A beautifully produced new translation of the 16th-century Anglo-Irish historian’s account of this country and its people

Great Deeds in Ireland: Richard Stanihurst’s ‘De Rebus in Hibernia Gestis’Edited and translated by John Barry and Hiram Morgan

The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife, from 1854, by Daniel Maclise. Photograph © National Gallery of Ireland

The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife, from 1854, by Daniel Maclise. Photograph © National Gallery of Ireland

Sat, Dec 14, 2013, 01:00


Book Title:
Great Deeds in Ireland: Richard Stanihurst's De Rebus in Hibernia Gestis


John Barry and Hiram Morgan

Cork University Press

Guideline Price:

I first got to know Richard Stanihurst, the Oxford-educated scion of a Dublin elite family who later became a seminary priest, as a distinguished classical scholar and historian who, as he put it, had taken to defending his “native country” from the “slanderous scoffs” of English-born Protestant critics.

Stanihurst (1547-1618) has always been revered by those who have studied history at Dublin institutions, as their lecturers have been able to command their attention both by referring to Stanihurst’s praise for Dublin’s “mayor of the bull ring”, who was responsible for diverting the city’s bachelors from places of ill repute, and by introducing them to Stanihurst’s commentary on the aesthetic beauty and rich civic culture of his beloved city.

But when I first read the “Description of Ireland”, published in 1577 as Stanihurst’s contribution to Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, I was shocked to find that Stanihurst was every bit as dismissive of Gaelic society as were the English commentators he faulted. Essentially, Stanihurst’s patria was the English Pale, and those he lauded and defended were people, like himself, of Anglo-Norman descent who, he contended, had retained “the dregs of the old ancient Chaucer English” that had fallen into disuse even in England. The “Irishry”, as Stanihurst described them, led a crude existence, and his only hope was that “within two or three ages” they would become civil if they heeded “sound preachers and sincere livers” who “would instruct them in the fear of God”.

Some Stanihurst devotees have suggested that when Stanihurst later became disenchanted with Elizabethan rule in Ireland he began to look more benignly at the culture of the Gaelic Irish – and became, in effect, an inclusive humanist patriot. This case was sustained mainly by reference to Stanihurst’s principal Latin text, De Rebus in Hibernia Gestis, published from the Continent in 1584, by which time the author had become a voluntary Catholic exile from both Ireland and England.

Lay readers can now form their own opinions thanks to the efforts of John Barry and Hiram Morgan in preparing the beautifully produced Great Deeds in Ireland, where a fresh English translation and the complete Latin text of De Rebus in Hibernia Gestis have been printed on facing pages. Their edition is enriched with incisive but unobtrusive annotations and with a lengthy introduction that offers an appraisal both of Stanihurst’s career and of how his Latin text has been read and received in succeeding centuries.

When readers ponder the crunch question – if the opinions and attitudes of Stanihurst in 1584 differed significantly from those he had expressed in 1577 – they must recognise that the formats of the two texts were different, and that the audiences he was targeting were also different. The “Description” was a relatively short, quickly prepared contribution to a very large volume concerned principally with English matters. Moreover, he wrote in English for the benefit of English readers who Stanihurst believed were no longer distinguishing between the indigenous Gaelic population of Ireland and those descended from the Anglo-Norman conquest of the country, whose historic role had been to uphold and advance the English interest in the country.

Great Deeds, on the other hand, was a longer, reflective tract that followed mostly a historical format, and was written in Latin, which as Stanihurst put it in 1577 was “the language which is universally spoken throughout the greater part of the world”.

As Stanihurst reached out in Great Deeds to this educated European audience, his primary purpose was to extol the merits and achievements of those of his own lineage. He made this immediately apparent by identifying the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland as the critical moment when Ireland had been brought into historical time, and by accepting Gerald of Wales, the 12th-century chronicler, as the authority on that subject. It is not clear why he composed an account of the conquest based principally on that written by Gerald of Wales rather than supply a fresh and corrected edition of Gerald’s contemporary chronicle. The editors suggest Stanihurst’s method gave him licence to introduce slight modifications to the story and to give greater emphasis to the positive role played in that conquest by the FitzGeralds, whose descendants, the earls of Kildare, had been his patrons.

As we appraise the entire text it becomes clear from Stanihurst’s occasional comments on what Gerald of Wales had written of the mores of the Gaelic Irish that he was indeed less dismissive of Gaelic society in 1584 than he had been in 1577. Buit as the editors of Great Deeds make clear, the change was in nuance rather than in substance, as any positive comments on Gaelic society that Stanihurst offered were invariably challenged by his citation of contrary evidence. Thus while he praised those in Gaelic Ireland, including saints such as Columbanus and Gall, who had conducted their lives “according to the true precepts of religion”, he considered their achievement all the more commendable because in Gaelic society “religion had no power against looting, plunder and murder”. Then even his condescending concession that the Irish were “not devoid of all civilisation” was compromised by graphic depictions of barbaric practices, most memorably that of Dermot MacMurrough, who, having offered thanks to God for letting him see the severed head of his worst enemy, proceeded to engage in the cannibalistic ritual of sucking blood from the bleeding head.

The proposition that remained consistent with what he had said in 1577 was that “those who live in the English province differ from the Irish in their way of life, their customs and their way of speech”, “preserve uncorrupted the antiquity of the English language” and “deviate not one finger’s breadth from the ancient ways of the English”. For Stanihurst “English” signified “civil”, which led him to the dubious argument that most people from Ireland who had earned a reputation abroad for scholarship had come from this Hiberno-English community.

Then, as he brought this argument forward in time, he formulated the outrageous proposition that the efforts on the Continent of learned people of English lineage to redeem the scholarly reputation of Ireland were being compromised by clerics of little learning from Gaelic parts of the country who travelled to Rome by begging on the roadside, then pleaded to be made bishops.

Although this passage, and much of what he wrote of the Irish language and Gaelic society, explain why Stanihurst featured among those identified by Geoffrey Keating as English “dunghill beetles” bent on discrediting everything Irish, it did not earn Stanihurst credit from English Protestant critics of Irish society. Many borrowed his arguments to serve their own purposes, while some, including Edmund Spenser, cited him with apparent approval.

But Stanihurst’s drift to the Continent and his later ordination as a Catholic priest placed an inseparable rift between him and the Dublin administration, as did his role in defending his native Pale community at a time when English officials were berating that community for obstructing their more radical schemes for reforming Ireland. In this the most comprehensive counterblast to Stanihurst was delivered subtly by Spenser, who asserted that “it was even the other day” – that is, at the time of the Protestant Reformation – “that England grew civil” and that “in the reign of Henry II when Ireland was first planted with English”, England itself had been “very rude and barbarous”. As such opinions gained currency in official circles it put paid to Stanihurst’s ambition to have his kinsfolk from the Pale become the promoters of civility in Ireland.

Great Deeds in Ireland: Richard Stanihurst’s ‘De Rebus in Hibernia Gestis’

Edited and translated by John Barry and Hiram Morgan, Cork University Press, 544pp, €49

Nicholas Canny is director of the Moore Institute at NUI Galway and was president of the Royal Irish Academy 2008-11.

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