The Firth of Forth: What Separates Your Picts from Your Angles?

Today, if you travel from the Scottish city of Edinburgh north towards the region of Fife, you’ll pass over the impressive Queensferry Crossing bridge, which will take you across the wide watery Firth and Forth that separates Lothian (the area around Edinburgh) from Fife. It’s a quick trip, a great view, and thousands of cars make it every day. With the modern crossing being so quick and effortless, it’s easy to forget that prior to bridges and regular ferries, the Forth would have been an imposing natural feature for millennia, a natural barrier to movement between the south and north shores.

The Firth of Forth, looking over a dozen miles to the southern shore from Kirkcaldy on the northern shore. Photo taken by author.

In the eighth century CE, we get a brief glimpse of one well-known writer’s thoughts on the Forth’s intimidating span. The monk known as the Venerable Bede would pen a Latin description of it as the freti, or firth, which separated the terrae Anglorum from Pictorum – the lands of the Angles from the lands of the Picts. Bede uses the Latin verb distermino for this separation, which brings together dis– (connoting separation or pulling apart) and termino (meaning “to mark off with boundaries, to bound, limit” according to the Lewis and Short Latin dictionary). So, Bede describes, the Forth was not simply a firth or obstacle, but a boundary-separation, marking the edge of two entirely different worlds.

A map of locations mentioned in text. Map made by author within Tableau.

If we are going to accept Bede’s specific description of the Forth as a division between these two worlds (the Angles and Picts), it helps us to consider what the monk thought separated the Angles and Picts. While modern scholarship is more careful with Bede’s work as representative of the reality of the era, it can undoubtedly open a window into how one monk living in the north of that era thought the frontier at the Forth functioned. Bede, writing within a monastery in the kingdom of Northumbria, considered himself Anglian or English. He saw the English as being united in a common language – which we today call Old English – and general lineage, claiming that all of the English were descended from Germanic tribes who had invaded and seized vast swathes of the island of Britain centuries before his time. In contrast, Bede’s Picts spoke their own language – Pictish – and had come from Scythia to Britain, settling in the northernmost parts of the island. While the historicity of any of this is now hotly debated and largely debunked, especially when it comes to essentialist ethnic ideas, it is clear that at least Bede considered the Forth to separate two peoples, each with their own languages and common descent.

When we think about a boundary or border, we often think of something that exists between worlds, as Bede depicts; it demarcates two spaces without existing as a space itself. However, the boundary often has a life and space of its own, an idea encouraged by the terms “frontier” or “borderland,” demarking a space-between-spaces. Increasingly, theorists of borders have recognized that these frontiers, rather than being spaces-between-spaces, were often “defined more by connections and interactions than by boundaries,” to quote Louise Hitchcock and Aren Maeir. If we examine some of these connections and interactions on the Forth, we open up a new world beyond Bede’s distermino, placing the firth front and center as a human landscape of activity and life.

One rich body of interaction and life on the seventh- and eighth-century Forth would be the presence of Christian foundations up and down the watery body. Religious settlements and centers existed at Abercorn, Aberlady, and Auldhame on the southern shore, and even Edinburgh would come to be associated with a sainted nun and supposed church, as Philip Dunshea has argued. At the entrance to the firth from the North Sea, the Isle of May boasts a monastic cemetery stretching back to the fifth century, and on the north shore, a Pictish religious house was founded at Culross. Many of these foundations leave behind beautiful and intricately-carved stonework in the form of monuments and high crosses which would have stood at these waterside establishments, demarcating a religious landscape. Indeed, these foundations may have made the Forth an active space of religious claim and response: Abercorn was the site of a brief seventh-century bishopric which claimed authority over the Picts on the north shore, and James Fraser has argued that Culross, founded later, might have been specifically founded to challenge that claim of religious authority.

The later church at Abercorn, thought to stand on or near the same place as the early medieval monastery; the Firth sits less than a thousand feet behind the church. Photo taken by author.

Imagining the Forth as an empty space, as in the picture above, is also a disservice: we can imagine it as full of movement and travel. Christopher Ferguson, drawing on J. Makepeace, has argued in a study of Northumbrian maritime movement and ports that Abercorn’s low-lying beaches would have made it a great spot for early medieval ships to land, and has underscored the rapid travel which could be achieved by sailors traveling up the Forth from the eastern coast of Britain, from the Northumbrian heartlands near Bamburgh and Lindisfarne – taking likely less than a day to travel from Bamburgh to Abercorn. This radically re-orients the idea of the firth as an edge-space or periphery – while it may have marked the edge of the lands of the Angles, any Angle with a good ship and favorable winds could travel from the royal hall at Bamburgh to the frontier-monastery at Abercorn in a matter of hours! When we add this to the excavations at the Isle of May which show clear occupation stretching back to the earliest parts of the middle ages, a world of ships and travel on the early medieval Forth turns the blank between-space into a landscape of its own.

