An Island’s Divine Prophecy

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An Island’s Divine Prophecy

Marina Nebro

Sophomore (Class of 2016)

First visiting Ireland in 1183 under the leadership of his student, Prince John, Gerald of Wales had two overall goals in mind: to become Bishop of St. David and to later ascend to the Archbishopric of Wales. In addition, on his travels to Ireland, he also took the opportunity to record his experiences with the land and its people, using these accounts to justify the Norman Conquest. The History and Topography of Ireland is split into three sections, the second being dedicated to “The Wonders and Miracles of Ireland,” descriptions of events that he had “found out either by the testimony of [his] own eyes, or that of reliable men found worthy of credence.”1 The latter part of the quoted selection is important to note, as according to the edition’s endnotes, many of the stories in this section originate from “native Irish sources… going back into the Old Irish period.”2

Whereas the first section, dedicated to descriptions of the island’s unique landscape and creatures, took on a didactic tone, preaching to the reader how one, particularly a cleric, should lead one’s life, this second section is more straightforward in its delivery. It is in The Wonders and Miracles of Ireland that Gerald tells the reader how the island of Ireland has prophesized, and hence supports, the oncoming Norman invasion, as well as furthers his pro-church stance, perhaps to further his clerical position. Gerald’s first aim, legitimizing the Norman’s presence in Ireland, takes on two forms. The first way he pushes this idea is to tell of prophetical signs that foretell their coming, and the second is to denigrate the Irish people, giving reason for a civilizing force to come in and “fix” the barbaric population.

The first mention of prophetic signs in Ireland appears in the tale of the fish with golden teeth, in which the appearance of this miraculously sea-creature with shimmering, gold dentals foreshadows the oncoming of the English. Gerald starts off this short paragraph with the phrase “Two years before the coming of the English,”3 signifying not only how recent the event took place, but also putting the event in relation to the Norman conquest. In his eyes, correlation equaled causation and prophecy. The paragraph ends, if to only clarify to the reader, that the event “seemed to prefigure the imminent conquest.”3 One can only speculate as to why gold teeth found in a fish would foretell the English.

In a section about “Ravens and owls that have their young about Christmas-time,”4 Gerald, yet again, explains how the island shows signs of forewarning. It is strange for these creatures to give birth at this time, and for this reason, the phenomenon is seen as prophetic. Though he doesn’t date this event with a year, he gives the reader enough evidence as to when it may have taken place: around the year 1185 at the departure of Prince John. Unlike the previous example, the birth of the young fowl was a negative sign “of some new and premature evil.”4 With the departure of Prince John, Norman nobles would again take advantage of the opportunity to fortify their own power bases. The Gaelic Irish would also revert to their traditional practices. In stating that this is a negative occurrence, and that the island was able to predict it, Gerald demonstrates the necessity of English royal presence in Ireland.

The last example, and most likely the most powerful of the three, comes when Gerald talks about a miraculous cross in the Holy Trinity church of Dublin. He first mentions the cross as one that “gives testimony to the truth.”5 Again, mentioning the coming of the English as a way to draw attention to the event’s proximity to his day, Gerald speaks of how this cross was called to witness in a trial and spoke the truth. This short tale precedes the one that gives credence to the English invasion, but in stating that the cross was truthful, gives the following story even more power.

When Earl Richard [de Clare] first came with an army to Dublin the citizens had forebodings of many evils, and fearing that their city would fall… decided to make their escape by sea and wanted to bring with them to the islands the cross of which we have been speaking. They tried… but… could not move it either by force or skill.6
Firstly, with the mention of Strongbow, one can date this event to around 1170, as he captured Dublin by September 21st of that same year. The paragraph also conveys how important this particular cross was to the Irish inhabitants of the area. The fact that the cross was unable to be moved showed that it supported the Normans capture of Dublin, because, after all, the Holy Trinity cross only spoke the truth and would not have remained had it not believed in the English cause.

Proving that the land and the air of Ireland supported the English conquest was not enough for Gerald of Wales. In colonial propaganda and promotional literature, there must always be the mention of the native inhabitants. Without denigrating the Irish and demonstrating their inferiority, there would be no reason in conquering the people. Gerald is quick to judge the inhabitants in order to promote the English cause.

One of the main complaints Gerald makes about the Irish people is their proclivity towards bestiality, a sin forbidden in the Bible, as it is a form of sodomy, or an inappropriate sexual relation. He makes this clear in telling the story about “A man that was half an ox and an ox that was half a man.”7 One can immediately infer that to have such a creature, copulation between a human and an ox must have taken place – “a cow from a man’s intercourse with her.”8 Within this short tale, he also mentions Maurice fitzGerald, a member of the Geraldine family from which Gerald also came. He denigrates the Irish and promotes his family in the same story. He ridicules the customs of the Irish, as they welcome both hybrid creatures into their mix at the same rank and status as men. To prove further that the Irish had a problem, in an aside he states that bestiality was “a particular vice of that people.”8

Gerald’s insistence on Irish inferiority doesn’t stop with the mention of men. He actually focuses a lot further on vices of Irish women, in particular. His reason for this is twofold: firstly, whether towards men or women, denigration of the Irish promotes Gerald’s political cause, and secondly, his negative attitude towards women promotes his clerical position and pro-church stance.

