The Barrow Study 02: The English^H^H^H^H^H^H Norman Barrow

More on WI’s 2012 publication The Barrow Corridor Recreational, Tourism and Commercial Product Identification Study. Under 2.3 Barrow Vision we read:

2.3.2 The partnership vision for the Barrow Valley is that it would have visibility within tourism in Ireland, as a special area with a very strong heritage. Within this the story of the Normans should prevail, accompanied by the ecclesiastical story and a higher profile for its former importance as a commercial navigation. The river’s special features would be highlighted along with its importance as the second longest river in Ireland and as an area that is largely unexploited and unexplored.

I’ve no problem with the ideas underlying the first and last sentences, but the second took me aback. That’s partly because of what Thomas Bartlett wrote in his extremely entertaining and informative single-volume Ireland: a history (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2010):

The English invasion of Ireland

There are at least two puzzles concerning events in Ireland between 1169 and 1171: what happened, and who was involved. Happily, these two puzzles can be easily solved, though most historians of medieval Ireland have, with misplaced tact, managed to avoid doing so. First, what happened was an invasion, followed by a conquest of a large portion of the island; all attempts to portray the invaders as if they were guests of an Irish king, or medieval tourists who simply turned up in Ireland, fail to recognise the determination of the invaders ot the formidable degree of violence they deployed against those who stood in their way. They also ignore the fact that the invaders proudly described their action as a conquest (expugnatio) for centuries thereafter. Second, it was an English invasion and partial conquest: all talk of the ‘Normans’ or the ‘Anglo-Normans’, or ‘Anglo-French’, or even the ‘Cambro-Normans’ coming to Ireland is simply ahistorical. The invaders called themselves English (Engleis, Angli), were called Saxain (= English) or Gaill (= foreigner) by the Irish, and for the next seven hundred years were designated as English in the historical literature.

Perhaps this focus on the English history of the Barrow is eastwestery to complement Waterways Ireland’s commitment to northsouthery.

But what really puzzles me is where this decision, that “the story of the Normans should prevail”, has come from. The maps in Chapter 3 don’t identify heritage sites as English Norman or otherwise. The literature review is absent. The only Local Area Plan (Chapter 9: Appendix B: Detailed Planning Policy) that mentions Normans is that for Leighlinbridge. The Tourism Audit in Chapter 10 (Appendix C) mentions Normans only in New Ross and St Mullins, but it mentions lots of industrial heritage sites: St Mullins, Graiguenamanagh and the restored dry dock, Levitstown, Monasterevin, the Milltown Feeder and the Robertstown hotel. It could also have mentioned Bagenalstown, Carlow (dry dock, sugar factory), Rathangan, Milford ….

So why promote the English Norman story rather than the industrial heritage that dominates the Barrow? [Note that I say “industrial heritage” rather than “its former importance as a commercial navigation” because you can’t sensibly separate transport from industry.]


And how come the Barrow changed from being a “Celtic Waterway of Great Charm” in 1998 to a site redolent of the history of the English Norman conquest? What process was used in making this change, and what were the reasons for it? Or are “Celtic” and “English” “Norman” no more meaningful than the interchangeable brand names of mobile telephone companies or bars of soap?

Beaumaris Castle on Anglesey

If there were some account of the decision-making process, or some weighing up of the alternatives, it might be possible to understand why the decision was made, but as it stands it makes little sense to me. The  English Norman artefacts of the Barrow are not all that exciting: anyone who has passed through Wales en route to Ireland is likely to be underwhelmed by the castle at Leighlinbridge.

The rest of the Vision is unexceptionable, although I’ll have something to say later about the ecclesiastical bit. I mean, St Mochua may be big in heaven, but he’s nowhere on Google.

On to the objectives.

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