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The Noble Earl

Mícheál Ó hAodha

Scéal Ghearóid Iarla, by Máire Mhac an tSaoi, Leabhar Breac, 120 pp, €9, ISBN: 978-0898332537

This is a beautifully written book. A historical novel of sorts, and written in the Irish language, it explores aspects of the life, loves and sorrows of “Gearóid Iarla” (Earl Gerald) or “Gerald the Poet”, whose name in English was Gerald fitzMaurice FitzGerald (1335-1398). Gearóid Iarla was the third Earl of Desmond, a member of the Hiberno-Norman dynasty of the FitzGerald, or the Munster branch of the Geraldines. The FitzGeralds, whose surname was gaelicised to Mac Gearailt, were one of the most powerful Norman families in late mediaeval Ireland and owned vast tracts of land in southwestern Ireland in the fourteenth century, in counties Limerick, Tipperary, Cork, Kerry and Waterford.

In an Irish that is rich yet graceful in its simplicity, Máire Mac an tSaoi, generally considered one of the finest poets Ireland has produced in the past half-century or so, has imagined herself into the multilingual era that was fourteenth century Ireland, a period of Irish history that was dazzling in terms of its diversity of linguistic and cultural influences. Indeed Gearóid Iarla was himself a complex and multifaceted figure, someone with whom, like Robin Hood in England, a range of tropes and symbols were associated and around whose image a myth developed which was intergenerational and even straddled different languages ‑ Latin, French, Irish and English – and centuries, in both Ireland and on the Continent.

Gearóid Iarla succeeded to the earldom in 1358, and also served two periods as chief justice for Ireland. What makes him a particularly fascinating figure is that he had a foot in different worlds. One of the last Gaelic chiefs with the power – at least on the surface of it, and early in his career – to pose a threat to the British colonial project in Ireland, his story is an example of the gaelicisation of the Norman chiefs and earls in Ireland. His personal trajectory echoes that of the environment which produced him, a society in flux between Gaelic laws and customs, the influence of the Anglo-Normans and a more oppressive form of societal and cultural control by England and English modes of law and tenure. Today, Gearóid Iarla is chiefly remembered in terms of mythical, folkloric and topographical connections and the remnants of the Irish place-name tradition or dinnseanchas. A noted composer of love poetry in the Irish language, he had, the annals state, a high public profile in the Ireland of his day – “Ireland was full of the fame of his wisdom” – a profile that was in no small measure due to his ability and standing as a writer of the Irish language. It is on his life story as elucidated in the poetry attributed to him and which has survived that Mac an tSaoi bases her own narrative. Commenting on the ecstasy of his first sexual encounter with a woman, Mac an tSaoi depicts the young earl as being moved to poetry – his first love poem as composed for his lover.

Agus is mar sin a chuir Gearóid Iarla aithne ar dhiamhair na suirí, agus is ansan a chríochnaigh sé a chéad dán grá do mhnaoi:

Tair isteach a dhreolán bheag
Agus cuartaigh duit féin do nead,
Do bhéarfainn duit cliar na gclog
Nach ndéanfainn faillighe ionat.

In the Annals of Clonmacnoise (translated 1627), he is described as follows:

The Lord Garrett earle of Desmond, a nobleman of Wonderfull Bounty, Mirth, cheerfullness in conversation, easie of access, charitable in his deeds, a witty and Ingenious composer of Irish poetry, a learned and profound Chronicler, and in fine one of the English nobility that had Irish learning and professors thereof in greatest reverence of all the English of Ireland, died penitently after receipt of sacraments of Holy Church in due forme.

The mythical discourse that circumvents this pivotal figure in Irish history has been brilliantly elucidated by the late Daithí Ó hÓgáin (RIP) who explored the national and continental tropes and symbols as illuminated in folklore and oral tradition with respect to Gearóid Iarla – his links with Lough Gur in Co Limerick, his association with birds and the ancient Irish trope of the chief who takes the land/territory as his bride, his association with magic and the supernatural and the hero-redeemer who may one day return to save his culture and his people. Interestingly, Mac an tSaoi eschews much of this mythical discourse in favour of inculcating herself imaginatively within the social and intellectual milieu of this historical era and exploring the principal events of Gearóid Iarla’s life – his birth and his youth, his assumption of control of the family title, his marriage and the birth of his children.