His first negative mention towards women arises in a story about the origins of a big lake, specifically Lough Neagh according to the edition’s endnotes. The tale can be compared to biblical stories such as The Flood or Sodom and Gomorrah, in which an entire land was destroyed due to “filthy crimes against nature.”9 Unlike the stories of the Old Testament, though, the flood that resulted in the creation of a lake was not instigated by a godly hand, but rather by the hand of a woman. The well from which the woman drew her water was known for the superstition that it would overflow lest it were covered immediately after drawing water. Therefore, it was the fault of a woman that destroyed an entire people.

In another excerpt, Gerald speaks about “A woman with a beard and a mane on her back,”10 proving that the women of Ireland were just as barbaric and backwards as the men, if not more so. He claims that her appearance was against nature, an argument often used in medieval literature to demonstrate inferiority and sin. Gerald separates her from the Irish people further by stating that her mane was against nature and her culture, placing this particular woman on an even lower rung in his view. The long beard, though against female nature, at least followed the customs of the Irish, though long beards were not admired by the Anglo-Normans.

Gerald’s last example deals with female bestiality, but goes further in that he criticizes a French woman as well, neatly segueing his anti-Gaelic agenda to his pro-church one. In the first woman and animal scenario, the king of Connacht, also known as Rory O’Connor, allowed a white goat to sleep with a woman. Firstly, this shows an overall Irish leniency when it comes to bestiality. Secondly, he mentions that the woman proves “herself more a beast in accepting him than he did in acting.”11 He does not place any blame on an unknowing goat, but rather puts full fault on the woman involved in coitus – “although the matter was detestable on both sides… yet was it less so by far on the side of the brute who is subject to rational beings.”11 It is as if Gerald is describing that the woman had a rational power over the animal, hence making her the guiltier party.

“A lion that loved a woman,”11 is a tale that leaves Ireland behind for a short while and travels to Paris, further demonizing women for their bestial tendencies, promoting the church view of women as inferior beings. Gerald compares Johanna, the woman who would change “all [the lion’s] fury immediately to love,”12 to crimes of antiquity, emphasizing this woman’s backward and barbaric practices. He quotes Leviticus in this section as well, promoting church doctrine. Beginning with the story of Eve and her temptation and following on to clerical celibacy, the Catholic Church has always denounced women as inferior, and in speaking negatively about women, both in Ireland and on the continent, Gerald of Wales kills two birds with one stone and is able to promote the Norman conquest and pitch himself further for the seats of the bishopric and archbishopric.

In a close reading of The History and Topography of Ireland, it can be seen that Gerald puts his duties as a cleric before his duties as a loyal subject to the Anglo-Norman throne. Towards the end of the second section on miracles and wonders, he includes stories about various Norman soldiers and their negative experiences in Ireland. These experiences are not the fault of the Irish people or the Irish land, but of the Normans. It might seem counterproductive to portray his own people negatively, but the meaning behind these tales far overreach the invasion and show Gerald’s loyalty to the Church as greater than that to the king. He recounts the story of a thieving young man from Raymond leGros’ household, and how because he would not confess his crime, bore the weight of the cross around his neck “so that from then on he had not been able to sleep or have any rest.”13 The cross from the Church of the Holy Trinity, which had supported Strongbow’s capture of Dublin, likewise punished one of the Normans when he deviated from his Christian values. Gerald did not approve of any transgressions against the church, even when it came to his own people.

Similar examples are brought up with various other Norman soldiers who went against the church – two archers who crossed over St. Brigid’s hedge and were punished, Hugh Tyrell’s theft of clerical property and his subsequent divine punishment, and an archer that raped a woman and died because of it. All of these examples prove one thing in Gerald’s eyes: God punishes transgressors no matter where they come from – Ireland or England. Gerald, in writing about these tales, shows that he does not support these actions and paints himself in a better light for the Church, in hopes of rising in clerical position.

The Wonders and the Miracles of Ireland serve as a backdrop for Gerald of Wales’ to express himself politically and religiously. Through stories, he attempts to create an inevitable prophecy for an Anglo-Norman invasion into Ireland, giving Prince John and King Henry II divine authority for their endeavors. He also paints the Irish inhabitants in an inferior light to support their suppression and the capturing of their lands. Lastly, he touches upon the Christian wonders on the Ireland, and demonstrates his overarching loyalty towards the Roman Catholic Church and the pope – in hopes of gaining a higher authority and more power in the church.

1 Gerald of Wales, History and Topography of Ireland (New York: Penguin, 1982), 57.

2 Ibid., p. 130

3 Ibid., p. 64

4 Ibid., p. 77

5 Ibid., p. 85

6 Ibid., p. 86

7 Ibid., p. 73

8 Ibid., p. 74

9 Ibid., p. 65

10 Ibid., p. 72-73

11 Ibid., p. 75

12 Ibid., p. 76

13 Ibid., p. 87

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