Wednesday 3 April 2019

Join #HistoricalFiction author, Gareth Griffith, as he takes a look at Celtic Neighbours in the Early Middle Ages: The Irish and the Welsh @garethgriffith_

Celtic Neighbours in the Early Middle Ages:
 The Irish and the Welsh
By Gareth Griffith

A book I can recommend is A New History of the Irish in Australia by Elizabeth Malcolm and Dianne Hall. One of the many issues addressed is the question of race, specifically the pseudo-scientific eugenic debates about racial divisions and categorisations that lasted from the mid-19th century to the Second World War. As Malcolm and Hall show, the Irish and the Celts generally did not fare well in these debates, representing “a racially inferior variety of whiteness.” (Malcolm and Hall, p 108) In the era of “White Australia”, an Antipodean contribution to this pseudo- science was the book Non-Britishers in Australia by Jens Sorensen Lyng, published by Melbourne University in 1927 (and republished in 1935). A Dane by origin, Lyng placed the Nordic race at the top of the European racial pyramid, to which the English, Scots and Protestant Irish were said to belong; while the “Catholic Irish and Welsh” were said to represent the inferior Mediterranean race, in company with Spaniards, Greeks, Jews and others. The whole enterprise is of course riddled with dangerous absurdity. Providing a flavour of this, Malcolm and Hall observed:

Lyng seemed quite comfortable with treating the Catholic Irish as ethnically “British”, while at the same time claiming that they belonged to an entirely different racial category from the British, an inferior one. (Malcolm and Hall, p 111)

I found myself reading this sorry tale from a particular perspective, a Welsh one. It set me thinking about the word “British”, which derives from the “Britons,” the name the people we now call the Welsh once gave themselves – Welsh meaning “foreigner” in Anglo-Saxon. There’s a bit of irony somewhere in there. There may be a bit more when we consider that Scots (Scotti) was what the Romans called the Irish who then passed it on the country we now call Scotland. More generally, the comment made by Malcolm and Hall also set me thinking about the relationship between the Welsh and the Irish, not always an easy one in modern times, as discussed in a recent article by Caoimhin De Barra in The Irish Times.

Indeed, like many near neighbours the Welsh (formerly the Britons) and Irish have not always got along. According to one theory, the names by which the Irish identify themselves, Gael and their language as Goidelic, derive from the Welsh “Gwyddel”, or its Brittonic equivalent, a word meaning “raiders” or “wild men.” (JP Mallory, p 250) Now that isn’t complimentary, so why the Irish would have chosen to identify themselves in this way is unclear. Perhaps we should be looking to alternative theories. All the same, seen from the standpoint of the Britons, the fact that they appear to have looked upon the Irish as raiders or wild men suggests something about the tetchy relationship between the two neighbours.

Before going any further, I should acknowledge my “interest” in this subject. In my novel Glass Island, set in the west of Britain at the end of the 6th century, the relationship between the Britons and the Irish is played out in several contexts. Two characters in the story, the chieftains of Caer Gloui (Gloucester) and Caer Ceri (Cirencester), are said to be the sons of an Irish slave-woman, captured during an Irish raid deep into the territory of the Britons. In the novel, the brothers fight alongside the Britons at the fateful battle of Dyrham in AD 577. On the other hand, the conflict between the Irish and the Britons is portrayed in a raid by Irish pirates on a region in the south-west, now in Devon, and the subsequent efforts of the king of Dyfneint/Dumnonia to drive them out.

Historically, there is no doubt that with the departure of the Romans, the Irish took the opportunity to raid all along Britain’s western seaboard, from Scotland to Cornwall. (TM Charles-Edwards, chapter 4) With the exception of the Pictish north, all that seaboard was at the time inhabited by the Britons, from the area around Dumbarton to Land’s End. In Wales specifically, the Irish were more than mere raiders, establishing kingdoms of their own, in Dyfed in the south-west and in the Lleyn Peninsula (which takes its name from the “Men of Leinster”). As an aside, it is interesting to note that in our earliest map of Europe by Ptolemy, several of the tribal names in Ireland appear to be Brittonic (P Celtic), not Goidelic (Q Celtic). These included the Gagganoi who were also found across the Irish Sea, with Ptolemy designating the Lleyn Peninsula as the “headland of the Gangani.” (JP Mallory, p 254) Like football in 1996, were the Gagganoi coming home in the post-Roman era? But that is an aside. In that era, the Irish influence was also found far inland, along what is now the English border, in the kingdom of Brycheiniog. According to TM Charles-Edwards, “In the early tenth century, its capital was an artificial island on Llangors Lake – namely a crannog, a form of fortification characteristic of Ireland and Scotland.” (TM Charles-Edwards, p 20)

