Beyond The Pale

The Pale - area in the 1500s that is now primarily Dublin, Ireland

Ireland circa 1500

Have you ever heard someone make the statement, “That’s beyond the pale!” and wondered what the phrase actually means? There are books, blogs, and musical lyrics that include this phrase, yet none truly reflect its meaning. The answer is lies in [amazon_link id=”1598693239″ target=”_blank” ]Irish history [/amazon_link]and is fairly complex.

The word pale derives ultimately from the [amazon_link id=”0979505100″ target=”_blank” ]Latin[/amazon_link] word palus, meaning stake, specifically a stake used to support a fence. Written in the original [amazon_link id=”0807404837″ target=”_blank” ]Hebrew[/amazon_link], the Book of Ecclesiastes from the [amazon_link id=”0310435773″ target=”_blank” ]Bible [/amazon_link]uses the word, “pale” meaning a fence. From this came the figurative meaning of boundary and eventually the phrase beyond the pale, as something outside the boundary. Also derived from the boundary concept, was the idea of a pale as an area within which local laws were valid.

In addition to The Pale in [amazon_link id=”1162709340″ target=”_blank” ]Ireland[/amazon_link], the term was applied to various other [amazon_link id=”B003VPWSHE” target=”_blank” ]English[/amazon_link] [amazon_link id=”0521276985″ target=”_blank” ]colonial settlements[/amazon_link]. For example, the English Pale in [amazon_link id=”0393333647″ target=”_blank” ]France[/amazon_link] in the Fourteenth-century was the territory of [amazon_link id=”1843833980″ target=”_blank” ]Calais[/amazon_link], the last English possession in that country. Its position as the point in continental Europe closest to England led the English [amazon_link id=”1555841716″ target=”_blank” ]King Edward III[/amazon_link], who believed himself the rightful king of France, to cross the Channel and capture the city in 1347. The [amazon_link id=”1178056449″ target=”_blank” ]Treaty of Brétigny [/amazon_link]in 1360 ceded the city to England. For two centuries Calais remained an integral part of England, with representation in the [amazon_link id=”0199573832″ target=”_blank” ]English Parliament[/amazon_link]. On 1 January 1558, Calais was finally recaptured by the French during the reign of the daughter of [amazon_link id=”0312194390″ target=”_blank” ]King Henry VIII[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”1400066093″ target=”_blank” ]Queen Mary[/amazon_link]. (King Henry VIII’s infamous daughter, [amazon_link id=”0312379005″ target=”_blank” ]Queen Elizabeth I[/amazon_link] came to the throne after Mary’s death in November 1558.)

When Dermot MacMurrough, then King of Leinster, was chased out of his lands by Tiernan O’Rourke in 1166, on behalf of Rory O’Connor (then [amazon_link id=”1851821961″ target=”_blank” ]High King of Ireland[/amazon_link]) he asked the English [amazon_link id=”0520034945″ target=”_blank” ]King Henry II [/amazon_link]for help. King Henry allowed MacMurrough enough soldiers to instigate a Norman invasion of Ireland, restoring MacMurrough to Leinster and inserting his son [amazon_link id=”0520036433″ target=”_blank” ]John[/amazon_link] as Lord of Ireland. This set the stage for the [amazon_link id=”0192801619″ target=”_blank” ]Norman Conquest [/amazon_link]of Ireland, beginning in 1169, which brought much of Ireland briefly under the theoretical control of the [amazon_link id=”1441157123″ target=”_blank” ]Plantagenet Kings of England[/amazon_link], the last being Richard III, until the new line of [amazon_link id=”038534077X” target=”_blank” ]Tudor Kings[/amazon_link], the first being [amazon_link id=”0300078838″ target=”_blank” ]Henry VII[/amazon_link], took a greater interest in Irish affairs and around 1485 and moved the [amazon_link id=”1103081918″ target=”_blank” ]Irish Parliament [/amazon_link]back to [amazon_link id=”184682172X” target=”_blank” ]Dublin[/amazon_link].