In fact, the persistent and difficult case of the missing urbs, or town, of Giudi or Iudeu would suggest that secular population centers thrived in the Forth. Bede and other medieval sources mention Giudi, with Bede describing it being located in the middle of the Forth – a topic that has incited a great deal of scholarly debate! James Fraser has explored the difficulties of Bede’s phrasing, and the lack of any major archaeological find has meant that we are left to guess whether it sat on an island, peninsula, or even on the river to the west of the Forth at Stirling. However, as Fraser has discussed, it seems most likely that it was either an island or promontory mid-way up the firth, not far from modern-day Abercorn or Edinburgh. Giudi therefore diversifies our vision of the Forth as a centerpiece of activity in the early medieval, as a population center and fortress amidst the waters of the firth.

The coast at Dunbar, East Lothian, looking west into the Forth and towards the Berwick Law in the background. Photo taken by author.

We can also see the importance of the maritime zone through one of our better-understood sites near the Forth at Dunbar, which sits near the mouth of the firth. Dunbar, referenced by the eighth-century monk Eddius Stephanus as Dynbaer, was an important enough town within the seventh century to warrant a praefectus or prefect who imprisoned the Northumbrian Saint Wilfrid at the command of the king Ecgfrith. Together with the nearby hermitage at Bass Rock and religious community at Tyningham, David Petts has argued for the coastal landscape at the mouth of the Forth as comparable to royal and holy landscapes at the heart of Northumbria: vibrant, mobile, and structured.

What, then, separates our Picts from our Angles? Just a brief glimpse into the living and breathing world of the seventh- and eighth-century Firth of Forth, which to the Venerable Bede represented the dividing line between two peoples, demonstrates that quite a lot and very little separated them. The study of the Forth as a frontier space, filled with its own landscape of religion, secular settlement and mobility, grants us a better understanding of what a boundary means, above and beyond Bede’s distermino. In centering the Forth and its shores as a centerpiece of investigation, we transform the peripheral into a subject of its own, and gather a valuable glimpse into a rich human landscape of cultural diversity. Further research on the Forth’s frontier as a central subject promises to give us a better concept of how Pictish and Northumbrian frontiers functioned in late antiquity and the early middle ages.


Works Cited

  • Bede, The Venerable. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Edited by Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B Mynors. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.
  • Dunshea, Philip. “Edinburgh’s Renown in the Early Middle Ages.” In The Battle of Carham: A Thousand Years On, 50-78.
  • Stephanus, Eddius. The Life of Bishop Wilfrid by Eddius Stephanus: Text, Translation, & Notes. Translated by Bertram Colgrave. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1937.
  • Ferguson, Christopher. “Re-Evaluating Early Medieval Northumbrian Contacts and the ‘Coastal Highway.’” In Early Medieval Northumbria: Kingdom and Communities AD 450-1100, 283–302. Turnhout: Brepols, 2011.
  • Fraser, James E. “Bede, the Firth of Forth, and the Location of Urbs Iudeu.” Scottish Historical Review 87, no. 1 (2008): 1–25. 
  • Fraser, James E. From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795. The New Edinburgh History of Scotland 1. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.
  • Hitchcock, Louise A., and Aren M. Maeir. “Beyond Creolization and Hybridity: Entangled and Transcultural Identities in Philistia.” Archaeological Review from Cambridge 28, no. 1 (April 2013): 43–65.
  • Lewis, Charlton T. and Charles Short. A New Latin Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1891.
  • Petts, David. “Coastal Landscapes and Early Christianity in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria.” Estonian Journal of Archaeology 13, no. 2 (2009): 79–95.

About the Author

Trevor Wiley is a second year doctoral student in the History Department at Boston College. His primary research interests are the frontiers and imagined boundaries of late antique and early medieval Britain, especially within the fifth to eighth centuries, as well as concepts of hybrid identity and experienced landscape within those frontiers. Currently, his research is focused on northern Britain, within the modern-day regions of northern England and southern Scotland.

How Irish Women Remember the Revolution: Gendered Constructions of Memory in Personal Narratives

As Ireland celebrates the Decade of Centenaries, ten years of events commemorating the Irish Revolution, some commentators have noted a curious phenomena in the representation of women. Despite the increased attention to women’s involvement in the revolution, the women remembered were considered “exceptional” or as existing apart from revolutionary men. The noted scholar Oona Frawley described this “oblivious remembering” as a form of remembrance that lacks awareness of the systemic biases in official approaches to the past. In order to understand why some revolutionary women are remembered while others are forgotten, historians need to interrogate the structural forces that influence the construction on personal and public memory. This examination of the records left by Mary Flannery Woods, a writer turned revolutionary, augments current understandings of women’s participation through an analysis of the highly gendered personal narrative that she produced in the decades after the revolution. Before the revolution Woods was a notable writer with serialized stories and poems published in Irish newspapers and periodicals. After the Easter Rising, she joined the women’s paramilitary organization Cumann na mBan and was deeply involved with both the Irish Volunteer Force and the Irish Republican Army. Not only did she open her home to harbor republican paramilitaries and stolen rifles and ammunition but she was known to smuggle weapons and funds herself.

