A history of Ireland in 100 objects

Sat, Feb 18, 2012, 00:00

De Burgo-O’Malley Chalice, 1494

An inscription on this fine silver chalice, given to the Dominican abbey of Borrishoole, in Co Mayo, in 1494, bears the names of Thomas de Burgo and his wife, Gráinne Ní Mháille (Gráinne O’Malley). The first surname is that of a scion of one of the great Anglo-Norman warlord families in Ireland; the second is obviously Gaelic. (Gráinne was an ancestor of the famous Granuaile.) The chalice – Michael Kenny of the National Museum of Ireland suspects it was probably made in Galway – is a physical token of the integration of the former invaders into Gaelic aristocratic society.

Richard de Burgo invaded Connacht in the 1230s and, after a devastating series of conflicts, took control of most of it in 1235. But the Bruce invasion and vicious infighting among various claimants to the de Burgo lordship gradually weakened it. Connacht was effectively lost to Anglo-Norman control, and hence to the English government, by 1350. The last English urban settlement, the borough of Roscommon, was obliterated in 1360.

Anglo-Norman landholders – Burkes, Joyces, Stauntons – melted, as the chalice shows, into Gaelic upper-class society.

In this sense, the chalice symbolises the revival of the Gaelic aristocracy and the retreat of the Anglo-Norman colony. But the idea that Anglo-Norman Ireland was “Gaelicised” in the 15th century leaves out the fact that, almost from the beginning, when Strongbow married Aoife, many of the big Anglo-Norman families resulted from marriages to high-status Irish women. For example, Thomas fitz Maurice, ancestor of the powerful Desmond clan, had an Irish wife called Sadhbh. The colonial aristocracy was always partly Irish, and the process of making it “Hiberniores Hibernis ipsis” (more Irish than the Irish) was a long one.

But this process involved more ordinary settlers as well. Hence the Statute of Kilkenny, promulgated by Edward III’s son Lionel, duke of Clarence, in 1366, complained of the “many English . . . forsaking the English language, fashion, mode of riding, laws and usages” to “live and govern themselves by the manners, fashion and language of the Irish enemies”. Uniquely in the Christian world, the statute attempted to ban marriage between two Christian communities, the English and the Irish.

These laws were re-enforced by further parliamentary decrees right down to the time this chalice was made. But the two names inscribed on its base show how futile they were.

Ironically, indeed, the English themselves began to think of the Anglo-Norman population of Ireland as simply Irish. In the 15th century, those of Anglo-Irish origin were officially classified in England itself as aliens.

The earls of Desmond, descended from Thomas fitz Maurice, typified this new hybrid identity. Earl Gerald FitzGerald, for example was justiciar (royal governor) of Ireland in the 1360s but wrote Gaelic poetry and had a daughter who did not know how to dress in English clothes and a son who was fostered by a Gaelic chief, Conor O’ Brien of Thomond. It was increasingly necessary for such magnates to live in two worlds at the same time, maintaining theoretical loyalty to the English monarch while operating on the ground as Irish chieftains.

Thanks to Michael Kenny

Where to see itNational Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts History, Collins Barracks, Dublin 7, 01-6777444, museum.ie