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18 September 2014
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Wars and Conflict - The Plantation of Ulster

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Gaelic culture was not introverted and backward-looking
- Professor Donnchadh Ó Corráin

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There is a very common view that Gaelic culture was introverted and backward-looking, and you will find this expressed eloquently by writers like Frank O’Connor and by scholars like D.A. Binchy. But I don’t believe this to be the case at all. For example, there is buried in the annals of the four masters, a 16th-century chronicle of the O’Briens, and if you read this chronicle very carefully, you will find that it is instinct with the concepts of state-craft and attitudes to the Prince of the renaissance. And indeed, Queen Elizabeth (to whom they were loyal by the way) is referred to constantly in this chronicle as An Prionsa, The Prince, Il Principe. You can see here straightaway that the background of this chronicle is contemporary renaissance statecraft.

You can also see that the Bardic poets, for example, are drawing heavily on such classical learning as existed in Ireland in the middle ages. There is no reluctance to borrow ideas, attitudes and contemporary culture: they are very quick on the uptake. But the matrix of their own culture was so self-assured, they were so aware of their own, you might say almost superiority, that they put their own reading on things. But that doesn’t mean that they weren’t up-to-date - they translated Marco Polo, they translated the travels of Sir John Mandeville, they translated the contemporary romantic literature of Europe - so they were not closed in. They even translated Giraldus Cambrensis into Irish, so they are absorbing all the time but, like any society that is confident of its own judgement and its own social and cultural position, what is absorbed is also changed.

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