Wood’s archival records indicate that women’s participation in the revolution transgressed traditional notions of femininity as well as the ways in which gendered political discourses influenced and obscured women’s stories. For decades, republicanism and masculinity were deeply intertwined in the Irish consciousness. Consequently, this obscures the contributions of revolutionary women as well as the solidarity between men and women during the struggle for independence. Moreover, gender influences the construction of women’s narratives in powerful ways. Woods and other revolutionary women de-emphasized their personal experiences, indicating an internalized belief that their stories were less worthy of retelling while simultaneously emphasizing men’s contributions to the revolution and devoted significant space to retellings of men’s stories. In particular, they sought to preserve the memory of martyred republican men.

As a clandestine revolutionary, Mary Flannery Woods does not appear  in the historical record often. Considering the danger of keeping written records of revolutionary activities during a time when raids by the opposition were unavoidable, there are few documents from the period of 1916-1923 in Woods’ archival record. However, in 1951, Woods gave an extensive witness statement as part of Ireland’s Bureau of Military History oral history project. This research also relied on the Molly Flannery Woods Papers archived at Boston College’s John J. Burns Library. Her personal collection includes her military pension application, correspondence, and scrapbooks of her written publications and newspaper clippings. It is through this collection of sources that Woods’ personal narrative emerges from the historical record.

Mary Flannery Woods’ application for a military pension details her contributions to the Irish Revolution and includes several letters verifying her service. Photo taken by author at the John J. Burns Library.

In her witness statement, Wood detailed her impressive range of revolutionary activities, including directing the Prisoner’s Dependents Fund and establishing new branches of Cumann na mBan. Her home at 131 Morehampton Road in Dublin was a refuge for many during both the War for Independence and the subsequent Civil War. She worked closely with the Irish Volunteers, the nationalist paramilitary group, many of whom passed through her home for food, clothes, and a safe place to sleep, often placing the safety of herself and her family on the line. As such, Michael Collins, a member of the first Dáil Éireann, general for the Irish Volunteers, and Director of Intelligence for the IRA, took note of Woods. Although she remained a member of Cumann na mBan, in 1920 Collins instructed her to “absent myself from them and to act as if I were getting cool and careless.” This allowed her to maintain a low profile so that she could procure safehouses, conduct espionage, and collect financial and material resources without raising suspicion. She was bold enough to purchase guns from the British Army or the Free State Army that she would resell to the IRA without ever being arrested for treasonous activities. 

In this instance, distancing herself from the women’s organization allowed her to be more effective in her role as a woman revolutionary. In a letter of reference for Woods’ military pension application, Phyllis Ryan, Wood’s Cumann na mBan branch commander, recalled that “after a certain period [she] no longer carried out the routine work of the Branch as [her] services became more valuable to the men by absenting yourself ordinary duties.” Woods never rose in the ranks of Cumann na mBan, which might have garnered her a prominent place in the history of the organization, but that would have proven disadvantageous to her work. Furthermore, Ryan’s assessment of Woods’ contribution to the revolution indicated that the value of women’s work was measured by how useful it was to the men. 

While Woods’ witness statement covered her personal experiences and active roles she played in the revolution, a significant portion of her testimony focused on the republican men. She went to great lengths detailing what the men she harbored at her house did and said while on the run, especially when she overheard their military or intelligence plans. It is important to note that the witness statements for the Bureau of Military History were collected by army officers, most of whom were men. Woods might have thought that the officers would be more interested in her memories of these men rather than of herself or other women. She might have even been prompted by the officers to focus on those stories. However, although this context is important for interpreting her witness statement, it is as likely that to some degree the narrative of the revolution Woods constructed for herself reflected these values and was highly gendered in specific ways.

During the revolution, Woods provided refuge for Liam Mellows, the Sinn Féin politician and senior member of the IRA, who spent most days on the run, particularly as a leader of the anti-treaty IRA during the Civil War. Because of his stance against the treaty, Mellows was imprisoned upon his surrender after the Battle of Dublin and executed by the Free State in 1922 as a reprisal. Woods, considering him to be like family, dedicated herself to ensuring that Mellows was remembered among the ranks of the republican heroes. A disproportionate number of pages of her witness statement covered Mellows’ role in the Volunteers and IRA, relationships with other republican men, time in prison and on the run, and his political ideology. Her own archives contain part of her collection of materials related to Mellows. Amongst her own materials is a placard reading “Lieut. Liam Mellows IRA” that was placed upon his coffin at his funeral, and which she preserved for decades. Her three scrapbooks filled with news cuttings of her literary publications and columns about the republican movement also contain numerous articles about Mellows, particularly those memorializing him after his death. Woods also donated several of his items to the National Museum of Ireland including his gun holster, a poignant symbol of republican masculinity, and the notebook he used to record purchases of guns and ammunition for the IRA. Woods annotated the notebook herself, as she was familiar with Mellows’ style of record keeping, ensuring that future generations would understand the importance of the artifact.

