Intermarriage in fifteenth-century Ireland: the English and Irish in the ‘four obedient shires’
Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Vol. 00, 1-32 (2012)
Sparky Booker (Department of History and Humanities, Trinity College Dublin)
Many attempts have been made to understand and explain the complicated relationship between the English of Ireland and the Irish in the later Middle Ages. This paper explores the interaction between these two groups through the curiously understudied phenomenon of intermarriage, and centres on the ‘four obedient shires’ of Dublin, Meath, Louth and Kildare in the fifteenth century. These counties, parts of which later comprised the Pale, were home to an English community that helped to produce much of the anti-Irish rhetoric found in record sources of the fifteenth century, including frequent enactments that prohibited marriage between the English and the Irish. And yet, English men and women from this region chose to marry Irish people, and they did so in much greater numbers than the current historiography acknowledges. The prevalence of intermarriage in the four counties indicates that the English and Irish interacted far more peaceably and amicably than the often belligerent attitudes displayed toward the Irish in records from the colony would indicate, and that the attempts made by the Irish parliament to distance the English of Ireland from their Irish neighbours were largely unsuccessful.
The nature of the relationship between the English of Ireland and the Irish is perhaps the most disputed question in the historiography of late medieval Ireland. Many of the surviving documents from this period, particularly those generated by the Dublin-centred English administration of Ireland, display an anti-Irish mindset and consistently use the term ‘Irish enemy’ to describe the native Irish. The sources most widely used by historians give the impression of division and seemingly unrelenting hostility between the English and the Irish in the fifteenth century. Thus the equally prevalent accommodation and co-operation between the two peoples can easily be underestimated. Nowhere is this co-operation more evident, or more symbolically realised, than in the institution of marriage.