Untilled Fields of Irish History

By Peter Beresford Ellis

The Roman, Marcus Tullius Cicero, once wrote that to be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. I continually feel like a child, for I have discovered, in the maturity of my years, that the more I discover about Irish history the less I appear to know. The discovery of a gem here and another there leads one into all sorts of historical wonderlands.

I was amazed back in 1967 when I learned, following the murder of `Che' Guevara in Bolivia, that his full name was Ernesto Guevara Lynch, `Che' being a nickname for an Argentinean. Later I came in contact with Che's father, Ernest Lynch, and found that Che had not only been aware of his County Cork family background but he was deeply fascinated by the history of Ireland.

That discovery sparked off an interest in what I feel is a very neglected area of Irish studies in the Americas. Che was but one of the descendants of the Irish Diaspora in Latin America who played leading roles in the development of their countries. We all know of Bernardo O'Higgins in Chile. But in 1920, we find that the first Socialist President of Mexico to emerge from the Mexican Revolutionary period, was Miguel Obregon. When we look closer we find his father was Michael O'Brien. Who was the president of Argentina who managed to prevent the right wing from declaring war in support of Germany in 1944? Well, his father was Eamon O'Farrell, but he used the form Edelmiro Farrell.

Irish-American history has come to us from a United States English-speaking perspective. Yet there is another history to be found in the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking Americas. It was regiments of the Irish Brigade of Spain, particularly the Hibernia and Irlanda regiments, who were active in Spain's American empire in the 18th Century. And it was the veterans of these regiments who formed a large percentage of colonists, paid in land rather in money, particularly in New Spain, which became Mexico, and by Mexico I also mean the Mexican territories prior to the United States `Land Grab' of the 1840s.

From the Mexican-Irish perspective, we find that the `Alamo' as an American symbol of the fight for liberation, is slightly different. That many of the defenders of the Alamo were certainly Irish is true - but they were mainly of Ulster Protestant and slave-owning backgrounds. Many of the Mexican besiegers were Irish Catholics or of Irish Catholic decent. The president of Mexico just before the Texan breakaway was one Michael Berrigan (he used the Spanish form `Miguel Barragan') He had been an officer in Spain's Irish Brigade. He was a radical republican. The misfortune of Mexico was that he died of typhus in 1835 after his first year in office and this allowed the right wing Santa Anna, the most incompetent ruler and general ever, according to one book, to succeed him in office.

One irony of the Alamo is that the foundation stone of the building was actually laid by a Dubliner named Hugh O'Connor, who was the Mexican Governor of Texas. By the way, that last Spanish viceroy was a talented diplomat as well as soldier and took it on himself to develop the `Plan de Iguala' which gave Mexico and the other Spanish territories independence. The viceroy's name was Generalissimo Juan O'Donoju (O'Donoghue), a graduate of the Irish Brigade. His chaplain, Father Miguel Muldoon, records the agreement reached with Juan Augustus Magee, from County Down, who was leading the Texan-Irish in the colonial war against Spain. Once Mexico received independence, Magee found that he was having to fight attempts by the United States to move settlers into the Texas province, led by Austin and Houston, who wanted to make it a slave state. It was the Irish-Mexicans who lost land, rights and their standard of living when the Texas Republic came into being.

Knowing this makes more sense of the story of the Los Patricios who fought for Mexico against the United States during the land-grabbing wars a decade or so later. U.S. histories would have us believe that this Irish unit of the Mexican army was simply a collection of Irish deserters. People seem to prefer to believe in myths than reality.

One obvious area where we have come along in leaps and bounds has been in the field of women's studies. Yet for all the studies made on the history of women in Ireland, I have seen no author who has mentioned nor come to grips with the Ban-shenchus - the History of Women. The Ban-shenchus is a record of the lives of hundreds of Irish women who lived prior to the 12th Century.

