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Critically discuss Classical and Late antique ideas about the Irish as Other.

Briefing Note: for critical discussion of Classical and Late Antique ideas about Ireland and
the Irish, in the context of Graeco-Roman ideas about the wider archipelago (Handout 1) and
key Graeco-Roman ethnographic and geographical concepts and stereotypes (Handout 2).
(1) Ireland’s name in Latin: Hibernia; Scotia. The Irish are the Scoti.
(2) Ireland’s size and location: one of largest islands in known world, part of an
archipelago physically dominated by the larger island of Britain and relatively close to
Spain; sources not discussing Ireland in isolation, but as part of this archipelago,
sometimes called the Britains, or the British or Brettanic islands. Orosius links the
name Hibernia with Ireland’s relative proximity to Iberia. Medieval maps, inheriting
Graeco-Roman geographical traditions, provide visualisations of this understanding of
Ireland and the wider archipelago (C.11 Cotton/Cottonian Anglo-Saxon world
map/mappa mundi is especially valuable).
(3) Ireland and wider archipelago located in Ocean at the north-western limits of the
known world: unknown Ocean lies west of Ireland; uninhabited frozen seas lie
beyond the archipelago’s northernmost islands – the Orkney islands.
(4) State of knowledge of Ireland: compared to Britain in terms of soil and climate;
approaches and harbours becoming better known through merchants trading there
(Tacitus, writing in late C. 1 AD/CE). Ptolemy’s mapping of world (C. 2 AD/CE)
confirms knowledge of coasts, key rivers, peoples – indicating that related peoples
appear to live in some parts of Britain and Ireland (the Brigantes: consider implication
of this).
(5) Interest in Ireland: references to Ireland linked to Roman imperialism and conquest of
western continental Europe and Britain. Ireland viewed as strategically important:
planned invasion reported by Tacitus in context of linking key imperial territories in
Atlantic Europe and suppression of resistance in Britain, including Scotland.
Caledonia is Roman name for northern Britain; ‘Scotland’ is a later term reflecting
post-Roman Irish migration and settlements there.
(6) Ireland’s symbolic importance: sources celebrating Rome as global power view
dominion over Ireland and its Ocean as demonstrating conquest of the ends of the
earth and Roman invincibility. Same applies to Roman conquest of Britain and
archipelago as a totality; note emphasis on Orkney.
2
(7) Ethnographical fantasies and stereotypes emerging from location and demands of
imperialism. Sources discussing Ireland and Britain operate within ethnographical
framework that regards non-Greeks and Romans as barbarians. Julius Caesar (C. 1
BC/BCE) on Britons provides template of stereotypical characteristics of a remote
barbarian society. N.B. Caesar writes in context of first Roman invasion of Britain; in
his account of Britons: the more remote, the less civilised; emphasis on barbarians’
divergence from civilised norms in terms of physical appearance – hair, beards, bodily
decoration, clothing; social organisation; sexual behaviour; remotest Britons have
pastoral rather than settled agricultural society/economy; Britons’ warlike disposition
noted. Account written in apparently neutral language and tone.
Compare Graeco-Roman accounts of even more remote Ireland and Irish.
Ireland as land of wonders: exploding cows, no snakes, few birds, no bees; Irish earth,
even outside Ireland, drives away bees. Note generally overt negative tone, language,
moral and cultural judgements: Irish are undisciplined, violent, inhospitable,
exceptionally amoral, inhuman in their savage customs, lacking pietas; accused of
ultimate taboo-breaking: incest and cannibalism.
N.B. Strabo’s linking of Irish and Scythians as cannibals. Scythia at its
greatest extent = regions from Baltic States, Black Sea, to China; approximately
equivalent to modern Russia. Scythia perceived as N.E. continental equivalent of
N.W. oceanic Ireland; Scythia in Asia, Ireland beyond Europe. Strabo presents
cannibalism as a custom practiced by Irish and Scythians (if indeed Irish really do
practice it, he remarks), in contrast to other nations – Celti, Iberians – practicing
cannibalism by necessity in case of siege. Strabo links Irish viciousness to Ireland’s
perceived cold climate in the far North of the world. Others – viewing Ireland as a
temperate island and emphasising its Western location – imply that its barbarism is
caused by its remoteness and isolation from more civilised peoples.
(8) Compare/contrast Handout 1 sources’ representations of Irish and Britons with
Handout 2 sources’ representations of earliest human beings and societies and
contemporary Scythians. Note similarities and differences. Two essential paradigms
applied to earliest humans and contemporary Scythians: idealised as noble savages or
demonised as lawless, anti-social, deviant primitives. How do Irish fit into this
approach to ‘the Other’ and why?

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