlands and areas subjected to intensive English colonisation—Wales in particular. Chapter 1 moves on to provide an enlightening discussion delineating the borders of the four obedient shires during the later Middle Ages. Based on a cautious reading of surviving sources, Booker emphasises that, although the boundaries of colonial Leinster were ‘fringed by shifting and broad borderlands’, the four shires developed a ‘distinct regional identity’. Chapter 2 examines the Irish residing within the four shires, exploring their status and charting how they struggled to navigate the English-dominated legal system. Many Irish secured work as servants, leather-workers and doctors; some even managed to join certain guilds, while others had the means to make wills (underlining their position) or purchase a grant of English law. The challenges faced by these everyday people within the shires are nonetheless thrown into stark relief when one realises that a grant of English law was never as secure as being English by birth.

Drawing upon a wealth of neglected clerical and papal sources, Chapter 3 focuses on Hiberno-English interaction within the Church. Despite the racial discrimination faced by many Irish people in the secular world, Booker reveals that a career in the Church enabled many Irish to achieve high positions with the archiepiscopal administration. One of the chief reasons for this was that the papal curia insisted that parish priests speak Irish, thus ruling out many potential English applicants. Pleading before the archbishop’s courts also allowed the Irish to deal with their English neighbours on equal terms (at least in theory). Chapter 4 considers marriage and familial relationships between the Irish and English residing in the four shires. Surveying a broad range of sources, the author reveals that for many Irish people marriage could often be used to secure a grant of English citizenship, as well as creating and cementing alliances—as is evident from the marriage strategies of the seventh and eighth earls of Kildare. The final two chapters investigate the permeation of Irish culture and language within the four obedient shires. In yet another insightful exploration, the author investigates the proliferation of Irish military exactions (‘coyne and livery’), ceremonial gift-giving (tuarastal) and brehon law within the shires. Drawing parallels with Scotland and northern England, the author intriguingly suggests that one outcome of growing Irish influence was the development of extended kin-groups among colonists both within and beyond the boundaries of the four shires. Using a range of later source material (such as the works of Richard Stanihurst), coupled with contemporary material, Booker explores the impact of the Irish language within the shires, concluding that Irish was spoken by a large section of the settlers. Many, if not the majority of colonists, required some knowledge of the language for day-to-day business.

In sum, this book represents a landmark study in Irish history. One of its unique aspects is that Booker, where possible, examines the different strata of society—standing in stark contrast to other studies, which have focused overwhelmingly on the nobility. Although the author alludes to it on occasion, more attention could have been devoted to exploring how developments beyond Leinster (namely the growing power of the Gaelic nobility on the western seaboard) had an impact on colonial affairs. Nevertheless, Sparky Booker has provided historians with a more nuanced and sympathetic interpretation of Hiberno-English interaction than published hitherto.


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