I mentioned in a previous post that I wanted to find out what it was that Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) said about the Irish people in Topography of Ireland, first published in 1188. He first began visiting and writing about the Irish when, as a royal clerk and chaplain to King Henry II, he was chosen to accompany John, one of the king’s sons, on his trip to Ireland. From other reading I gathered he didn’t like us much, and reading his Topography it’s kind of obvious Giraldus identifies with the Normans. The Irish, for many reasons, were too impossibly agrarian for his taste, and so terribly lazy and uncouth.
The Irish, he decides, are given as a race to be tall, vigourous and handsome, with pleasing and healthy countenances despite the fact that from birth they are left to Nature’s devices with “very slight aids from art” and given no particular care in infancy. He believed that the Irish were richly endowed with natural gifts but were dreadfully uncivilised, as displayed by their manner of dress and “mental culture”. And he reckoned we were a lazy shower – “abandoning themselves to sloth, their greatest delight is to be exempt from toil, their richest possession the enjoyment of liberty”, to the point where we wouldn’t even mine for gold despite the way we covet it “in a way that speaks their Spanish origin”. (Hard working merchants had to bring it here to us instead)
Dress: Apparently we were a race of black cloth loving, hood wearing, long haired, mad bearded freaks with a particular love of handaxes. That should please Tuathal.
“Their custom is to wear small, close-fitting hood, hanging below the shoulders a cubit’s length, and made of parti-coloured strips sewn together. ” Well looks like they sensibly wore a long hood that protected their head, neck and shoulders. Under this was a rug or falach that was made of a coarse /heavy material opening at the front and decorated on either side of the opening. This could go right down to the ankles. Under this “breeches and hose of one piece or hose and breeches joined together, which are usually dyed of some colour”
Armour: He says the Irish preferred not to use it, “considering it a burthen and esteeming it brave and honourable to fight without it”
Weapons: short spears and “two darts; in which they follow the customs of the Basclenes(Basques); and they also carry heavy battle-axes of iron, exceedingly well wrought and tempered” (viking influenced he says) “But in striking with the battle-axe they use only one hand” and they’re pretty scarily good at this by his account. The Irish always carried an axe in their hands instead of a staff. When all else fails they hurl stones “with such quickness and dexterity, that they do more execution than the slingers of any other nation”
He decided that our remoteness had a lot to do with our barbarism. “habits are formed by mutual intercourse; and as this people inhabit a country so remote from the rest of the world …they learn nothing, and practice nothing but the barbarism in which they are born and bred, and which sticks to them like a second nature. Whatever natural gifts they possess are excellent, in whatever requires industry they are worthless” Except, it seems, for music. He thought music in Ireland was excellent, but I’ll discuss that in another post. Then we get to hear all about the treachorous, unfaithful, untrustworthy, animalistic, primitive, vice ridden, got religion *all wrong* Irish and yeah, I can see why Stephan White felt compelled to defend us in the 17th century 🙂