Parliament and Parliaments from the Gaelic Perspective

Since autumn 2021, we have been working with the University of Oxford and the Centre for Intellectual History at the University of Oxford to put together series of blogs that explore European Parliamentary Culture. The series, built around the ‘Recovering Europe’s Parliamentary Culture, 1500-1700’ project, is focused on the Early Modern period, but blogs have ranged more widely, seeking to bring in some scholars of the more recent past to provide different perspectives and insights that might stimulate new thinking. We’re reposting some of the blogs here, with thanks to the CIH and to our colleagues who have commissioned, edited and authored the blogs.

This week the Recovering Europe’s Parliamentary Culture project is hosting an international conference at Jagiellonian University, Krakow, discussing ‘Concepts, Methods & Approaches’. Registration has now closed, but you can follow the conference on the CIH website and via the Parliamentary Culture, 1500-1700 twitter page.

This blog was originally published on 11 January, written by Brendan Kane.

Is there a story of Parliament to be told from the Irish Gaelic perspective in the early modern period? That no one to date has attempted the telling suggests not. Perhaps that silence should not surprise. The parliament in Ireland was an instrument of empire established in the wake of the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman invasion and wielded in the interest of a settler colonial population. Metropolitan efforts to curb its independence were always about intra-English conflict in any case and done with little regard for, or representation from, Gaelic Ireland. Consider Poynings’ Law (1494), that notorious mechanism devised under Henry VII by which legislative efforts of the Irish assembly had to be blessed by King and Council before ratification: this was not a response to rumblings of Irish self-determination but rather done to preclude an English subject using the assembly to thwart crown interests, as Richard Duke of York had done during the Wars of Roses. At the other end of our period looms the Declaratory Act (1720) which, by establishing that the British Parliament could legislate for Ireland, landed on the Irish assembly like the cartoon foot from the opening credits of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Here again, however, was an imperial flex prompted not by indigenous Irish resistance to the crown but rather by the Penal Laws, a series of punitive measures enacted by a Protestant colonial elite to counter perceived inaction by the crown in humbling the Catholic majority. Even the grim Statutes of Kilkenny (1366), routinely held up as a proto-racialist act of apartheid for its condemnation of Gaelic language and cultural forms, was less about oppression based on ethnicity than about stemming the tide of cultural assimilation on the part of the settler community. To borrow an unfortunate if apt phrase from current American political discourse, the Irish Parliament was very much “England First” in its worldview and practice. Thus, as the historiography on Irish institutions and the state grows in size and sophistication, it perhaps is little surprise that a Gaelic perspective is lacking: there simply may be no tale to tell.

A more modern, but evocative, image of the Irish Parliament: Francis Wheatley’s depiction of The House of Commons in Session, 1780

Then again, this historiographical silence might be more a product of method and approach. If we are curious about Gaelic views of representative assemblies, then it is to the vernacular sources we must appeal. Few do so, however, which is particularly unfortunate given that the archive of Early Modern Irish – the iteration of the written language c. 1200-1650 – is voluminous and populated by a broad range of forms and genres including court poetry, histories, annals, placename lore, genealogies, grammars, devotional and religious works, legal and medical tracts, myths, satires, romances and so on.

This selection from the Annála Ríoghdhachta Éireann (Annals of the Four Masters) gives a sense for Irish prose works in manuscript from the period: Start of dedication to the work’s patron, Ferghal Ó Gadhra. University College Dublin, LS A 13, f. xix

In fairness to the scholarly community, acquisition of Early Modern Irish has always been difficult. Few institutions offered instruction and, unlike for Old and Modern Irish, there existed no dedicated learning materials for self-starters: no grammar, no dictionary, no guide. But as such resources become more available, and access to manuscripts and printed transcriptions more widespread, surely we can allow ourselves to imagine that within that body of writing there is to be found commentary on Parliament, specifically, and deliberative institutions, generally.

What better place to start that inquiry than with comparison of three well-known prosimetric works of the seventeenth century whose very titles make reference to parliament?…

To continue reading this blog on the University of Oxford Centre for Intellectual History’s website, click here.

Brendan Kane, Professor of History, University of Connecticut

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