Kings of Vanished Kingdoms
[Note : This piece was first written almost exactly ten years ago ; the pictures of Ireland in the snow this last week have made it feel relevant once more, and the questions of heritage and history it addresses have not ceased to concern me since …]
Flying home to Ireland, on Saint Stephen’s day, the 26th of December. The country has been covered with snow, temperatures plunging below zero. It covers the landscape, making all white, all redundant, eerie in disuse, like furniture under dust-sheets. It provokes the unquieting anxiety of the blank page, erases the signs of the present. It could be any time, long ago, in Winter, when there were wolves in the forests. When there were forests. They’ve seen thunder and lightning during a snow-storm, they tell me. They’ve seen cars sliding wildly all over the roads as a sudden rainstorm flash-freezes as it hits the ground. Around the Lough, in Cork, where attics have wardrobes at the bottom of which lurk old-fashioned ice-skates, there are children sliding on the frozen lake again, and the swans and ducks peck miserably, and huddle on the wooded island in the middle. When I was a child, I prayed every Winter for the snow to finally come back. Twenty years later, from another country, I was to have my wish. Off the coast, we flew into a blanket of mist, that enveloped the plane in soft grey-white. As we finally skimmed below it, the last light of the day was fading into a deep, secret blue, and the strings of lights were glowing along the winding lanes, between fields of fading, dusky green. No snow, no white. All was painted in layers and layers of dark, rich, soft colours. All greens, all greys, all blues. We landed, and it was nearly night, and the bowl of the city glimmered with a thousand lights. The thaw had come, and I arrived hard on its heels; the snow had disappeared overnight, like gold from the mounds, leaving nothing behind but wet leaves and twigs, and the scent of turf burning in the dusk. But people had been without water, without power, without the ability to go further than their front gate. Their cars were smooth drumlins in the drive: underneath could have been a beehive hut, or a barrow-grave. People went to wells they’d never thought of, and to the neighbours, for a bucket of water. They played games at night, and talked. And sledding down the hills, swimming snow-angels into the lawn, launching snowballs from snowforts, children were the kings of the castle, and the dirty, rascally adults stayed home from work, and rubbed their numb hands for them when they ran in soaked with snowmelt, cheeks flushed, eyes bright, from a place they’d never been, at the bottom of their own garden.They were plunged into the past then, and the country scattered into villages, into isolated households, with the wild hounds of Winter howling outside at night, with the wind and the frost.
But if it’s a country now, and only relatively recently, then what was it once, before? A country, with four provinces now, known as rugby teams. One of them truncated, wounds gouged in its sides, gradually knitting, gradually healing, as Good Friday Agreements and Cross-Border Bodies stitch carefully, here and there, sewing some sort of new animal together. But these were once much more, these provinces. These were once alliances of Kingdoms. Each province had a king ruling over it, and each contained dozens of kingdoms, tiny and not so tiny, ruled by clans, tribes, septs, great families, old names. Four provinces: Munster, Leinster, Connaught, and Ulster, and the Middle Kingdom, Royal Meath, Midhe, where the High King over all sat in Tara. Each kingdom, or tuath, was a land of its own, with its laws and territories, its own quirks of accent and its own songs. Even now, someone from ten miles down the road will laugh at the funny accent of the fellow from the next village. But there are no more kings. There is music, and poetry, and a language, but we have no royalty now. No nobility. It might help us if we did.
They say every Englishman’s home is his castle; perhaps. But every Irishman’s land is his kingdom, or once was. Is this why the Irish are so obsessed with owning a house, with owning a plot of land, with the division of the land and the keeping of fences, and why the country is still crisscrossed with dry-stone walls, dividing tiny parcels of territory each from each? They’re made with no mortar, these walls, but each stone is carefully placed. The wind blows through them, and they stand for hundreds of years. We’re great builders, the Irish. Look at any building site in Britain or America for the last hundred and fifty years. Builders, policemen, priests, drunks, and poets. That’s what we export best. Corrupt politicians too, though we keep the best of them for home. Is this also why we have one hundred and sixty six members of parliament? One for every little kingdom, a petty king receiving his tribute in brown-paper bags in car-parks, and getting a complimentary chariot and driver for all his years, even after he abdicates? We love royalty, perhaps, royal privileges, but only the royalty we can touch, that lives down the road, the kings and queens of tiny realms, which we would be too, only for a long-past, never forgotten betrayal or catastrophe. Nowhere will you meet more last scions of failing dynasties, more once-great families fallen on hard times, than in Ireland. We are a country of reduced circumstances. And everyone’s ancestors were kings.
