jump to navigation

Ireland the Great and White Man’s Land August 28, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback


Beachcombing woke up this morning with Vikings on his mind – a migraine coming? – and so thought that he would visit one of his favourite northern stories/legends/cobblers: Great Ireland. The reference appears in Landnámabók the thirteenth-century ‘ancestral’ codex of Iceland. How much is history and how much is legend in the Landnámabók is much debated. But history becomes particularly difficult to deal with when you are faced with references like the following. We are allegedly in the tenth century.

[Ari Marsson]… drifted to White Man’s Land which some know as Greater Ireland. It is out westwards in the ocean near Vinland the Good, allegedly a six day sail west from Iceland [or Ireland, there is a textual problem here]. Ari couldn’t leave and was baptised there.

This passage is a curious one – to say the very least. Ari came to a land out in the Atlantic known as White Man’s Land or Greater Ireland. He couldn’t leave, presumably because the inhabitants wouldn’t let him and they baptised him (wth?!). The Landnámabók goes on to say that he had been spotted there by visitors and that he was an important citizen.

Vinland the Good is a legendary Norse island in the west. It lacks the precise factual basis of Markland, the Canadian coast where the Greenlanders got lumber while Columbus was not even a glimmer in his great-great grandparents’ eyes. Or perhaps better if it had a factual basis – New England? – it soon became a magical panacea for the ills of adventurers ‘out there’ among the infinite breakers of the North Atlantic. White Man’s Land then is placed near a Norse Atlantis: is this the equivalent of saying that fairies live in a castle in Cloud Cuckoo Land?

In a roughly contemporary thirteenth-century Norse source a Viking expedition to Markland ends up learning some local geography from the Inuit. These Inuit tell the Vikings – though who knows how they managed this… – that ‘there was a land on the other side of their land, and the folk there wore white garments, gave loud cries, carried long sticks, and wore fringes. This was supposed to be White Man’s Land.’

Then a final thirteenth-century Norse saga describes how a merchant named Gudleif has his ship carried off by a gale between Ireland and Iceland. He arrived in a land where he thought the locals were speaking something like Irish. His men are then rescued from these Gaelic-speaking locals (Inuit?) by an Icelander who dwells among them and has become a leader of sorts. The congruity with the tale preserved in Landnámabók is striking.

What is going on here? The first question is the name. A Great Ireland or Ireland the Great (as Geoffrey Ashe called it)  would sit quite well if a territory had been discovered by a tenth-century Viking who saw a similarity between said land and Ireland. Anyone who has travelled to Newfoundland and the west coast of Eire knows that the similarities are striking. From there it would have been child’s play to start populating the land with Gaels to explain the name: history is full of accidental linguistic myths. And if there are Gaels on the land why not call it White Man’s Land? Though that begs the question of what a ‘white man’ was for the Vikings.

Of course, there is another possibility though it is probably best only to whisper late at night. We know that the Irish traversed much of the North Atlantic. They certainly got to the Faeroes and Iceland and it is not  impossible that some were washed up further afield: we have referred elsewhere to their kamikaze exploratory techniques that guaranteed results and high mortality. So perhaps the men with ‘fringes’ and ‘sticks’ and ‘white coats’ were Irish monks? Well, this is what has sometimes been suggested, though Beach would again point to the problem of Norse and Inuit speakers communicating these kinds of details. Try getting an anthropological account about tribe Zog beyond the mountains from tribe Gog, on your side of the mountains, when your Gog is non-existent.

Any other explanations for a Greater Ireland: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


31 August 2012: Here is some stuff from Pridain on North Atlantic exploration. KB contests, meanwhile, perhaps justly: Regarding the ability to communicate ideas without much speech. 1. Drawing of figures or maps 2. Pointing, to a direction, to a color, to a person 3. Holding up a number of fingers, or making a number of marks to indicate numbers (how far, how many men) 4. Charades, hand gestures (to indicate a long robe with fringe perhaps?) 5. For travelers over water, all of the above plus a few shared words or phrases. For example, an Inuit fisherman who knew about the people on White Man’s Land might have visited there often enough to learn a few words of the language (possibly Irish.) Irishmen (or Whitemanslanders) who could get this far west by water could probably get to an Inuit village that was closer than Ireland, and may have shared a bit of language already.  If either the Whitemanlander/Irishman or the Inuit man also had been around previous explorer Norsemen or Vikings he might have picked up a bit of their language/s also.  A Viking or Norseman who was an explorer might also know a few words of Irish, as well as other languages, including, possibly, a smattering of Inuit words. People who travel on the water for their living often know at least a bit of other languages, enough to trade, ask directions, and in general to assist with their purpose or with their survival. Why couldn’t they have communicated? Thanks Pridain and KB!!

3 September 2012: Leif writes: ‘In your ‘Ireland the great’ post, you mention a ‘roughly contemporary thirteenth-century Norse’ source. This sounds like the Saga of Erik the Red [Beach: confirm], which plausibly explains how the Norse and the Skrælings communicated. But what really stands out is the rest of the chapter- an encounter with a monopod, and a ‘land of the one-footers’. Since no monopods have turned up anywhere near Newfoundland in the past millennium, one might conclude that this part of the saga is a legend. This greatly increases the chance of ‘Greater Ireland’ also being a sailor’s story, but it documents an Old Norse tradition that the Irish were the first to cross the sea. One saga (probably Landnamabok) says that when the Norse first arrived in Iceland, they found Irish monks. These, of course, were immediately dispatched.  But back to the question of how the Norse and Skrælings communicated. The saga explains that the Norse captured two children, who learned the language and told of Greater Ireland. Could it be possible that the part about ‘Greater Ireland’ was appended to the saga at some later date, and the captive children invented because someone asked the same question you did? If so, they beat you to it by at least 700 years.’ Thanks Leif!!