Giraldus Cambrensis and the necessity of martyrs

An early horse meat scandal in Ireland (via “Topography”)

A look at the history of Irish philosophy shows that a rather high proportion of our well known philosophers worked abroad. But we do know that bishops capable of debate were around before John Toland aggravated Bishops Edward Synge and William King.

Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis) came to Ireland to visit his Barry relatives in 1186-7. He wrote a description of the country in his Topography of Ireland. As in his works about Wales, Gerald is less than complimentary about the nonNormans he encounters. In his Topography (pp 79-81) he argues that the Irish people have many failings, and attributes this to the failure of prelates to preach to them. To support that preaching was lacking he cites the unparalleled lack of martyrs in the story of Ireland’s conversion to Christianity. If there had been a “voice like a trumpet” preaching to this uncivilised nation, says Gerald, there should have been martyrs.

He once (he tells us) put this argument to Maurice, archbishop of Cashel, (probably Muirges Ua hÉnna) “a discreet and learned man” who retorted:

It is true that although our nation may seem barbarous, uncivilized, and cruel, they have always shewn great honour and reverence to their ecclesiastics, and never on any occasion raised their hands against God’s saints. But there is now come into our land a people who know how to make martyrs, and have frequently done it. Henceforth Ireland will have its martyrs, as well as other countries.

It’s not clear if Gerald fully comprehended the insult to the Normans (note this reported conversation would have been about sixteen years after Thomas Becket was murdered in Canterbury and thirteen since his canonisation) or that it showed Gerald that Irish toleration was as good an explanation as inadequate preaching for the lack of martyrs. But in any case, what a come back!

Further Reading

Patrick took great care in negotiating his way through the complex, fragmented and hierarchical Irish society he found himself in. More at VoxHiberionacum.

Nikki Ralston (2012) “There once was a Welsh priest called Gerald” National Library of Ireland (online)

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