The ox man of Wicklow

Gerald of Wales has a big problem with his trip to Ireland. It’s not the countryside or the weather – they’re grand. It’s the people.

Mind you, Gerald seems the kind of tourist who is never satisfied,  always finding the staff rude and the breakfasts cold and not enough clean towels and only ever giving one-star reviews on TripAdvisor.

Gerald has been to Ireland not once but twice now. His two trips can be paraphrased as follows – I’ve taken liberties with the wording and spellings, but the sentiments are very much his:

So much for the 1,000 BLOODY WELCOMES! Locals are heathen savages. It’s complete chaos, extreme lack of basic law & order. What these guys need is a firm outsider to come in and KICK ASS!!! (Music scene not bad tho).

Yes, despite giving Ireland only one miserable star, at least Gerald loves the local musicians. He writes: “It is only in the case of musical instruments that I find any commendable diligence in the people. They seem to me to be incomparably more skilled in these than any other people that I have seen.”

Gerald’s account is titled the Topographia Hibernica, and he himself gets top star ratings from his many readers nowadays. On 16 August 2017 one reviewer on Amazon.co.uk awarded him five stars (or rather gives them to the late John O’Meara’s English translation in the Penguin edition, The History and Topography of Ireland). The verified customer simply writes: “Bought as a gift. Came in perfect condition.”

The next Amazon review, on 5 September 2017, assigns a mere four stars but is far more gushing, with piles of mistakes: “I [s]at and read this in a few hours. Interesting because it is a rare and early eye witness account of Ireland and the inhabitants. I could truly trust the author’s – therefore an understanding of the political context and personal motive will provide a useful lens.”

Joking apart, Gerald’s Topographia is not to be trusted. It may be a key historical text, but it’s also one of the earliest, most outlandish, most racist works of Irish fiction – it is classic propaganda, and his section on beavers is complete bollocks.

* * *

Gerald of Wales, aka Giraldus Cambrensis, wrote the Topographia around 1188, shortly after the initial Norman invasion of Ireland. Time and again it describes the Irish as barbarians, “literally barbarous”, “a filthy people, wallowing in vice”, “given only to leisure, and devoted only to laziness”. They are wild, rude, primitive, inhospitable, uncultivated, treacherous, and barbarians (again).

The Topographia is often based on comparisons: (a) Ireland is the isle of savages on the edge of the world, while (b) Henry’s Norman kingdom is the glorious, civilised centre of the universe. The Normans have cropped hair, neat beards and short cloaks; the Irish have flowing locks and beards, shirts and – Gerald is a tad vague here – no breeches; they prefer this season’s bare-legs look or go entirely naked.

He recycles an anecdote from Norman sailors about their encounter with a pair of Irish boatmen who appear ignorant of any lands besides their own, who refuse to eat the bread and cheese offered to them (saying they only eat meat, fish and milk) and who haven’t a notion about Christianity.

The Irish are portrayed as the other: as savages – such as the two boatmen, who are totally naked but for the leather belts around their waists – or as sub-human, or surprisingly often as half-human half-animal hybrids.

Gerald’s tales abound with talking werewolves in Meath, the birth of a “human bull calf” (vitulum virilem) near Glendalough, and the Ox Man of Wicklow (semibos vir – half man, half ox), who comes to dinner in the local castle every night and still manages to eat despite having only hooves to handle his grub.

Then there is Gerald’s bizarre account of the coronation rituals of northern Ulster. I will spare you the gory details in case you haven’t had breakfast yet, but suffice to say that the king first has sex with a white mare, then bathes in a broth made of the horse’s meat, as you do.

Gerald’s text also makes repeated claims about the godlessness of the Irish: “Of all peoples it is the least instructed in the rudiments of the Faith”. This despite all the pesky facts that might get in the way of a good story – historical facts that even Gerald should have known, such as the rich contributions of Irish monastic history since the fifth century (long before the Normans).

As for Ireland’s famous illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells – which demonstrates a high competence in Latin and in Irish scholarship – their intricate designs are far more glorious than any of Gerald’s awful illustrations in his books.

* * *

Gerald of Wales (c.1146-1223) is an archdeacon. He also belongs to a leading Cambro-Norman family, the Geraldines, who play a key role in the Norman invasion of Ireland (their ancestors will be Barrys and FitzGeralds). Gerald’s big break is when he’s given the unenviable task of looking after young Prince John on his grand tour of Ireland around 1184. It kickstarts his literary career.

Gerald’s key audience and readership for the Topographia is the court of Henry II, particularly the king himself, Prince John’s father. Gerald wants promotion to a bishopric and needs to impress Henry, in particular to impress on him that while great natural wonders are to be found in Ireland, the Irish are hopeless barbarians in need of Norman reform and civilisation.

Hence all the post-truth passages in the Topographia, the portrayal of the Irish as irreligious savages and semi-human beasts, who haven’t a clue about religion or civilizations beyond their native shores. The Topographia justifies the legitimacy of the colonial invasion as a civilising mission.

The Topographia is of its time, it echoes wider medieval notions of the shifting dividing lines between nature and society, and of geographically-isolated peoples as strange monsters – as hybrids who inhabit the “borderlands” and edges of the (known) Earth. This is exactly what Jeffrey Jerome Cohen argues in his essay “Hybrids, Monsters, Borderlands: The Bodies of Gerald of Wales”, in The Postcolonial Middle Ages (London: Macmillan, 2000), which I’ve been meaning to buy as soon as its price goes down to something affordable.

But the Topographia won’t go away.  As the Crusades look east, the Topographia looks to the marvels and mysteries of the west. Gerald’s account – with all its biases, misconceptions and hybrid monsters – passes into the central literary tradition in England. The tall tales on its vellum and parchment will remain the primary source – apart from a few sparse chronicles here and there – about Ireland in the Middle Ages. It seeps into the wider ideosphere, shaping conventional wisdom and popular stereotype for centuries to come.

More than a hundred years after Gerald, King Edward II (1307-1327) describes the Irish as “bestial and uneducated”. Plus ça change there then. And much the same attitude lingers on, right through to the zenith of the British empire in Victorian times and beyond, and in the Punch and Daily Express cartoons portraying the Irish as a sinister, inferior race of apes.

Oh, and in today’s tabloids such as the Daily Mail.

Not that I ever buy that awful rag, but you can’t help coming across its front pages from time to time on Twitter or on Broadsheet.ie, and finding yet another of the Mail’s typical “SHOCK HORROR – IT’S MIGRANTS!” headlines, and its talk of “pulling up the drawbridge at Dover” to stop the “swarms” of immigrants at Calais. Headlines that are yet another reminder of Gerald of Wales and the faint echoes from his Topographia that continue to ripple down through the ages.

The above public domain image comes from the British Library. It’s of the Wicklow Ox Man (note the hooves) being given a round object by another man. Perhaps this round object is one of them old CDs or DVD yokes. Or a shaving mirror. You never can tell with Gerald, who liked to illustrate his own works…