The variety of French that William brought to England after 1066 became part of the political and cultural environment of this island a century later — at just the point where Anglo-Norman had become embedded as a literary and administrative medium in England, where Normans had become proficient in English, and where several of the varieties of medieval French were on the threshold of a period of extraordinary literary innovation. The effects of the arrival of the Anglo-Normans and of Henry II in Ireland were to be as momentous as they were far-reaching, and for one thing they brought the Irish language much more closely into contact with French and with English. The interactions that resulted — all at once linguistic, literary, intellectual, spiritual, political — are a living heritage: they have continued to this day, nearly a century after Irish independence.
These distinct and interconnected traditions — in some of their first manifestations and in their more recent continuations — are represented in the rich collections on which the exhibition draws. Queen’s College, Cork was established in 1845, more than half a millennium after the Anglo-Norman conquest, and the intervening centuries witnessed contacts with France and with French that straddled confessional and political divisions. Thus, Irish scholars and intellectuals took refuge in Paris and Louvain, where Irish-language materials could be printed and where French was to become a medium of antiquarian and historical research that took Ireland as its object. Conversely, the arrival in Ireland of Huguenot exiles created new French-speaking communities, so connecting the island with French humanist writing and publishing, and, in particular, of course, with French language Protestant thinking. More than a century later, French continued to be widely read in this city and this country, and at decisive moments in the quest for independence the politics of post-Revolutionary France were to be a highly potent — and highly contested — reference-point.