Linda Mitchell

title.none: Orpen, Ireland under the Normans (Linda Mitchell)

identifier.other: baj9928.0801.024 08.01.24

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Linda Mitchell, Alfred Univeristy,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Orpen, Goddard Henry. Ireland under the Normans, 1169-1333. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005. Pp. xlviii, 633. $80.00 1-85182-715-3. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.01.24

Orpen, Goddard Henry. Ireland under the Normans, 1169-1333. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005. Pp. xlviii, 633. $80.00 1-85182-715-3. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Linda Mitchell
Alfred Univeristy

Begun in 1911 and finished in 1920, the original publication of Orpen's four-volume master work (usually found today in a two-volume combined edition that came out in the 1960s) coincided with the immense changes in Anglo-Irish relations caused by the Great War, Irish political radicalism that grew during the war, and Irish calls for independence, all of which resulted in a successful revolution ending in 1922, a divisive civil war, and the establishment of a divided Ireland in 1925. The fact that Orpen, an Anglo-Irishman who received his classics degree at Trinity College, considered the "Norman" invasion and conquest of Ireland in the twelfth century to have had a civilizing influence on what he described as a congeries of bellicose and belligerent tribal groups has had a significant influence on the reputation of the work and its author. Although lauded in England, Ireland Under the Normans was met with passionate disapproval by the nationalist historians of the age, in particular Eoin MacNeill, whose own political activism undoubtedly influenced his condemnation of Orpen's thesis.

In the years between its original publication by the Clarendon Press, and this reissue by Four Courts Press, with a superb new introduction by Seán Duffy, public opinion about Orpen and his work, as well as public interest in the "Normans" in medieval Ireland, has undergone something of a sea change. It is notable that the only major academic press in the Republic of Ireland has reissued a work that was rejected by the activists who created that very republic. It is also notable that Duffy, one of the first modern-day (that is, post-World War II) historians to substantially revisit the era of Anglo-Norman lordship in Ireland, was instrumental in reintroducing Orpen to the public historical debate with the publication, in 2000 in Irish Historical Studies, of the article reprinted as the new introduction to Ireland Under the Normans.

My own first experience with Orpen and his book occurred twenty years ago, when I was researching my doctoral dissertation and had become desperate for detailed information on the division of Leinster among the multiple heirs of William le Marshal and Isabella de Clare. At the time, James Lydon's work The Lordship of Ireland in the Middle Ages (Toronto, 1972; reprinted by Four Courts Press in 2003), A. J. Otway Ruthvin's A History of Medieval Ireland (London, 1967; second edition Palgrave Macmillan, 1980), and Art Cosgrove's edited volume in Oxford's multi-volume A New History of Ireland (New York: Clarendon Press, 1987) were almost the only recent works that included that period of Irish history in any substantive way and that were easily available to students in US universities. All owed a huge debt to Orpen; none focused on the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries and on the Anglo-Norman conquerors in anything like the detail offered by him. These historians also suffered from an impenetrable impediment to achieving such detail: the destruction of the Public Record Office of Dublin, housed in Four Courts and therefore immolated when the government buildings went up in flames in 1922. Orpen was the last great medievalist to have access to those records and to the Records Commission archivists who were working at that time on calendaring the Lordship's comprehensive collection of documents. Orpen was a treasure-trove for me, one that was so massive its obvious flaws could in no way diminish the work's importance. It is a welcome relief that Four Courts Press and Seán Duffy have recognized this importance and worked to get the book reissued.

The change in attitude among Irish historians about Orpen is paralleled by the change in attitude about the artifacts of the Anglo-Norman conquest by the Irish governmental offices overseeing them, such as Duchás, the Office of Public Works that acts as a kind of Irish heritage society. Travel to Ireland and the tourist no longer sees only the history of Ireland before the Normans glorified; archaeological excavations that once privileged the "native" regions over those controlled by the Lordship and the "Vikings" over the "Normans" are now embracing the need to recover and preserve the remains from that era, whether they are the ruins of castles such as Trim, Carlow, and Ferns, or Cistercian abbeys founded by the conquerors-Dunbrody and Tintern of the Vow for example. The continuation of "The Troubles" that were re-awakened in the Thatcher years-and are still not entirely resolved-notwithstanding, this new interest in the era of Anglo-Norman dominance has already had an influence on the kinds of research being conducted at Irish universities and works being published by Irish publishers. These, too, owe a debt to Orpen.

This is a lengthy introduction because I think the political overtones that reverberate with the reissue of Ireland Under the Normans form part of the debate over its relevance and utility after nearly a hundred years since its first publication. If this were a classic work about the first hundred or so years of Norman occupation in England, for example, its republication would require no caveat other than the legitimate question of its continued relevance. As Duffy makes clear in his introduction, Orpen's work represents to some republicans and nationalists, even to this day, the story of Ireland's subjugation to a brutal dictatorship. The careful way in which Duffy develops his suggestion that the modern world can learn a lot from Orpen is a testament to his own skill as an historian-and also his diplomacy in the highly charged political atmosphere of the contemporary Irish academy.

