Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race

By Bruce Nelson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
“The blood of an Irishman”

THE ENGLISH CONSTRUCTION OF THE IRISH RACE, 1534–1801

From the later sixteenth century, when Edmund Spenser walked the
plantations of Munster, the English have presented themselves to the world
as controlled, refined and rooted; and so it suited them to find the Irish hot-
headed, rude and nomadic, the perfect foil to set off their own virtues.

—Declan Kiberd, 1995

IN RECENT YEARS scholars from a wide range of academic disciplines have noted that for the architects of empire, the process of identity formation seems to require the creation, and demonization, of a colonized Other whose vices serve to highlight the virtues of the colonizer. Apparently, no matter what our station in life, we need to imagine the Other in order to envision ourselves not only as literal, flesh-and-blood creatures but also as bearers of a set of characteristics— above all, a set of virtues—that define the collective entity we call the nation and the race. In Inventing Ireland, Declan Kiberd has identified a process that many have called the racialization of the Irish—the reduction of a culturally and biologically diverse people to a monolithic whole and the designation of their racial or national characteristics as the antithesis of Anglo-Saxon virtue. Kiberd locates this process in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, but its roots go back much further, at least to the twelfth century, when the Paris-frained cleric Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) reported to the English king Henry II that the Irish were

a people living off beasts and like beasts; a people that yet adheres to the most
primitive way of pastoral living. For as humanity progresses from the forests to the
arable fields, and thence towards village life and civil society, this people, spurning
agricultural exertions, having all too little regard for material comfort and a positive
dislike of the rules and legalities of civil intercourse, has been able neither to give up
nor abandon the life of forests and pastures which it has hitherto been living.

Cambrensis had ventured across the Irish Sea as a servant of the English Crown, and, increasingly, the purpose of his treatises was to justify English conquest. Thus it became necessary to present the native inhabitants of Ireland in the worst possible light. In his Topographia Hibernica, he characterized the Irish as incorrigibly savage and barbaric. “This people,” he concluded, “is a… truly barbarous one,… being not only barbarous in their dress, but suffering

-17-

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