Lisa Bitel

title.none: Duffy, Ireland in the Middle Ages (Bitel)

identifier.other: baj9928.9803.002 98.03.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Lisa Bitel, University of Kansas,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Duffy, Sean. Ireland in the Middle Ages. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. Pp. xiii, 216. $19.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-312-16390-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.03.02

Duffy, Sean. Ireland in the Middle Ages. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. Pp. xiii, 216. $19.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-312-16390-8.

Reviewed by:

Lisa Bitel
University of Kansas

According to one history of twelfth-century Ireland, the conquest of the island was accomplished in 1169 by the Normans, who were "fierce bloody fighters with new and deadly weapons including archery," but also with "some defects including speech, being unable to say 'the', thus giving rise to de Clare, de Courcy, de Burgs, de Gross, de Cogan, de Lacy, de Murrage, and de Oders, also de Normans, many also settling in remote places in Cork, now also to be found dere to dis day. The Normans gave rise to Castles to look at, thus being the cause of Tourists." However, the author continues, "the Normans could not civilise the Irish because of the Systems. These were: The Clam System of the Irish, so called because the Irish wanted to stick to everything they owned, being unreasonable, biting the hands that bled them. The Frugal System of the Normans which had to be, because nobody owned anything but the King, which is why the Normans having too many wives, were all broke, such as Pembroke, Bolingbroke, Carisbroke...then the Irish becoming chivalry got coats of Male too, and rushed at the Norman castles...whereupon the Normans turned white with terror, thus giving rise to their being known as the Pale." (E. J. Delaney and J. M. Feehan, The Comic History of Ireland, Cork, 1964, 31-33.)

Sean Duffy's new political history, Ireland in the Middle Ages, covers the same developments and more, almost as succinctly and good-humoredly. Seven short chapters take the reader up to 1500, a convenient turning point in Irish history when England's interest in its adjacent kingdom took a more interventionist tone. Duffy's 181-page book (216 with notes, bibliography, and index) is thus just thirty-four years shy of the coverage of A New History of Ireland, vol. II: Medieval Ireland, 1169-1534 (Art Cosgrove, ed.; Oxford, 1993), which runs a hefty 1002 pages inclusive. Yet, while the New History remains a standard reference work, Duffy's book surpasses it in accessibility and sheer interest to the reader. Unlike many of the recent surveys of Irish history, Duffy's work is well written. His prose is nice. And, although he deals exclusively in political history, he manages to transform the tribal politics of the Irish lords, the waffling of the Anglo- Irish chieftains, and the maneuvers of the English kings into a coherent and even absorbing narrative. Anyone who has slogged through every page of the New History volume will attest that to render order from this historical chaos is a wondrous achievement. To do so in a short book, which is eminently assignable to American undergraduates, is nothing short of miraculous.

Duffy admits up front that he is composing a guide for the beginner which will focus exclusively on politics, synthesizing relevant recent research and offering a few new interpretations. His main question, voiced so ably by Sir John Davies in 1612, is to find the "causes why Ireland was never entirely subdued." Most books on the topic, Duffy points out, concentrate on the problem of English failure to conquer Ireland properly; they fail to note that the coming of the Normans was just one step in a long process of internal and external political development. Ireland was never the static "window on the Iron Age" that some Celticists and medievalists have claimed, but was a self-transforming society long before either Vikings or Normans came ashore. In a well-organized first chapter, Duffy lays out the structure of pre-Norman society, including the landscape of Ireland, the laws, kings, clientship system (a.k.a. Clam System, according to Delaney and Feehan), kinship structures, the status of women, and the state of its Christian churches before the eighth century, when the Vikings arrived. Chapter two takes us through the Viking presence in Ireland. Duffy emphasizes the absorption of Vikings into Irish politics, pointing out that Scandinavian strongholds ringed the east and south shores of the island, where native kingship was weak; but that the northern, stronger kings suffered economically for the lack of Viking entrepots such as Dublin, Waterford, and Limerick. Duffy chronicles the achievements of Brian Boroma, and the constant squabbling of his would-be successors to the high-kingship of Ireland. He ably summarizes political trends after recounting the details of provincial events. He also looks beyond Ireland not just for unfavorable comparisons to feudal Europe, but to point out Ireland's connections to the larger medieval world.

In following chapters, Duffy describes and explains the coming of the Normans at the invitation of Diarmait Mac Murchada, king of Leinster in the latter twelfth century. Mac Murchada carries most of the blame for the foreigners' invasion and occupation, even though Irish kings were already playing politics with the Normans of Wales some seventy years earlier, and archbishops of Canterbury had long been interfering in Irish church politics. Nonetheless, it was Mac Murchada who crossed the water and swore allegiance to Henry II of England, in exchange for support from some of Henry's Welsh knights in reclaiming Leinster for Diarmait. Although Diarmait's allies -- Strongbow (Richard fitz Gilbert de Clare, earl of Pembroke), Robert de Barri, Maurice de Prendergast, et al. -- came from Flemish and Cambro-Norman backgrounds, the dynamic for crossing back to Ireland lay with the English king and his Irish ally, Mac Murchada. The Normans (whom Duffy scrupulously avoids calling Norman, Anglo-Norman, Cambro-Norman, or any of the other disputed monikers, settling for evasive phrases such as "Strongbow and his like") arrived in the midst of Diarmait's feuds with Ua Ruairc and Ua Conchobair, kings of Mide and Connacht. They apparently expected lands as fiefs and, in Strongbow's case, the kingdom of Leinster after Diarmait's death. But the newcomers immediately began acting just like powerful barons back home in England and Wales, so that Henry II himself came over in 1171 to quash their resistance to his rule. At that time, the Irish kings and chieftains also submitted to Henry, acknowledging him as feudal lord and king. And, when Henry left again, the Irish immediately went back to politics as usual, leaving the Normans to scramble for lands and lordships.

