Almost a century after the publication, in 1911, of the first two volumes of his magnum opus (the third and fourth appeared together in 1920) Goddard Henry Orpen’s Ireland under the Normans remains controversial. The way to test this is not to read the polite comments of this generation of his successors but to go to a university library, take all four volumes off the shelf, and expose one’s eyes to the palimpsest of student marginalia added down through the decades. Pencilled emotions ranging from anger and outrage to ridicule and blasphemy litter the pages and tarnish its author’s memory, every bit as much in the reprint (dating, interestingly, from 1968) as in the original edition.
When the first two volumes, covering the period 1169-1216, were published, they were warmly greeted in certain quarters, British journals in particular carrying laudatory reviews. But in nationalist Ireland grave offence was taken not merely at some of the author’s apparently callous and hurtful statements, but at his basic thesis, a thesis which Orpen set out clearly in the preface to his first volume:
In the course of my study of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (which has been spread over many years) … I have been led to regard the domination of the English Crown and of its ministers in Ireland, during the thirteenth century, and indeed up to the invasion of Edward Bruce in 1315, as having been much more complete than has been generally recognised, and to think that due credit has not been given to the new rulers for creating the comparative peace and order and the manifest progress and prosperity that Ireland enjoyed, during that period, wherever their rule was effective …
. . . it is, I think, manifest that the most prominent effect of the Anglo-Norman occupation was not, as has been represented, an increase of turmoil, but rather the introduction over large parts of Ireland of a measure of peace and prosperity quite unknown before.