Indeed, overcoming the threat and reality of these incursions served as a basis for the foundation mythology of the kingdom of Gwynedd in north-west Wales. The story is that, in the 5th century, a man called Cunedda and his many sons came down from Mannaw Gododdin (around modern-day Edinburgh) to drive out the Irish. As a matter of history, the truth of that account is doubted; it is looked upon as propaganda invented by the royal house of Gwynedd. But that is not to say that the underlying issue of Irish incursion was not real enough. The historical truth may be more prosaic, where the Irish settlers came to be incorporated into the native society. In fact, it is argued that it is much more likely that “Gwynedd was founded by the Irish, or at least in a very close alliance with them,” with the Cunedda “legend telling the opposite of the truth.” Interestingly, an inscription on a pillar-stone from this period, the last reference to the Ordovices, the Brittonic tribe of north-west Wales in Roman times, refers to a man with an Irish name – Corbalengus. (TM Charles-Edwards, chapter 4)

It wasn’t all a matter of piracy and conflict therefore. There is of course the small matter of Christianity and the early Celtic Church. If the Britons gave Ireland nothing else, they did at least cough up a man called Patrick, who was almost certainly of Romano-British origin. More than that, with the spread of Christianity to Ireland, close links developed between the various limbs of what might be loosely called the Celtic Church. In the past, the two societies must have shared common belief systems, founded on the mythologies of the Celtic world. From the 6th century on, it was the common bond of Christian belief that drew them together. Not only were they united in belief against the paganism of the incoming Anglo-Saxons, the Irish and the Britons also held out against the Roman Easter. By 632/3, those who still refused to conform to the Roman Easter could be portrayed by Cummian as “an insignificant group of Britons and Irish who are almost at the end of the world and, if I may say so, but pimples on the face of the earth.” (TM Charles-Edwards, p 240)

Close links between centres of learning in Wales and Ireland would remain up until the Viking age, only to decline thereafter. Before then, with the lead in Christian teaching passing from the Britons to the Irish, a source of divergence developed between Welsh and Irish Christianity. The issue was the evangelising of their new and powerful pagan neighbours, the Anglo-Saxons. By the time Bede was writing in the 8th century, whereas the Britons had refused to have any part in such work, the Irish on the other hand had played an important role in converting the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. As Alexander Murray has observed, the Britons were Bede’s
“unchosen race” – in Bede’s own words, they were “obdurate and crippled by their errors.” (Bede, p 321)

That is to adopt an English perspective, which it must be said colours everything that followed after the 5th century. The coming of the Anglo-Saxons altered forever the geo-political landscape of the British Isles. There are many different versions of exactly how that alteration occurred. In my novel Glass Island, for the Britons of the west there was a real and present danger right there on their doorstep, something akin to an existential threat. That is one version of events. For the Irish, the same did not apply – not yet.
When I read the collection of Welsh stories called The Mabinogion I am struck by the intimate connections between Wales and Ireland, the coming and going between them, not always peaceful but consistently close in ties of culture and language. It may be that the two peoples have enjoyed the longest unbroken relationship in Western Europe. But with the waning of the Middle Ages, so that relationship lost its old intimacy. Despite common interests in language, that intimacy is unlikely to be regained. As Dylan – the singer not the character from The Mabinogion – said, “You can always come back but you can’t come back all the way.”

A New History of the Irish in Australia by Elizabeth Malcolm and Dianne Hall, New South Publishing, 2018
“Celts divided by more than the Irish Sea” by Caoimhin De Barra, The Irish Times, 24 November 2018
The Origin of the Irish by JP Mallory, Thames and Hudson, 2015
Wales and the Britons, 350 to 1064 by TM Charles-Edwards, Oxford University

Press, 2014.
“Bede and the Unchosen Race,” by Alexander Murray, in Power and Identity in the Middle Ages: Essays in Memory of Rees Davies edited by Huw Pryce and John Watts, Oxford University Press 2007
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Penguin Classics, 1990

Glass Island

AD 576. A time of upheaval for the people of the Summer Land – the Saxons push further and further westward, a new religion supplants the old, unexpected alliances are formed and deadly rivalries fester – son against father, brother against brother.

Eleri Gwir, the daughter of a chieftain, speaks only the truth – and one thing she knows is that war is coming and that a reckoning awaits her people.
The Red Cloaks of Caer Baddan, the last remnant of the Roman legions on British soil, represent hope for Eleri and for all the Summer Land. And their leader Macsen represents something else for Eleri herself – new possibilities, new horizons to explore.

As the decisive battle between the Britons and the Saxons draws nearer, Eleri and her people must decide what their role will be in this story.
This rich and compelling novel brings to vivid life a moment of transformation that shaped the Britain we know today.

Gareth Griffith

Gareth Griffith was born in Penmaenmawr, North Wales, and now lives in Sydney, Australia with his wife Sue.

His career has encompassed teaching, research and writing, including many years working as the manager of research for the parliament of New South Wales. He has a PhD from the University of Wales. His academic publications include a study of George Bernard Shaw's politics, published by Routledge, and several publications on the study of parliament.

These days, when Gareth isn’t writing, he enjoys reading, music, dark Scandi film and TV, and Dark Age Britain. Glass Island is his first novel.

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See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx