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Depicting the Irish Before and After the Baltinglass Rebellion

John Derricke composed his work, The Image of Irelande, with a Discoverie of Woodkarne [1], in 1578 - directly before the Baltinglass Rebellion in the Pale. It includes a collection of 12 woodcuts and their accompanying verses. In these woodcuts, Derricke addresses many aspects of Ireland’s culture and current affairs as they stood before the rebellion, ranging from their dressing and dining habits to the actions of Irish lords with and against the English. Derricke’s attached artwork serves to reinforce his arguments regarding the Irish in a visual manner. His third poem and plate combination, titled Kern Pillaging Their Own People on a Bodrag, portrays Irish raiders as they pillage a settlement, indiscriminate of ethnicity, and provides a commentary on the lifestyle and mindset of these raiders. An Irish language work which counters this plate is the Irish poem “Dia Libh” [2] written by Aonghus Ó Dálaigh during the Baltinglass rebellion of 1580. In his work, Ó Dálaigh praises the rebels for their bravery, identifies criticisms that they have faced in the past, such as those made by Derricke, and encourages a continuation of their course of action against the English. “Dia Libh” adamantly rejects many of the implications of savagery and barbarousness that Kern Pillaging Their Own People on a Bodrag touches upon, while also revisiting the negative connotation of some agreed upon characteristics of the Irish, such as their aggressiveness. This can be seen in the countering of the analogies Derricke uses, the reframing of the impulsiveness depicted in Derricke as astounding bravery in “Dia Libh,” and the introduction of religious imagery in “Dia Libh” as a means of justification for some of the aggressive actions against the English as described in Derricke.
            Derricke’s Kern Pillaging Their Own People on a Bodrag maintains a tone of Giraldian-style criticism throughout in its use of subtle, biased descriptions to lead to greater damaging implications regarding Irish culture. This can be seen even from the initial lines when Derricke writes “here creeps out of Saint Filcher’s den a pack of prowling mates, / most hurtful to the English Pale and noisome to the states” (Lines 1-2). That is, a group of Irish raiders approach a settlement of fellow Irishmen in a manner similar to that of a pack of wolves. Furthermore, these Irish raiders are a constant nuisance not only to the area with the greatest English authority, but also to Ireland as a whole. The initial damaging implication of this is visible in his description of these Irishmen as wolves, an animal notorious as a savage predator. The verse then continues when Derricke writes “which spare no more their country birth than those of th’English race” (Line 3). That is, that the Irish raiders treat their own countrymen as they would an Englishman in their raiding. This portrayal of the raiders as savages focuses on their lack of patriotism in their preying upon fellow Irishmen. Derricke continues “they spoil and burn and bear away, as fit occasions serve, / and think the greater ill they do, the greater praise deserve” (Lines 5-6). That is, the raiders pillage whatever they can whenever the opportunity is there. Having done this, they believe that their actions deserve merit as opposed to punishment. This crushing accusation presented by Derricke reinforces the Giraldian depiction of the Irish as quick tempered and uncivilized, while also presenting the incurable trait of moral corruptness. He further emphasizes this point when he writes “they pass not for the poor man’s cry, nor yet respect his tears, / but rather joy to see the fire to flash about his ears” (Lines 7-8). That is, these Irish raiders show no mercy to even the weak and vulnerable while deriving pleasure from barbarously torturing their victims. This depiction of their act as not only being merciless towards their weakest victims but actually treating them more savagely is the ultimate reinforcement of the view of the Irish as a savage and irreconcilable group. Derricke continues in this manner until he ends the verse by writing “and thus bereaving him of house, of cattle, and of store, / they do return back to the wood, from which they came before” (Lines 11-12). That is, once these Irish raiders are finished in the abuse and destruction of their victims, they return back to the woods. This not only implies that the Irish raiders are living in the woods like savages, but also that this chain of events is cyclical. What follows from an understanding of these events as cyclical is an understanding that these events must be stopped. Thus, we can see that Derricke uses his description of this band of Irish raiders attacking a village as a way to project a variety of irreconcilable traits onto the Irish nobility, their soldiers, and perhaps even onto the Irish population as a whole.
