As you are probably well aware, gentle reader, long-standing tensions exist between the English and the Irish, tensions which in the last thirty years or so of the twentieth century caused extreme sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, the last part of Ireland that the British still control. Often the sides involved get reduced to two, simplistically referred to as the Protestants and the Catholics. The Protestants refer to Unionists, who want Northern Ireland to remain part of Great Britain, the Catholics Republicans who want Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic of Ireland, so Ireland can be an independent and unified nation.
My book explores the origins of that conflict and the ways in which religion was used to justify the English invasion and subsequent colonization of Ireland (just as religion is used as a distinguishing characteristic now, with Protestants and Catholics, so was it then, though all involved were Catholic). This began in the twelfth century, when the only English pope, Adrian IV, encouraged Henry II, king of England, to invade Ireland because he claimed that the Irish had renounced Christianity and needed to be restored to the faith by Henry. This was supremely ironic, not just because the Irish were and had been devout Catholics for centuries, but also because Henry was far from a virtuous Christian hero, as indicated most forcefully by his responsibility for the murder of the soon to be St. Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, in his very cathedral. But the Irish had little power with the papacy and this rhetoric became fairly standard among the power-brokers of Western Christendom at this time.
Intriguingly, when Henry acted on Adrian’s encouragement fifteen years later, the vast majority of Irish kings accepted his overlordship without a fight. Fierce battles between the native Irish and English lords who had begun the invasion without Henry both preceded Henry’s arrival and followed his departure, but when Henry himself was in Ireland, all but two native Irish kings swore obedience to Henry as their overlord. This was probably because of the Irish concept of ard rí, or high king, who was more of a leader than a lord, but still it’s significant that Henry won the fealty of nearly all of the island—ironically, again, the two holdouts were in the North, the last part of the island to remain under English control.
So at the end of the twelfth century and in the first half of the thirteenth, the English had at least nominal control over much of the island. But starting with the Battle of Callan (really!) in 1261, the Irish started winning back more and more of their land, so that by the early fourteenth century the English or Anglo-Irish colony was reduced essentially to about a third of the island, and by the fifteenth it would be reduced primarily to the Pale, a ring of counties around Dublin (this is where the expression “beyond the Pale” comes from, as beyond this area was wild and uncivilized, according to the colonial perspective). The fourteenth was not a good century for the Anglo-Irish colonists, as they lost more and more land to the native Irish, and as the Anglo-Irish increasingly “went native”—acting, looking, and speaking like the native Irish—who by colonial standards were uncivilized—hence the “Wild Irish” of my title. And it is in this century that all of Ireland’s known, verifiable heresy trials occurred, all of them purely colonial affairs, except a couple with the natives at the burning end.
These heresy trials are the focus of my book, which argues that these trials do not involve actual heresy. Heresy refers to alternative understandings of Christianity that contradict officially defined doctrine and to which a person continues to adhere after ecclesiastical authorities have tried correction. Heresy was a major concern on the Continent at this time, and in the introduction I provide an overview of a few genuinely heretical groups, including Cathars and Waldensians. Cathars are said to have been absolute dualists who believed that Christ was pure spirit who only seemed human. They saw physicality as corruption, with the point of life to purify yourself of this physical corruption as much as possible so that you could escape this worldly prison and attain spiritual salvation. They also rejected the church’s hierarchy of popes and bishops, maintaining instead that authority depended on one’s spiritual state, not apostolic office. Waldensians were at first thoroughly orthodox and developed primarily to combat groups like the Cathars, but the church hierarchy soon grew suspicious of their fervor, especially when it prompted them to preach. The problem was not what they were preaching but that they, laypeople, were preaching, which was a jealously guarded clerical privilege. Once labelled heretics, the Waldensians eventually came to act like it, challenging conventional Christian practices and beliefs that did not have a solid scriptural foundation, like purgatory and clerical ordination.
Just for the record, I don’t regard it as either a virtue or a fault if an individual holds orthodox or heretical views; I personally am fascinated by religious diversity, and at its core that’s what heresy is about—people who held views that stood at odds with views sanctioned by church authorities. It’s useful to remember that heresy comes from the Greek word for choice; the church denied choice to its faithful in matters of doctrine and church structure. Those involved—whether the “heretic” or the inquisitor—regarded their views as true and their opponents’ views as false. Heresy was a fluid and frequently shifting concept, virtually limitless in its forms, but it was in its essence a label applied to others, not the self; a modern analogy could be the term “terrorist”—individuals to whom it is applied often regard themselves as fighters for righteousness, justice, and freedom, seeing their opponents as the terrorists. The defining element was the ability to support such a label with authority and often with force.
The main difference between legitimately heretical groups and the cases in Ireland is that the latter did not involve actual doctrinal deviance, whereas the Cathars and later the Waldensians did. But whether you’re talking about “genuine” or “artificial” heresy, ultimately you’re talking about control and power—who has the power to force whom to believe what—or at least to say they believe what; who has the power to force whom to do what—and to kill them if they don’t. Or, to kill them for other reasons, but then say it’s because they believed or did something. And, with these Irish cases, we’re dealing with people whose power cast such long and deep shadows that 700 years later, some scholars still buy their version of events. I don’t. Please allow me to explain why.
It all starts with the Templars . . .