The arrival of the Normans and their impact and influence on Ireland and it’s history was hotly debated in the Parade Tower at Kilkenny Castle last Wednesday night.
The debate, hosted by Kilkenny Archaeological Society as part of their annual programme, challenged many preconceived notions we have about our history and the Norman, or as the UCC team would have it, the English invasion of 1169 or maybe even a little bit before.
Last year’s debate on the Celts was a fascinating topic and generated considerable interest and debate. This year was to be no different. It would prove a difficult task for the UCC team of Dr Pat MacCotter and Dr Diarmuid Scully to upset the notion of the Normans coming to Ireland, and Kilkenny, in the hallowed grounds of Kilkenny Castle.
The Trinity team of Professor Patrick Geoghegan and Dr Sean O’Reilly certainly played on that.
Indeed Professor Geoghegan, in his summing up, challenged anyone to tell a visitor to Kilkenny that the castle they now sat in was built by the English, and not the Normans. That was in his wrapping up, but beforehand we had a very strong debate with arguments well represented on both sides.
Dr Sean O’Reilly began the discussion and referred to two strong Irish women, one Aoife MacMurrough, an Irish princess who married Strongbow and the other was there daughter, Isabelle Marshall. Wife of the founder of Kilkenny, William Marshall, it was Isabelle who defended the city against attack in 1207 and showed no signs of mercy when her husband William returned and met with his challengers, who pleaded for leniency. Dr O’Reilly’s case was that the Irish quickly intermarried with the Normans and set up their own dynasties.
Challenging this was Dr Scully, who said the Irish were excluded from their own country on English arrival,.He quoted extensively from a book written by a scholar of the time, Gerard of Wales, who stated that in Limerick there was a very hairy lady; in Glendalough a minotaur, and around these parts in Ossory, the men were wolves who spoke. It was all to demonise and desensitise the invasion on Ireland, to ensure that the Papal Bull of Pope Adrian (an Englishman) was carried out to the full - bring the Irish and its wanton civilization to heal.
Professor Geoghegan though spoke about the rights the Normans brought to Ireland - abolition of slavery and the Magna Carta Hibernia. The latter document was not repealed by the State in either 1921 on its foundation and purge of old English law, or again in 2007. He also referred to the Statuettes of Kilkenny, signed here in this city, and the banning of hurling, the many Norman names like Cody, Burke, Fitzgerald here today and the many patriots of the 17th and 18th century - Edmund Burke, Robert Emmett, Daniel O’Connell - all of Norman descent.
The Trinity argument was a persuasive one and it was left to Dr MacCotter to detail events in a graphic and factual way the type of men who led this invasion were. Ruthless mercenaries, hell bent on destruction, murder and rape. Kill an Englishman and you were hanged. Kill an Irishman and you were fined. Dr MacCotter painted a picture best described as the invaders being an unruly group of medieval Black and Tans, here to plunder and pillage. Henry II’s arrival tried to tame them and put some structure in place. But MacCotter’s message was that it could have been much better, just like Scotland, Ireland could have fell within an Anglo-Norman sphere without the bloodshed and persecution of the time.
His message seemed to strike a chord. A show of hands at the start of the debate predicted that 42 were in favour of the motion. That had dropped to 32 yet Trinity still won out, - the first ever victory for the proposers.
The event was chaired by the wonderful Bishop Michael Burrows - his diocese stretching across Munster and Leinster and the Norman strongholds of Ossory, ferns and Cashel. He sat, delicately poised on the fence throughout and even at the conclusion, chairing the debate with great humour and wit.
At the end of it all, a few questions clarified certain topics like architecture, commerce, the role of Women and the impact of the Gerard of Wales books, most answered to the benefit of the Norman side.