Some years ago, I left the dining room of a restaurant in the far west of Cork, run by organic, hand-knit, wholegrain Germans. You could only smoke out in the lounge, by the enormous stone fireplace. There was a man there, he also smoking, drinking his after-dinner amber nectar, and we got to talking. I was in talkative form. He twinkled at me, asked my name. And your surname? Fitzpatrick. He looked back, sidelong. Do you know about your name, he asked. I, being young, said yes, of course. Do you know how old it is, he asked. I, not being old myself, said yes. Do you know what that means, he asked. I said yes, convinced we were both in the know. I wonder who he was. I used to think I knew the story. All these Fitz names are Norman, but usually, as I found to my glee, they were the names carried by bastard sons of Norman nobles in Ireland. Maurice de Quercy’s sons and heirs would carry his aristocratic name, with particule, his arms, his titles, and his lands. But his sons got on the wrong side of the sheets would be FitzMaurice, fils de Maurice, and bear it proudly, inherit nothing but a frustrated sense of entitlement. Fitzpatrick, then I learned, was not quite like the others. It was not Norman, but rather a Normanisation of a Gaelic name, Mac Giolla Phadraig. Which means “Son of the Servant of Patrick”. My pet theory seemed to hold, as for “servant” one could easily read “concubine”, an Irish woman, his wife in all but name; but name is destiny, or so we’re told. By a quirk of fate, a death-bed promise, and a taste for the absurd in naming, my own name is exactly correct. My father’s name is Patrick, so I am Mark fils de Patrick. But it turns out I was possibly wrong about the story, wrong to think Sir Mark the Bastard was a pleasing title for my knight-errant alter ego.
Mac Giolla Phadraig was the clan name adopted by the descendants of a tenth century king, who gave himself the title “Giolla Phadraig” to mean “The Devotee of Saint Patrick”. A holy man, and a king. Later on, the name was shifted to the Norman-sounding Fitzpatrick, around the time that Henry VIII declared himself King of Ireland, and confiscated all the lands of all the nobles there. Swear fealty to me, he said, and you’ll have your lands, and titles from my hand. And so the Fitzpatricks became the Barons of Ossory. But Ossory was there long before. Osraighe, a strange inbetween kingdom, half in Munster, half in Leinster, allied to one or other or both, as it suited. The Giolla Phadraig was the king in the year nine-something, ruling from a royal seat at Kilkenny. And the kingdom didn’t begin there either. Back across centuries, through Cearbhal Mac Dunlainge, a king of Osraighe who allied with Norse-Gael lords in war, and lost, and fled to Iceland, where his name crops up in the sagas as Kjarvalr Irakonungr, back as far as the time of Christ, with the Ur-Ancestor Aongus Osrai, supposed to have lived in that time where the Irish histories and genealogies blend into legend, and then into myth. But follow far enough, and they say the Osraighe were Iverni, who spoke a different language, came of different stock, than the Gaels; if we follow T.F. O’Rahilly’s historical model of the waves of invasions told in the pseudohistory of the Lebor Gabala Erann (The Book of Conquests), which most people these days don’t, but which I find pleasing, this would make them Fir Bolg, the tribe that ruled Ireland long before the Milesians, or Gaels, before even the Tuatha De Danann, who numbered gods among their leaders.
But the Kingdom of Osraighe is vanished, all memory of it, and only in occasional place-names does it still crop up. Borris-in-Ossory, a town in County Laois. In the heraldry of the British nobility, where the Fitzpatricks have their arms, their titles as Barons and Earls of Upper Ossory. But the lines are lost, and hopelessly tangled, and I think there is no claimant now, to the throne of this vanished kingdom. A few weeks ago, not long after I found this out, while researching something totally different, I met a man outside a bar in Paris. We talked, and he asked my name. When I told him, he took my hand, and bent his forehead to it, as if to kiss a signet ring. When he asked, do you know why I do this? I said I did. This time, I assume nothing. This time, I say I know, not to share some esoteric secret, but to stop him talking. I gave him a knowing look, as if to say, I know, let’s speak no more of it. And the most likely reason why he did it, is that he’s a nutter.
All of what I’ve said may be verified in certain records. All of what I’ve said may be a pack of the most barefaced lies. Because every Irish man has a deposed king lurking in him, a fantastic sense of frustrated entitlement; they took our lands, they took our titles, they cut down all our trees; they took our language, took the best of our youngsters. And we were no better; we gave ourselves to religion, to poverty, to rewards in the next life, and silence, secrecy, and drink in this one. But inside every Irish man is also a born liar, a fraud, a storyteller: a seanchai is the word. Someone who knows the seanchas, the old knowledge, the folklore. And an Irish man from Cork is even worse, for he may well have kissed the Blarney Stone, thus granting him its famous gift of eloquence, or glibness. And that, my friends, is set into the battlements at Blarney Castle, for tourists to gawp and slobber on, and locals to piss on at night, if the tales are true; and that stone is a part of another stone, one fragment known as the Stone of Scone, on which Scottish Kings were crowned, one part in the foundations of the Temple in Jerusalem, and all once part of the Lia Fail, the Stone of Destiny, one of the Four Treasures of Ireland, along with the Sword of the Sun, the Screaming Spear, and the Cauldron of the Dagda, the Cauldron of Plenty, that can raise the Dead.
But that, as they say, is another story altogether.