Foras Feasa ar Eirinn and the Historical Origins of Irish Catholic Identity
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New Hibernia Review 5.4 (2001) 144-147

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Foras Feasa ar Éirinn and the Historical Origins of Irish Catholic Identity

Bernadette Cunningham

The way Irish people think about themselves is influenced by, and influences, the way they think about the past. Their communal memories and perceptions of the past are shaped, to a significant extent, by the choices that were made by past historians when they selected from the available evidence and told the story of the past as they saw it. Geoffrey Keating's Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (c.1634), itself a summary and selection of earlier historical writing, has been particularly influential in dictating the Irish historical canon for many generations down to the mid-twentieth century. Conscious of the persuasive power of historical narrative, Geoffrey Keating (c. 1580-1644) molded his account of the ancient origins and emergence of the Irish Catholic community to serve the needs of seventeenth-century Irish Catholics. The particular combination of myth, religion, and history popularized in Foras Feasa largely defined Irish Catholicism for over three centuries. 1

Keating's Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (FFÉ) is essentially the partisan story of the origins of the Irish Catholic nation. It is a prose narrative of some 160,000 words written in the Irish language in the early seventeenth century. 2 It was written by an Irish Catholic priest who had been educated in France and subsequently returned to southeast Ireland. In a premodern semiliterate world, that a priest should be the one to tell the story of a community's origins and be the arbiter of standards of political and social order, morality, and even language, was unexceptional. Although his narrative concentrated on the ancient and early medieval past, Keating constructed a view of Ireland and its people that contextualized [End Page 144] the highly contentious political and religious debates of early seventeenth-century Ireland. Foras Feasa owed some of its appeal to the language and style in which it was written, to its straightforward chronological framework, and to its entertaining stories of heroic exploits. It offered readers an attractive and accessible summary of the key elements of medieval Gaelic manuscripts that were generally inaccessible and their contents largely intractable.

The main reason for the popularity of Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, however, was the intrinsic appeal of its central idea that Ireland was an ancient and worthy kingdom and the Irish an honorable people with a proud and heroic past. It defined that kingdom and people against others, thereby asserting the superiority of Éireannaigh ("Irish persons"), who were portrayed as the rightful inhabitants of the island of Ireland. It was this focus on the worthiness of the Irish kingdom that also ensured Foras Feasa ar Éirinn's wide appeal to Irish Protestant readers when it became available in English as The General History of Ireland from 1723 on. 3

The idea of an Irish Catholic nation was a new construct of the seventeenth century. The sixteenth-century trend in European historiography emphasized the history of peoples or individual nations, and Keating was anxious that the Irish should have a history such as other nations had. In the midst of the social change prompted by the influx of newcomers through formal and informal plantations, Catholics in Ireland looked to history to assert that Ireland was their homeland and they its rightful inhabitants. In the face of a political administration increasingly hostile to Catholicism, Keating offered them a history which underpinned their claims that theirs was the true faith. Foras Feasa presented a version of the past that linked the Catholic people of Ireland, through a traditional historical framework, back to their early Christian and ultimately biblical origins.

In a two part story echoing the division of the Bible into Old and New Testaments, FFÉ began with the creation of the world and devoted the first part of the text to the pre-Christian era. The second part offered a long narrative sweep from the beginnings of Christianity down to the arrival of the Normans in the twelfth century. For Keating, history...