A new his­tory of the Ir­ish church sug­gests its bish­ops paved the way for the English in­va­sion

The Ir­ish Church, Its Re­form and the English In­va­sion

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Elva John­ston

By Donnchadh Ó Cor­ráin Four Courts Press, ¤35

Years ago, while a first-year his­tory un­der­grad­u­ate in UCC, I heard one of many mem­o­rable lec­tures by Prof Donnchadh Ó Cor­ráin. Through­out that first term, he had en­cour­aged, goaded, amused and in­spired, in­tro­duc­ing us to an early me­dieval Ire­land far re­moved from com­fort­ing mytholo­gies. In that lec­ture, he pre­sented the re­form of the Ir­ish church, in the 11th and 12th cen­turies, not as a tri­umph of progress but as ret­ro­grade; he tied it to per­son­al­i­ties, am­bi­tions and Ir­ish Sea pol­i­tics. This was so dif­fer­ent from text­book cer­tain­ties that it caused us to ques­tion the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of pri­mary sources, lead­ing us up those first steps to­wards his­tor­i­cal un­der­stand­ing.

My ex­pe­ri­ence was shared by many. Ó Cor­ráin has long been one of the lead­ing fig­ures in early me­dieval Ir­ish stud­ies. His range is un­par­al­leled, ex­tend­ing from the dawn of Ir­ish his­tory in the fourth cen­tury to the English in­va­sion in the 12th. His ground- break­ing re­search has trans­formed ar­eas as di­verse as early Ir­ish law, ge­neal­ogy, po­lit­i­cal pro­pa­ganda and ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal cul­ture. We can no longer think of early me­dieval Ire­land as a pa­gan dream­time, locked into an an­cient cul­ture, old as Baby­lo­nian starlight. In this book Ó Cor­ráin brings to bear his abil­ity to ar­gue against the grain and to ques­tion our as­sump­tions. As re­form of the Ir­ish church be­came en­tan­gled with the An­glo-Nor­man in­va­sion of Ire­land and its af­ter­math, an event long given the sta­tus of a na­tional Ru­bi­con, this is a thought-pro­vok­ing con­tri­bu­tion.

Ó Cor­ráin presents the church re­form in both its na­tional and in­ter­na­tional con­texts. He ex­pertly ex­am­ines the ev­i­dence for the re­form­ing syn­ods of Cashel (1101), Ráith Bre­sail (1111) and Kells (1152), all of which oc­curred un­der Ir­ish lead­er­ship in re­sponse to the pa­pally-led Gre­go­rian Re­form of ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal struc­tures and mores as well as to other lo­cal is­sues. He goes be­yond re­con­struct­ing their de­crees to ex­am­in­ing their mo­ti­va­tions and im­pact, cul­tural, eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal.

For ex­am­ple, the book spot­lights the dif­fi­cult ques­tion of sex­ual moral­ity and its re­la­tion­ship to the ar­tic­u­la­tion of Ir­ish mar­riage cus­tom. While Ir­ish prac­tice (easy dis­so­lu­tion of mar­riage and sub­se­quent re­mar­riage; ac­cep­tance of mul­ti­ple part­ners) can be read­ily par­al­leled else­where, the dif­fer­ence was that cus­tom­ary law favoured them to an un­usual ex­tent in Ire­land. This is­sue of­fered a wedge, as­sid­u­ously ex­ploited by Can­ter­bury, whose Nor­man-ap­pointed arch­bish­ops, Lan­franc and Anselm, had am­bi­tions to dom­i­nate the en­tire Ir­ish Sea re­gion. Fur­ther­more, the un­der­tow of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the Nor­mans and the pa­pacy was al­ways a fac­tor that deeply com­pli­cated an al­ready com­plex sit­u­a­tion.

