English dominion over Ireland, dates from the 12th Century, when Ireland still comprised small, brash, warring Gaelic-Norse kingdoms, and while its Celtic character had yet to fully engage with St. Patrick’s already five centuries-old gift of Catholicism.
Why the English came when they did, involves at least five star witnesses: Queen Derbforgaill; her husband, Tiernan O’Rourke, the 19th King of Briefne, Connaught, in the north of Ireland, Dermott Mac Murchada, the King of Leinster, in the south; King Henry 2nd of England; and Pope Adrian 4th, the only ever English Pope. Earliest accounts agree that Derbforgaill was abducted by Mac Murchada in 1151, as was the common wont of kings of the day. He holds her for either months or years, after which she returns to her husband. Fourteen years on, alliances by now shifted, O’Rourke overpowers Mac Murchada and sends him into exile, whereupon he successfully petitions the help of England’s King Henry 2nd, to retrieve and to later strengthen, his position.
The later accounts which claim that Derbforgaill wasn’t abducted at all, but went willingly with Mac Murchada, thereby endow Irish history with its very own villain – the mythological Helen of Ireland. And all the subsequent tragedy, disaster and degradation inflicted on this hapless young, Wild Oats state, is blamed on the wicked treachery innate to faithless womankind.
That Henry’s inclination to help was backed as well by papal bull, issued in 1155 by the only English pope, Adrian 4th, becomes a mere footnote in light of the above human drama. Adrian authorises Henry’s already divine agency to assist the Irish Church by abolishing the “filthy practices” prevailing in the “barbarous nation” of Ireland. So Henry’s Norman Knights led a two-stage invasion of Ireland, completed by 1171, and added the post of “Lordship of Ireland” to his job description.
We’d like to say “herewith endeth the lesson”, but no such luck of the Irish. Henry may have been benign enough, but wherever a Merry Old English toe takes hold, the foot to follow invariably boasts a heavy tread to suit a stance that wields a lash and is dislodged only with great difficulty, even as blatantly unappreciative host nations find their senses of nationhood thriving on steady diets of cold cuts of dispossession pickled in misery and seasoned in hatred for centuries to come.
After more than eight hundred years of disputed forms of English governance, Ireland is not at peace with itself. The “Irish Question” of national unity remains unanswered.
Our brief excursion through Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin gave us a strong impression of the intense longing for unity that has accompanied the epic struggle of the Nationalist cause for independence. When the gaol opened in 1796, it used state-of-the-art prison technology. It’s function to incarcerate political prisoners may or may not have been specifically planned, but one of its first duties was to detain Robert Emmett until his execution.
Uprisings too numerous to list here came and went, but the event that is now seen as the most decisive in breaking England’s hold on Ireland was the Easter uprising in 1916 and the men responsible for its conduct were swiftly despatched and executed in the yard at Kilmainham.
Irish history, as that of most lands, is a many-faceted and unruly beast. As travellers passing by momentarily, albeit with varying understanding and prior knowledge of that history, we have to be satisfied with the impressions and notions and feelings that our passing encounters inspire. We must know that of course they are woefully incomplete and cannot be taken to express the experience of the people who lived it and made it – who breathed it and ate it; who died in it and died for it. And when something strikes us as tragic or foolish or funny or sad, that this must reflect something in us that is being touched by our own limited understanding, and that’s of course entirely valid and will lead hopefully to deeper knowledge and understanding of events…..because then we might be able to rewrite these histories? Do we want to? Oh yes! Why? To avoid the tragedies? Oh yes! To live happily ever after? Oh yes! Oh yes! Oh yes!