Dragon up the past

An Irishman’s Diary on how ancient prejudices could help Irish rugby

‘One of the particular obsessions of Giraldus Cambrensis, or “Gerald of Wales”– and I mention this in the context of Gordon D’Arcy – was facial hair.’  Photograph: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

‘One of the particular obsessions of Giraldus Cambrensis, or “Gerald of Wales”– and I mention this in the context of Gordon D’Arcy – was facial hair.’ Photograph: Dan Sheridan/INPHO


Never mind what Warren Gatland might have said about us. In the unlikely event that Joe Schmidt is short of motivational material today, he could do worse than display some extracts from a classic of 12th-century travel writing, Topographia Hibernica, on the Irish dressing room walls.

Topographic Hibernica was written by one Giraldus Cambrensis, or “Gerald of Wales”, a priest and chronicler who followed the Normans to Ireland and, in time, became the invasion’s chief apologist.

His mostly-disparaging views of the natives were hugely popular back home. And they were so influential that, for centuries afterwards, foreign travel writers in Ireland tended to imitate his style, if not his prejudices.

In general, he thought the Irish were lazy, dirty savages, in urgent need of colonisation. But one of his particular obsessions – and I mention this in the context of Gordon D’Arcy – was facial hair.

His more memorable vignettes include a description of a heavily-bearded woman, retained by the king of Limerick for everyone’s amusement. Not only did she have thick facial hair, apparently, she also a wild mane growing out of her back.

Yet, even among men, Gerald considered the general level of hirsuteness in Ireland to be proof of savagery. If I were Joe Schmidt, here’s the extract I’d put up beside the green No 12 shirt:

“This people then, is truly barbarous, being not only barbarous in their dress but suffering their hair and beards to grow enormously . . . But habits are formed by mutual intercourse; and as these people inhabit a country so remote from the rest of the world . . . and are thus excluded from civilised nations, they learn nothing and practise nothing, but the barbarism in which they are born and bred and which sticks to them like a second nature.”

Over to you, Gordon. I’m not suggesting Jamie Roberts’s smooth facial features are a deliberate provocation, but nobody could blame you for interpreting them that way.

It’s only fair to say of Giraldus Cambrensis that, influential as he was in popularising negative stereotypes about Ireland, he wasn’t the first travel writer to give the place a bad review. And at least he had visited it, unlike the Greek geographer Strabo.

Strabo lived around the time of Christ, travelling widely in and beyond the Roman Empire, but not to here, a fact that didn’t prevent him giving the place a colourful write-up. Anticipating the style of certain internet comment sites by 2,000 years, he offered the following opinion of Ireland:

“Concerning this island, I have nothing certain to tell, except that its inhabitants are more savage than the Britons, since they are man-eaters as well as heavy-eaters and since, further, they count it an honourable thing, when their fathers die, to devour them, and openly to have intercourse, not only with the other women, but also with their mothers and sisters; but I am saying this only with the understanding that I have no trustworthy witnesses for it . . .”

Topographia Hibernia was, by comparison, well informed and restrained in its opinions. In fact, almost in spite of himself, Giraldus Cambrensis did see things in Ireland that impressed him. It’s not for nothing, clearly, that the harp became an official Irish symbol, because in a back-handed compliment, he wrote:

“The only thing to which I find that this people apply a commendable industry is playing upon musical instruments, in which they are incomparably more skilful than any other nation I have ever seen.”

Nor, again contradicting himself, was that the only evidence he found of industry. Confronted with an illuminated manuscript made by Kildare monks, his love of art temporarily overwhelmed all negative sentiments, sending him into raptures. “Miraculous” he called the book, warning that careless observers could easily miss the skill with which it had been produced.

“But if you take the trouble to look very closely and penetrate with your eyes the secrets of the artistry, you will notice such intricacies, so delicate and subtle, so close together and well-knitted, so involved and bound together, and so fresh still in their colourings that you will not hesitate to declare that all these things must have been the result of the work, not of men, but of angels.”

The moral of the story may be that beauty sometimes triumphs over prejudice. And the other thing I take from it is that, as well as displaying selected quotations from Topographia Hibernica in home-team’s dressing room today, it might also be worth someone’s while visiting the away one, and pinning up photocopies of the Book of Kells.


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