From the Topography of Ireland

views updated

FromThe Topography of Ireland


Giraldus Cambrensis

One of the founding texts for English discourse on Ireland, this work was one of the most widely circulated accounts available to premodern students of Irish history. Here Giraldus, who was related to several of the Anglo-Norman invaders of Ireland, describes the "strange" character and customs of the Irish people, including his sense of their degeneration from the true faith and the way in which more recent settlers in Ireland have become infected with the same "vices."

SEE ALSO English Writing on Ireland before 1800

I have considered it not superfluous to give a short account of the condition of this nation, both bodily and mentally; I mean their state of cultivation, both interior and exterior. This people are not tenderly nursed from their birth, as others are; for besides the rude fare they receive from their parents, which is only just sufficient for their sustenance, as to the rest, almost all is left to nature. They are not placed in cradles, or swathed, nor are their tender limbs either fomented by constant bathings, or adjusted with art. For the midwives make no use of warm water, nor raise their noses, nor depress the face, nor stretch the legs; but nature alone, with very slight aids from art, disposes and adjusts the limbs to which she has given birth, just as she pleases. As if to prove that what she is able to form she does not cease to shape also, she gives growth and proportions to these people, until they arrive at perfect vigour, tall and handsome in person, and with agreeable and ruddy countenances. But although they are richly endowed with the gifts of nature, their want of civilisation, shown both in their dress and mental culture, makes them a barbarous people. For they wear but little woollen, and nearly all they use is black, that being the colour of the sheep in this country. Their clothes are also made after a barbarous fashion.

Their custom is to wear small, close-fitting hoods, hanging below the shoulders a cubit's length, and generally made of parti-coloured strips sewn together. Under these, they use woollen rugs instead of cloaks, with breeches and hose of one piece, or hose and breeches joined together, which are usually dyed of some colour. Likewise, in riding, they neither use saddles nor boots, nor spurs, but only carry a rod in their hand, having a crook at the upper end, with which they both urge forward and guide their horses. They use reins which serve the purpose both of a bridle and a bit, and do not prevent the horses from feeding, as they always live on grass. Moreover, they go to battle without armour, considering it a burthen, and esteeming it brave and honourable to fight without it.

But they are armed with three kinds of weapons: namely, short spears, and two darts; in which they follow the customs of the Basclenses (Basques); and they also carry heavy battle-axes of iron, exceedingly well wrought and tempered. These they borrowed from the Norwegians and Ostmen, of whom we shall speak hereafter. But in striking with the battle-axe they use only one hand, instead of both, clasping the haft firmly, and raising it above the head, so as to direct the blow with such force that neither the helmets which protect our heads, nor the platting of the coat of mail which defends the rest of our bodies, can resist the stroke. Thus is has happened, in my own time, that one blow of the axe has cut off a knight's thigh, although it was incased in iron, the thigh and leg falling on one side of his horse, and the body of the dying horseman on the other. When other weapons fail, they hurl stones against the enemy in battle with such quickness and dexterity, that they do more execution than the slingers of any other nation.

The Irish are a rude people, subsisting on the produce of their cattle only, and living themselves like beasts—a people that has not yet departed from the primitive habits of pastoral life. In the common course of things, mankind progresses from the forest to the field, from the field to the town, and to the social condition of citizens; but this nation, holding agricultural labour in contempt, and little coveting the wealth of towns, as well as being exceedingly averse to civil institutions—lead the same life their fathers did in the woods and open pastures, neither willing to abandon their old habits or learn anything new. They, therefore, only make patches of tillage; their pastures are short of herbage; cultivation is very rare, and there is scarcely any land sown. This want of tilled fields arises from the neglect of those who should cultivate them; for there are large tracts which are naturally fertile and productive. The whole habits of the people are contrary to agricultural pursuits, so that the rich glebe is barren for want of husbandmen, the fields demanding labour which is not forthcoming.

Very few sorts of fruit-trees are found in this country, a defect arising not from the nature of the soil, but from want of industry in planting them; for the lazy husbandman does not take the trouble to plant the foreign sorts which would grow very well here. There are four kinds of trees indigenous in Britain which are wanting here. Two of them are fruit-bearing trees, the chestnut and beech; the other two, the arulus and the box, though they bear no fruit, are serviceable for making cups and handles. Yews, with their bitter sap, are more frequently to be found in this country than in any other I have visited; but you will see them principally in old cemeteries and sacred places, where they were planted in ancient times by the hands of holy men, to give them what ornament and beauty they could. The forests of Ireland also abound with firtrees, producing frankincense and incense. There are also veins of various kinds of metals ramifying in the bowels of the earth, which from the same idle habits, are not worked and turned to account. Even gold, which the people require in large quantities, and still covet in a way that speaks their Spanish origin, is brought here by the merchants who traverse the ocean for the purposes of commerce. They neither employ themselves in the manufacture of flax or wool, or in any kind of trade or mechanical art; but abandoning themselves to idleness, and immersed in sloth, their greatest delight is to be exempt from toil, their richest possession the enjoyment of liberty.

This people, then, is truly barbarous, being not only barbarous in their dress, but suffering their hair and beards (barbis) to grow enormously in an uncouth manner, just like the modern fashion recently introduced; indeed, all their habits are barbarisms. But habits are formed by mutual intercourse; and as this people inhabit a country so remote from the rest of the world, and lying at its furthest extremity, forming, as it were, another world, and are thus secluded from civilized nations, they learn nothing, and practise 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. . . .

The faith having been planted in the island from the time of St. Patrick, so many ages ago, and propagated almost ever since, it is wonderful that this nation should remain to this day so very ignorant of the rudiments of Christianity. It is indeed a most filthy race, a race sunk in vice, a race more ignorant than all other nations of the first principles of the faith. Hitherto they neither pay tithes nor first fruits; they do not contract marriages, nor shun incestuous connections; they frequent not the church of God with proper reverence. Nay, what is most detestable, and not only contrary to the Gospel, but to every thing that is right, in many parts of Ireland brothers (I will not say marry) seduce and debauch the wives of their brothers deceased, and have incestuous intercourse with them; adhering in this to the letter, and not to the spirit, of the Old Testament; and following the example of men of old in their vices more willingly than in their virtues. . . .

Thus it appears that every one may do just as he pleases; and that the question is not what is right, but what suits his purpose; although nothing is really expedient but what is right. However, the pest of treachery has here grown to such a height—it has so taken root, and long abuse has so succeeded in turning it into a second nature—habits are so formed by mutual intercourse, as he who handles pitch cannot escape its stains—that the evil has acquired great force. A little wormwood, mixed with a large quantity of honey, quickly makes the whole bitter; but if the mixture contains twice as much honey as it does wormwood, the honey fails to sweeten it. Thus, I say, "evil communications corrupt good manners"; and even strangers who land here from other countries become generally imbued with this national crime, which seems to be innate and very contagious. It either adopts holy places for its purposes, or makes them; for, as the path of pleasure leads easily downwards, and nature readily imitates vice, who will doubt the sacredness of its sanctions who is predisposed and foretaught by so many sacrilegious examples, by so many records of evil deeds, by such frequent forefeitures of oaths, by the want of all obligations to honesty?

Strangers to That Land: British Perceptions of Ireland from the Reformation to the Famine, edited by Andrew Hadfield and John McVeagh (1994), pp. 26–29.

About this article

From the Topography of Ireland

Updated About content Print Article


From the Topography of Ireland