Woods preserved a poster from Liam Mellows’ funeral in her personal archive. On the reverse, she noted that Mellows’ mother handed it to her after the funeral. Photo taken by author at the John J. Burns Library.

Pasted alongside her stories and poems in her scrapbooks is a piece Woods wrote titled “The Gladiator.” Published in 1921, the article appeared in Young Ireland long before Mellows’ death, but nevertheless articulated her respect and admiration for the republican leader. Woods confirmed that the unnamed gladiator was Liam Mellows both in her witness statement and an annotation in her scrapbook. The story’s narrator implored the gladiator to “‘share your story with the world… You owe it to Ireland and to yourself.’” Already Woods felt strongly that Mellows’ story fit into the larger narrative of republican heroes. If anything, his death at the hands of the Free State only solidified this and made him a martyr.

When women recount their memories of the revolution yet focus on martyred men is it because their own contributions are viewed as less important by society then and now? Do they discount their contributions? Is it because they think their best contribution to historical memory is to preserve the stories of these men? The construction of memory is a complicated and oftentimes unconscious process and socially accepted conceptions of gender proved highly influential in the formation of Wood’s personal narrative. Thus, deconstructing the social and cultural mechanisms that conceal women’s histories is a crucial step forward in expanding the scholarship on women’s participation in the Irish revolution.


Works Cited

  • Ferriter, Diarmaid. A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution, 1913-1923. New York, NY: The Overlook Press, 2015.
  • Frawley, Oona. Women and the Decade of Commemorations. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2021.
  • McDiarmid, Lucy. At Home in the Revolution: What Women Said and Did in 1916. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2015.
  • Ward, Margaret. Unmanageable Revolutionaries: Women and Irish Nationalism. London ; East Haven, CT: Pluto Press, 1995.

About the Author

Tiffany Thompson is a second year doctoral student in the History Department at Boston College. Her research interests include women and gender, migrations and diasporas, and civil rights and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. She is beginning work on her dissertation which will examine gender, violence, and the dislocation and migration of urban families during the first decade of the Troubles.

A Short Life and a Merry One: Empire, Family, and Confraternity in the Journal of Captain Jack Cremer

“’If youth did know whate Age doth Crave Manney a penny they would save.’ But I was always for a Short life and Merry one.” – Ramblin’ Jack

By the eighteenth century, Britain had solidified its status as a nation heavily supported by sea trade. In the previous century England had emerged as an imperial power, with vast amounts of wealth and land that testified to its willingness to exploit the most vulnerable: the poor, the enslaved, the common worker. Encouraged by the economic theories of mercantilism and capitalism, Britain in the 1700s was highly invested in the growing culture of maritime identity, depicted in one of its most popular tropes: the sailor.  

Our protagonist Ramblin’ Jack typified this eighteenth century seagoer. Born John Cremer circa 1700 into a middling family living in the suburbs of London, Ramblin’ Jack’s journal, written as he reached the ripe old age of sixty-eight, exemplifies the mythology constructed around seamen beginning in the seventeenth century. John was vivacious, adventurous (in some ways, picaresque), and bawdy to the point of censorship. The journal’s transcriber notes that one Mrs. Prudentia Bellamy/Cremer, a relation of the captain, took it upon herself to be his self-appointed censor. Anything particularly off colored or irreverent was, unfortunately, snipped out by her judicating scissors. His “ramblings,” recorded from age eight to around age twenty, demonstrate the precariousness of the life in which he and other Tars (the common nickname for sailors) led, one that hinged in part to their broader place in the construction and expansion (at home and abroad) of the British Empire and its oceanic identity. Through an evaluation of the journal John left behind of his seagoing days, we can synthesize a better picture of how, through age, class, and confraternity, this British maritime identity was established and defined.

To understand John’s life and the cultivation of British maritime culture, it is important first to locate the place his family held in the hierarchy of mainland England and their longstanding connection to maritime ventures. As noted above, John’s family was middling; unlike many of his fellow sailors, John got his start as a mariner not through desperation over debts or the ever-looming specter of naval impressment (although such a terror was one that would recurrently hang over his head later in life), but through his family. In introducing himself to the reader, John narrates his family background, emphasizing that his father was master of a galley during Queen Anne’s War and his uncle Henry was a captain in the Royal Navy. Early on in his life, he was sent back and forth from his mother’s house to various relatives, and then eventually handed off to his uncle-in-law on his mother’s side, a first lieutenant of the ship the Dover, then serving in the War of Spanish Succession. This placement would eventually provide John with three important lessons: basic schooling, maritime training, and indoctrination to the wider eighteenth century nautical culture. 

By the eighteenth century, literacy was increasingly widespread in Europe and especially amongst sailors. Historian Marcus Rediker estimates that as many as three fourths of sailors could sign their own names; an essential skill for those heavily invested in the contractual nature of serving aboard ships and of wage-earning labor. Despite this, and as John’s life suggests, there remained a significant division within the larger cultural identity of sailors regarding class. Those with family ties to maritime work, or with some measure of previous schooling, were more likely to become ship officers as the position required the ability to read, write, and do basic arithmetic among other skills. Over nine out of ten officers were literate, whereas fewer than seven out of ten common sailors, those that made up the bulk of the labor, received that level of education. John’s family ties ensured he was one of the literate officers, even if his schooling was somewhat uneven. As the clarity of his journal testifies, by age sixty-eight he was more than competent in his letters and understood basic arithmetic and Latin as well. 

Alongside his scholastic education, John’s placement as his uncle’s cabin boy also ensured that he received training in navigation, ship maintenance, and maritime warfare. John was also apprenticed out to many other maritime trades such as tarring, cooping, and shipbuilding, before settling permanently into the life of a sailor. He reached the status of chief mate aboard a trading vessel before the journal ended, and the title of his work suggests that he eventually made captain. Not all sailors, even if they had spent considerable time aboard naval or merchandising vessels, developed these skills. As historian Jared Hardesty aptly demonstrates, mutinies by common sailors aboard sailing ships often required them to keep one or two officers alive in order to make port safely, as they themselves lacked the navigational knowledge required, thus demonstrating the class divide between these two groups. Although (as far as his journal relates) John never had the misfortune of being caught in a full mutiny, tensions aboard his third cousin’s vessel the Goodfellow caused constant antagonism with the first mate, who was chosen over him to be captain following his cousin’s death from smallpox. John made the extent of his dislike of the first mate known via his colorful choice of language, which included referring to him as a “scunderell,” a “Judas Villian [sic]” and the declaration that he (the first mate) “Loved a hoar in private.” His cousin’s death reveals the degree to which family could be a major determiner of status aboard a vessel; John expected, and was expected to, be elected captain despite being younger than twenty due to his competence in nautical knowledge, as well as his familial proximity to power. 

John’s relationship, antagonistic or otherwise, to the first mate betrays the culture of masculinity and authority that went into developing the identity of the sailor, which was then perpetuated by the ship’s crew and reflected onto their younger counterparts during the course of their tenure as cabin boys. John himself was heavily antagonized both by grown sailors such as his tutor, as well as by a group of boys aboard his first ship, the Dover, one of whom was the captain’s son. Throughout his stay aboard the naval vessel, the boys served as both his tormentors as well as his companions; there are just as many instances of the boys harassing him as there are instances where he joins them in harassing unfortunate crew members, such as the ship’s doctor. In an amusing anecdote involving too much drink, the boys drug a recently deceased corpse in the path of the ship’s doctor after dark. Already falling down drunk, the doctor tripped over the corpse and “began to beat the corps and call out for help, and held the dead man down and Swoar he pushed him down.” Although such activities undoubtedly caused harm to their targets, they also served to foster a sense of solidarity amongst the crew members in an dangerous and sometimes deadly line of work.

John Cremer died around 1774, having led a rather long and prosperous life for his time and choice of employment (in defiance of his favorite saying). This success had as much to do with luck as it did his family. Although death through disease or violence, as evidenced by his cousin’s untimely end, was a looming threat to both officers and common sailors aboard the eighteenth century ship, the opportunities provided to John as a youth, including those of basic education, maritime training, and hierarchical superiority, meant the chance of advancement to captain and therefore to a larger wage and better benefits, was well within reach. At the same time, these opportunities invested him into a wider maritime culture that relied, cyclically, upon the induction of youth by more experienced sailors that contributed to the expansion of British maritime identity in the eighteenth century. 

Works Cited

  • Cremer, John. Ramblin’ Jack: The Journal of Captain John Cremer, 1700-1774. ed. Richard Reynell Bellamy. London: Jonathan Cape, 1937.
  • Rediker, Marcus. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
  • Hardesty, Jared Ross. Mutiny on the Rising Sun: A Tragic Tale of Slavery, Smuggling, and Chocolate. New York: New York University Press, 2021.

About the Author

Mia Swenson is currently a master’s student in the History Department at Boston College. Her research focuses on the early modern Atlantic world circa the 17th and 18th c. Specifically, Mia is interested in colonialism, trade, enslavement, and the ways in which the early modern world redefined the boundaries between centers and peripheries, as well as order and disorder on these societal edges.

Language and Liturgy: The Relationship between Religion and the Irish

Celtic languages have declined significantly in the last millennium despite once dominating the British Isles. The Irish language especially has diminished significantly despite once covering the whole of Ireland. Many scholars have attributed this decline to political, economic, and social factors, but the role of religion remains underexplored. The 16th through 18th centuries in particular are indicative of the influence of religious institutions as, in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, religion motivated many policies towards Irish language speakers. Throughout this period, the Irish language was constantly affected by pressures from religious institutions. However, even before the Protestant Reformation, Irish was at the center of a multitude of struggles occurring in Ireland.

