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
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
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