By Karla Fetrow
It isn’t easy being Irish, primarily because there’s so much debate as to who is truly Irish. It’s not enough to be able to say, my grandparents’ grandparents were born in Ireland. You must then deliberate whether your grandparents’ grandparents were Protestant or Catholic, if they were small and dark or had Viking genes, and even their social status.
The people of Ireland have been around a long time, and apparently their memories are nearly as long. The earliest remains date back to approximately 10,000 years B.C. By the time the Celts arrived in 600 B.C., Ireland had successfully passed into the bronze age, becoming a supplier of axe-heads, pottery and gold jewelry. Over the next four hundred years, the Celts dominated Irish culture. The Celts were a simple agrarian society. There were no towns, there was no coinage. They bartered in cows, which may explain James Joyce’s obsession with moo-moo cows.
Celtic Ireland practiced a system of government under Brehon Laws; “Brehan” deriving from the Irish word for “law giver”. In their attempts to impose a feudal system on Ireland, England declared Brehon laws barbarous, yet adherence to this system has been at the core of Irish resistance to the British rule for over four hundred years. In modern times, these ancient laws of Ireland have been recognized as one of the most advanced systems of jurisprudence in the ancient world, a system under which the doctrine of the equality of man was understood and under which a deeply humane and cultured society flourished. Under Brehon laws, a king was disposed to the same rules of conduct and considerations as a laborer. The wealthier and higher position a person had, the more responsibility the person assumed for living by honorable actions. A member of the clergy might receive double the penalty as a lay person who had committed the same offense.
Woman’s liberation is only in its baby stages compared to Celtic Ireland. By absorbing the Gauls in 100 B.C., the concept of equal rights included the individual rights of women. Women received the same opportunities for education as men. Women joined the military, went into battle, were appointed to public offices and important social positions, and held title to their own property. When they married, they were not the property of men. Rather, they kept their own property in their names and became partners in the management of properties pertaining to the husbands. It took English law and civilization “to put women in their place.” Ironically, the stamping out of the Brehon Laws, and with them the rights of women, was finally accomplished under Queen Elizabeth of England.
History has a habit of taking little flip-flops when it visits Ireland. Rome’s power as an influential civilization had begun to wane by the fourth century A.D. along with its progressive march into Western Europe. The Romans feared the armies of Attila the Hun and their borders had weakened from bands of raiders. In Brittany, there were still wealthy land owners who owed their high positions to the political appointments of Rome, but they were vulnerable. St. Patrick; the patron saint of Ireland, originated from one of these entitled families to Roman service. His family estate was vulnerable. At the age of sixteen, he was kidnaped by a band of raiders and taken into Ireland as a slave. Apparently, he harbored no ill will toward his captives. He escaped six years later, and spent the next several years brooding over a return.
Although his family was fashionably Christian in the manner of fourth century Rome, which was trying hard to keep up with all things vogue; there is no evidence they were actually religious. However, after his return to Brittany, St. Patrick believed he had found a calling. While in Ireland, he had found handfuls of devout Irish Christians, and he now believed it was his destiny to administrate to them.
In his book, “Confession”, he claims the Irish converted to Christianity by the thousands. Although there is no true way of ratifying the numbers, there’s no question he found a receptive people. The Irish, whose only commonality had been their customs and their language, found a new unifying force in religion. St. Patrick’s Christianity appealed to them. His philosophy, developed during the time he had worked as a lonely sheep herder in the fields of Ireland had a simplicity they had not accepted with Pope Celestine’s appointment of Palladius as their first bishop. Palladius, well educated in Roman schools, lasted less than a year as Ireland’s bishop before he died. Further endearing the Irish to St. Patrick was his work in codifying the Brehon Laws. His efforts fill five volumes and are known as the Senchus Mor. Its ordinances are named C’ain Padraic after St. Patrick.