Make no mistake: Orpen is not an author who can be overlooked. His comfort with a stupendous array of sources, his obsessive level of detail, and his vivid style make this unwieldy work (originally some 1400 pages but now crammed into 633 including a new index) both readable and informative. Moreover, no matter how much we moderns might descry the idea, he makes a pretty good case for rejecting the criticisms leveled against the Norman conquerors by the republicans of the late nineteenth century. As Orpen suggests, the leaders of the anti-British party might have condemned the conquerors for their brutality and for their failure to establish a more egalitarian system between the settler and indigenous communities, but the political elements the republicans desired come not from native Irish culture but rather from the hated interlopers from Britain. This is not to say that Orpen was a freethinker: far from it. From his casual acceptance of racial categories to his smugness in describing the "natural" superiority of the Normans and English over the Irish, to his conviction that the Irish chieftains would never have amounted to anything more than a bunch of barbarian thugs had they not been invaded first by the city-building Vikings and then by the feudalizing Normans, Orpen lays out a late colonial British perspective on medieval Ireland and its troubles. He also blames the decay of stability in Ireland in the fourteenth century on the settler nobles who "become more Irish than the Irish:" that is, lose their superior Norman culture and adopt a nativist perspective and lifestyle.

The elements that are irritating to the modern-day historian in Orpen's work can be overlooked, however, in favor of the breadth of his understanding and the depth of his knowledge about medieval Ireland in its Norman period. In addition to his familiarity with a vast and diverse body of literary sources, Orpen apparently traveled all over the island, visiting sites of castles and monasteries that must have been in a far more ruinous state than they are now. His descriptions of them are lyrical and evocative. Having visited many of them myself, this was particularly memorable. His description of Dunbrody Abbey-"now, at the confluence of the Suir and Barrow, the stately ruins of the abbey-church stand lonely amid the fields" (122)-describes perfectly the experience of the visitor in the beginning of the twenty-first century as much as it did that of the dawn of the twentieth (despite the new visitor center that now occupies the fields across the road). The level of detail in each account is a testament to Orpen's comfort with sources ranging from Irish annals to justiciary rolls. His own edition of the gesta he entitled "The Song of Dermot and the Earl" might form the basis of his discussion of Earl Richard de Clare (aka Strongbow) and his relationship with Dermot MacMurrough (Diarmid Mac Murchada), but it is not the only source for that most important early moment in the history of the Anglo-Normans in Ireland. His enthusiasm for Strongbow's associate and eventual brother-in-law, Raymond Fitz William (aka Raymond le Gros), whom he characterizes as a polished diplomat, might be rosily optimistic, but Orpen does not try to sugarcoat the conquest and its violence and disruption.

Orpen also exhibited an admiration for Edward I that most Irish historians would find misplaced, but that most English historians share. Nevertheless, he sees the seeds of devolution in that reign, with Edward's preoccupation with Scotland and the Balliol kingship. Edward II's reign, and the long Scots war, the invasion of Robert Bruce and his brother Edmund, and the devastation that occurred in the Irish lordship as a result of the Scots wars contributed mightily to the instability. For Orpen, however, the final nail in the coffin of a viable Norman lordship in Ireland was the murder of the young earl of Ulster, William de Burgh, by his retainers in 1333. This chronology is narrated quite briefly in comparison to the extensive coverage of the first half of the thirteenth century, but the imbalance in the historical narrative parallels an equally imbalanced abundance of sourcesespecially literary sources such as the "Song of Dermot and the Earl" and the Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal, as well as the Annales Cambriae, and calendars and documents from the justiciary in Dublin. Perhaps ironically, the dearth of exciting sources for the second half of the thirteenth century might demonstrate Orpen's assertion that this was a stable and relatively peaceful time in the Lordship: judicial and administrative sources might be available, but they do not provide the historical sweep of chronicles written by irate monks and bards. My own experience with the records of the Lordship suggest that, if not exactly peaceful, the Lordship's justiciary was beginning to function much like the typical English chancery until English attention and resources were diverted to Wales and Scotland. The reign of Edward III and his preoccupation with France, as well as the heavily proscriptive Statutes of Kilkenny (1366), which created an apartheid state in the shrinking Lordship that did nothing to preserve its integrity, did not destroy the medieval Lordship; they merely reflected the fractures already evident. Richard II's visit to the island therefore did nothing to shore up the shaky foundation laid in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These might be my conclusions, but they were doubtless Orpen's, too-and I admit that my own thinking has been influenced by his work since my grad school years.

A word about the structure of this new edition. The editors at Four Courts decided to compress the four volumes into a single book but managed to do so without making the print impossibly small. The original pagination runs along the gutter margins in order to facilitate use of the index, which is paginated according to the original edition since it is simply a combined index of the original volumes. It would have been helpful to have had an expanded index, since Orpen's index is idiosyncratic: there are some glaring lacunae, such as the failure to index William de Vescy, who was a significant figure in Ireland in the late thirteenth century. Orpen's footnotes were equally idiosyncratic (and he did not include a bibliography), but in this instance Four Courts did a good thing: they have provided the complete citations for all the notes in the front of the book. The result is a readable volume, if a profoundly utilitarian one. Its girth can be hard to handle, but cost issues must have been significant and the fact that the publisher managed to keep the retail price below $100 speaks well of them. A used copy of the complete edition can cost the purchaser twice that amount.

Duffy and other historians of medieval Ireland have acknowledged their debt to Orpen. It's great to have this old warhorse of a history available to libraries that were unable to purchase the original, and it should be included in any library that is committed to providing any Irish history for its users.