The Normans

part 1

After a period of isolation Ireland was in the twelfth century drawn back into the mainstream of western history: the agents of this were the Normans, who were to have a profound effect on the social and economic life of the country and on the way it is governed.

Lewis Warren


Is Ireland a part of Europe? The answer to that question depends upon what period of history we are talking about. Sometimes it is and sometimes it is not. In the remote past Ireland had been a part of a far-flung Celtic society. But when the Roman empire spread out to embrace other Celtic lands into a civilisation based on the Mediterranean, Ireland was left out, cut off and detached. Later, after the Roman empire in the west had disintegrated, Ireland helped a struggling Europe to its feet, preaching the gospel to the barbarians and teaching them how to read and write. In the ninth century Irish scholars were prominent at the court of Emperor Charlemagne and his successors. But then, when Europe developed its own momentum of change and progress, Ireland retreated in upon itself, seeming to shun the world outside. In the twelfth century something unusual happened: Europe itself reached out to Ireland as if to draw it back into the mainstream of western history. The agents of it were men who spoke French. We usually call them the Normans. They reached Ireland via England and Wales.

Being taken over by the Normans is an experience which the Irish share with the English. The outcome of that experience was very different in each case. Why is an interesting question. The answer commonly given is that England was completely conquered by the Normans and Ireland was not; the implication being that this is why England emerged as a well-organised state with an effective central authority, and Ireland was left as a political mess. But this is a very superficial and inadequate answer. We do not yet have a better answer because until very recently historians have not been accustomed to comparing the history of one country with another. Part of the legacy of nineteenth-century nationalism has been the assumption that nations have unique histories. For far too long we have been accustomed to partition history into compartments, as the history of England, the history of Ireland, the history of Scotland, instead of the history of the British Isles. It is of course convenient to partition history into manageable portions; but all too often we forget to open the connecting doors between the compartments.

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