In this series on Gerald of Wales, we come to his trip to Ireland. There were problems in Ireland between the Irish nobility and the Norman Marcher lords who has gone over from Wales and conquered mini kingdoms for themselves. In 1185 King Henry appointed his youngest son John (the future King John) as Lord of Ireland and sent him over with a large expedition to solve the problem once and for all. Henry sent Gerald along too, because he was related to some of the invaders and the king thought Gerald might be able to smooth the way.
The mission was a complete failure. John was greeted by a deputation of loyal Irish chieftains. They had long bushy beards, while John and his friends followed the English fashion and were clean shaven. Hooting with derision, the prince’s young friends began to pull the chieftains about by their long beards, so they stormed off to sharpen their axes for war. John then proceeded to outrage both Marchers and Irish allies by transferring their estates to his hangers-on, who scorned the advice of the battle-hardened settlers and went blundering into bogs in their heavy armour.
After a few months John slunk home in disgrace, having only made the situation worse. Gerald remained longer, and to him at least the expedition proved momentous. Having discovered a talent for authorship, he was writing two books about Ireland.
The Conquest of Ireland (Expugnatio Hibernica), is a chronicle of the Marcher invasion from the heavily biased viewpoint of Gerald’s kinsmen, and a vivid picture gallery of fitz Gerald heroes. Brother Robert, gallantly storming Wexford, is struck down by a stone (16 years later his teeth fell out as a result, but miraculously grew back again); cousin Meiler fitz Henry hacks his way through an Irish ambush, ‘lopping off a hand here, an arm there, and elsewhere a whole head and shoulders’; while uncle Robert fitz Stephen, despite his ‘excessive addiction to wine and women’, routs vast numbers of enemies with his tiny band of Normans and Welshmen.
The Topography of Ireland (Topographia Hibernica) is far more remarkable and the most widely read of all his major works. In it he set out to do something no one had attempted since Roman times: to describe the history, geography, wildlife and customs of the land and its people. The result is an extraordinary blend of acute observation, wild guesswork and very tall stories – some of them probably passed on by Irish men delighted to mislead a gullible tourist. For example, Gerald describes the habits of ospreys and dippers with a reasonable accuracy, but declared that barnacle geese are hatched from barnacle shells; he understood why Ireland is so wet, but believed that Irish shoelaces dispel poison.
Because of its varying accuracy, the Topography remains controversial today. Gerald was immensely proud of his pioneering book, and devised a novel (if expensive) method of publicising it: he publicly read it aloud at Oxford over a period of three days, guaranteeing himself listeners by feeding all the local poor on the first day, the clergy and scholars on the second, and the gentry and citizens on the third. There is no doubt that he also expected far more distinguished and influential readers, for his Topography is dedicated in the most flattering terms to King Henry II, and his Conquest to the future King Richard I.
[adapted from A Mirror of Medieval Wales by Charles Kightly]
Ann Marie Thomas is the author of four medieval history books, a surprisingly cheerful poetry collection about her 2010 stroke, and the science fiction series Flight of the Kestrel. Book one, Intruders, is out now. Follow her at http://eepurl.com/bbOsyz