“The power of the Irish over the Britons is great”: Fergal Keane on Britain’s Irish roots

For centuries, Ireland lived in the shadow of its nearest neighbour, but that wasn’t always the case. Fergal Keane takes us back to the early medieval era, when Britain’s culture and religious beliefs were profoundly shaped by visitors from across the Irish Sea

A 12th-century Celtic round tower at Clonmacnoise, County Offaly

“What is there more marvellous,” an eighth-century Gaelic poem asks, “than the incomparable great story?” The great story of the Irish in Britain is frequently told as a triumph over racism and exclusion – from the era of signs declaring “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish” to 21st-century success in business, the arts and entertainment.

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The Irish built the roads, canals and housing estates. They cleared away the debris of Luftwaffe bombing raids. In the words of the ballad ‘McAlpine’s Fusiliers’, they “sweated blood and they washed down mud with pints and quarts of beer”. It is a story of hardship and forbearance whose privations are hard to imagine for the modern Irish in Britain.

But the legend of the Fusiliers – the men who built Britain – and of the ‘Ryanair Generation’ of educated young people that followed them, has obscured an extraordinary story. To know it we must travel far back, before the great divisions of modern history.

I was born in London to Irish parents but returned with them to live in Ireland. The ‘old struggle’ between the nations defined the politics of the world in which I grew up. As a journalist and writer of history I have been preoccupied with examining the roots of conflict between the British and Irish. It has been the dominating story of my life, to which I return again and again.

But now that the ‘Troubles’ have been consigned to memory it is possible to look at the past, however distant, and see it in all its richness and nuance. We are surely past the point where Anglo-Irish relations can be weaponised by warring traditions.

A flurry of axes

Like most of my schoolmates in the 1970s, I believed that the Romans had rowed down the coast of Ireland during a particularly bad winter, taken a considered look at the rugged shores and unfriendly locals and decided conquest wasn’t worth the trouble.

I also believed that the same Romans kept the British tribes too busy to cause trouble for the Irish, leaving us to get on with our natural vocation of being saintly and scholarly. According to the accepted version, all was well until the Vikings descended in a flurry of axes and pillage in AD 798, to be followed by the Normans in 1169 and the subsequent rollout of 750 years of English domination.

But by reaching into antiquity, we can discover the story of how Irish warriors, traders and monks helped to change the face of Britain. In the words of that same Gaelic poem, the Irish went “eastward towards the Sun Tree, into the broad long-distant sea, across the land of Saxons of mighty shields”.

Far from being a barrier, the sea has linked peoples and cultures in eastern Ireland to communities along the west coast of Britain for more than two millennia. We traded and inter-married and shared a common language with the west of Scotland and the Isle of Man, as well as a Druidic culture with the rest of Britain.

Far from being a barrier, the sea has linked peoples and cultures in eastern Ireland to communities along the west coast of Britain for more than two millennia

Dr Clare Downham teaches the early medieval period at the University of Liverpool and has researched Irish influences on western Britain. “I think often there’s a stereotype in modern times that somehow people in the past were more segregated into distinct groups and cultures than they are now,” she says. “But the fact is, travel by sea has always been a feature of human existence and was often easier and faster in the Middle Ages than it would be to travel by land.”

It was nothing like the “sea of death where hell begins” evoked by Homer, nor was it home to what the Greek geographer Strabo called “a cannibal race who deem it commendable to devour their deceased fathers”. In fact, it was another, less hyperbolic, Greek who produced the first map showing the proximity of Ireland to her larger neighbour. The Geographia of Claudius Ptolemy from around AD 150 also reveals that the Brigantes – an early Celtic tribe – settled on both sides of the Irish sea.

For the administrators of Roman Britain, trade with Ireland was a mainstay of the west coast economy. Irish cattle barons despatched herds to feed and clothe the legions. In the first century AD, Tacitus wrote of Ireland that the “interior parts are little known, but through commercial intercourse and the merchants there is better knowledge of the harbours and approaches”.

I remember my sense of wonder when I attended an archaeological dig some years ago at Silchester about an hour’s drive from London, and was shown an Ogham stone, a standing stone inscribed with ancient Gaelic.

The Ogham alphabet has 20 letters and is one of the few alphabets written and read vertically. It was a sight more familiar to me from the fields near my ancestral village of Ardmore in County Waterford. The Silchester stone celebrated an Irish trader with the Latin name, Tebicatus, who settled in Britain during the last years of the Roman imperium. Similar stones are found in Wales, Scotland and on the Devon/Cornwall border.

Professor Dáibhí Ó Cróinín of National University of Ireland Galway explains that, from as early as AD 200, there was substantial emigration from the south-east of Ireland to south-west Britain. “These were not just passing Irish people, they were not just raiders who were having a boozy weekend and then going back to Ireland. On the contrary, they were obviously settled and they were a population group that became an independent, separate Irish kingdom for want of a better word.”

