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Ancient text restored
by Maireid Sullivan
This book took me quite by surprise: its easy style and its visionary overview of Ireland’s rich natural endowments in ancient times held me spellbound.

The Natural History of Ireland (Book One, Zoilomastix (1625), by Philip O’Sullivan Beare)
Translated by Denis C. O’Sullivan
Cork University Press, 2009, RRP €39 ISBN: 9781859184394

Book Review: March 1st, 2010, published in Tintean, the quarterly journal of the Australian Irish Heritage Network

This book took me quite by surprise: its easy style and its visionary overview of Ireland’s rich natural endowments in ancient times held me spellbound. This translation makes what is purported to be a very complex manuscript very easy to navigate: the Latin manuscript is printed on the left hand page, with the English translation on the right.

Until now, the Latin writings of the Irish have remained neglected and untranslated. In the Foreword, Keith Sidwell, Professor of Latin and Greek at UCC, comments

Between 1500 and 1750, when Latin was the medium of European intellectual discourse, more than 300 Irish writers produced more than 1000 printed works, and probably as many, if not more again, like Zoilomastix, never reached print (thought this may not have stopped them circulating and having their own influence).

In the Introduction, Denis C. O’Sullivan surveys the historic period with specific focus on the O’Sullivan clan’s political struggles --driven from their lands from the 1200s, and finally, after the battle of Kinsale in 1602, when Philip was an impressionable 12 year old, many members of the O’Sullivan Beare clan were exiled to Spain. Don Philip became an important historian in his time, best known for his Historiae Catholicae Hiberniae (Lisbon 1621), usually referred to as the Compendium, and also known as ‘O’Sullivan’s Catholic History’.

In 1625, Don Philip wrote Zoilomastix in an effort to refute Giraldus Cambrensis’ derogatory report on Ireland, Topographia Hiberniae (1188) (available as an e-text on the internet). This translation of Zoilomastix, Book One, takes us on a highly colloquial and entertaining journey into the Irish environment, region-by-region, a survey of landscapes, birds and bees, beasts and man --offering a whole new slant on life in pre-modern Ireland.

From the first English/Norman incursions in the late thirteenth century, which continued until the Tudor invasion in the late sixteenth century, the Irish were slandered and slaughtered for political gain. A critical analysis of the ‘fraudulent’ Norman incursion into Ireland can be found in Maurice Sheehey’s When The Normans Came to Ireland (Mercier, 1998). Not as well known is the fact that at the same time many significant writers described Ireland as a paradise. This is confirmed in a recent in-depth geographic study of Ireland, undertaken by Ulf Erlingsson, a celebrated Swedish scientist with a unique background in marine geology and disasters (coincidentally, also from the University of Uppsala), who claims that Plato based his geographic description of Atlantis on Ireland: Atlantis from a Geographer’s Perspective --Mapping the Fairy Land (Lindorm Publishing 2004).

In The Natural History of Ireland, Don Philip O’Sullivan opens with the question: ‘What are the things that were said by Giraldus that need to be refuted here?’ He compares Giraldus Cambrensis’ disparaging criticisms with his praise: ‘Giraldus is refuted by his very own words with which he praises Ireland in a wonderful way.’

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Don Philip supports his argument with a broad spectrum of commentaries on Ireland. For example, on the comforts of early Irish life-style, he quotes Richard Stanihurst (1547-1618), from De Rebus in Hibernia Gestis (Antwerp 1584), (which, by the way, has recently been translated by John Barry, lecturer in Classics at UCC). Stanihurst was a keen pupil of Giraldus Cambrensis, but even he refutes Giraldus’ judgments:

‘He alludes, not aptly, to the verse of the prophet, in Psalm 62: ‘In a land deserted without road and unwatered.’ Truly it appears clearly, even from the testimony of Gyraldus himself, that Ireland was not deserted. In Chapter One he wrote as follows ‘I could, like others, have chosen for your sublime highness small gifts of gold, falcons, and hawks, with which the island abounds’ (Chapter 6). He tells us that the plains are covered abundantly with crops (Chapter 7). He attests that a great amount of wine is imported into Ireland. He declares everywhere in his history that a great multitude of Irish men were under arms. With these and with other errors, which Stanihurst has compiled more comprehensively, it is satisfactorily established that Giraldus was ‘neither constant in truth nor consistent in lying.’

Don Philip quotes Stanihurst again:

This land is the most temperate of all lands. The exhausting heat of the tropic of Cancer does not drive one to the shade. The cold of the tropic of Capricorn does not invite one urgently to the fireplaces. Here, you will see the snows rarely and then lasting a limited period of time. … Grassy pastures grow green in winter time, as in the summer. Thus they are not accustomed to cut hay for fodder and never prepare stables for the beasts. With the pleasantness and the mildness of the air, almost all seasons are moderately warm. … The island is in little need of the services of doctors. You find very few ill people apart from those who are about to die. Between continuous health and final death, there is scarcely any mean. In the same way, no one of the natives born here who has not left the land and the healthy air, ever suffers from any of the three kinds of fever…’

Don Philip O’Sullivan knew the heart of the Irish peoples’ deep respect for nature--they were artists, naturally, in the truest sense of the word, --hence ‘Saints and Scholars’.

Today, we are struggling to maintain a healthy relationship with nature and it is never easy to articulate our deeper insights. Irish songs and poetry often succeed. My song ‘Rapture’ (For Love’s Caress CD 1998) comes to mind as an intuitive response to Don Philip’s vision of his homeland:

Womb of time-- bearing down
Impelling light-- seeking life
Spirit flower-- living river
Melodies merging-- praising glory.

Breathless rapture-- pressing, primal thought
Weaving the link of fire and air
Hearing-- knowing-- tracing an ancient call
Dancing on living sacred ground.

The Normans introduced power struggles over separation of Church and State to Ireland, thus exposing the Irish to previously unheard of levels of cruelty and chaos, resulting in the separation of heaven and nature.

The book finishes with biographical notes on Authors Cited, giving further glimpses into the mind of the times, especially in relation to Ireland’s connections with Europe. Dr. Denis C. O’Sullivan’s translation is a landmark contribution to all aspects of Irish scholarship, natural, cultural, and political.


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