Opinion: the names applied to medieval people tell a fascinating tale about inclusion and identity

By Stephen Hewer, TCD

conference was recently held in Dublin for the 850th anniversary of the English "Invasion" (by invitation) of Ireland. Prior to the event, a number of historians wrote articles where they explained that the "invaders" were English because they called themselves English, the French called them English and the Gaels called them "Saxonaib" (‘English’). This ruffled some feathers for Irish people who grew up with stories of a Norman Invasion of Ireland just like the Norman Invasion of England. Some people seem to think that the same "invaders" of Hastings (England) in 1066 landed at Bannow Bay in 1169. Others seem to think the direct descendants of the Franks who conquered England in 1066 came to Ireland.

Neither of these theories is true - and more importantly, genealogy does not dictate identity. Someone can have one French ancestor and still be English. Someone else can have one Nigerian ancestor and still be Irish! Identity is a construct and applying labels to people based on their ancestors is racist. This is called "essentialism" by academics. In the United States in the 19th century, a person who had seven white great-grandparents and one black were black.

Without detailed genealogies, some have applied this same methodology to medieval peoples using medieval surnames as the test of identity. This ignores the individual’s self-identity and ignores any female ancestors as almost all surnames are patrilineal. More recently, some academics have thought it appropriate to use DNA to test for "real Irish" blood. This must end.

From RTÉ Archives, a RTÉ News report by Una O'Hagan from 1993 on the discovery of the remains of a 13th century tower in Dublin which was part of the city wall

So where did the Norman story come from then? The short answer is the British Empire of the 18th and 19th centuries. The United Kingdom had officially been formed and had a new German king in George. The gentry, with time and money to hand, decided to draft a legendary past for the Empire which demonstrated that the English had always been powerful.

But there was a problem: the historical English were too French for the 18th-century gentry’s sensibilities. As a result, the medieval English people were separated into "Germanic" ("Anglo-Saxon") and "Frankish" ("Anglo-Norman") based on assumed language, surnames, and genealogy. More recent research has proven that many medieval people spoke more than one language.

At the same time, Anglo-Saxon became a euphemism for "white" people and "white superiority". The recently invented term "Anglo-Norman" was exported to Ireland, but did not gain wide acceptance until G.H. Orpen wrote Ireland under the Normans in 1911-20. Its origin is uniquely tied to the term Anglo-Saxon and 19th-century racialist ideas of objectively relabelling historical people’s "wrong" self-identity.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Myles Dungan examines the 'truth' behind the death of the last Anglo Saxon King of England 

Despite the bombing of the Four Courts in 1922, there are still numerous surviving records from medieval Ireland. A quick scan through the records of the first 100 years of the English in Ireland will reveal a few hundred references to "the English". There are zero references to a "Norman" armada leaving Rouen for Wexford or Dublin, zero references to a "Norman" exchequer in Dublin and zero references to a "Norman" army fighting Gaels in Munster.

What’s more, there are people with Gaelic surnames who were labelled as English by the English courts in Ireland. In 1313, Philip and Maurice MacArny [Mac Fheardhomhnaigh?] were declared legally "pure English people". After several generations in English "County Dublin", the descendants of Domnall Mac Giolla Mo Cholmóc, rí Uí Bhriúin Chualann, had changed their names to "English" names (e.g. Johan le fiz Johan: John son of John), married English women, sold all of their Irish lands and moved to England. This family was English, not "Anglicised" Gaelic.

Turning to the other side of the coin, who was "Irish"? Many historians of medieval Ireland seem to enjoy calling the Gaelic peoples (Gáedhel) "natives", a medieval term used by English colonists. A "native" was born unfree (not the same as a slave) and "inferior" to the colonists. Its origin is nativa/nativus (native) from nata/natus (birth). By calling the Gaels natives, these historians are saying that the Gaels were inferior to the English.

Just as the English called the Gaels "natives", the Gaels called the non-Gaelic Irish "Gaill".

When the Gaels weren’t being called natives by the English colonists, they were called "Hibernici" (Irish). Many don’t see this label as problematic, but the Gaelic annals are quite clear that the Gaelic Irish were called Gáedhel. This problem is not solely applied to Ireland after 1169. Non-Gaelic Irish people were born, raised, and died in Ireland for hundreds of years before the English. They left no self-identifying records, so we rely on the Gaelic annals to label them. But just as the English called the Gaels "natives", the Gaels called the non-Gaelic Irish "Gaill".

"Gall" is not a specific term and, like native, was applied to "other people". Yet, it is translated in various ways. Most cite the Dictionary of the Irish Language and translate it as "foreigner", but it was regularly deployed against people born in Ireland. How could someone born in Wexford or Dublin be "foreign"? They weren’t.

A final thought: the Gaelic annals record that fer nErend eter Gullu ⁊ Goedelu (the people of Ireland, [include] both Gael and non-Gael). Medieval Gaels were inclusive - we should be too.

Dr Stephen Hewer is a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Histories and Humanities at TCD. He is also an Irish Research Council awardee


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