850 years

Published in Editorial, Issue 3 (May/June 2019), Volume 27

editorWelcome to this special issue marking the 850th anniversary of the English invasion. Yes, English, as persuasively argued (pp 16–17) by Seán Duffy, who, along with his Trinity College colleague Peter Crooks, commissioned the bulk of the copy. That’s what the invaders called themselves and all were subjects of the king of England. Of course, the conquest did not follow a preordained plan—but neither did the British conquest of India centuries later. Initially Ireland (as Colin Veach explains, pp 40–3) was just one of a patchwork of Angevin lordships that stretched from here to the Pyrennees. What started as ‘but an adventure of a few private Gentlemen’ (Sir John Davies [1612], quoted by Clare O’Halloran, pp 30–4) took centuries to complete, with many twists and turns.

On a personal level, this special issue takes me back to my junior freshman days in Trinity and the inspiring lectures of the late Jim Lydon. I recall in particular the dog-eared and defaced volumes of Goddard H. Orpen’s Ireland under the Normans (see Ruairí Cullen, pp 44–7) in the Lecky Library. Analysis of the student comments in the margins would make for an interesting thesis in itself! Writing in the early twentieth century, Orpen claimed that ‘historical criticism and archaeological research have reduced to comparatively humble proportions the exaggerated notions of native writers as to the antiquity and the degree of civilization in early Ireland’. But his bold assertion has in turn been debunked by the appearance of the late Donnchadh Ó Corráin’s monumental three-volume Clavis litterarum Hibernensium (‘A key to the writings of the Irish’), described by reviewer Dáibhí Ó Cróinín (pp 58–9) as ‘the “book of evidence” for those who would argue the case for Ireland’s unique contribution to European literary culture and civilisation’.

Finally, there’s no getting away from Brexit. The justification for the English conquest, echoed by Orpen, that it brought peace and stability in the face of Gaelic Irish disunion and anarchy, is indeed ironic in the light of the current political shambles unfolding on the neighbouring island, much of it fuelled by misinformation and ignorance of history. As Brian Hanley concludes (pp 48–51), ‘Taking national aspirations seriously and learning where they stem from might be the best way of commemorating “850 years”’.

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