Land won through a series of skirmishes (more so than a proper war) and held by the English monarchy was labeled as “The Pale.” It consisted of what were originally parts of County Meath, County Louth, County Dublin, and the Earldom of Kildare as was established as an English stronghold and administrative center. The Pale generally consisted of fertile lowlands, which were easier for the garrison to defend from ambush than hilly or wooded ground. For reasons of trade and administration, a version of [amazon_link id=”013049447X” target=”_blank” ]English[/amazon_link] became the official, common language. Although there was an attempt to enclose The Pale by a bank with a ditch, which was never completed, there never was literally a fence entirely surrounding The Pale; any land outside of it was considered a lawless “no-man’s land.”

Of course, it was not lawless in the literal sense; however, the English felt that anyone that did not live as they were [amazon_link id=”1592333036″ target=”_blank” ]barbarians[/amazon_link]. There were [amazon_link id=”1843510553″ target=”_blank” ]Irish clans [/amazon_link]that lived outside of The Pale along with the [amazon_link id=”0805203486″ target=”_blank” ]Anglo-Irish [/amazon_link]Earls, who were actually born in England, yet were grouped along with the Irish because they chose to live more like the Irish than the English.  Each clan had its own chieftain, a sort of “petty-king,” who ruled its own people, and had laws independent of their English occupiers. Known as [amazon_link id=”1445507986″ target=”_blank” ]Brehon Laws[/amazon_link], this system of rules and punishments had been upheld and respected for hundreds of years by the clansmen before the English occupiers had arrived.

Early Irish law consisted of the accumulated decisions of the Brehons, or judges, guided entirely by an oral tradition, which was kept by the poet [amazon_link id=”0713727845″ target=”_blank” ]bards[/amazon_link]. Thought to be the oldest form of law in Northern Europe, the Brehon Laws were partially eclipsed by the Norman invasion of 1169, but underwent resurgence in the Thirteenth-century, and survived in parallel with English law over the majority of the island until the Seventeenth-century. The laws were a civil rather than a criminal code, concerned with the payment of compensation for harm done and the regulation of property, inheritance and contracts; the concept of state-administered punishment for crime was foreign to Ireland’s early jurists. They show Ireland in the early medieval period to have been a hierarchical society, taking great care to define social status, and the rights and duties that went with it, according to property, and the relationships between lords and their clients and serfs. (No single theory as to the origin of early Irish law is universally accepted.)

Of course, there were vast differences between the two nations, which were held in stark contrast when one passed through the gates outside of The Pale. This situation represented a classical “culture clash” and established a literal and imaginary demarcation line in Ireland between the English and Irish cultures that led to the phrase “beyond the pale,” meaning unacceptable behavior. ___________________________________________________

Attention Students: to cite this web article in the current MLA-style, please use the example below.

Dixon, Catherine Jo. “Beyond The Pale.” Feast Of Languages. Catherine Jo Dixon, 18 April 2011. Web. [today’s date].

Note: The citation entry on the “Works Cited” or “Bibliography” page must have a “hanging indent.” The second line should be indented 5 spaces.

1. Name of Author. (Last Name, First Name.)
2. “Title of Work.”
3. Title of the Web Site (italicized)
4. Publisher of the web site,
5. Date of Publication.
6. Medium of Publication (in this case, the Web).
7. Date of access in “day, month, year” format.

English literature students most commonly use the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) style to write their papers. This citation reflects the [amazon_link id=”1603290249″ target=”_blank” ]MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 7th edition[/amazon_link] and/or the [amazon_link id=”0873522974″ target=”_blank” ]MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, 3rd edition[/amazon_link]. For additional information, I recommend a free online writing lab from Purdue University: “The Purdue OWL” https://owl.english.purdue.edu/ which has current, credible information and reliable examples.


Share SHARE
Content Protected Using Blog Protector By: PcDrome.