Destroying a Culture – The Local Dimension
There are forces in a country and culture that push people away from each other and act to divide, and there are forces that push people towards each other that act to unite. In mechanics these forces are called centrifugal, meaning away from the axis/centre, and centripetal meaning towards the axis/centre. One of the unique characteristics of Archaic Ireland was the particular way that it had evolved to mobilise these forces in ways that get the best of both.
Laid out in the text ‘The settling of the Manor of Tara’, Fintan MacBochra, the first man of Ireland, outlines a system of distributed power, centrifugal forces at work in that what mattered was the local, the tribe. But the approach was also built around the concept of the Fifth Province, the sacred centre which was the place where the tribes met at important times. These gatherings had the effect of uniting the people – centripetal forces. Both centrifugal forces and distributed power can work synergistically with centripetal forces. What the ancient texts tell us is that when the fifths was in operation all was well. The Civil War in the South, the Battle of Magh Lena, was explained as the ‘loss of the fifths’.
It is proposed now to explore some of the ways in which the Tudors in the Sixteenth century and the Stuart and Cromwellian rule in the seventeenth century was to steadily unravel the delicate web of culture that had survived relatively successfully over millennia. As we will see this occupation, this colonisation was of a different style and tone from that of the Normans. There are a number of ways, some subtle, some less so, that the ancient Gaelic culture was to be destroyed.
One of the first areas is to attack those aspects of culture that hold it together, that act as a ‘cultural glue’. It was the Romans who understood the cultural power of the Bards when they went up to Anglesey to destroy the druidic centre. The Tudors had the same objective. In the State Papers office a publication dated 5th May 1561 had a title ‘Irish Bardism in 1561’.
The Paper outlines different types of what it calls ‘Rimers’. One is the Shankee (seanchai) “They make the ignorant men of the country to belyve they be descended of Alexander the Great, or of Darius or of Ceasar …. which makes the ignorant people to run madde, or cerieth not what they do, the which is hurtfull to the realme”. Another sort is “the Aeosdan (aosdana: poets) which is to say in England, the Bards, and these people be very hurtfull to the commonwealth for they chifflie manyntayne the rebells; and further they do cause them that would be true, to be rebellious theves, extorcioners, murtherers, ravners, yea and worse if it were possible”. The next story of rimers “is called Fillis. Theis are great mayntayners of whitches and other vile matters; to the great blasfemye of God and to the great impoverishinge of the commonwealth”.
A second State Paper written after the rebellion of 1798 outlines an Ireland where the professional storytellers have gone, along with the Chieftains. If you want to destroy a culture, take out the forces of cultural glue – particularly the Rymers!
Another weapon of cultural destruction is legislation, the implementation of which is likely to tear apart families, communities and tribes. Giving privileges for those who swear an oath of loyalty, such as loyalty to William and Mary in the late 17th century, is divisive. If a son converted to the Church of Ireland, he could acquire his father’s estate through the Popery Act. This legislation could clearly break up families. Giving a bounty for the arrest of a priest, rewarding members of the Catholic populace for alerting authorities of offences such as an illegal education – the penal laws clearly had a very divisive effect at the local level of community, family and tribe.
One further means of cultural destruction is on the subtle domain of everyday interaction and transaction. We have explored the emergence of the ‘Chosen People’ Myth in earlier Briefing Papers. From the Irish perspective this was what Daniel Corkery (The Hidden Ireland) call “the Ascendency mind”. “The first article of the Ascendency’s creed is, and always has been, that the natives are a lesser breed, and that anything that is theirs (except their land and their gold!) is of little value. If they have a language and literature, it cannot have been a civilised language…and as for their literature, the less said the better.”
There is no obvious record of the everyday routine interactions of state officials with their people. It is here that the imagination, Vico’s fantasia, can help fill in the gap. The cumulative effect of four millennia of the Chosen People’s Ascendency Mind-based interactions with the people of Ireland has to have had a powerful destructive effect on the self-image and identity of the people. Today this might be called cultural gaslighting!
Briefing Note 17
The Tradition is Dead, long live the Tradition
What we explored in the last Briefing Note is the various ways the Tudors, Stuarts and Cromwellian rule tried to destroy Gaelic culture and the Bardic Tradition. And we saw that in many ways they were successful. Yet an oral tradition is quite probably the most durable of matters cultural. I recall working in Warsaw, Poland some decades ago and I started by asking the group to tell some of their stories. It just took off. They were excited and proud. It was a country that had been a battleground between two great powers, Russian troops then Germans, fighting through their land. All they had was their stories. So, how then did the Gaelic and Bardic Traditions keep alive?
