Good fences make good neighbors

Robert Frost, of course, hence the spelling:

There where it is we do not need the wall: 
He is all pine and I am apple orchard. 
My apple trees will never get across 
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him. 
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.

As is generally accepted, the proverb goes far further back than Frost in 1914. Benjamin Franklin had it in Poor Richard’s Almanack, in the form:

Love your neighbor; yet don’t pull down your hedge.

Clearly it was a well-worn axiom, even then.

Or, as Dominic Behan — ambiguously — had it:

The sea, oh the sea is the gradh geal mo croide
Long may it stay between England and me
It’s a sure guarantee that some hour we’ll be free
Oh! thank God we’re surrounded by water.

Somehow that was transported (like much else) to Newfoundland, where Joan Morrissey gave it new life:

The whole point of the relationship of the Celt and the Saxon is mutual incomprehension. It is a gaping chasm dividing the nearest of neighbours. A couple of the Great Moments of Anglo-Irish history were:

  • Queen Elizabeth I being verbally lambasted (in Irish) by Shane O’Neill (6th January 1562):


John Onell the Frenshman who had don much myschief the sommer past in Ireland cometh by save condytt into England and was receved gentelly in the courte in his saffron shorte the twelveth day at night. He accuseth the erle of Sussex of great crymes, crueltie, breache of promyse, putting to death of divers contrary to promyse and saue conduytt, pilling and polling etc.

O’Neill and his party were the subject of much chatter at Court. They were so unlike us, my dear. The version given on is strong on romantic imagination, if nothing else:

Few scenes could be more picturesque than this visit of the great Ulster chieftain to the capital of his unknown sovereign. As he came striding down the streets of London on his way to the Palace, attended by his train of gallowglasse armed with the battleaxe, his was indeed a figure to strike the imagination. Like the great golden eagle from far-off Donegal, when seen among homely surroundings, Shane the Proud impressed those who gazed at him as being indeed a king of men. He stalked into the Court, his saffron mantle sweeping round and round him, his hair curling on his back and clipped short below the eyes, which gleamed from under it with a grey lustre. Behind him followed his gallowglasse, their heads bare, their fair hair flowing on their shoulders, their linen vests dyed with saffron, with long and open sleeves, surcharged with shirts of mail which reached to their knees, a wolf-skin flung across their shoulders, and short, broad battle-axes in their hands.

The redoubtable chief had no reason to be dissatisfied with his reception. The Council, the peers, bishops, aldermen, dignitaries of all kinds, were present in state, and the assembly included ambassadors from the King of Sweden and the Duke of Savoy.

O’Neill, later that same year, sweetened the occasion by sending Elizabeth, through Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, a present of two horses, two hawks, and two Irish wolfdogs.

  • Then early in September 1593, Gráinne Ní Mháille (a.k.a. Grace O’Malley), de facto (leaving aside any legalistic details) lord of Umhall Uachtarach, came to Greenwich to make her complaints.

Let’s hear it from Mary O’Dowd, writing for the Dictionary of National Biography:

40_small_1246292510On her husband’s death, O’Malley, according to her own account, ‘gathered together all her own followers and with 1000 head of cows and mares’ went to live in Carraighowley Castle, co. Mayo, on part of her late husband’s territory, where she continued to ‘maintain herself and her people by sea and land’ . She may initially have established friendly relations with the new president of Connaught, Sir Richard Bingham, but she and her sons soon fell out with his regime. Owen was killed by the president’s brother George Bingham in 1586 and O’Malley was imprisoned and threatened with death. Theobald was maintained in the president’s household for some time as a pledge.

