Thursday, 7 May 2009

Scotland and Ireland, and the mystery of parallels

One of the questions that I think about at three in the morning when I can't sleep, are the parallels between the history of Scotland and the history of Ireland and whether these parallels are obscured by the fact that history is taught as Scots history, Irish history and so on, with divisions that reflect contemporary political realities, rather than the realities the participants saw.

When I first started thinking about this it was more along the lines of why did the easter rising, which was the result of a few agitators with little support result in the formation of the Irish state, but the events of January 1919, which more closely resembled a revolution in the making did not result in the Worker's Republic being more than a drunken fantasy of left wing dreamers.

And James Connolly knew John MacLean. While not in cahoots, while they were separate events, there was a whole gamut of crosscurrents relating the two events.

Presented with the anonymized evidence on paper, you would call it the other way. Saying that the British mishandled one and not the other is too glib. Saying the British were lucky is possibly acceptable in the case of 1919, and stupid in the case of 1916 might be closer to the mark.

Latterly, I see this as a need for a parallel reading of the two histories, concentrating on the resemblances rather than the differences starting from some time aroud 700, shortly after Nechtansmere, which effectively disposes of any role for the anglosaxons as an expansionist society and before the appearance of the vikings.

Sometime around 700 you would have seen a patchwork of celtic chiefdoms across ireland and spreading into the west of scotland as dalriada, bordered to the north and east by pictish communities that probably did not look that different from those of dalriada, and british speaking communities to the south,with a small anglosaxon community in the south east of scotland. And then the Vikings arrive. Clontarf, the establishment of dublin, the lordship of the isles, the coalesecence of the scottish state. So by about 1000 you would still have seen a patchwork of chiefdoms across scotland and ireland, but in scotland, as a result of the viking incursions there was a single ruler, while in Ireland the Vikings had effectively destroyed the political role of the high king as a mediator.

Early medieval society in ireland was thus unable to offer a coherent response to Norman adventurers. As in wales they occupied the prime agricultural land and as in wales they reatined (nominal) fealty to the king of england. Even though by the 1400's the FitzHerberts were as Irish as the Irish, they still maintained this loyalty to England.

As in wales this pushed the native communities to the more marginal territories.

Scotland was different. The Anglicised early medieval state invited Norman lords, created burghs, traded with the low countries and the baltic. Even though it really only cosisted of the central belt and the eastern coastal strip scotland colonised itself to create a functioning medieval society. Outside of this pale it was a late Hiberno Norse society with little difference between the lords of the isles and the O'Niels of Ulster say. Certainly they would have under understood each other and had a similar dislike of the more urban societies around them.

And this I think is crucial. The Medieval Scottish State was a state with laws and courts and a functioning and developing civil society, and played a part in the powergames of medieaval europe.

In Ireland no such state developed. The Norman lords expanded piecmeal by a game of divide and conquer, and then shrank back to the Pale after the Black death. And while the English king wished to make the lords pay fealty to him in reality rather than name, and might have provoked a unified opposition, the collapse of anglo norman expansion, meant it was never much more than a frightened colony behind its ditch dreading an irruption of the wild irish.

In Scotland geography meant that until in the late 1400's the anglicised state developed a decent navy, the celtic chiefdoms remained out of control. In fact it was not until after 1745 that there was sustained control of these areas. In Ireland, it was possible for the English to re-expand acoss the midland plain pushing the chiefdoms to the margins.

The end of celtic ireland was much as the end of celtic scotland. In Ireland they blame the English. In Scotland there is a dim realisation that if Scottish state had been able to muster sufficient force it too would have bloodily suppressed the celtic chiefdoms, something which was so very evident after the '45, and was later hidden under a veil of tartanry and romantic nationalism. The same indifference to their celtic co-islanders was true of the eighteenth century anglo-irish establishment. And of course Wolf Tone was one of them.

So what does this parallel reading show us?

It shows that both histories are the history of the collapse of one form of society in opposition to the developing late medieval and early modern societies of europe. It shows similar reactions to the process but with different outcomes. Laos and Thailand if you will. There are differences, but rather than viewing them as the history of ireland and the history of scotland, viewing them as a history of the celtic peoples and their reaction to the developemnt of the medieval society in the islands of Britain. Viewed this way the history of Wales also forms part of a coherent whole. The history of the wars between england and scotland can also be seen as the failure to establish a single medieval state and as such can be seen to parallel similar processes in France.

And 1919 versus 1916? I don't know. History is the story of chance and mischance. perhaps Ireland simply had better poets and worse garrison commanders ..

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