John Cary’s map of the Ireland depicted the provinces and counties in 1799. From Wikimedia Commons.

The 1169 Norman invasion of Ireland brought new languages like early English to the island and was the start of the pressures against the Irish language. However, English control of Ireland was limited to the east around Dublin. By the 14th century, English control had waned and a Gaelic resurgence began. Many of the Anglo-Norman settlers in Ireland had become Gaelicized, and spoke the Irish language. To combat this de-anglicization, King Edward III of England issued the Statute of Kilkenny in 1366 to ban the Irish language within English-controlled areas. The statute did not seek to suppress the Irish language among the Irish, but rather among the English in Ireland. Until the early 16th century, there were few other attempts to control the Irish language. 

When King Henry VIII took the throne, however, he wanted to reestablish control over Ireland both politically and religiously as part of the English Reformation. He hoped that by anglicizing the Irish people in language and culture, he could also bring them into the Protestant Church of Ireland and make them loyal English subjects. Towards this end, he passed An Act for the English Order, Habit, and Language in 1537 prohibiting the use of the Irish language, ordering education in English, and requiring religious preaching in English. An important element of this act was the implication that language was tied to political loyalty. The king’s insistence that speaking Irish, not English, was an indication of disloyalty would continue to influence linguistic policy in Ireland in the coming centuries.

After the Protestant Reformation, most of the population of Ireland remained Catholic. Because of this, the Irish language became tied to Catholicism, aligning it with not only political but also religious disloyalty. Protestantism as a movement believed in the importance of worship in vernacular languages. The desire to use vernacular languages inspired many within the Church of Ireland to try using the Irish language in worship as a means of converting Catholics. However, this aim was frustrated by the limited number of Protestants who had learned the Irish language in addition to a lack of religious texts in Irish. These texts would be necessary in order to ensure uniformity of worship among any converted Irish speakers. To this end, the first religious text printed was Séon Carsuel’s 1567 Foirm na nUrrnuidheah, a book of common order. However, because Carsuel was a Presbyterian, the Anglicans in the Church of Ireland printed their own text in 1571, an Irish alphabet and catechism. These texts began the process of Protestants using the Irish language.

Throughout the 17th century, religious institutions further attempted to use Irish in order to reach Irish speakers. Following the 1607 Flight of the Earls, bards, the traditional keepers of the language, lost their influence and the Irish language began to change. This period of language instability allowed priests to try taking control of the language in order to use it for their religious goals. Even the Catholic Church, which hadn’t taken advantage of vernacular printing in the 16th century, began printing religious texts in 1611, but because they were published by exiled Catholic priests on the European continent, they rarely reached Ireland. In Ireland, however, members of the Anglican Church of Ireland began working on a translation of the Bible into Irish and published the New Testament in 1602. After significant delays, the church also published an Old Testament in 1685 with a full Bible following in 1690.

By the start of the 18th century, changes in the political and religious situation throughout Britain greatly affected the Irish language. After the Glorious Revolution in 1688, Great Britain was confirmed as a Protestant kingdom. In Ireland, this led to the penal laws punishing Catholics and Dissenters, non-Anglican Protestants. Because many Catholics had rebelled against the new king, Catholics were branded political enemies, and since many Catholics still spoke only Irish, this affirmed the idea that speaking Irish was a mark of disloyalty. Religion became increasingly tied to culture and language, leading to greater influence of religion on the Irish language.

The population of Ireland at this time mainly belonged to three religious denominations: the Church of Ireland, the Catholic Church, and the Presbyterian Church, the latter of which was concentrated in Ulster. Although both Catholics and Dissenters were punished under the penal laws, Catholics were considered political enemies in a way that Protestant Dissenters weren’t. Additionally, because most Presbyterians came from Scotland as part of the Ulster Plantations, they spoke English, so they were not enemies linguistically or culturally. However, the Presbyterian Church did briefly proselytize in Irish starting in 1716, but within a few decades, few clergy used the language. Likewise, the Catholic Church used Irish minimally. Although it had printed a few religious texts in Irish in the 17th century, few copies reached Ireland from the continent. Moreover, because Latin was the church language, Catholic clergy did not use Irish in their services. By 1795, when the Catholic seminary at Maynooth was founded, English was the only language of instruction.

As for the Church of Ireland, there were many members that believed in using Irish for conversion and advocated for vernacular preaching and printing. While the church did allow Irish preaching starting in 1634, there were limited Irish-speaking Protestant clergy. There were hopes to train Irish-speaking clergy at the newly founded Trinity College in Dublin, but that program saw little success. Despite these efforts, the Church of Ireland never fully embraced most of the suggested Irish language programs. Many believed that using the Irish language would reinforce the divide between the English and Irish culturally, politically, and religiously. Some priests disagreed, claiming that using Irish to convert would actually lead to the eventual adoption of English culture and language by the Irish people. However, even these men usually reinforced the idea that the ultimate goal of using Irish was to remove it in favor of English. ​​By 1800, the Church of Ireland had largely abandoned the use of the Irish language, much like the Presbyterian and Catholic churches.

