Gaelic Recovery

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Gaelic Recovery

Gaelic Recovery refers here to three linked developments that occurred in Ireland between about 1250 and 1400: (1) the military and territorial revival of Gaelic Irish dynasties after a period in which the Anglo-Norman settlers had everywhere triumphed; (2) the revival of Gaelic literature and scholarship that took place after about 1330 and provided an ideological justification for the new Gaelic powers; and (3) the gaelicization over most of the country of the Anglo-Norman elites, with their assimilation in language and culture to their Gaelic neighbors. None of these processes has so far attracted a major study in depth.

Revival of Gaelic Irish Dynasties

By 1250 Anglo-Norman settlement had spread over most of the level and open country suitable for agricultural settlement, except the northwest of Ireland, into which there had been only tentative advances. A more superficial occupation, with isolated castles and borough settlements, extended over forest regions such as the wooded mountains of the south, the wooded bogs of the midland plain, and the lowland forest of northern Wexford. After 1250, although colonial expansion continued along the north Ulster coast as far as Derry and the Inishowen peninsula, the drive into inland Ulster petered out, and almost everywhere else a new and militarily more efficient Gaelic opposition brought about the rapid collapse of colonial settlement and control in the forested regions, even those of eastern Leinster, which would appear to have been completely integrated into the colony. By 1260 the MacCarthy kings of Desmond had effectively ousted the colonists from the southwestern corner of Munster, and although their expansion seems to have then halted for a half century, with the coastal strip of west Cork remaining under Anglo-Norman control, it was to resume in the early fourteenth century. The settlements among the wooded bogs of the midlands also seem to have been destroyed in the 1260s, with the area reverting to effective Gaelic control. By the 1290s the O'Reillys (in the present County Cavan) and the O'Farrells (in County Longford) were slowly but steadily pushing back the colonial frontier in those regions, while the outlying castles built during the first impetus of colonization had long since been abandoned.

The increasing legal discrimination (technically referred to as "the exception of Irishry") against those of Gaelic stock may have played a part in alienating those Irish who had been prepared to be integrated into colonial society, but the major factor was certainly the improved weaponry and military techniques adopted by the Irish, with their efficient development of guerrilla techniques. After about 1280 the Irish in Ulster and Connacht also begin to employ heavily armed Scottish mercenaries from the western Highlands and Islands, the gallowglass (galloglaigh). The Bruce invasion dealt a shattering blow to the colony, while the deteriorating climatic conditions, which set in after 1315, weakened the tillage agriculture that was its economic base. The colonial frontier rapidly retreated everywhere. The Black Death of 1349, the first of a series of plagues, was a further blow to the urban and village communities. From the time of the Bruce invasion the O'Conor (Ó Conchobair) kingship of Connacht reemerged as a powerful political force, only to be destroyed by internal divisions at the end of the century, while the MacMurrough (Mac Murchadha) kingship of Leinster revived as a center of resistance in the forest country of Counties Wexford and Carlow, although its conversion into a solid territorial power was the work of Art MacMurrough (1376–1416). From about 1330 the Dublin administration began to formally recognize the occupation of lands by Gaelic lords in return for some sort of tribute, and some of the latter, such as the MacCarthy (MacCarthaigh) kings of Desmond, entered into much closer relations with the Dublin administration, receiving a large grant of lands in 1353 and actually entailing their lands in English legal form in 1365. Not all the new Gaelic rulers were the representatives of preinvasion dynasties: the Mageoghegans (Meic Eochagáin) of Westmeath were bandit chiefs who erected a lordship on the ruins of frontier manors, while one Gaelic dynasty, the O'Flynns of Uí Tuirtre in east Ulster, having thrown in their lot with the colonists, found themselves ousted along with the latter by the expanding O'Neills. By 1400 a new stability of frontiers had been largely established, and the network of autonomous lordships that had come into existence was to survive largely unchanged until the Tudor reconquest.

Gaelicization of the Anglo-Normans

The Gaelic Recovery could perhaps be seen as involving as much the gaelicization of the Anglo-Norman elites as a revival by the Gaelic ones. It seems to have begun in Connacht, where the settlers were a thin aristocratic layer over a largely Gaelic population, and it is perhaps significant that elsewhere it seems to have come soonest in those areas where education, as it was, remained largely Gaelic. Its extension into the political sphere can be seen as a reaction to the centralizing policies of the English royal government—only briefly reversed during the Mortimer ascendancy of 1326 to 1331—which was hostile to baronial jurisdictions. Denied by English law the devolved powers that were necessary for their survival, the Anglo-Norman lords seized them for themselves. Their new situation also involved the necessity of entering into alliances, by marriage or fostering arrangements as well as militarily, with the surrounding Gaelic powers, to whom they became in varying degrees assimilated. Gerald, third earl of Desmond (d. 1398), although in 1367 to 1369 the official English governor of Ireland, wrote poetry in Irish, and his children seem to have been brought up in a Gaelic milieu. By 1400 the Dillons and Daltons on the Westmeath frontier had become completely gaelicized and passed outside royal control. Just as some of the Gaelic rulers, such as the Mageoghegans or the Fermanagh Maguires (Meig Uidhir), were "new men," so the Dillons and Daltons were knightly families who had imposed their rule on their neighbors and former equals. The fourth (the "White") earl of Ormond (d. 1452), although through much of his career the official representative of the English Crown and an important figure in England as well as Ireland, patronized Gaelic men of letters. He governed his own lordship in Kilkenny and Tipperary autonomously without reference to English norms, and he employed Gaelic lawyers (brehons) in doing so. Thus living in two worlds, he was a forerunner of the Kildares (1477–1534).

Literary Revival

The third aspect of the Gaelic Recovery was the revival of the Gaelic learned and literary tradition. After a long period during which Gaelic literary activity had been largely confined to the writing of bardic praise-poems, the fourteenth century saw an upsurge of literary and antiquarian studies in which the greatest name was Seán Mór Ó Dubhagáin (d. 1372). Although much of the work of these scholars was politically motivated, in finding (or manufacturing) genealogies for the new Gaelic rulers and historical justifications for their territorial acquisitions or ambitions, there was also a genuine wish to recover and preserve the records of Gaelic Ireland and its culture before its disruption by the invasion. It was in this period that the great learned families of the succeeding period, such as the Mac Firbises (Mac Firbisigh), O'Mulconrys (Ó Maolconaire), O'Duigenans (Ó Duibhgeanáin), and Magraths (MacCraith), emerged into prominence and that many of the great surviving codices were written.

SEE ALSO Bruce Invasion; Gaelic Society in the Late Middle Ages; Magnates, Gaelic and Anglo-Irish; Norman Invasion and Gaelic Resurgence; Richard II in Ireland


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Kenneth Nicholls

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Gaelic Recovery

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