By David Collins
Giraldus Cambrensis or Gerald of Wales, a prominent Cambro-Norman churchman and celebrated historian composed many works, two of which were concerned with Ireland. Gerald visited Ireland in 1183 and again in 1184 where he compiled the material he would use in both his Topographia Hibernica and Expugnatio Hibernica (‘Topography of Ireland’ 1187 and ‘Conquest of Ireland’ 1189).Better known to students of history, the Expugnatio is his account of the coming of the English (Gerald’s description) to Ireland. Not only is this work openly favourably to the Anglo-Norman belligerents but it also promotes the role played by Gerald’s relatives, a closely connected group of knights some of whom would found the politically powerful Geraldine dynasties of Kildare and Desmond. Gerald’s slightly earlier work, the Topographia, is concerned not only with the geography and of Ireland but also its ancient history, wildlife and various accounts of miracles. This work, as with the Expugnatio, is decidedly critical of the habits and behaviours of the Irish partly as a means of justifying the aforementioned conquest.
Gerald’s account first describes the various animals that can be found in Ireland and indeed those that are absent (all poisonous animals, not just snakes!). In this section he tells us that ‘Bede says that there are only two kinds of harmful beasts in Ireland, namely, wolves and foxes’ (the Venerable Bede 673 – 735). Gerald follows this by stating [single space here instead of double] ‘I would add the mouse as a third, and say that it is very harmful indeed’. In the second part of his Topographica which describes various miracles, Gerald returns to the subject of wolves. He explains that three years before John de Courcy, Lord of Ulster arrived in Ireland (1182) that a priest had been travelling from Ulster to Meath with a young companion. One night while camped in a wood a wolf approached their campfire and to the consternation of the priest spoke the following words:
‘Do not be afraid! Do not fear! Do not worry! There is nothing to fear!’
The understandably astounded priests first response was (surprise surprise) to pray to the holy trinity not to be harmed. The wolf then went on to explain that he was a native of Ossory and that as a result of an ancient curse by a St. Natalis every seven years a man and a women were exiled, not only from Ossory but also from their human form by transforming into wolves. The wolf continued that his companion was nearby gravely ill and in need of a priest to give her the last rites. The priest followed the wolf to a hollow tree where there lay a second wolf, crying and groaning with a human voice. The priest proceeded to give the last rites right up to the last communion. The she-wolf begged him to continue but the priest said he did not have the viaticum with him. At this point the first wolf reappeared carrying a small bag which contained the priest’s consecrated hosts. It seems that at this point as the priest was reluctant to continue, the wolf to ‘remove all doubt’ pulled all the skin off the she-wolf with his paw and revealed the shape of a woman within. The priest ‘more through terror than reason’ continued with the sacrament and wolf skin reformed over the woman’s body. The wolf then shared their campfire that night and the next day showed the priest the surest way through the woods before thanking him and promising to reward him when he regained his human form.
Gerald concludes his tale by telling us that two years after these events he himself was passing through Meath where the bishop was calling a synod to discuss the matter. The synod concluded that a report of the affair along with the priest’s confession should be sent to Rome for investigation (Gerald claims that this was at his suggestion). The report was duly dispatched along with all the seals of those Bishops and Abbots present at the synod.
It is worth pointing out that while Gerald is occasionally guilty of exaggeration he was never one to invent facts. He was always careful to stress that the more fantastical tales he recounts were not witnessed directly by him. Even the strangest episodes that might well at first glance seem to have been created to serve a specific agenda often, on closer examination, have their origins in early medieval Irish literature. While this strange tale of werewolves in Meath was evidently well known in ecclesiastical circles in 1184, we are fortunate that Gerald took the time to record it for posterity.
Gerald of Wales, The history and Topography of Ireland, translated by John J. O’Meara, (London, 1982).
Giraldus Cambrensis, Expugnatio Hibernica, translated and edited by A. B. Scott and F. X. Martin, published by the Royal Irish Academy (Dublin, 1978).