In “Dia libh,” Aonghus ‎‎‎Ó Dálaigh addresses and responds to a lot of the criticisms brought up by Derricke, while also encouraging and praising the Baltinglass rebels who were fighting during this works composition. The difference in tone can be seen immediately in the opening lines when he writes, “God be with you, warriors of the Gaels! / Let no one accuse you of cowardice” (Lines 1-2). That is, may God be on the side of the brave Irish soldiers in their battle. He continues “you’ve never merited an insult / in times of battle or strife” (Lines 3-4). That is, the Irish soldiers have been consistently brave in all their actions. The poem continues in this manner of praise of the bravery and ferocity of the Irish for several more lines. Ó Dálaigh then writes “If you want to stake your claim to Ireland, / warriors of the valiant steps, / do not shirk brave deed or combat / nor the frenzy of great battles” (Lines 9-12). That is, in order for the Irish soldiers to be able to reclaim their lands, they must not be wary of battle. This can be seen as an encouragement of those participating in the Baltinglass rebellion to not shy away from the violence necessary to regain control of their native lands. Ó Dálaigh continues from this onwards with continuous alluding to the bravery of these rebels, emphasizing their pride felt for the history and beauty of their native lands. After many more religious and historical references, Ó Dálaigh then writes “it kills me that foreigners are proclaiming as outcasts / the kings of Fodla and their assemblies” (Lines 33-34). That is, it is upsetting to Ó Dálaigh that the native nobility of Ireland are no longer recognized. He follows this up immediately by writing “and that all they are now called in their homeland / are shifty woodland bandits” (Lines 35-36). That is, the native nobility of Ireland have fallen in the eyes of their own people from lords to raiders. This is an important direct reference to Derricke’s writings in how it demonstrates that the raiders that Derricke discusses could very well actually be native lords. Again, Ó Dálaigh continues for many lines discussing the troubles facing the native Irish lords but also remains optimistic and encouraging about the Baltinglass rebels course of action. The poem comes to an end when Ó Dálaigh returns to the same phrase as used in the beginning of the poem and writes “God with them, sleeping and rising, strong men most valiant in battle; God with them, waking and sleeping, and when the war is being waged” (Lines 57- 60). That is, may God be on the side of the brave Baltinglass rebels in their attempt to overthrow the English and regain control of their native lands. Thus, we can see that this poem responds to Derricke by portraying the Irish in a much more praiseworthy way in light of the Baltinglass rebellion while also directly refuting several of Derricke’s claims.
            The most obvious countering of Kern Pillaging Their Own People on a Bodrag by “Dia Libh” can be seen in how the descriptions of the Irish used by Derricke are revisited in “Dia Libh” in order to undermine or reframe them. The primary example of “Dia Libh” reframing one of Derricke’s descriptions is visible in his use of wolves to depict the Irish as savage predators as addressed earlier in the discussion of the first line. The image of the Irish as wolves appears very commonly in Giraldian texts as a vehicle utilized to emphasize the aggressive, impulsive nature of the Irish. In “Dia Libh,” this imagery is also used, but carries a different connotation, when Ó Dálaigh writes “wage war like valorous wolves / you blessed band of shining arms / on behalf of your native land” (Lines 5-7). That is, may the Irish fight bravely and fearlessly for Ireland. This quotation reinforces the comparison of the Irish with wolves but does so by highlighting an alternative characteristic of wolves so as to reframe the insult as praise. This reframing can be seen in the comparison of the Irish with woodland bandits. Again, Derricke does not directly use this term in Kern Pillaging Their Own People on a Bodrag, but after a long description of the Irish raiders pillaging a village, he writes “they do return back to the wood, from whence they came before” (Line 13). This comment is identified and responded to in Dia Libh, when O Dalaigh writes that it kills me “that all they [the kings of Fodla] are now called in their homeland / are shifty woodland bandits” (Lines 34-36). This reinforces the idea that the English describe the lords as woodland bandits but also heavily implies that this is an unjust description. By identifying the bandits described by Derricke as Irish nobility, the story told by Derricke is undermined greatly due to his apparent bias in his writing. Thus, while these may seem like very specific aspects of Derricke’s writing to refute, by doing so Ó Dálaigh manages to undermine the foundational facts that Derricke uses to emphasize the savage and barbarous nature of the Irish nobility.
