I sometimes hear or read the phrase, “beyond the pale”, meaning an action or statement that is unacceptable or beyond the limit of respectable behavior, and I have to wonder just what a “pale” is and how the phrase came to mean what it does. Naturally, I looked it up. A pale is simply a fortified fence or boundary. The word pale derives from the Latin “palus” which means a stake, such as one used to build a fence. The origin of the word, pale, and the phrase beyond the pale, is most likely from the English Pale in Ireland. Historically, the Pale separated the region of Ireland under English control from the areas still ruled by the Irish. The origin and history of the Pale is interesting.
Ireland has never been unified into a single nation, before the modern Republic of Ireland. Instead, the Irish have usually been divided into many kingdoms, subkingdoms, clans, etc. There have been high kings of Ireland, but they have seldom had much influence beyond their own lands and allies. This chaotic political situation has often offended the more orderly English, who felt obliged to invade Ireland in order to provide the Irish with more stability. The first such invasion was the Norman Invasion of 1169. The Normans easily conquered most of Ireland, but, like most conquerors, they found it harder to rule the land than to invade it. With distractions such as the Hundred Year’s War and wars with Scotland, the Anglo-Normans didn’t have the manpower to effectively occupy Ireland. They could send Norman colonists to Ireland, but these colonists tended to intermarry with the Irish and adopt the Irish culture and language. Finally, during the fourteenth century, the English built a system of fences and fortified ditches which came to be known as “The Pale”. Within the pale English laws and culture were enforced. English was the only permitted language and intermarriage with native Irish strictly forbidden. Beyond the Pale, the English maintained nominal control of Ireland through alliances with Irish leaders and the descendants of the Norman settlers. So, within the pale, everyone was supposed to be proper, civilized Englishmen. Beyond the pale were the wild, barbarous Irish.
The plan didn’t work, in the long run. Over time, the lands defined by the Pale shrank as the English crown was preoccupied by wars, and internal unrest. The Irish gained control over more and more of their island and even within the pale, the inhabitants became increasingly Irish is culture. Finally, in 1541, Henry VIII had the Parliament of Ireland declare him King of Ireland and set about conquering the whole island. It wasn’t until 1603 that all the resistance was crushed and Ireland was pacified. There was no more need for a boundary and the pale was allowed to fall into disrepair. The English settlers in Ireland became entirely assimilated into the Irish population, especially since they had refused to give up Roman Catholicism during the Reformation. All that remained was the phrase which distinguished what was and was not acceptable.
- Phraseology – Beyond The Pale (modestimposter.wordpress.com)
- Where the Irish came from (southofheaven.typepad.com)
- Intermarriage in fifteenth-century Ireland: the English and Irish in the ‘four obedient shires’ (medievalists.net)