Of course there were Irish raiders. To fight them off, the Romans resorted to tactics tested when fighting the German tribes. They brought in Irish settlers, armed them and in return for grants of land gave them the task of protecting the borders from their marauding fellow countrymen.

“That’s why they’re there,” says Professor Ó Cróinín. “That’s why they erect these stones as a sign that they are settled and that they have ownership of the property… The Romans wanted these guys to protect them. They didn’t want to expend good Roman soldiers doing this kind of grunt work.”

Romans out, Irish in

As the Romans withdrew from Britain, Irish raiding and colonising increased. Cormac of Cashel, a ninth and tenth-century AD king of Munster, wrote that the “power of the Irish over the Britons was great, and they had divided Britain between them into estates… and the Irish lived as much east of the sea as they did in Ireland”. Cormac was given to overstatement. The Irish in this period were one of a number of groups taking advantage of the decline of order that accompanied the Roman exodus.

It is in the spiritual and cultural spheres that it is difficult to exaggerate the influence of the Irish. In the words of the great 18th-century lexicographer Samuel Johnson, the period that followed the collapse of Roman power was when “Ireland was the school of the west, the quiet habitation of sanctity and literature”.

In the spiritual and cultural spheres, it is difficult to exaggerate the influence of the Irish in Britain

It was Irish monks who spread the Christian gospel in Scotland. The most famous was Saint Columba, who established his monastery on the island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides in the sixth century and is credited with converting the Picts to Christianity. A lament written after his death described Columba as:

“The leader of nations who guarded the living…

our chief of the needy…

our messenger of the Lord…

the whole world it was his.”

Columba’s monks proselytised in the Scottish part of Dál Riata. This ancient kingdom spanned both sides of the channel separating northern Ireland and western Scotland. With the Christian faith came a reverence for learning and writing as exemplified by the magnificent Lindisfarne Gospels which blend Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Italian styles.

When Oswald, king of Northumbria, wanted to revive the Christian faith in the face of growing paganism, he sent to Iona, in the heart of Dál Riata, where he had studied as a young man, for a suitable missionary. The monk who arrived, Saint Aidan, is described by the early church historian, the Venerable Bede as “a man of outstanding gentleness, holiness and moderation”.

Aidan went on to found the monastery at Lindisfarne on Holy Island and successfully turned the tide of paganism among the Anglo-Saxons. Writing in the eighth century, Bede describes how “many Irishmen arrived day by day in Britain and proclaimed the word of God with great devotion…”

But not all the incoming clerics were candidates for sainthood. Of one of them it was written:

“Cú Chuimhne in his youth

Read his way through half the truth

He let the other half lie

While he gave women a try.”

As late as the ninth century there are records of Irish clerics arriving in Wessex – the kingdom that dominated much of southern England – and making their way to the court of Alfred the Great in full expectation of spiritual employment and bodily sustenance.

“When you look at any English artistic production from the early Middle Ages, the influence of the Irish is immediately apparent… so much came from Ireland in the Middle Ages,” says Clare Downham.

Norman conquerors

So what happened to change the relatively benign view of the Irish in Britain? Start with the Normans. The Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland in the 12th century created a relationship of conqueror and conquered which would be justified in the language of colonial denigration.

The influential writer, Gerald of Wales, scion of a prominent Norman family, described the Irish as cut offfrom the civilised world and being “not only barbarous in their dress but suffering their hair and beards to grow enormously in an uncouth manner… indeed all their habits are barbarisms… these people inhabit a country so remote from the rest of the world and lying at its furthest extremity… 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.”

In the long centuries that followed, Ireland would emerge as an existential threat to Britain, becoming the rebellious other island which remained Catholic after Henry VIII’s English Reformation. The faith once spread by Irish monks became a mark of division. Protestant England feared invasion by Catholic forces launched from Ireland. Rebellion, plantation and more rebellion followed. The shared ancient past was buried in the accumulated bitterness of centuries.

Why does any of this matter now? For one thing, we are experiencing a resurgence of mistrust between the two islands, driven by the debate around Brexit. The Republic of Ireland fears the return of a hard border with Northern Ireland. The UK government stresses the importance of British sovereignty. The warmth in the bilateral relationship so evident after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 has distinctly cooled. Fears have been expressed of a return to violence if barriers are erected between north and south. In such febrile times it can be too easy to forget what is shared.

By returning to the age before conquest we can see what was possible when the talents and energy of the two islands fused

Our history certainly had its share of wretchedness but by returning to the age before conquest we can see what was possible when the talents and energy of the two islands fused, as the sixth-century lament for Saint Columba recalls:

“The northern land shone

The western people blazed…

He ran the course which runs past

hatred to right action.”

Fergal Keane is a senior on-air editor with BBC News and an author. His three-part BBC Radio 4 series How the Irish Shaped Britain began on 11 January 2021 and is available now

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This article was first published in the January 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine