Englishobbes and Irishdoggs: Anglo-Norman Ireland and the Statutes of Kilkenny

In late medieval Ireland, they had customary words of abuse for one another. Englishobbe. Irishdogg. So deep was the antipathy that one parliament was forced to legislate against such language, on pain of a year in prison and an unspecified fine.

But this wasn’t the indigenous Irish and their Anglo-Norman colonisers abusing one another. It was the English born in Ireland and the English born in England – les Engleis nees en Ireland and les Engleis nees en Engleterre in the legal French of the day.

It’s a small point, but it demonstrates the depth of the anxieties around settler identity and the processes of assimilation with which the legislation as a whole – better known as the 1366 Statutes of Kilkenny – is obsessed. The statutes tacitly accept that, nearly two hundred years after their invasion, the Anglo-Norman writ did not extend much beyond a handful of counties in Ireland – what were later called the ‘four obedient shires’ of Dublin, Kildare, Louth and Meath, together with Carlow, Kilkenny, Wexford and Tipperary. Everywhere else was without the law, as the Anglo-Normans conceived it; native Brehon law is dismissed as mere ‘bad custom’, and any English who used it were, the statutes said, guilty of treason.

Other treasonable activities the legislation identified included “alliance by marriage… fostering of children, concubinage or by amour” between the English and the Irish. The English must “be named by an English name, leaving off entirely the manner of naming used by the Irish”; speaking Gaelic rather than English or failing to adopt “the English custom, fashion, mode of riding and apparel” would result in attainder. It was forbidden for “any Irish minstrels, that is to say, tympanours, pipers, story tellers, babblers, rhymers [or] harpers… come among the English”; hurling and quoits were outlawed in favour of “gentle games which appertain to arms”, such as archery.

The Irish living among the English were forbidden to speak Gaelic, even among themselves.
The parliament of Kilkenny, which opened on 18 February 1366, had been summoned by the then 27-year-old Lionel of Antwerp, duke of Clarence and lieutenant of Ulster, son of Edward III, who had been based in Ireland since 1361 in an attempt to shore up Anglo-Norman authority.

The statutes were still being renewed under Henry VII, some 130 years later, which suggests, among other things, that they remained ineffective. But Lionel left, never to return, in November 1366, no doubt thinking his work was done.

This piece first appeared in the February 2022 issue of History Today.

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