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Origin of English stereotypes about Ireland

Used to the system of primogeniture, Gerald of Wales was horrified by the Irish system of electing a king from among members of the ruling clan - 'a new and outlandish way of confirming kingship and dominion'.

He also found distasteful the celebration at the coronation with its free consumption of mare’s flesh.

Many English views and stereotypes of Ireland and its peoples were determined by Gerald's writings and the powerful illustrations which illuminated the text.

A Norman, he visited Ireland in the 1180s and reported back to the English king, Henry II.

Around 1200, he wrote The History and Topography of Ireland.

In it he contrasted the beauty of the island and the richness of its fauna with the barbarity of its inhabitants.
Study units on Norman Ireland










A certain people ... is accustomed to appoint its king with a rite altogether outlandish and abominable.

When the whole people of that land has been gathered together in one place, a white mare is brought forward into the middle of the assembly. He who is to be inaugurated, not as a chief, but as a beast, not as a king, but as an outlaw, has bestial intercourse with her before all, professing himself to be a beast also.

The mare is then killed immediately, cut up in pieces, and boiled in water. A bath is prepared for the man afterwards in the same water. He sits in the bath surrounded by all his people, and all, he and they, eat of the meat of the mare which is brought to them.

Assessing the value of Gerald of Wales as evidence
History Junior Certificate History. Revision Handbook by E. Gray, The Educational Company, 0-86167-513-4, 32-3

Castle, church and city

Here is a description of Irish people in the middle ages. It was written by a Norman, Gerald of Wales. He visited here in the 1180s and reported back to the English king, Henry II.

Read it and answer the questions that follow.

Although the Irish are fully endowed with natural gifts, their external characteristics of beard and dress, and internal cultivation of mind, are so barbarous that they cannot be said to have any culture. They use very little wool in their dress and that itself is nearly always black ... and made in a most barbarous fashion. For they wear little hoods, close-fitting and stretched across the shoulders ... Under these they wear mantles instead of cloaks. They also use woollen trousers that are at the same time boots ... and these are for the most part dyed ... They regard weapons as a burden and they think it is brave and honourable to fight unarmed. They use, however, three types of weapon - a short spear, two darts ... and big axes, well and carefully forged ... They are a wild and inhospitable people ... They do not devote their lives to the processing of flax or wool or to any kind of merchandise or mechanical art. For given only to leisure and devoted only to laziness, they think that the greatest wealth is to enjoy liberty.
i. From this description, pick out and write down, in your own words, three items of medieval Irish dress. (3x1)

ii. Using the information given here, list three weapons used by an Irish soldier. (3x1)

iii. What, in Gerald‘s opinion, did the Irish consider 'the greatest wealth‘? (1)

iv. Did Gerald like the Irish? Pick out two statements to support your answer. (2x2)

v. Do you think he would be a reliable source about life in medieval Ireland?
Give two reasons for your answer. (2x2)