Making the Irish European: Gaelic Honor Politics and Its Continental Contexts

By Kane, Brendan | Renaissance Quarterly, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Making the Irish European: Gaelic Honor Politics and Its Continental Contexts


Kane, Brendan, Renaissance Quarterly


1. INTRODUCTION

The historiography of early modern Ireland rests largely upon two commonplaces: one, that the early seventeenth century saw the collapse of the Gaelic political order and, two, that encounters with Continental Europe allowed the people of Ireland to see themselves as Irish. The narrative goes roughly as follows. In the wake of the Battle of Kinsale (1601), in which crown forces defeated a confederacy of Gaelic lords, Ireland's Gaelic system went into precipitous decline. (1) Around the same time, educational, ecclesiastical, and political opportunities traditionally available in England became off-limits because of religious and ethnic differences. Consequently, Irish elites, Gaelic and Hiberno-Norman alike, began moving en masse to the Catholic states of the European mainland. From there they could look back and imagine the land they had left as constituting a single political unit: time spent with other exiles encouraged a corporate sense of common Irishness. In turn, the old Gaelic identifiers of Gael (native) and Gall (foreigner) would give way to a new term encapsulating these changed perceptions of state and self: Eireannach, or Irishman. This new identity would largely override traditional localist ones, and would be held together by a shared attachment to a confessionalized Catholicism, a further novelty bequeathed by contact with the Continent. As some of those emigres returned home, carrying with them the sterner ideological stuff of faith and fatherland, Ireland took an important step into the modern: defeat and exile may have meant the end of old Gaelic Ireland, but it meant the birth of an Irish Catholic national community.

While agreeing with the basic points of the above narrative, this article seeks to complicate it by reversing the direction of the inquiry that underlies it: instead of asking how contact with Continental Europe affected the experience of being, or becoming, Irish, here it will be asked how the Irish, specifically the Gaelic Irish, thought of themselves as European. This exercise is motivated in part by concern over what seems at times too strong a distinction drawn in the historiography between Europe and Ireland, European and Irish. (2) Such firm delimitation runs the danger of cutting off seventeenth-century Irish identity and mentality from that which came before, of making Europe look too modern and Ireland too medieval. Moreover, it creates a situation in which macro- and micropolitics, national and local issues, are separate and largely unconnected--which is to say that with the disappearance of individual lordships, Gaelic elites could only play at national politics. This article explores how some Gaelic observers tried to fashion Gaelic lords as elites worthy of inclusion in a European aristocracy. Moreover, it suggests that the means to this end were not provided solely by religion or budding interest in the patria, but rather by the perceived compatibility of traditional Gaelic cultural forms--in particular, notions of honor and nobility--with those on the Continent. As a result, this new European identity could be used to bolster traditional notions of status and hierarchy, and to undergird traditional claims to local authority in Ireland.

To make the case, this study focuses on two early seventeenth-century Irish-language texts. The first is Tadhg O Cianain's (d. 1610) chronicle of the Ulster lords Hugh O'Neill (ca. 1565-1616), Rory O'Donnell (1575-1608), and Cuconnuaght Maguire (d. 1609) traveling together through Continental Europe in 1607-09, the Imeacht na nIarlai. (3) This manuscript is generally ignored by historians, but here it will be argued that it reveals a very progressive and imaginative attempt by O Cianain to recast Gaelic notions of noble honor to fit a European, Catholic context. Crucially, however, the novelty of O Cianain's definition is tempered by connections to Gaelic tradition: he writes to uphold the traditional place of his subjects in Irish society against those, English and Irish alike, who wished to take advantage of the upheavals brought by the English conquest. …

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