This description of people in Kinsale in 1518 by Laurent Vital is very important, especially with regard to Irish customs and dress. Vital's account is a remarkably frank, curious and unbiased. It was done after the expedition he was on with the Archduke Ferdinand from Spain to the Low Countries in June 1518 was blown off course and had to land in Ireland. Its belated emergence is a helpful increment to our knowledge of many aspects of an otherwise hazy period.
The most obvious signifcance of Vital's account is its representation of dress and the probable influence it had on the visual portrayal of the Irish.
'These men deck themselves out in big hairy coats, over their heads in the same way as the women wear their cloaks in Brabant. This coat only goes a half quarter beyond the belt, and over this is a long linen apron. Thus shorn, bearded, armed and barefoot as I said imagine how strange this costume is to look at. For sure, I have never seen anything like this before even in a painting.'
This is part of a description by Vital of 'countrymen and savages' of Ireland. His pen portrait of Irishmen their exotic dress and the ferocious array of weaponry they carried is almost certainly the source for the famous drawing of Irish gallowglasses done by Albrecht Dürer on or soon after his visit to Antwerp three years later. The discovery of Vital's account at last provides convincing proof in the debate about whether they were real Irish soldiers being depicted. It is clear now that Dürer's drawing is an 'artist's impression'. Dürer's 1521 drawing, particularly its central figure in the Irish mantle, is very reminescent of Irishmen's dress as described by Vital in 1518. The references to 'soldiers' and 'peasants' in the drawing's title appear to reflect Vital's own bipartite labelling process. Clearly Dürer, who had very good connections with the Habsburg court, had either read Vital's account, had the men described to him or had seen a derivative tableau vivant of Irishmen in one of the elaborate town parades held in Antwerp.
But Vital's short account is not just remarkable for his description of Irish soldiers it is a hidden history which provides us with a whole series of fascinating, risqué and controversial scenes and stories which illuminate Ireland on the eve of the transformative Tudor Conquest as never before. Kinsale at this time was at the height of its late medieval prosperity, with Maurice Fitzgerald, the earl of Desmond having recently built a castle there to collect duties on its rich import-export trade. It may have had up to 2,000 inhabitants and Vital's account points to a strengthening Gaelic influence.
Laurent Vital was a secretary of the Burgundian state and part of the official delegation which delivered Charles of Habsburg to Spain where he was crowned king of Castile and Aragon. He was responsible afterwards for a highly-personalised manuscript record known as Le Premier Voyage de Charles-Quint en Espagne, de 1517 à 1518. Its final chapters describe the journey home in a fleet consisting of five large ships and a barque under the command of Charles's younger brother, Archduke Ferdinand. This royal fleet left Santander towards the end of May in fine weather but quickly encountered a powerful storm in the Bay of Biscay. What should have been a straightforward summer cruise to Flanders became a nightmare. Storms battered the fleet about Biscay for five days. At one point the Archduke and the rest of nobility vowed to go on pilgrimage if God spared them but with the waves getting bigger and coming over the sides, the crew was soon pumping continuously to prevent the vessels being submerged. Eventually they ended up somewhere off the coast of Brittany but the winds were still contrary. The pilots decided to head for Scilly in the hope of tacking up the more friendly English side of Channel but they missed it and were blown North-West into the Atlantic. Exhausted, hungry and thirsty, it was decided to make for Ireland and on the 11th day of the voyage Sunday 6th June 1518 they entered the harbour of Kinsale.
Surprised at the appearance of such large ships, a deputation came out of Kinsale and was kept entertained on board whilst Juan de Granada, an English-speaking cleric, was sent into the town to check it out. To avoid being recognised and any unnecessary fuss, the Archduke had taken off his Order of the Golden Fleece which hung on a gold chain around his neck. However by the time that Vital had found lodgings in a large house in the town, the identity of the principal visitor was known. Vital reckoned that the Spanish churchman had blabbed. Whereas the noblemen came into town to make merry during the four-day visit, the fifteen-year old Archduke remained on board ship from where he would go into the countryside to 'besport himself'. Disappointed about his failure to put in an appearance, it was agreed that the town could send an official delegation to make him welcome. What followed was a pantomime of bowing and scraping and speaking in Latin in which the town representatives greeted the prince seated in the midst of his nobles under a cloth of gold canopy. The townsmen were pleased that they had done so, because, after the Lord of Reoulx, Ferdinand's head of household, had given the response, he invited them on board to a specially prepared feast in his quarters.
Much of what Vital reported about Ireland came from the French-speaking brother of his landlady in the town. This man provided him with the usual Anglo-Irish townsman's viewpoint. Outside the towns the country was inhabited by the wild Irish whom Vital called les sauvaiges and whom his informant claimed were cave-dwellers. They lived by pillage and rapine and what law there was came from rival warlords who required passports and charged tolls on those passing through their areas. Kinsale was apparently in a particularly lawless region and had been under constant threat until in recent years the townsmen had evolved a modus vivendi with the countrypeople through a system of petty bribery. However this relationship also enabled Vital to ask for information and explanation. He could not help noticing that the wild Irish men had smeared their faces with blood and was told that, because they went bareheaded, it was done to prevent them getting freckles during the summertime. Vital was also anxious to know about St Patrick's Purgatory on Lough Derg which was famous as a pilgrimage site throughout Europe. Even though it was 180 leagues away in what was referred to as 'the Scottish quarter', it turned out that his hostess had been there as a girl, undertaking it seemingly as some form of a pre-marital penance. He was disappointed to hear that she, like a rather blasé teenager, had seen no visions. Her detailed account, albeit mediated through her brother and possibly written up by Vital as a result of further reading, is one of only two by native Irish pilgrims and the only one given by a woman.
