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The Catholic Historical Review 88.2 (2002) 365-367

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Book Review

The World of Geoffrey Keating:
History, Myth and Religion in Seventeenth-Century Ireland

The World of Geoffrey Keating: History, Myth and Religion in Seventeenth-Century Ireland. By Bernadette Cunningham. (Dublin: Four Courts Press. Distributed in the United States by ISBS, Portland, Oregon. 2000. Pp. xv, 263. $55.00.) [End Page 365]

In his Hibernia Anglicana, a riposte to Geoffrey Keating's Foras feasa ar Éirinn, Sir Richard Cox, an Irish Protestant, lamented, "At this day we know no difference of nation [in Ireland] but what is expressed by papist and Protestant." Objecting strenuously to Keating's identification of Irishness with Catholicism, Cox presented his own narrative of Irish history from a New English perspective.

That Cox and other writers of the late seventeenth century responded so vigorously to Keating's fashioning of Irish identity is a measure of the way in which the Tipperary priest's work had impinged on the national psyche, even in manuscript circulation. Dr. Bernadette Cunningham's careful recreation of the world of Geoffrey Keating shows him to have been a product of the hybrid culture of late Tudor Ireland and the ardent spirituality of Counter-Reformation France. Although focusing principally on his major historical work, Foras feasa, Dr. Cunningham also adduces Keating's spiritual and poetic writings to show convincingly how history, myth, and religion were fused in his œuvre to create an integrated version of what it meant to be Irish and Catholic in a period of rapid change.

Keating's two devotional tracts, one on the Mass and the other on death, drew heavily on his experience both of medieval Gaelic spirituality and a formal seminary training at Bordeaux. To accomplish his Catholic ministry in Tipperary, he wrote in colloquial yet elegant Irish. A tribute to his successful pastorate is theextant monument erected by his parishioners to his memory in Tubbrid, County Tipperary, in 1644.

The central part of this book contains a thorough analysis of Foras feasa ar Éirinn, a narrative of Irish history from the earliest settlement to the establishment of the Anglo-Normans. After a systematic investigation of the sources upon which Keating drew, Dr. Cunningham highlights the ideological framework within which the work was composed. By castigating in his famous preface the denigrators of Ireland, Keating staked out the ground for his presentation of the history of an Irish Catholic nation, entailing the Christianization of the country by St. Patrick and the absorption of Keating's Anglo-Norman ancestors. The contemporary race of 'Éireannaigh' (his neologism for the fused Gaelic and old English nationality) was roused to a consciousness of its heritage through the unveiling of its heroic past and its steadfast loyalty to Rome. The choice of the Irish vernacular as the medium was in itself a cultural statement.

The powerfulness of Keating's synthesis is clearly demonstrated by Dr. Cunningham in the concluding section of the book devoted to his legacy. Each subsequent transcription or translation (into English and Latin) signified a set of values in respect of contemporary Irish affairs, refracted through the revision of Keating's text. Gaelic and Old English scholars as well as New Protestants such as Cox all engaged with his notions of the origins of the Irish and the status of the kingdom of Ireland. Perhaps the epitome of the image-formation process [End Page 366] initiated by Keating is the depiction of Brian Boru, the famous high king, in Dermod O'Connor's first printed version of Foras feasa of 1723 in the guise of a Christian emperor whose army freed Ireland from Scandinavian heathens. The significance of the role of Geoffrey Keating as transmitter of the pervasive modern account of Irish history is very evident here.

The absorbing study of the works of Keating and their influence contributes immensely to our understanding of how the interpretation of the Irish past has emerged, and especially the conjunction of Catholicism and nationality.


Colm Lennon
National University of Ireland, Maynooth



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