Chaucer’s profound influence on the English people instilled a sense of deep pride and separateness in them

A letter from Micheal O’Cathail:

Thursday, 15th April 2021, 12:22 am
Updated Thursday, 15th April 2021, 12:41 am
Letter to the editor

Gérald Morgan asks (Letter, April 8, see link below) what other connection did the famous 14th century writer and poet of early English, Geoffrey Chaucer, have with Ireland and in particular with Ulster, other than that he was a member of Lady Ulster’s household.

I will answer as best I can on the understanding that Dr Morgan has a far greater knowledge of Chaucer than myself: I ask that he will kindly correct errors or omissions on my part and, if he thinks fit, expand on any point.

I think it is interesting that Chaucer’s wife, Philippa de Roet, was also in the employment of Lady Ulster of CarrigFergus. I understand Lady Ulster was instrumental in arranging their marriage — a marriage that was beneficial to the advancement of Chaucer’s career due to Phillipa’s higher social status and family connections.

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Professor Marion Turner, Jesus College, University of Oxford, wrote a book about Geoffrey Chaucer in 2019 under the title, Chaucer: A European Life.

Professor Turner, like Dr Morgan, is a specialist on Chaucer. The book’s title points towards Chaucer’s close familiarity with European scholarship and literature, including, of course, Italian.

Professor Turner wrote a scholarly piece on Chaucer’s Irish connections in the Irish Times, in June 2019. Perhaps, a few extracts will be helpful to Gerald Morgan’s and News Letter readers’ understanding of Chaucer’s Irish connections.

Professor Turner writes, “Geoffrey Chaucer, often termed the father of English literature, began his career in an Irish household (Lady Ulster). And while Chaucer had to work hard to establish English as a literary language in a context in which French and Latin were the prestigious tongues, his employer, Lionel, governor of Ireland (Chaucer would have accompanied Lionel, his employer, during the latter’s surjourn in Ireland) implemented the Statutes of Kilkenny, laws that established a linguistic hierarchy in Ireland-with English very much on top.” and “... after his death, Chaucer became part of the colonial language all over the world. But in the 14th century Chaucer didn’t see English that way at all - it was a somewhat rough language with few literary pretensions, a language that had to struggle to make its voice heard over the dominant languages that had colonised England ... Back in Chaucer’s day, it was a fledgling creature and, while it was unclear if it would ever take off: it was the beginning of its predatory journey in Ireland.”

If I may offer a personal conjecture on Geoffrey Chaucer’s profound influence on the English and/or British people and their amazing historical trajectory since his innovative remodelling of the English language in the 14th century, it is that his writings instilled a sense of deep pride and separateness or nationhood in them (Martin Luther, I suggest, did something similar for the other Germanic language/s very much later).

This, may, possibly, have contributed to England’s later rejection of a universal and multi-national catholicism based in Rome, and, probably, more recently, the 2016 English rejection of the EU (Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain).

Micheal O’Cathail, Fermanagh

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