Please consider registering as a member of the International Spenser Society, the professional organization that supports The Spenser Review. There is no charge for membership; your contact information will be kept strictly confidential and will be used only to conduct the business of the ISS—chiefly to notify members when a new issue of SpR has been posted.

John Barry and Hiram Morgan, eds. Great Deeds in Ireland: Richard Stanihurst’s De Rebus in Hibernia Gestis
by Dierdre Serjeantson

Barry, John and Hiram Morgan, eds. Great Deeds in Ireland: Richard Stanihurst’s De Rebus in Hibernia Gestis. Cork: Cork UP, 2013. xi + 532. ISBN 978-1-9090-0572-3. $50.32 cloth.

In 1584, just over a decade before Spenser settled Irenius and Eudoxus down for a chat between Englishmen about the landscape, customs and politics of Ireland, Richard Stanihurst published a description of the same country from an Irishman’s perspective. Stanihurst is perhaps best remembered for his exuberant translation of the Aeneid into quantitative metre—a literary experiment notoriously damned by Thomas Nashe as “ruffe raffe roaring, with thwick thwack thurlery bouncing,” but hailed by more recent critics as the precursor, in its linguistic inventiveness, to Finnegans Wake. Stanihurst, however, was not only a poet of contested abilities: he was also, like so many of his coevals, a theologian, an educator, an alchemist, and, as current scholarship increasingly emphasizes, an historian. The Oxford Handbook of Holinshed’s Chronicles[1] usefully discusses his contribution to the 1577 edition of that text; now John Barry and Hiram Morgan have put the academic world in their debt by editing the first complete translation of what they rightly describe as “the best-known and most polemical contemporary work about Ireland,” Stanihurst’s history of the Norman conquest, De Rebus in Hibernia Gestis [Great Deeds in Ireland]. The prodigious and nuanced text they have produced seems likely to establish itself as an important resource in the study of sixteenth-century Ireland and her various residents.

A new generation of Spenser scholars has acknowledged that the history of Early Modern Ireland, and thus, the context for so much of Spenser’s work, cannot reliably be viewed through the lens of an Anglocentric literary and historical canon alone. Nonetheless, many of the most important sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Irish texts, both in Latin and Irish, remain relatively difficult to access. Philip O’Sullivan Beare’s Historiae Catholicae Iberniae Compendium (Lisbon, 1621), which gives an alternative account of the events at Smerwick witnessed by Spenser in 1580, was published in a partial translation in 1903. Seathrún Céitinn’s Foras Feasa ar Éirinn [Foundation of Knowledge of Ireland], c. 1634, a consciously post-colonial text composed as a counterblast to English histories of Ireland, is most readily available in a 1987 reprint of a 1902-08 edition. The Corpus of Electronic Texts (CELT) hosted by University College Cork is an invaluable resource for these and many other rare texts. Even CELT, however, does not rise to Stanihurst’s hefty Latin history, which makes Barry and Morgan’s new edition all the more valuable a contribution to modern scholarship.

Stanihurst described himself as a Dubliner. He was, in other words, a man from the Pale, within the sphere of English influence even before the Elizabethan plantations of Ireland began. His family was originally Norman—a category typically described in Early Modern Ireland as “Old English,” to distinguish them from the “New English” Sidneys and Raleghs who were arriving to displace, not only the Gaelic Irish, but also former allies like the Stanihursts, from their positions in the social hierarchy. Stanihurst’s account of the invasion of Ireland some four hundred years before his own time was topical for some very practical reasons—for instance, Sir George Carew, Lord President of Munster, occupied himself with translating “Dermot and the Earl,” a Norman-French poem about the conquest, as part of his research into the genealogy and land-rights of the territory he was busily suppressing. For Stanihurst, his historical work was also an assertion of his own people’s fragile status in a changing Ireland—an assertion he often made at the expense of the Gaelic Irish. His coining of the hybrid term “Anglo-Irish” to define his community; his distancing of that community from the Irish language and Gaelic Irish customs; his satire on the Irish clergy abroad: these all tended to outweigh his eager defense of other aspects of Irish life. In the next generation, Old English and Gaelic Irish coalesced under the common title of “Irishman,” a term grounded in a shared Catholicism. For all that he died in holy orders, author of an important life of St. Patrick, Stanihurst’s targets in the De Rebus continued to taint his image. In the Foras Feasa, a work devoted to exposing the self-interest that underlay colonists’ accounts of Irish barbarism, Céitinn listed the “new foreigners” who had refused to report on what was good in Irish society. Edmund Spenser is the second name on the list; the third is Richard Stanihurst.