We have seven surviving copies of this book. One ends with mention of Gormflaith, who died in 1030. She was a Leinster princess who became the wife of Brían Bóroimhe, also mother of Sitric, King of Dublin. Another version ends with the story of the famous Der bhForgaill who died in 1193, the wife of Tighernán O Ruairc, King of Breifne, who eloped with Diarmuid Mac Murrough, King of Leinster, and after a life which would have been a godsend to most Hollywood scriptwriters, ended her days in holy orders at Clonmacnoise.

Just how much do we know about Irish myths and legends? Ah well, you might say, that is a field that has been exhaustively ploughed. But how much of these are actually studies of manuscript remains or merely reworkings of previously published secondary sources? Back in 1900, Professor Kuno Meyer, in his introduction to a translation and study on one of the Irish stories, listed 400 sagas and tales surviving in manuscript form. he added that since he had compiled the list a further 100 tales had been identified but not catalogued, while a further 150 tales he believed could still lie undiscovered in libraries throughout Europe. Our knowledge of Irish myths is based on the translation and annotation of only 150 of 650. Since the modern Irish state has come into being, hardly any further work had been done in editing and translating the remaining 400-500 manuscripts.

How many have read the Caithreim Cheallachain Chaisil (The Battle-Career of Ceallachain of Cashel)? This lengthy manuscript is the story of Cellachain, King of Munster, who died in AD 954, who, 60 years before Brían Bóroimhe at Clontarf, broke the Danish domination within his own Kingdom. Cellachain was one of the most interesting of Munster kings. In fact, Cormac III, King of Munster, commissioned the book sometime between 1127 and 1138. It was written in Cashel and the earliest surviving copy is in the Royal Irish Academy.

There it lay. And I only stumbled across it because in 1905 Professor Alexander Bugge, at the University of Christiana, in Denmark, went to the trouble of translating the entire saga, not into his native Danish, but into English. Now here is a work that is not merely a saga of deeds of derring do, breaking from prose into poetry, but a work which is a view of history written less than two centuries after the events recorded. Why has no Irish scholar ever bothered with it? Why has no storyteller come to grips with the saga in which we find murder plots as well as battles and intriguing characters, such as the Lady Mór who is in love with Ceallachain but captured by the Danes.

While this might be a field that a Danish plough has touched, it still lies pretty fallow. Another field that is untouched is the extensive collection of Irish medical manuscripts. Before the turn of the 19th Century, the Irish language contained the world's most extensive collection of medical literature in any one language. Just think about that fact. The great medieval Irish medical books are scattered in many repositories. These books survive from the 13th and 16th Centuries.

One would have thought that within the modern vogue for alternative medicine, these books would be examined by scholars and students producing their countless works on the ancient medicines of the world and medical histories. They are not.

There are many Irish medical works that are not even catalogued. From the time of Charlemagne, Irish medical men have spread through Europe. Niall O Clacán (c. 1501-1655) trained in medicine in the old Gaelic tradition and became not only physician to Louis XIII of France but Professor of Medicine at Toulouse and Bologna, writing some of the leading medical works of his day, such as Cursus Medicus. The University of Bologna, where he taught, holds several Irish manuscripts and even printed books from his personal library.

I have, over the years, become horrified at the overwhelming number of uncatalogued Old and Middle Irish manuscripts contained in repositories throughout Europe. The great finds of Irish works have been made possible by only one thing - luck. An entire book written in Irish on cosmology, in 1694, by a Jesuit priest, Father Magnus O'Domhnaill of Donegal, studying at the Irish College of the University of Salamanca was discovered last century. Professor Heinrich Zimmer, a German Celtic scholar, suggested at that time that some method was needed to research and identify such Irish works. Nothing was done.

Generally, republican and socialist historians tend to prefer to start off with 1798. When they do venture in the field of Irish Kings and Chieftains, they curiously seem to follow English propaganda perspectives. We ought to have a better understanding and a clearer perception of the old Gaelic monarchy and its social system, and not merely echo the prejudices of the Anglicised and English historians. We should also come to grips with how native Irish monarchy - examined from the Gaelic perspective - was systematically destroyed during the period 1541-1613. Furthermore, we should learn how some of those ancient families either went abroad or underground in Ireland.