More importantly Vital made his own observations. As a result he has left us with some of the most vivid and detailed descriptions of the dress of the Irish that we have. He was struck by the strangeness of their clothing, so much so he says that it would make you laugh. On the other hand, he had enough self-awareness to say that they must have found the dress of himself and his colleagues equally exotic. What astonished and pleased him most was that the young girls went topless until the age of marriage and 'it is as common there to see or touch the breast of a girl or woman, as it is to touch her hand'. As a result in the next passage he virtually exhausted his lexicon in describing the Irish mammary, concluding: 'I also saw all sorts of tits, middle sizes, big, shapely and in the open hand one would call them firm but yielding. And I saw some so disgusting and unsavoury that I marvelled where the little children could receive their daily nourishment. Also I saw others which were not at all worth looking at, so ugly and wrinkled were they only deserve the name of flabby udders'. In spite of their state of dress, this connoisseur of the female form considered the Irish women, especially the young good-looking ones, to be completely honourable and virtuous. The mind boggles how Dürer such a realistic draughtsman of the human form might have portrayed them! This purple passage did however result in the only modern scholarly reference to Vital's visit to Ireland by Polish historian Antoni Maczak, in his work on international travel.
Another thing Vital witnessed was a violent incident between a young native Irishman and a beautiful girl as he waited early one morning in the churchyard for St Multose's to open. The girl was beaten and dragged to the church door on which her companion forced her to follow him in making the sign of the cross and then afterwards they went off hand in hand. Vital considered himself a coward for not stepping in but he had the archduke's injunction about not interfering with the locals as a good excuse. Basically Vital had observed a clandestine marriage. There might be any numbers of reasons for such a private contract the lack of a dowry, church rules about consanguinity or even the ban on racial intermarriage under the Statutes of Kilkenny.
Vital also noted that the choral music he heard at the church service was different from elsewhere. Furthermore just as the fleet was about to embark, servants of a local lord almost certainly the Earl of Desmond arrived. While one of them presented greyhounds to the prince; another entertained the party with singing and harp music followed by an impromptu and far better received swimming display. The royal fleet eventually departed on Wednesday 9th June. In doing so, it left behind three crew members, whose harassment of local women had broken the prime directive, for correction by the local authorities. After more contrary winds in the Channel, the death of one of their company complaining of a surfeit of fresh salmon in Kinsale and a welcome reunion with one of their own vessels which had become separated from the main fleet in Biscay, the archduke eventually disembarked in Flushing in Zeeland on 16th June.
Unfortunately Vital never recorded the names of the people he met in Kinsale. Nor did he make a description of the town other than to say it had a great harbour overlooked by a castle. Furthermore there is no record of this unscheduled royal visit in the patchy town records of Kinsale or in the surviving state papers, though we can now assume that it was the subject of the letters Henry VIII received the following month from the earl of Desmond and the city of Cork (L & P Hen.8, ii, no. 4293). It is interesting to speculate what lasting effects the visit may have had. There is obvious correspondence between the observations made by Vital and Dürer's famous drawing of Irish soldiers, as well as possible influence on subsequent ones done by Christoph Weiditz and Lucas de Heere. More instrumentally the chance landing had announced to the Irish, notwithstanding Ferdinand's doctrine of non-interference, the emergence of a new power combining the might of Spain and the Low Countries on the Western seaboard of Europe. In which case, it might explain the speed with which the next and likewise pro-French earl of Desmond turned to Spain when Henry VIII began divorce proceedings against Catherine of Aragon ten years later. And that began a pattern of contacts eventually culminating in Spanish military intervention in Ireland, which fittingly enough happened at Kinsale in 1601-2!
Why then has this extraordinary account escaped notice for so long? It was first published in Brussels in 1881 as the third of a four volume set entitled Collection des Voyages des Souverains des Pays-Bas. There was a Spanish translation published in 1958 and the original was reprinted again in 1988. It has become well-known as it was a key source for the early years of Charles V in Spain. Indeed, its nineteenth-century Belgian editor had at the outset highlighted the colourful passages about Ireland as some of the most interesting in the book and he had conspicuously noted 'Quinquesalle,' as being 'Kinsale'. Maybe its content was too rude and crude; maybe it had too many 'savages' for Catholic Nationalist Ireland to contemplate. If any such evasion did happen, it's a pity because Vital's account is also a splendid example of the Céad Míle Fáilte. More likely, with Irish historians concentrating their research efforts on the state papers in London, it remained 'hidden in plain sight'. However that has now been remedied. It was recently brought to the attention of the CELT website by Jeroen Nilis of the University of Leuven who came across it as a student in the 1980s. We have now added the original text with this accompanying translation in digital form to our extensive and freely accessible resource for Irish literature, history and politics.
Hiram Morgan, April 2012.