Columbia University Seminar in Irish Studies (#535)
Minutes of the meeting held Friday, April 4th 2003

Chair: Professor Mary McGlynn, Baruch College, CUNY
Rapporteur: Dermot Ryan, Columbia University.
Submitted: April 24, 2003

Attending: Michael O. Shannon (Lehman College), Bob St. Cyr, Martin J. Burke (Lehman College and CUNY Grad. Center), Ed Hagan (Western Conn.), Terry Byrne (College of New Jersey), Barbara Young (Molloy College), Cóilín Parsons (Columbia University), Joseph Lennon (Manhattan College), Patrick McNierney (Columbia University), Clare Caroll (Queens College), Gertrude Hamilton (Marymount College), Diane Menagh (Fairfield University), Alice Naughton (New York Irish History Roundtable), Frank Naughton (Kean University), Rita Loughlin (American Irish Teachers Association), Peter Leahy (CUNY Grad. Center).

Speaker: Brendan Kane
Title: “Making the Irish European: Tadhg O Cianáin’s grand tour of the earls.”

Brendan Kane noted that so often when trying to make sense of Irish history, people turn to poetry. And so it follows that when people reflect upon the event that have come to be known as the Flight of the Earls—the 1607 exodus to the continent by the Ulster lords O’ Neill, O’ Donnell and Maguire, accompanied by many of their relations and retainers—it is to the contemporary poetry of Ulster bards that they turn. Conditioned by historical hindsight, the wrenching poems of Mac an Bháird and O Gnímh strike us as, quite simply, natural reactions to the collapse of the Gaelic order. But, Mr. Kane noted that if we look beyond the poetry, one finds that not all contemporary Gaelic commentators depicted the Flight in such harrowing terms. Tadhg O Cianáin’s chronicle of the earls’ travels from Lough Swilly to Rome represents an extraordinary example of an alternative reading of events. First and foremost it paints a far less tragic picture of the Irish lords’ journey to Rome than one gets from other Gaelic sources. Moreover, in constructing his narrative, O Cianáin completely reworks the traditional bardic language of praise. In this text, we see an attempt to recast not only the language of, but also the criteria for, Gaelic notions of honor and nobility along the lines of contemporary European norms. Finally, we see one of the clearest expositions of the multiple contexts in which the interests of the Gaelic elites were fought out.
O Cianáin’s narrative has none of the gloom of other Gaelic poems, and his earls seem to be more on a grand tour—albeit one taken in dangerous times—then flying in exile. The earls are put up in palaces, and feted at grand banquets. They are shown the great guns of Milan by the Spanish governor the Duke of Fuentes, a security clearance, we are told, granted only to the Spanish and the Irish. They are toured through churches and cathedrals, and shown holy relics. The pope himself gives them presents of “a silver basket, a bottle full of wine, and a gilded loaf of bread.”
In a world dictated by codes of honor and rules of precedence, where one sat at a banquet, or walked in a procession, was perhaps more important than the fact that one was there at all. And O Cianáin was often quite explicit on just where the Irish were placed amongst the assembled dignitaries. The extraordinary privilege shown the Irish earls could at times even cause jealousy amongst the nobles of other nations. This we see in O Cianáin’s description of the lords’ participation in a Corpus Christi procession in Rome. The Italians are greatly surprised that the Irish should be shown such deference and respect, and some of them say that seldom before was any one nation in the world appointed to carry the canopy. Not only is the tone of these passages surprising, but so too is the criteria by which the Irish lords are held up as nobility. Absent are the traditional markers of Gaelic honor and nobility: martial prowess, hospitality, ancient lineage, physical beauty, and so on. In their place appear two new criteria: an adherence to a post-Tridentine Catholicism, and the simple acceptance these lords receive from European elites.
Changed too is the language used to praise the Irish. Gone entirely are the bardic stock words “clú” and “glóir.” Most amazing is the utter disappearance of “einach”: one’s honor price, the price a person had to pay if they insulted or injured someone, as determined by the latter’s status. Eineach is replaced by “onóir.” In this text the lords are not royal, but noble or gentle, and referred to as such. Moreover, O Cianáin seems on occasion interested to produce a more exact, European-style taxonomy of relative status positions for Irish elites.