Religious institutions significantly influenced the Irish language from the sixteenth  through eighteenth centuries. As the 19th century began, education became the arena of change for Irish, but it should be noted that churches played a huge role in education at this time. The Irish language was deprioritized if not outright banned in most schools. Many Protestants attacked the Irish language for its association with Catholicism, hoping to defeat the language through neglect. When Ireland gained its independence, many in the government blamed the decline of the Irish language on the national school system, which was founded in 1831 and used only the English language. However, this claim ignores the fact that even before the national schools, religious institutions, even the Catholic Church, largely ignored the Irish language in both education and worship. Within the religious sphere, many individuals had aims to either preserve or destroy the Irish language, but neither goal fully succeeded by the modern era. Instead, the language entered an era of revitalization rather than preservation that continues today. While religious institutions in Ireland are still influential, especially in education, they will never again hold the sway over the Irish language that they did before the 19th century.


Works Cited

  • Crowley, Tony. The Politics of Language in Ireland 1366-1922: A Sourcebook. Edited by Tony Crowley. Routledge, 2002.
  • Crowley, Tony. Wars of Words: The Politics of Language in Ireland 1537-2004. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Durkacz, Victor Edward. The Decline of the Celtic Languages: A Study of Linguistic and Cultural Conflict in Scotland, Wales and Ireland from the Reformation to the Twentieth Century. Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers, 1983.

About the Author

Rowan Bianchi is currently a master’s student in the History Department at Boston College. Their initial interest in Irish history was sparked when they studied at Trinity College Dublin and now they are interested in early modern Ireland with a particular focus on religion. Rowan is also learning the Irish language and hope it will further their historical understanding of Ireland.

The Fraught Relationship between Reproductive Justice and State Power

Her name was Eliza Cobb, and even though she was born at the onset of emancipation in 1866 her life was composed of very little that resembled anything close to freedom. At the age of twenty-two Eliza was raped, became pregnant, and later that year was arrested by police and sentenced to work at the Du Bois sawmill camp on the unproven charge of infanticide. After working at the sawmill camp for a few years, Eliza was transferred to Milledgeville State Prison Farm in Georgia where she, along with hundreds of other imprisoned Black women, once again experienced the horrifying intersection between pregnancy, race, violence, and criminalization. Sadly, these crossings would not end at the turn of the twentieth century, but instead have continued to haunt the evolution of the American prison system and state-led violence against maternal health and reproduction. 

Photograph of Eliza Cobb printed in No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity by Sarah Haley, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2016), 19. Courtesy of the Georgia Archives, Morrow, Georgia.

Most people tend to think of pregnancy and motherhood as special, sacred even. And while this idealism is certainly compelling, it’s also far from the lived reality that untold numbers of predominantly Black and Brown women have experienced since the moment the photo of Eliza Cobb was taken.* Indeed, throughout the twentieth century pregnancy, maternal health, and reproduction have become increasingly intertwined with state policies that are dictated not by public health and social welfare, but instead by power, violence, and the criminalization of non-normative pregnancies and families. Reproductive bodies have literally become the state’s business. 

It’s highly unlikely that when Eliza was sent to work at the saw mill camp in 1889 she was aware that Southern lawmakers a were “institutionalizing gendered racial terror as a technology of white supremacist control.” This “institutionalization” was a way of exploiting gendered forms of labor to help create the “New South” following the destruction wrought by the Civil War. Female along with male convict laborers were forced to work in coal-mines, on railroads, brickyards, sawmills, and plantations. They were often contracted out by the state to private companies and individuals in a practice known as “convict leasing.” Although convict leasing was eliminated in 1908 its replacement was no better. On the chain gang, imprisoned men and women continued to be a main source of labor as the South sought to rebuild its infrastructure, encourage economic development, and reinstate the fear and gendered-racial ideologies that supported white supremacy. 

The “New South” was undoubtedly created by every brick that was laid, railroad track that was put down, and lumber that was sawed to build new homes and businesses. But the South, and, by extension, parts of the state and federal government were refashioned on something even stronger than brick and steel. The mythologies of Black female deviance, sexual monstrosity, and inability to achieve the ideal of white motherhood was the mortar upon which state-sponsored violence and the criminalization of Black women’s pregnancies were kept together. By controlling the forced labor of Black women, disproportionately arresting Black and Brown women compared to white women, relying on sexual violence and terror to maintain order, and providing little if any support for women who were already pregnant or became pregnant while incarcerated, states reinforced the reproductive-carceral logic that idealized white feminine sanctity and white supremacy. As Sarah Haley writes, “through policing, legislation, and judicial enforcement, Black women were made juridical inverts,” or bodies that were undeserving of protection, reproductive care, and socio-cultural acceptance. 

