Gearóid Iarla and Ennis

In Inis an Laoigh in mid-bay,

in Clonroad of the kings,

listening to the gurgling of streams,

I have been for two months.


These were my three kinds of music:

the playing of O’Brien’s harp while drinking beer,

the bell of Ennis on my western side,

the sound of saltwater lapping the stones.


The above pair of quatrains, translated from Irish, were written in 1370 by one of the most powerful men in late fourteenth-century Ireland. They are among the few verses written about Ennis, County Clare, and must certainly be amongst the oldest, given that the town was only founded in 1240*. They have a lyrical quality and existential air which one does not expect to find in medieval poetry, but everything about this short poem is surprising — from the author to the circumstances of its writing.

The author is Gerald FitzGerald, affectionately known in Irish as Gearóid Iarla (Earl Gerald), and who as the Third Earl of Desmond commanded a vast swathe of the province of Munster — taking in much of what are the modern counties of Cork, Waterford, south Tipperary, Limerick and Kerry. The king of England, Edward III, nominally Lord of Ireland, but in reality the figurehead of a patchwork of near-independent Hiberno-Norman and Gaelic kingdoms, acknowledged Gearóid Iarla’s power by appointing him Lord Justice of Ireland. The king also unwittingly provided much source material for Gearóid Iarla’s poems by obliging him to take Eleanor Butler, daughter of the Second Earl of Ormond (Gearóid Iarla’s sworn enemy), as his wife: Eleanor was Gearóid Iarla’s muse for much of his poetic career.

Gearóid Iarla was so prolific and highly regarded as a poet that he was also referred to as Gearóid Filid (Gerald the Poet). The bulk of his oeuvre was composed in Irish, but he also wrote in Norman French, in all probability his native language. That he acquired both the proficiency in the language and the interest in and respect for the native culture to compose poetry in Irish is one of the least surprising aspects of Gearóid Iarla’s story: by his time, the process of the Hiberno-Normans becoming “more Irish than the Irish themselves” was irreversibly underway. So alarming had the Gaelicisation of the Norman invaders appeared to the English crown that a series of laws called the Statutes of Kilkenny were passed in 1366, forbidding everything from Hiberno-Normans’ use of Irish laws, language and dress to engaging in the Irish pastimes of “hockie” and “coiting” (the latter may refer to either a horseshoe tossing game or one resembling curling). Most of the Hiberno-Normans studiously ignored the statutes.

Much of Gearóid Iarla’s Irish poetry is collected in a work from the fifteenth century called Duanaire Ghearóid Iarla (the Poem-Book of Earl Gerald). In modern times the Duanaire has been published by Gearóid Mac Niocaill in Studia Hibernica (3[1963]: 7-59). There are also orphaned poems of his scattered here and there, for example in the Book of the Dean of Lismore. There was always a minority of poets and scholars who maintained that Gearóid Iarla hired the fourteenth century equivalent of a ghostwriter to pen his poems. The practice was so common in medieval Ireland that there was a term for such a poem: duan indlis (an unfaithful poem). On the other hand poems whose authorship were true were dílis. I will bow to noted Irish scholar Professor James Patrick Carney’s take on Gearóid Iarla‘s poetic output; it was kosher, he pronounced. They contain a consistent whimsy and depth of confidence in the verses that they could only have been penned by the very earl himself.

The surprising context of the writing of the above-quoted poem comes from Gearóid Iarla‘s darkest hour. During a series of battles with the O’Brien clan who ruled some of the parts of Munster that he did not (the kingdom of Tuamhain, Thomond in English with means “north Munster”), the earl was captured and taken to Ennis, the O’Briens’ capital, where he was imprisoned for a year. With much time on his hands while waiting for his family to stump up a ransom for him, Gearóid Iarla turned to poetry for solace. It was in Ennis, in Brian O’Brien’s Clonroad castle by the river Fergus, that the Earl composed his most celebrated poem “Mairg adeir olc ris na mnáibh” (“Speak not ill of womankind”):

Speak not ill of womankind,
‘Tis no wisdom if you do.
You that fault in women find,
I would not be praised of you.

Sweetly speaking, witty, clear,
Tribe most lovely to my mind,
Blame of such I hate to hear.
Speak not ill of womankind.

Bloody treason, murderous act,
Not by women were designed,
Bells o’erthrown nor churches sacked,
Speak not ill of womankind.

Bishop, King upon his throne,
Primate skilled to loose and bind,
Sprung of women every one!
Speak not ill of womankind.

For a brave young fellow long
Hearts of women oft have pined.
Who would dare their love to wrong?
Speak not ill of womankind.

Paunchy greybeards never more
Hope to please a woman’s mind.
Poor young chieftains they adore!
Speak not ill of womankind.

In terms of astonishing us, Gearóid Iarla kept the best until last: he didn’t just die of consumption or battle wounds like any ordinary medieval warlord. In 1398, at the age of 63, he disappeared. Legend has it that, far from meeting a grizzly end at the hands of one of his many enemies and being tossed down a mine shaft or the like, the earl travelled to the Otherworld, and to this day slumbers in a cave beside or beneath Lough Gur in County Limerick, from which he will emerge at his country’s hour of need. Since the early Bronze Age, Lough Gur and its surroundings have been considered a magical, liminal spot — a location bridging this world and the Otherworld of the sídhe (fairies) and the Tuatha Dé Danann (a god-like race). The largest stone circle in Ireland, Grange, consisting of 133 standing stones, is a stone’s through from Lough Gur, and the lake itself is associated with the pre-Christian Gaelic goddess, Áine. Before his disappearance, rumours abounded that the Earl was enjoying liaisons with the sun goddess, mirroring ancient tales of a dalliance between her and the king of Munster, Ailill Aolum (who died circa 235 AD). These legends that sprang up around Gearóid Iarla place him firmly in the role of Gaelic poet-priest-king and shows how after two centuries in the country the usurping Cambro-Normans had gone a long way towards being assimilated into the native culture.

For those of you interested in reading more of Gearóid Iarla (and who might have a reasonable command of Irish), I would recommend Scéal Ghearóid Iarla by Máire Mhac an tSaoi (Leabhar Breac, ISBN 978-0-898332-53-7 [2010]).


*The other great poem set in Ennis is Paul Durcan’s “Nights in the Gardens of Clare”, which I will get around to writing about another day.


About ucronin

Microbiologist, brewer, writer, fan of James Joyce, guitar player and gardener, U. Cronin was born in the county town of Ennis, Co. Clare. He's spent much of his adult years moving country — between Spain and Ireland — and at present he is to be found back in his native town. Author of five novels and working on a sixth, U. is back in the lab and engaging his passion for looking for bugs using very bright lasers. Let's hope it turns out well!
This entry was posted in Ennis, History, Ireland, Language, Mysticism, Poetry, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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