If this is a secretarial chronicle, who was supposed to see it? It seems that the lords expected to return to Ireland and it seems likely that the audience was an Irish one. This might explain why there is so little mention of the events leading up to the flight. The silence is not due to the fact that everyone knows what precipitated the flight, but rather to short circuit any in-depth discussion of the matter.
It appears that O Cianáin is reworking the criteria for, and language of, Gaelic honor and nobility. The impression we are to take from all the recoding in this piece is that these men are all members of a European aristocracy. Stripped of its connection to a mytho-historical age of Kings, and more carefully stratified according to relative status position, O Cianáin’s language of a social hierarchy of Irish elites is more in line with European norms than Irish traditional ones. It marks a concerted effort to create an image of the Irish as participants in a post-Tridentine European polity whereby their nobility and honor is no longer determined chiefly by martial valor, and praised using terms derived from Brehon law. Rather it is constructed in part by their adherence to a proper Tridentine Catholicism and their respect for rigid social hierarchy.
Although this text did serve as a chronicle of the earls’ travels through Europe on their way to Rome, its purpose was greater than that. It was a concerted propaganda effort that broke from existing generic forms in Irish. In making that break it also split from bardic language in adopting a new criteria for and language of lordly praise. Moreover the author cleverly situated his argument within a larger European context, trying to damn the incursions of the crown into Ulster not by reference to a particular theory of Irish sovereignty—local or national—but by damning it as the unlawful, perhaps immoral encroachment upon the rights and property of noblemen. Mr. Kane answered questions from the floor. A sampling follows.
Q: Why do you think the editor of the text suggests that O’ Cianáin is simply naïve?
A: These are people under threat. The editor looks at this and believes that the secretary must be missing all this political intrigue. Walsh is remarkably reticent about what all this strange detail in the text means.
Q: I find your argument very convincing. Even bardic poetry at the time is attempting to translate political vocabulary from Europe into Irish. Brendan Bradshaw has done great work on this. The Irish language is obviously expanding to reflect new social and political realities. You noticed that this new term for honor is used for inanimate objects. I wonder if more could be made of this.
A: On the one hand, this generically links honor to the naturalness of the social order. In Irish poetry—the Lord is the spouse of his territory. I think there is a continuity of rhetoric here. It’s stressing the relation of the lord’s authority to the nature of things.
Q: Could it be linked to moveable property?
A: The social order, which they are emulating—the European order—is more into territory. I’m interested in the emerging discourse on “natural elites.”
Q: What are these nouns again? Are they only natural object or also things that can be made?
A: They’re both. I think the important attribute that makes them honorable is that they accord to their nature. Honor designates something that accords to its particular nature.
Q: You claim the text downplays the role of the Crown in precipitating the tour. Is there any mention of the English in this text?
A: Very little. Walsh’s footnotes provide a fascinating counterpoint. He lays out what is really happening.
Q: You quoted a short description of the political set up in Switzerland. If its written for a return, might we read this description as gesturing toward a new dispensation for an Island that needs to be cohabited? This might provide a model and signal an acceptance that there can be no return to a Gaelic Ireland.
A: O’Neill and O’Donnell have been negotiating with the Crown. It seems clear that O’Neill was happy with a mixed dispensation. The text expresses surprise that there is no king among the Swiss. At the time, there are plenty of references to “going Swiss.” Maybe this is an invitation to go Swiss!
Q: Are there any comments on the heretics? Is the project to make the earls European or Catholic Europeans?
A: I think Catholic European but explicitly a reformed Catholicism. There is a brief discussion of Calvin and Luther, but the reference is descriptive—“such and such are followers of Luther in a particular area.”