Friday, January 22, 2016

Ireland 1518

Before christmas I bought the book "Ireland 1518," and a wonderful tome it is too! Given that the prism for most of our vision of ourselves in Ireland comes through the Anglo perspective, it was refreshing that such a gem as this was uncovered, translated and released to the general public. I bought my copy in the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork. The book rehashes many "ye wilde Irish" stereotypes, but isn't as harsh on the Irish as many other commentators are in this period. Thankfully the pronouncements entailed there in, aren't the decrees of a conquerer, but rather, the words of a French speaking diplomat of the 16th century Hapsburg Court. Here is a link to a later publication of the original text, thanks to Sébastien for that!

Even history itself is taught according to the English Monarch that was in residence (at least that was my experience in secondary school), not to mind the litanies of law, learning and genealogy that are all now wholly English. Given that law, learning, and genealogy were the mainstays of Irish/Gaelic culture all through the late medieval period (and well before) it is a bitter pill that most of our vision of the past is now foreign to us. The uniqueness of our own take on "society" is lost to us.

"Ireland 1518" is a translation from the french diaries of Laurent Vital-a servant in the Hapsburg court. Vital's chronicles detail how himself, and the soon to be Holy Roman Emperor, Archduke Ferdinand of Spain and Austria, got stuck in a storm on the way to the Low Countries and found shelter in Kinsale, Ireland. Vital speaks with many of the local inhabitants and has (as you'll see) a keen eye for detail! They spent four days in the town.

Illustration by Hector McDonnell from "Ireland 1518"

Vital says the townspeople had fashions of clothes and manners that were common on mainland Europe in previous centuries-he is surprised to find these old ways alive and well in Ireland. One of his fixations is the bare breasted women who are everywhere in the town-a fashion he is not accustomed to, it would seem!

"Generally the men, women and young girls wear their shirts open to the waist. It is as common there to see or touch the breast of a girl or woman, as it is to touch her hand. There I saw all sorts of breast according to age. There I saw nipples of girls aged twelve years; afterwards the nipples that they have when they are fourteen or fifteen years old, until they begin to develop in size and shape. And I saw some completely developed, so very round and pert that it was a pleasure to see them, as here have the marriageable girls of eighteen years and above. I also saw all sorts of tits, middle sizes, big, shapely and in the open hand one would have called them firm but yielding. And I saw some so disgusting and unsavoury that I marvelled where the little children could receive daily nourishment. Also I saw others which were not at all worth looking at, so ugly and wrinkled were they and only deserve the name of flaccid udders."

The Hapsburg courtier is told that the townsfolk "dare not go outside the town without being strongly accompanied and well armed." The foreignness of the "Old English" inhabitants of the town is confounded again by the otherworldly spectre of the Irish or "savages" who "have control of countryside" outside the city walls.  The savages only seem to mingle when it is there place to do so, such as, when a wonderful Irish musician/athlete entertains the Hapsburg's, at the behest of the local "Old English" Earl. "He was a servant of the lord of this country who liked him very much because of the graces and talents he had. And he had come there to make some entertainment for his highness before his departure, with a harp his servant carried for him. On which the savage played extremely gorgeously and sang on and on. I asked the intermediary what he was singing. He said it was a very devout and piteous song, on the mystery of the passion of our saviour Jesus Christ. This man recounted marvellous things about the savage, saying he had three particular talents, for which his master liked him so much, he said that the first was that he was without equal in courage and boldness, and his master would prefer to have him by his side than six others if he was among enemies. And also that this man is so fleet of foot that he runs like a horse and almost as quick. And besides, he swims in all sorts of water like a fish, so that on his lords command he had often jumped into open sea and brought him back a fish, when the sea was calm and peaceful. On account of this, they asked him if, for the love of my lord, he would jump into the sea."

The savages, we are told, at certain times of year come in great numbers to exact tribute and "ravage the town." In times past they used to "pillage everything and kill all who opposed them, but now the townsfolk have found a way to greet them happily and to feast with them, and to give them good food and drink, and at leave taking to give them a small souvenir; but against their arrival, they hide their good effects for fear of losing them."

There must be many other writings of this sort out there, scattered abroad, treasures that (thankfully) sometimes wash up on the shores of popular consciousness. It is a sobering thought to think that European libraries have reams of manuscripts written by Irish monks, scholars, diplomats, who, for the last millennium, have found themselves doing some of their most fertile work abroad. Few to none of their writings have been published. Maybe it is something the government should make more of an effort with-repatriation of knowledge. Our priorities, too often, are in different camps!  This came to mind while I scribbled.