By John Fitzgerald
Kilkenny had the dubious honour of serving as the venue for sixteen parliaments between 1293 and 1408.
The best known of these was the one that convened in 1366. It enacted the hard-hitting and notorious Statutes of Kilkenny, which aimed to clamp down on the intermingling of English and Norman settlers with the native Irish.
King Edward the Third wanted to end, once and for all, the trend towards assimilation of his subjects into the rebellious Irish nation.
The Parliament in Kilkenny assembled at the request of the King’s son, Lionel, Duke of Clarence.
The law to deter and prevent the adoption of Irish ways by “superior” English and Normans appeared to have real teeth, though it proved difficult to enforce: It forbade the “King’s loyal subjects” to wear Irish-style clothing, to speak Irish, to have an “Irish haircut”, or to play hurling or other Irish games.
The ban on hurling went further than many of the other provisions in the Statutes. It applied to all inhabitants of Ireland…the conquerors and the conquered…natives, Saxons, Normans and Anglo-Normans.
Any English or Norman person who married an Irishman or woman would henceforth be guilty of High Treason, which carried the death penalty.
The anti-assimilation statute was implemented in some parts of the country, and almost totally ignored in others. But within days of the law taking effect, scores of Anglo-Norman men were arrested in Kilkenny and locked up for sporting illegal haircuts. They lingered for days, sometimes weeks, in jails and dungeons because their haircuts were considered a bit too Irish for the King’s liking.
No sooner had they emerged from the barbershops when along came the King’s troopers to drag them off.
Many years after the passing of the anti-assimilation law, the Eight Earl of Desmond, Thomas Fitzgerald, paid the ultimate price for falling in love with an Irish woman. After a whirlwind romance, the couple married. The Earl assured his sweetheart that nobody would pay much attention to the fact that he was a King’s subject and that she was Irish.
He was wrong. Upon returning from their honeymoon, Thomas and his startled wife were met by the killjoy soldiers of His Royal Britannic Majesty. He was formally arrested and taken into custody…away from the woman he loved. He was convicted of High Treason and sentenced to death. He threw kisses at his widow-to-be from the barred window of his prison cell on the eve of execution day.
As his severed head fell from the block, onlookers gasped with horror and lamented his sad fate. Love had caused many a man and woman to lose their heads-in a metaphorical sense- but none, they felt, deserved the grizzly fate of poor Thomas, for whom love had proven truly blind…and lethal.
Irish style clothes were torn from the bodies of disloyal subjects and in some cases offenders were paraded nude by jeering soldiers through the streets and public highways in addition to having to serve their custodial terms…A case of “it’s better to go naked than look Irish.”
But the hurling ban provoked more resentment among both natives and settlers than even the crazy prohibition on racial inter-mingling. The relevant Statute declared: “it is ordained… that the commons of the said land of Ireland use not henceforth the games which men call Hurling, with great Clubs and Ball upon the ground, but that they apply and accustom themselves to use and throw lances, and other gentle games which pertain to arms.”
To be continued…