O’Malley was implicated in the Burke rebellions of 1586 and 1588 by Sir Richard Bingham, who accused her of drawing Scottish mercenary soldiers into co. Mayo. Her actions suggest, however, that she was primarily concerned to protect the interests of her immediate family and particularly those of Theobald. By 1591 Theobald had emerged as the leading Burke and the strongest contender for the position of MacWilliam but despite submitting to the government he was still regarded with suspicion. Her son’s arrest precipitated O’Malley’s visit to Elizabeth I in the summer of 1593. A remarkable aspect of O’Malley’s petitions was that she acted as spokesperson for the men in her family. She asked the queen for the release of her son and of her brother, who had also been arrested by Bingham. She also requested that her two sons and two other male members of the Burke family be given letters patent for their lands. As a widow under English common law, O’Malley also laid claim to dower from the land of the O’Malleys and of the O’Flahertys. In a much quoted passage she explained that a widow under Gaelic law had no right to her husband’s land. The royal visit was a success from O’Malley’s point of view. Bingham was ordered by Elizabeth to release Theobald and to grant O’Malley maintenance from her husbands’ lands. As a demonstration of loyalty, O’Malley claimed that she had ‘procured all her sons, cousins and followers of the O’Malleys’, with a number of galleys (some newly built on her return from London) to assist the Elizabethan forces in the Mayo area . The Irish administration was, none the less, slow to implement the queen’s instructions and in 1595 O’Malley made another visit to London, renewing her requests for herself and her male relatives.

There are umpteen accounts of the meeting of O’Malley and Elizabeth — the number of them alone testifies to the strangeness of the occasion, of two worlds colliding. Here is E. Owens Blackburne, doing one of those mid-Victorian (1877) shelf-fillers,  in Illustrious Irishwomen: Being Memoirs of Some of the Most Noted Irishwomen:

Tradition says that Grainne O’Mailly and her retinue performed the entire journey by sea, and sailed up the Thames to the Tower Gate. In this case tradition does not seem to be far wrong, for her little son, Theobald, or Toby, who was born during the journey, was called, Tioboid-na-Lung, or “Theobald of the Ship.”

The meeting of the two royal ladies must have been a strange sight, — the light-haired, light-eyed, fair-faced and rather shrewish-looking Elizabeth, and the swarthy, black-eyed, and black-haired Queen of Connaught. That the latter and her retainers were not attired in the then prevailing mode is pretty certain; but it may also be positively stated that, whatever was the fashion of their habiliments, the texture and workmanship would have borne comparison with any to be found at the Court. For in Ireland, from the earliest ages, skilled needlework was held in the highest esteem.

There are many traditional accounts of this memorable interview, but the chief and best result of it was that it consolidated the treaty already made between Grainne and Elizabeth. At the same time the Irish chieftainess although expressing herself grateful for the protection afforded by the English Government did not cede one inch of her royal dignity. The English Queen offered to create her a countess ; to which Grainne replied that she could not do so, as they were both equal in rank. But she said she would accept a title for her little son Toby, who had been born on the passage from Ireland. Accordingly, the infant was brought into Court, and then and there created Viscount Mayo ; from whom the present noble family of the Earls of Mayo is descended.

When the Irish chieftainess arrived at the English Court, she described herself as “Grainne O’Mailly, daughter of Doodarro O’Mailly, sometime chief of the country called Upper Owle O’Mailly, now called the Barony of Murasky.” This statement rather puzzled Elizabeth, who knew that Grainne was a married woman, until it was explained to her that it was customary amongst the Irish for the women to retain their maiden names after marriage.

They haven’t gone away, you know

The cultural differences extend well into the 21st century. Hence the Celt (who has a more intimate experience of the pained relationship) views the Saxon with amused contempt; while the return glance — when it is deigned to be afforded — remains devoid of real understanding.

The whole thing was writ small and neatly summed by a letter on The Guardian website, reproduced in the Saturday Review section. It’s from a regular contributor to the Books pages, poet, and publisher. The topic is Hilary Mantel’s London Review of Books article:

Given Cameron’s role in this affair, it’s difficult for an Irish person not to take some unwonted pride in a recent speech by much-maligned Irish poet-president Michael D Higgins; Joyce, Beckett, Marx, Sartre, de Beauvoir were all name-checked by a career politician who has read their works.




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Filed under bigotry, blogging, Britain, David Cameron, Guardian, History, Ireland, Irish politics, Literature, reading

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