We learn from Daniel Corkery’s ‘The Hidden Tradition’ that one way was to keep hidden. The 16th century saw a total reversal of land ownership such that by 1703 nine tenths of the land of Ireland was in Protestant hands. However, certain of the big Gaelic Houses that had been so central to the support of the Bardic order, had not been destroyed. And they survived in remote parts of Cork and Kerry by remaining obscure. In fact, the less that was known about them the better. They did what they could to stay hidden. One of these houses was Daniel O’Connell’s house in Derrynane in Kerry. These few big houses were to play a very important role in keeping the literature alive and are credited with an important influence in shaping modern Irish literature.
In this vein, certain Bardic schools also managed to survive until finally shutting their doors in the mid-17th century. The best description of what happened in these Bardic schools is the 1722 Memoirs of the Marquis of Clanncarde though by then the schools had died. One Thomas O’Sullivan, a Tipperary man, had been exploring Lord Harley’s Library in the 1720’s. Students gathered in remote places. This remoteness may have helped their survival. The course is reported to have lasted 6 to 7 years, bringing in lights to write down their compositions in the complete darkness of night. They also had a responsibility to master the Senchus, the accumulated lore of Irish legend and history. They were the closest to a university education.
With the demise of the Bardic schools the poets were left with nowhere to meet but the pub, the tavern. These meetings were called Courts (Cuirt) of Poetry. The poet would still have had an opportunity to perform at some local events such as fairs, marriages and patterns (religious rituals). But the Courts were only a shadow of the Bardic schools.
Switching from Bardic Schools and Courts of Poetry to the education of Irish children, it was under the Penal Laws of William III and under the regime of Oliver Cromwell that the ordinary means of education were suppressed. It is suggested that many of those trained in the Bardic schools became teachers at the secret and illegal hedge schools. Some 400,000 students are estimated to have been educated at these ‘hidden’ schools. We don’t know much about the methods of teaching but it is known that mathematics, classical studies of an advanced standard, and poetry-making in Irish were important parts of the education. The schools were a central part of Brian Friel’s classic play ‘Translations’.
There is a famous line from the play that perhaps best captures the spirit of these various endeavours. It is when Hugh says: “it is not the literal past, the ‘facts’ of history that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language…we must never cease renewing these images because once we do, we fossilise”.
There was yet another stage in the effort to keep alive the tradition as things got worse and worse, and the country was facing depressing poverty and hopelessness. A new genre of poetry developed, the Aisling or Vision Poem. One of these was Aodhagán Ó Rathaille, Ireland’s last Bardic poet. The poem is of the suffering poet, weak with thoughts of woe and the awfulness of his world. He falls asleep and in his dream a vision of radiant beauty appears. Is it Deirdre? Is it Helen of Troy? She draws near. He questions her. He learns she is Erin, a goddess. Her true mate is in exile. But the young pretender will return and the poem ends with a redemption. If the real world offered little hope, the unconscious at least did.
And yet, returning to where this Note began, there was still in remote areas, in the cottages of the poor, the enduring tradition of the telling of stories. James Parson, a Protestant, writing in 1767 in ‘County Histories’, speaks admiringly of what he experiences:
“In Ireland they have their bards to this day…and are among the poorest of people…and it is a very common practice among them when they return home from the toil of the day to sit down, with their people around them, in bad weather and in their houses and repeating the stories of ancient heroes and their transactions, in a style that for its beauty and fine sentiments has often struck me with amazement…and indeed I have often regretted that so few gentlemen, of modern learning, understand that language enough to enjoy so fine an entertainment”.
Some Protestant upper-middle class people began to regard the Gaelic past more favourably and to collect and study towards the end of the 18th century. But the violent rebellion of 1798 checked the sympathy of the establishment for native culture. Nonetheless, the oral tradition endured among the people with their ceile houses. The practice of courdgeaghing, the visit to the neighbours’ home on the cold winter evening for storytelling and song around a fire, is recorded all over Ireland including in Belmullet, Achill, Co. Longford and Westmeath.