Essentially, she demystifies him and makes of him a normal man who lived and loved and fought during a period of Irish life when we were never so culturally fluid in terms of our identity as a people. By emphasising and structuring her novel around the few known historical facts concerning Gearóid Iarla, Mac an tSaoi has not only written a beautiful and natural ode to a forgotten era of Irish life, an ode characterised by its humanity and poetic language but she has also usurped some of the more recent traditions that circumscribed the image or representation of Gearóid Iarla.

Some latterday commentators have alluded to the “schizophrenic” nature of modern writing in Irish – the fact that its writers are trying to create an art form in one language while the lives about them are lived primarily in English. Mac an tSaoi has demonstrated with this book that such a state of “betwixt and between” was not so different from the era when Gearóid Iarla was writing, where it was a commonplace for writers – and indeed, non-writers ‑ to be thinking and conversing in more than one language. While Gearóid Iarla later became a symbol of the Normans becoming “more Irish than the Irish themselves” and an exemplar of Gaelic resistance to English hegemony – during the Gaelic-Norman wars he was imprisoned by Brian O’Brien of Thomond, and it was while incarcerated that he is said to have begun his career as a poet and written some of his finest lyrics – the truth is that his efforts at rebellion did not amount to much, given that he received little support from his fellow “Gall-Gael”.

While there are few scholars of the medieval era who would dispute that Gearóid Iarla was a fine poet, the aura which surrounded this aspect of his legacy has also been revised to a certain extent in recent years. Whereas one of the most famous poems attributed to him, “Mairg adeir olc ris na mnáibh” (“Speak not ill of womankind”) might once have been deemed an early example of a proto-feminist poem in the Irish language, scholars such as Mícheál MacCraith who have studied the poem in its entirety have demonstrated that the later verses are far from complimentary towards women and assign to them to the same “fallen” or troubled condition as men.

While Gearóid Iarla was once seen as the innovator in the adoption of the continental literary tradition of amour courtois in Irish, this assumption was based entirely on one poem attributed to him, the aforementioned “Mairg adeir olc ris na mnáibh”. It is without doubt that he was strongly influenced by continental trends in literature – given his personal background it would have been surprising if he wasn’t ‑ but he may well have been just one among a number of poets who found richness and inspiration in traditions such as amour courtois.

What Mac an tSaoi has done in this novel is the same as that which has long defined her as an original voice in Irish poetry. She has usurped the tradition of Irish-language writing in the twentieth century in many ways. A poet who writes a novel, a woman who writes about a man, a writer who writes a prose work in the historic mode but one which is radically different from the many works of a historic, patriotic and mythological nature redolent of the small “boom” in Irish-language prose-writing that defined the Gaelic revival of the early decades of the twentieth century.

At a surface glance, one might say that this is just another example of the “nostalgia” for the medieval era that suffuses much of the zeitgeist of the modern-day, particularly in the cinematic and visual arts – hobbits and guardians and notions of chivalry and quest and honour. There is much more going on in this short yet compact novel, however. Like Gearóid Iarla, who “retranslated” and refashioned the Gaelic literary canon for the “immigrant” Normans, Mac an tSaoi has usurped the usurped the linguistic “power relations” that have defined the English-Irish language nexus for the past few hundred years. She has “re-translated” and “re-presented” an aspect of the Irish story for a new generation and in doing so has, in a way that is not insignificant, “re-located” modern writing in Irish within the Irish and continental canon that was once its natural home, that place that Alan Titley so ably described as follows:

… Irish intellectual and literary discourse was part of the greater world in that unselfconscious way in which people accept themselves as normal until it is forced upon them that it is not ... For a thousand years, the literature of the world was being translated into Irish. From the eighteenth century it was being translated out into English and other tongues, demonstrating that the power relations had entirely reversed.

In this re-presentation, Mac an tSaoi has demonstrated what no small number of people in Ireland may need reminding of from time to time – that Ireland was a multilingual and multicultural country long before any of us were born.

Mícheál Ó hAodha works at the University of Limerick, where he is a visiting lecturer in the Department of History. He has published widely on various aspects of Irish migration and on the history of the Irish diaspora. Two of his most recent books are Fiáin I dTaobh Wilde: The Universal Wilde, Dublin: Original Writing (2012) and Slán le hÉirinn (Emigrant Poems), Baile Átha Cliath: Coiscéim (2012).