The transformation wrought by the newcomers was profound, though. They imposed a manorial system where none had been before, building mottes for protection and big houses at the center of their demesnes, and lending out their lands to peasants imported from England and Flanders. Duffy points out (after Robert Bartlett) that colonization was occurring on Europe's fringes at this period -- eastern Europe, Spain, Scotland were all suffering the same sort of invasions, immigrations, and reorganizations that Ireland felt. But colonization takes much effort and investment, economic and military. Henry's son John brought a government machinery to Ireland to cement his father's conquest, introducing a justiciar (later to become a lieutenant) and a council of lords and officers (eventually a parliament), as well as an exchequer and a local governmental system of courts and counties (equivalent to English shires.) But even so, much of the island remained beyond the grasp of English organization. Irish custom and law reigned in the west and north. Still, the parliamentary system, English common law, and the county system -- all of which still pretty much prevail -- came in 1210.

The English presence in Ireland fell into two phases during the Middle Ages, according to Duffy. The initial phase of expansion lasted past John's visit. Shortly after, however, the expansion of the English colony became superficial and purely military. No more immigrants came from Flanders to build towns and clear fields. The Norman barons plunged into the feuds of the Irish and became enmeshed in the infighting of the locals -- always, however, remembering that their origins and rights were purely English. At the same time, the Irish lords sometimes accommodated and submitted to the English monarch, in order to win his favor in their battles against the Anglo-Irish; at other times they attacked colonized areas in order to expand their own lordships. Meanwhile, the kings of England tried to juggle the interests of Anglo-Irish barons and native lords, each of whom posed different threats to order in Ireland. As the barons expanded into the west and north they acted more and more like the Irish, building private armies to staff their castles, marrying the occasional native. When many lords left their holdings in Ireland and went back to England, a few families -- the De Burghs, the Geraldines of Kildare, the Ui Lochlainns, the Ui Neill -- emerged as the most powerful players.

By 1315, when the Scot, Edward Bruce, invaded Ulster and set himself up as king of Ireland, the colony was already in retreat. Famine and plague reduced agriculture and the population, as well as revenues flowing to the English crown for its wars in Scotland, Wales, and France. Ireland became (even more) wild and lawless, with every lord for himself, whether Irish or Anglo-Irish. Both the crown and lords began to consider the constitutional state of the island, an issue raised earlier by the related question of whether the English king was king of Ireland or its lord. Worsening absenteeism of Anglo-Irish lords, the subdivision of the great baronies (Duffy blames the inheritance of property by women), the reliance on private armies rather than government, and the barons' outright disregard for the English kings' orders left obedient subjects of the English crown in peril. English rulers came to realize than any effective management of Ireland would take a massive investment of men and money. Rather than invest, they reduced the area under their government to what came to be called the Pale: the triangle of intensive colonization centered on Dublin, on the east coast.

The great Anglo-Irish lords continued to rule; the great Irish lords continued to cause trouble; Richard II came over twice, trying to order absentees back and impose direct government, unsuccessfully. Reports sailing to England were all gloomy about the lawless chaos of Ireland. Nonetheless, the economy improved in the fifteenth century, as it did everywhere after the plague. Irish and Anglo-Irish alike built tower houses and founded monasteries throughout the island. In 1460, the lords met to declare their autonomy from English government. And in 1494, Henry VII sent his deputy Poynings to put Irish and Anglo-Irish in their places. Poynings called a parliament which passed a series of resolutions, the most infamous of which was later known as "Poynings Law": government offices were to be held at the king's pleasure; all royal orders were to be obeyed; the Irish parliament was not to meet without the king's permission, nor to pass legislation without approval of the English king and his council. This, Duffy points out, was the constitutional check that would allow for later re-invasion and re-organization by the kings and queens of later centuries. By 1500, then, Ireland was both different and the same as it had been in the 1160s; it was unconquered but transformed, both physically in its landscape and politically in its precarious mix of Irish, Anglo-Irish, and English rulers.

That is a crude and brief summary of an already brief account of Irish political history over 400-plus years. Duffy's book is, except for its blessedly short length, a traditional account in many ways. He sets up the triangle of Irish, Anglo- Irish, and English rulers very clearly, although he offers little new interpretation. He treats the Middle Ages as the source of structures that would be perfected in later periods -- for example, the direct management of Irish affairs by English rulers. His determinist narrative makes this book an excellent source for professors who need to plagiarize lectures for their survey classes, and a great resource for logic- seeking undergraduates who need an introduction to Ireland in the Middle Ages. But Duffy's most traditional trait is his focus on politics, a trait this book shares with the New History volume. For a century or more, medieval historians of Ireland have been obsessed with politics, rather than the other kinds of history that have interested scholars in England, Europe, and America. Did Irish medievalists miss out on the historiographical developments of the last hundred years? Or are they so hypnotized by current politics that they bother rarely with other kinds of history? What about those social, economic, and cultural developments that occurred during the four hundred years covered by Duffy's book? A discussion of the changing economy, settlement patterns, and demography would lend weight to Duffy's passages about Ireland's transformed landscape. If skillful writers of excellent surveys such as this one do not mention social and economic history, who will? And if now is not the time to combine analysis of Irish politics with other areas of life, when is?