Of course, one of the most unfortunate aspects about these mythologies, erroneous beliefs, and prejudices (beyond the obvious human rights violations), is the degree to which they persist and shape-shift according to their respective time and place. Given that lies based on fear and self-interest are often the hardest ones to dispel, the narrative of Black women’s reproductive deviance combined with state violence continued to inform state and federal policy well into the mid-late twentieth century. 

Take, for example, the energetic proposals in the early 1990s of using Norplant, an implantable form of birth control, as a way of limiting the number of children born to women receiving welfare or who were on Medicaid. Lawmakers in certain states actively went beyond just making Norplant more accessible to low-income women. Numerous bills were designed to pressure women by offering financial incentive or “requiring implantation as a condition of receiving benefits.” In Kansas, Connecticut, and Louisiana, state representatives Kerry Patrick, Robert Farr, and former-Klu Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke respectively all either proposed or encouraged legislation that would give women on welfare money to have the device implanted and then a set amount of cash each year the woman kept using the device. Although by 1997 no state legislature had passed a bill either mandating Norplant or offering financial bonuses for its use, legal scholar Dorothy Roberts ellucidates how state welfare rhetoric combined with persistent cultural myths “blames Black single mothers for transmitting a deviant lifestyle to their children.” 

Of course, this leveling of blame, guilt, and shame doesn’t just stop at racial and class boundaries. All women are impacted by it, whether they are white or BIPOC, educated or uneducated, rich or poor. Whether a group of women is being used as the social “ideal” of what motherhood should look like or its foil, the reproductive lives of all women become bound up with the goals of the state. Throughout the mid-late twentieth century women who failed to meet the political and socio-cultural “standard” of reproductive and maternal health could expect at best a lack of support and at worst coercion, surveillance, and violence through the form of state-sponsored agencies and an imbalanced criminal justice system. Given the current threat to reproductive justice once again at both state and federal levels, this issue has sadly not simply remained a “thing of the past.”

If we are going to continue fighting these injustices and ensure that pregnancy ceases to be punitive, then we must not only elect legislators who truly represent our communities but also advocate for a social welfare system that is fully equipped to meet the needs of all women, wherever they are in their lives. We can no longer continue to rely on a system that medical anthropologist and OBG-YN Carolyn Sufrin refers to as “jailcare,” or the “disturbing entanglement of carcerality and care” for pregnant people who find that the only place they can receive even basic prenatal care is behind bars. Although many of these women are in jail because of drug abuse or other low-level crimes, to use their offenses as a way to deny responsibility for their and their fetus’ welfare is an unfortunate example of focusing so much on individual trees that you lose sight of the forest. That poor, oftentimes homeless pregnant women sometimes choose to go back to jail for prenatal care is a symptom of “a historical tragedy that is peculiar to the United States . . . defined by the whittling away of public services for the poor, coupled with an escalation in the number of jails and prisons serving as sites for the care of that same population.” To dismiss people who are pregnant, drug addicted, poor, homeless, and in jail as weak, immoral, or somehow deserving of their situation is blind and short-sighted. While personal responsibility is important, if it is not also balanced by an understanding of how all of our choices are shaped or limited by larger circumstances then we miss crucial opportunities for compassionate change that can offer hope, dignity, and a better way forward. 

What good is our history to us if we do not use it in ways to make lives better for our friends, family members, and communities today? We know that how our legislative, criminal justice, and welfare system have operated together in the past hasn’t always worked, to say the least. And to have this dysfunction and violence, whether intentional or not, inflicted on pregnant people is to miss how we have the ability to change these systems. They were created by human beings and so there is always the potential for change. I have hope that those elected to state and federal positions who bring energy, passion, and new ideas will continue to, however incrementally, push for legislation that cares for, protects, and celebrates reproductive and maternal health. Such a reality was inaccessible for Eliza Cobb, but we can honor her and so many other women’s stories by making it real for us. 


Works Cited

  • Haley, Sarah. No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2016.
  • Roberts, Dorothy. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York: Pantheon Books, 1997.
  • Sufrin, Carolyn. Jailcare: Finding the Safety Net for Women behind Bars. Oakland: University of California, 2017.

*I acknowledge the implicit error that comes with using the pronoun “she” when talking about pregnancy and motherhood, as I realize that not every pregnant person or mother identifies as female. My use of specific pronouns is in no way meant to ignore or deny the multiplicity of people who can become pregnant and act as mothers. I also recognize the inherent complexity that accompanies the word “experience” and the myriad factors that comprise a person’s perceived reality; due to the length of this post I have chosen not to explore these factors here.


About the Author

Meghan McCoy is currently a master’s student in the History Department at Boston College. Meghan’s research interests are focused on the history of maternal health, childbirth practices, and midwifery in the United States from the late nineteenth century to present day. She hopes that by delving into this history while engaging with other individuals and organizations committed to maternal health care, she can contribute to the work needed to eliminate disparities and ensure equitable treatment.

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