The substantial introduction to this edition equips the reader to navigate this debate about national identity. It also makes it possible to assess the impact of Stanihurst’s contribution, both in Ireland and abroad: the summary of the historiographical controversy which raged around the text covers O’Sullivan Beare and Céitinn, but also Meredith Hanmer and Barnabe Riche. The argument is substantiated by rigorous bibliographical research. Indeed, the survey here of surviving copies is a model of editorial practice, and brings valuable material to bear on the debate in the form of marginalia and censorship marks. These texts also bear witness to the fact that not all of the readers were interested in the book’s political concerns. The editors have unearthed one copy owned by the private physician to Elizabeth I who seems to have read solely for general interest, and another which was among the papers of Robert Persons, the Jesuit and polemicist, but which was not annotated in his hand. Stanihurst’s own copy includes a transcription of his correspondence with the humanist Justus Lipsius. For these readers, as for many others, the draw may have been Stanihurst’s reputation as a Latinist.

The editors present us with both Stanihurst’s Latin and a facing page translation, a helpful decision in the light of the rarity of the text; equally helpful are the notes on the prose style, which situate the work in its proper literary milieu. Stanihurst was renowned for his rhetorical skill: he was, said an Oxford contemporary, a new Demosthenes “to whom art has given eloquence.” His register was determinedly, and fashionably, Ciceronian, and the textual apparatus provides a useful guide to the classical echoes and Erasmian anachronisms he introduces into the Medieval Latin of his chief source, the twelfth-century authority Giraldus Cambrensis. Other characteristically Early Modern flourishes—speeches and letters invented to suit an occasion when documentary evidence fails; assassinations reimagined to conform to classical precedents; prophetic visions of English rule placed in the mouth of kings preparing for battle—are also duly noted, and are ripe for development among the further studies of Stanihurst’s historical method which will surely follow on this publication.

The origins of this edition in UCC’s thriving Neo-Latin Seminar must contribute to the impressive range of references provided: the notes span classical and patristic sources as well as Irish Medieval and Early Modern writing, as though the knowledge of a choice gathering of experts had been harnessed. Perhaps the informal nature of seminar discussion explains some few, curiously inconsequential, annotations that also appear. At one point, for instance, we are told that an account of princely conduct “is reminiscent of the behaviour of young Prince Hal in Henry IV Part I” (n.443). This may be intended to demonstrate the ubiquity of the topos of youthful misdemeanour in Early Modern writing, but any closer link between Stanihurst and Shakespeare’s play (c. 1596) would need further development: it seems unlikely that there is any real connection between the texts. Stanihurst’s use of the rhetoric is the subject of another note (454): “This is a nice example of zeugma, such as in Hiberno-English—“dost sometimes counsel take, and sometimes tay.” It is hard to see how this quotation, from Pope’s Rape of the Lock, can be construed as Hibernian in any way, except that the Hiberno-English “tea” preserves the pronunciation current in eighteenth-century England. Either way, it has little to say to Stanihurst. But if these notes do sound like chat around the seminar table, they are small fry when weighed against the expertise garnered in that setting, which does so much to elucidate Stanihurst’s historical sources and methods.

It seems a pity that an edition which makes such strides in reviving Stanihurst’s reputation as one of Renaissance Ireland’s foremost humanists should think so little of his English poetry. His Aeneis gets short shrift here, despite the strong case that has been made for its literary value by Andrew Carpenter[2] and for its historical importance by Thomas Herron[3]. It is surely a matter for regret, rather than an instance of “good fortune” (12), that Stanihurst did not in fact write his projected Fin Couleidos, the epic poem he planned about the legendary Irish hero Finn mac Cumhaill—having provided Ireland with a history to round out the View of the Present State, he might also have come up with a vision of national destiny to set alongside The Faerie Queene.

This edition of De Rebus in Hibernia Gestis represents a monumental achievement. Barry and Morgan have presented us with a lucid text, and cleared a path through the controversy that has surrounded it since its first publication. Perhaps the most useful legacy of this work will be an acknowledgement of the complexity of Stanihurst’s situation. The Early Modern Irish emerge from this book, not as figures on the edge of other writers’ poems or other nations’ consciousness, where scholarship has so often situated them, as but as scholars and humanists, involved in all of the disagreements and debates, the national aspirations and literary ambition, that characterized the wider Renaissance world, of which they were firmly a part.


Deirdre Serjeantson
University of Essex

[1] Kewes, Paulina, Ian. W. Archer, and Felicity Heal, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Holinshed’s Chronicles (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013). Reviewed in this issue.

[2] Andrew Carpenter, Verse in English from Tudor and Stuart Ireland (Cork, Ireland: Cork UP, 2003).

[3] Michael Potterton and Thomas Herron, eds., Dublin and the Pale in the Renaissance (Dublin; Portland: Four Courts P, 2011).


  • There are currently no comments

You must log in to comment.


Cite as:

Dierdre Serjeantson, "John Barry and Hiram Morgan, eds. Great Deeds in Ireland: Richard Stanihurst’s De Rebus in Hibernia Gestis," Spenser Review 44.1.12 (Spring-Summer 2014). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
Not logged in or