James Connolly thought that the descendants of these Irish Chiefly families from the 17th Century were educated at ``the schools of continental Catholic despots'' and returned to Ireland ``with a loyalty for King George III''. I beg to differ with Connolly that, after the mid-17th Century, the Irish aristocracy were ``all of foreign or traitor origin''.

After their removal from political influence by England, many surviving members of the native Gaelic aristocracy continued to play roles in the development of the Irish patriotic and even republican movements. The O'Conor Don, the senior surviving head of the O'Conor Kings of Connacht, was actually an early recruit to the United Irishmen. His son Charles, and his grandson Thomas, were active members. In fact, after the suppression of 1798, both Charles and Thomas had to flee from Ireland to the United States. Thomas continued his radical activities there and became editor of a New York paper which supported the U.S. line during the 1812 war with Britain. His son became the first Catholic candidate for the U.S. presidency, standing against Ulysses Grant.

Another prominent United Irishman was Ruaraidh (known as Roger) The O'Connor Kerry, who was arrested in 1797 and sent to Fort George in Scotland. He spent five years or more in jail and then was exiled in Paris. Without the O'Conor Kerry there might not have been a Northern Star, nor Charter of the Working Men's Association. Why? Because Feargus Edward O'Conor was his son, the Chartist leader, who could claim to be the O'Conor Kerry.

Ruaraidh MacDermot of Moylurg, a scion of The MacDermot, prince of Coolavin, was actually one of the Irish Volunteers who fought in the General Post Office Garrison in 1916. He fought with the Volunteers throughout the War of Independence. And one should also remember that The O'Rahilly gave his life at the GPO in 1916.

Jorge O'Neill of Clanaboy, a descendant of the The O'Neill of Clanaboy, rejected his Portuguese peerage when he succeeded to the Gaelic title, The O'Neill, in 1901. He succeeded through Brehon Law succession, a method of succession which many of the Chiefly families of Ireland continued to use and still do. That is the head of the house, the holder of the Gaelic title, is still elected by the derbbfhine of the family which, according to the law, are three generations from a common great-grandfather. Jorge was regarded as a prince of Ulster and believed in putting his money where his mouth was. A friend of Roger Casement, he sent money via Casement to establish and arm the Irish Volunteers in 1914. Prior to that he'd sent money to help fund Irish-language schools in Ireland.

I think that had Connolly had been in possession of all the facts, he would not have made such a blanket condemnation of them. But recognising their historical contribution is not, of course, the same thing as arguing for a restoration of a native Gaelic monarchy.

Understanding how Gaelic monarchy and its aristocracy was destroyed also gives us some idea of the proto-democratic workings of the ancient Brehon law system. Of the 60 major Gaelic Kings, Princes and Dukes, whom we now have a tendency to call merely `Chiefs', which were enumerated for Henry VIII prior to his conquests, only a handful survived the devastations. Today, the Chief Herald of Ireland, gives courtesy recognition to 19 heads of Gaelic families who are the direct descendants of the last Gaelic title holders. The Chief Herald of Ireland representing the Irish state though, claims that only these Gaelic title holders who claim their titles by the primogeniture laws of England can be recognised.

Ignoring the Chief Herald, the houses of the MacCarthy Mór of Desmond, the O'Neill's of Ulster, the O'Donoghue of the Glens and others, maintain their titles under the Brehon successional laws. The extent of the manuscripts, family treasures and other materials taken into exile from the end of the Tudor period through the 17th and 18th Centuries, must give us pause as we contemplate the possibilities. Until we can rescue all of the material that has been neglected in these European repositories, covering over 1,000 years of Irish history, we will only have glimpses of Irish historical reality and never a total picture.

These are the untilled fields that must be cultivated.

This is an edited version of a lecture given at the annual Desmond Greaves Summer School on 29 August 1998, originally published in An Phoblacht/Republican News


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Copyright, Vincent Salafia, 1999.