While the power of Rome fell and along with it, the ability to promote its newly found Christianity, the power of the converted Irish rose. For the next four centuries, monks traveled out of Ireland, spreading the concepts of Christianity throughout Western Europe. This monastic movement could best be called Columban, for Sts. Columba(531-597) and Columban(530?-615), the two great successors of St. Patrick who carried the movement respectively to Scotland and England and to Gaul and Italy. The movement was nothing like the later, usurious Benedictine Order; it was the basis upon which Pope St. Gregory and his successors were able to break the Church free at last from the Byzantine successors of the old Roman emperors and nobility. Christianity could not actually teach that each man and woman was in the living image of God, until this Roman-Byzantine grip was broken, which appears to have been made possible by this “Irish” Augustinian monastery movement.
There was only one problem with Ireland’s peaceful revolution. As their spiritual connections grew, so did the number of monasteries in Ireland, and the degree of their personal wealth. They became quite a temptation to marauding Norsemen seeking slaves and riches. These Norsemen; usually second sons with no hopes of inheriting family estates and left to seek their own fortunes, became known as the Vikings. The impression the history books give you of a hoard that swept through Ireland then vanished, after leaving half the population impregnated and the other half dead, is rather inaccurate. Although the brutality should not be diminished, the raids were infrequent enough to leave most of the population unconcerned in the day to day comforts of their lives. It’s even suspected some of attacks were assisted by non-Christian Irish who wished to create their own lucrative businesses of barter and trade.
The Vikings lasted two hundred years in Ireland, creating several settlements; Waterford, Dublin and Limerick, and initiating commerce. In the year 999, the Vikings were finally defeated by Brian Boro, son of the leader of one of the royal free tribes of Munster, and was later recognized as the king of all Ireland. By then, the towering, light skinned, bright haired Vikings had left a lot of racially mixed ascendents running around.
There’s something about that Viking blood; you can water it down ten times over and still come up with red hair and freckles. Ireland was no longer just the home of a small, dark Celtic people. It’s inhabitants included tall blondes, broad boned red heads and blue eyes. To complicate matters further, no sooner had the Irish gotten rid of the Vikings and formed their own union under one king, then the Normandy invasions began. These invasions soon overtook the Saxons of Brittany, who until now, had been on good terms with their Irish neighbors. The new, Normandy dominated England presented as different a political face as the new Ireland did a physical one.
It was an era of kingships, of status building, of conquest. The powerful Normans attacked Ireland in 1167 at Baginbun, Co. Wexford, beginning the start of Irish resistance to England. By 1361, the last of the Irish kings had been killed and England had seized large areas of Ireland. An edict in effect banned pure-blooded Irish from becoming mayors, bailiff’s, officers of the king or clergymen, serving the English. In 1366, the Statutes of Kilkenny forbade Irish/English marriages and prevented the English from using the Irish language, customs or laws. The years fell into rebellion and anarchy, with Norman forces expanding their territory throughout Western Europe and crushing against Irish resistance in battle after battle.
By 1641, there was enough organized unrest to form what would be later called, “The Great Catholic/ Irish Rebellion”. A conspiracy to seize back Dublin and expel the English was formed under Irish Chieftain, Rory O’More. The dissenters included Old English Catholics, living in Ireland. The uprising was successful and Catholics now held 59% of the land in Ireland. This comfortable time period was not to last long. In 1649, England returned troops to Ireland under the direction of Oliver Cromwell. In his illustrious career, he killed 2,000 Irish men in his initial battle, exiled Catholic land-owners three years later, and sent 60,000 Irish Catholics to the Barbados and other Caribbean Islands as slaves. The first mass expulsion of the Irish people from their homeland had begun. By Cromwell’s death in 1658, the population of Ireland had been reduced from 1,500,000 people to 500,000 people.
It’s not at all easy being Irish, especially when you’re talking about your grandmother’s grandmother who came over during the potato famine. “Over” meaning you live in the United States, Australia or Canada. Yes, you’re sure she was Catholic, but she had red hair. It’s this red color that never leaves us even though a few Native Americans were thrown in here and there. Well, then, you are Viking Irish. Not quite up there with the originals, but at least you have an understanding of what being Irish is all about. I think I do. I think it’s about a monk the Irish called Saint Patrick and the gift he gave them by respecting Brehon Law and giving it a place within their understanding of Christianity. I think it’s about a people with strong feelings concerning equality. I think it’s about an ideal and that one day people might once again strive to achieve it.