How­ever, the core of this study is a provocative anal­y­sis of what “re­form” meant. Ó Cor­ráin asks us to put aside the easy as­sump­tion that it is nec­es­sar­ily pos­i­tive. In­stead, he sug­gests that it had hugely neg­a­tive con­se­quences and that it in­volved an as­set-strip­ping of the long-es­tab­lished na­tive monas­ter­ies in or­der to sup­port a newly im­posed dioce­san sys­tem, one which in broad out­line sur­vives to this day. On the other hand, he shows that the older struc­tures long per­sisted, as they were deeply embed­ded in Ir­ish so­ci­ety. There were lim­its to how far the church could re­model so­ci­ety or, in­deed, it­self.

He sug­gests, more con­tro­ver­sially, that the Ir­ish bish­ops were so en­am­oured of the re­form agenda that they were will­ing to sac­ri­fice any­thing and ev­ery­thing on its al­tar, in­clud­ing their own coun­try. The book ar­gues they paved the way for the English in­va­sion by gift­ing them the pro­pa­ganda that the Ir­ish were bar­bar­ians in need of guid­ance and good gov­ern­ment. Ó Cor­ráin sug­gests that Adrian IV’s Pa­pal Bull, Laud­abiliter, long the Case­ment Di­aries of early Ir­ish stud­ies but now ac­cepted as gen­uine, was di­rectly grounded in the words of the Ir­ish ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal re­form­ers. It gave Henry II the green light for his Ir­ish ad­ven­ture, one which had con­se­quences un­dreamt of at the time.

Through­out, the rhetoric is pas­sion­ate and en­gaged, en­gag­ing the reader to think and to ques­tion. The per­son­al­i­ties of Cel­lach, arch­bishop of Ar­magh, his suc­ces­sor Malachy and Malachy’s cham­pion, the great Euro­pean church­man Bernard of Clair­vaux, be­stride the vol­ume. For Ó Cor­ráin, the Ir­ish re­form­ers were ul­ti­mately naive, self-right­eous and dis­mis­sive of their own cul­tural for­ma­tion.

It is, of course, in­evitable, that a book writ­ten against the grain will in­spire dis­agree­ment in some mat­ters of de­tail, although it should be em­pha­sised how im­por­tant it is that the ques­tions were asked in the first place. For ex­am­ple, one may won­der whether Ir­ish ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal re­form­ers were all fol­low­ers of an English agenda or even thought in these terms. One may doubt that Ir­ish church­men ac­tively sought an English in­va­sion as the only means to bring about changes in sex­ual moral­ity and the man­age­ment of ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal property. In­deed, the study it­self shows how suc­cess­ful the re­form­ers were in those na­tional syn­ods of the 12th cen­tury. They did not need the An­glo-Nor­mans: the likes of Cel­lach and Malachy saw off the threat of Can­ter­bury’s ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal im­pe­ri­al­ism long be­fore Henry’s ar­rival in 1172.

Fur­ther­more, it is im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that the Ir­ish re­form­ers were re­spond­ing and con­tribut­ing to an in­ter­na­tional move­ment. It seems un­re­al­is­tic to ex­pect an un­re­formed Ir­ish church could have flour­ished out­side the Euro­pean main­stream. Ire­land was deeply in­ter­con­nected with its neigh­bours, as much then as now. Ex­it­ing those re­la­tion­ships would have been fool­hardy and prob­a­bly im­pos­si­ble.

Yet, this book pro­vides much food for thought: it is learned, provocative and the fruit of one of the great schol­ars of early me­dieval Ire­land. It has lessons to teach. For his­tory is in­vari­ably a story about win­ners. By turn­ing his fo­cus on the losers and not as­sum­ing the in­evitabil­ity of the win­ners, Ó Cor­ráin sets a deeper chal­lenge – to look be­yond win­ners and losers to­wards a com­plex world where events in Ire­land, and among its neigh­bours, played out in ways at once log­i­cal and per­verse, shap­ing our own “na­tional” mytholo­gies in the process.

The book spot­lights the dif­fi­cult ques­tion of sex­ual moral­ity and its re­la­tion­ship to the ar­tic­u­la­tion of Ir­ish mar­riage cus­tom

Dr Elva John­ston is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the school of his­tory, UCD

The Mar­riage of Strong­bow and Aoife, by Daniel Ma­clise. PHO­TO­GRAPH: NA­TIONAL GALLERY OF IRE­LAND

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