17.06.21, RESPONSE: O'Hara on Flechner & Meeder on O'Hara

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Alexander O'Hara

The Medieval Review 17.06.21

O'Hara, Alexander. Response to TMR 17.04.20 (response by Flechner & Meeder to TMR 17.03.08, Alexander O'Hara's review of Roy Flechner and Sven Meeder, eds., The Irish in Early Medieval Europe: Identity, Culture and Religion.
Reviewed by:
Alexander O'Hara
University of St Andrews



In his famous article of 1956 Johannes Duft drew attention to what he called "Iromania" and "Irophobia", two contrasting currents of opinion on how Ireland and the Irish were perceived in medieval Europe (and specifically on the nature of their influence and contribution--or lack thereof--to Western medieval culture) as it was reflected in the medieval historical sources and in later historiography. In my review of Flechner and Meeder's volume I presented specific and concrete reasons why I would locate this work firmly in the "Irophobe" camp. The criticisms I expressed in the review were necessitated by what, in my opinion, was the persistent editorial narrative bias that sought to minimize and debunk the so-called "Myth of Early Medieval Ireland" and the significance of the Irish diaspora in Europe by a revisionist and cavalier treatment of the sources. As the book is marketed for students and will be used in university courses, I felt it was particularly important to point out its many shortcomings so that those who might not be as familiar with the sources will be fully informed.

This most recent work needs to be understood within its wider context. Since the late 1960s there has been a growing revisionist trend in the historiography on this subject that is often inaccurate, prejudiced, and laced with post-colonial-imperialist attitudes towards Irish heritage. Thirty-five years ago Dáibhí Ó Cróinín highlighted aspects of this trend in the context of the on-going debates concerning the provenance of early Insular gospel books ("Pride and Prejudice," Peritia 1, 1982, pp. 352-62) but the instances could be multiplied, particularly in recent years. Part of this undoubtedly reflects a healthy concern to deconstruct over-simplified meta-narratives, but a significant part of it is clearly motivated by simple prejudice. To be sure, the tendency is a long-standing one. To give one example of this kind of (unconscious?) prejudice: in the 1930s the eminent paleographer, E. A. Lowe, in his second volume of his monumental Codices Latini Antiquiores (Introduction, xviii), wrote in relation to one of the most famous early Insular gospel books: "I confess that the Book of Durrow has always seemed to me a book apart in the group of early Irish manuscripts now at Dublin, and gradually the suspicion woke in me that perhaps English workmanship accounted for the orderliness of its script and the balance and sobriety of its ornamentation...." This after his previous remarks on p. xvi:

Broadly speaking, the Irish type of Insular differs from the English in that it is freer, more incalculable, in short, less bound by rules and regulations than the English type modelled upon it. The Irish scribe often behaves as if the written line were something elastic, not a fixed and determined space which has to be filled in a particular way. He often seems guided by whim and fancy. The English scribe, by comparison, is balanced and disciplined. One need only place side by side the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels, or the Book of Mulling and the Moore Bede, to see the force of these observations... It is by paying heed to the temperamental differences of the two nations, which existed even then, that one can, with conviction, attribute to an Irish hand the copy of St. Paul at Trinity College, Cambridge..., despite the tradition which connects it with Bede; and to an English the Book of Durrow..., although it has a subscription connecting it with St. Columba... Need I say more?

The fact that the book's editors, in their Reply to my review, did not engage in any way with the specific faults that I had pointed out merely confirms me in my assessment of their work. Instead they chose to go down the PC route, objecting to my statement that their co-authored chapter smacks of "subtly disguised racism masquerading as historical objectivity." I had no wish to suggest that they were racist in the modern, political sense but rather to point out their narrative bias had the unfortunate result of giving the impression of ethnic prejudice, at least to this reviewer. Why, for example, did the authors employ value-based judgements in conjunction with ethnic indicators in relation to Irish people only, while not doing so when writing about other ethnic groups? Thus we find no "obstinate" or "proud" Anglo-Saxons or Franks in their chapter, yet the Editors chose to use their "narrative voice" in using these terms when writing about Irish subjects, thus superimposing their own value judgements onto what should be an objective historical argument. Likewise, they take issue with Immo Warantjes's perfectly reasonable and well-argued point that Dicuil's scientific expertise must have been the product of his Irish training, whereas they advance no such argument in assessing the scholarly formation of Anglo-Saxon scholars such as Bede or Alcuin. It is patently absurd to dismiss the cultural context in assessing the formation of any historical personage, especially that of such an original mind as Dicuil's.

These instances, together with the overall line of approach taken in the volume, led me to this assessment. In too many instances their comments on Irish foundations in Gaul, the nature of Columbanian monasticism, and the extent of Irish influence on the Continent, are all presented to the reader as "debunked myths" (e.g: "The acknowledgement that it is impossible to isolate the Irish contribution to European scholarship and the realization that other myths about the Irish in the early Middle Ages have already been debunked and continue to be debunked (for example, Irish foundations in Gaul were not in remote places, there was no seventh-century Columbanian monasticism, nor were there ninth-century 'Irish centres' on the Continent and so on …," 240).

In order to further illustrate my point, let us take just one other example. In their own co-authored chapter on "Controversies and Ethnic Tensions" they write (203): "While Wetti and Walahfrid menton Gallus's time in Ireland briefly, they are remarkably reticent in using words emphasizing the saint's Irish identity. In fact, when pressed, the hagiographers seem to circumvent the issue of the saint's place of birth and references to Gallus's Irishness are indirect, often in the form of words put in other people's mouths. From the wealth of hagiographical texts it does not appear that the Irish origin of their patron saint was a significant factor in the institutional identity of the abbey" (emphasis mine). How does this statement bear up when we consult the sources? Both Wetti and Walahfrid explicitly mention Gallus's origins in Ireland, as does the vita metrica, Ermenrich of Ellwangen in his remarkably florid letter to the abbot of St Gallen, Notker Balbulus in his Martyrology, the genealogy of Saint Gallus, not to mention Ratpert's Casus S. Galli, while the largest collection of early medieval Irish vernacular material survives to the present day in the abbey library of St Gallen. The manuscript that contains the only witness of Wetti's Life of Gallus (St Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, 553), produced in St Gallen in the mid-ninth century, also contains the earliest surviving manuscript witness of Jonas's Life of Columbanus together with a homily for the feast day of Gallus and a genealogy of Saints Gallus, Brigid, and Patrick! What then should we make of all this? The discrepancy between what the sources demonstrate and what Flechner and Meeder state suggests one of two things: either a) they don't know the sources, or b) they have misrepresented what is found in the sources. Either way, the result is regrettable.

To conclude: in my review I presented clear and specific examples of the ways in which this volume fell short, to which the Editors had an opportunity to respond. While they may wish to dismiss me and the review out of hand by deflecting the focus onto the language of political correctness, readers should judge for themselves whether they have engaged with the valid criticisms I made. And for the record, it should be noted that I have no personal animus against either of the Editors (as their response insinuates: "free of the clutter of personal animus"). I have never met Sven Meeder and I have always had a cordial, professional relationship with Roy Flechner. The review is an honest, and I think fair, attempt to point out the deficiencies as well as the strengths in the volume. I would like to thank the editors of TMR for encouraging honest and open debate in their pages at all times. To use my narrative voice: Quod scripsi, scripsi.

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