Indeed, it was places even more remote, the islands off the West Coast, that came to be seen as repositories. The wonderful Robin Flower, Deputy Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum and author of ‘The Irish Tradition’, tells the story of himself wondering idly on the Aran Islands when he encounters an old man of over 80 years. He finds himself listening for over half an hour to tales of Fionn and his companions. He reflects that here on ‘the last inhabited piece of Europe looking out to the Atlantic horizon, I was hearing the oldest living tradition of the British Isles…older than the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, and yet it lives still upon the lips of peasantry!’
The oral tradition lives on!
Briefing Note 18
Meanwhile, what about the Chosen People?
Ernest Renan, the author of “the Life of Jesus”, told us that “nothing great has been established which does not rest on a legend”. The myth, or more appropriately myths, that we are focusing on here are those of the Old Testament. It was these that were central to the English Protestants and then the American Protestants. They believed the Bible was about them and not just the ancient tribes of Israel. It was the appropriation of this mythology that firmly established them as the “chosen people”.
The point about these particular myths is that while they exalt one nation, at the same time they derogate other nations. They create a sense of “us-ness”, a sense of community, by dividing us from those who stand outside – the ‘not-chosen’ people. The othered arch enemy were the Roman Catholics who were framed as the Anti-Christ, the whore of Babylon and the beast.
The Old Testament also spelt out what was in store for those outside. Chapter 31 of Numbers tells us about the destruction of the Midianites by Moses’s Israelites when they had corrupted the Israelites with pagan practices. Having had all the men killed, Moses ordered every married woman to be killed along with every male child, and 32,000 virgins were to be distributed. Deuteronomy 7:1-2 tells us that the Lord thy God delivered the native tribes and that “then shall smite them, and utterly destroy them, thou shaft make no covenant with them, nor show mercy unto them”.
This is a biblical sanction for genocide, slavery, and what would be described as ethnic cleansing, all carried out in the name of the Lord and often at his instruction. This is shocking, brutal and bloodthirsty. Cromwell and his men went into battle in the Civil War and against the Irish with the war cry “In the name of the Lord, and of Gideon”.
This then was the mythology and mentality behind the imperial ambitions of the British. It was the mythic inspiration behind the colonial agenda in India and in Africa It was to play a role in the business of slavery. Anyone who resisted the power of the Protestants could be regarded as Canaanites. In America this was the indigenous people, the American Indians.
What is significant about this appropriated mythology is that under its terms, these actions were not ‘theft’. God had given them these lands; the chosen people did not have to steal anything.
There is one thing in common: these were all encounters with divided, decentralised or tribal societies. These cultures had limited capacity to resist a centralised powerful country with superior military might. The cultural glue that held these politically decentralised cultures together over millennia was important in dealing with what they now faced.
It is also relevant to look at how women were regarded in the Protestant religion of the 17th and 18th centuries. One of the frequent refrains of the Old Testament prophets was that the ‘chosen people’ needed to be warned about the pagan gods, especially in a sexual dimension. To be tempted would bring on their doom.
It was Queen Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab, who ‘was the personification of the dangers of female sexuality and the religious distaste for sexual display’. She was also seen as the personification of pagan religion’s temptation. In the Book of Revelations Jezebel is cast as a woman of sin and fornication. Not just pagan religion could be seen as temptation, but also the Catholic church – easy material for the Protestant preacher.
In the Old Testament societies, marriage gave the man sexual rights over his wife. She had no rights in return. The woman as male property was part of the system of ownership, entitlement and coercive power that also applied to the natural world. Rape as a crime is not mentioned in the Old Testament. A woman’s consent is not a matter of interest.
In Ancient Irish culture the ‘hag’ or ‘crone’ is an extremely significant figure in the King Myths. In the Protestant religion of the 17th century the hag was to be seen as a witch, the subject of cruel persecution. The so-called witch became the subject of what we could now call a hate crime. They were seen as the secret enemy within the community, arguably worse than the outsider Catholic or Jew. For one thousand years witchcraft was seen as part of pagan religion. Under Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan rule a paranoia was to break out, and witch-burning reached its height. The famous Salem witch trials of over 150 suspects in Massachusetts in 1672 led to 19 hangings. The justification given in Exodus 22:18 is ‘thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’.
Puritan biblical literalism was to grip Europe for 200 years. By then it had claimed somewhere in the region of 50,000 victims. While in Ancient Irish mythology ‘kissing the hag’ was a critical step on the journey to Kingship, under Oliver Cromwell the hag was an object of extreme paranoia. Witch-burning and hanging was surely an extreme part of the Old Testament religion that was to inspire Puritan Protestantism.