            While Kern Pillaging Their Own People on a Bodrag depicts the Irish nobility as a cowardly group who take advantage of the weak, the poem “Dia Libh” responds to this in contradiction and is very much centered around the praiseworthy bravery and martial ability of the Irish nobility. In Kern Pillaging Their Own People on a Bodrag, a focus is placed on the effects of the actions of the Irish through the distorted perspective of their alleged victims. We can see this clearly in Derricke’s descriptions of the Irish pillaging and unnecessary cruelty as discussed earlier. “Dia Libh”  responds to this through its depiction of this destructiveness in a very different light and its identification of ways in which it can be channeled to free Ireland from English persecution. This alternative perspective can be seen when Ó Dálaigh discusses the necessity of bravery for the Irish when he writes
“If you want to stake your claim to Ireland,
Warriors of the valiant steps,
Do not shirk brave deed or combat,
Nor the frenzy of great battles” (lines 9-16).
This entire stanza reflects many of the characteristics that Derricke discusses but instead with a positive perspective being placed on acts involving frenzy and violence. Thus, we can see that the methods of praise vary greatly between the two poems and the characteristics which are deemed praiseworthy are even more polarizing.
            One last, subtle method used in “Dia Libh” to counter the wrongdoing of the Irish that is depicted in Kern Pillaging Their Own People on a Bodrag is an association with God. Throughout “Dia Libh,” God is mentioned frequently, mostly regarding to him being on the side of the Irish in this conflict. This can be seen even in the very first line of “Dia Libh”. The role of God in this conflict is an important one as a differing religion is one of the foundational points of contention between the English and the Irish. By calling upon God, it demonstrates the Irish’s confidence in their religion, and by extension their culture. Derricke fails to portray this in his own work through his lack of references to Protestantism. However, this association with God is confusing as much of what the Irish are as described doing, both by Ó Dálaigh and Derricke, is egregiously sinful. For example, in Derricke’s work when he writes “They pass not for the poor man’s cry, nor yet respect his tears / but rather joy to see the fire to flash about his ears” (Lines 7-8). This clearly depicts a lack of empathy towards the poor and the committing of mortal sins by the Irish, which undermines any religious association that Ó Dálaigh is trying to reinforce. However, Ó Dálaigh could be implying that, despite the violent nature of the Irish, God is on their side as the English deserve to be punished. This not only demonstrates the superiority of the Irish and Catholicism in the eyes of God, but also justifies the killing of the English and their expulsion from Ireland. Thus, we can see that by incorporating God into the conflict, Ó Dálaigh not only attacks the English religion, but also degrades them as worthy of punishment in the eyes of God, a refreshing response to the Giraldian perspective provided by Derricke.
            Ultimately, “Dia Libh” takes a lot of the negatives attributed to the Irish in Kern Pillaging Their Own People on a Bodrag and reframes them in a positive light or refutes them entirely. By understanding the time period and historical context in which these two texts are written, it is easy to see that the Baltinglass rebellion not only provides Ó Dálaigh with inspiration to respond to Derricke’s claims about the Irish, but also provides him with evidence to the contrary. While the most direct responses by Ó Dálaigh to Derricke can be seen in the addressing of small details, such as the description of the Irish nobles as mere bandits, once understood in their full capacity, these small argued-upon details serve as the main foundation for the arguments that both side attempt to put forward. Thus, we can see that through his response, Ó Dálaigh encourages the political events going on during the point of time of his composition, while also using them to frame a new understanding of the actions of the Irish in the past, and ultimately to argue against Derricke’s biased depiction of Irish nobility. 

Nicholas Harding Bradley 
Nicholas Harding Bradley 
Nicholas Harding Bradley 
Prints from John Derrick's "The Image of Irelande"


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