The Medieval Review 11.03.12

Thomas Finan. Medieval Lough Cé, History, Archeology and Landscape. Dublin and Portland: Four Courts Press, 2010. Pp. 185. $65 ISBN 978-1-84682-104-2. .

Reviewed by:

Paul Byrne
University College Dublin

Loch Cé, or Lough Key (the name "Lough Cé," as rendered in this book, is bi-lingual hybrid) is a lake in county Roscommon in the western Irish province of Connacht. The MacDermots, who held the lordship of Moylurg from the twelfth to the seventeenth century, occupied the fortified island "Rock" of Loch Cé during this period. There were also two major ecclesiastical foundations on Loch Cé: the Premonstratensian house, Holy Trinity Abbey, on Trinity Island and a medieval church and episcopal residence, Kilteasheen, located on the shores of the lake. This collection of essays has contributions on each of these establishments together with pieces on social boundaries in medieval Roscommon, Romanesque sculpture in north Roscommon, evidence from Kilteasheen relating to deer in medieval Ireland and, finally, an article on the royal O'Connor family and "Connacht Chronicle" in the thirteenth century. The editor, in his introduction, tells us that this compendium represents the results of the considerable archaeological, art history and historical research carried out in, and in relation to, County Roscommon in recent years.

The first chapter, by Kieran O'Conor, Niall Brady, Anne Connon and Carlos Fidalgo-Romo, "The Rock of Lough Cé, Co. Roscommon," deals with the history and architecture of the small island in Loch Cé, known as "the Rock". It is based on a field-work survey carried out there in 2007 together with an examination of historical, mainly annalistic, sources. For nearly a century it had generally been assumed that the folly on the Rock was nothing more than a nineteenth century mock-tower house. The main result of the survey was the proper recognition of a circular, mortared, cashel-like enclosure on part of the Rock. This enclosure functioned as the bawn (or fortified court) of a tower house during the late medieval period. Based on annalistic evidence, the authors posit that the enclosure may date from as early as the twelfth century and they suggest that its construction was linked to the takeover of the site by the MacDermots and the creation of the lordship of Moylurg at this time. The MacDermots were to retain possession of the Rock until the mid-seventeenth century when Terence MacDermot surrendered to the Cromwellians. Much of the second part of this chapter is preoccupied with a discussion as to whether or not the stone walled enclosure was a castle. This latter section is a somewhat theoretical and, ultimately, inconclusive, treatise on differing definitions of what constitutes a castle and whether the enclosure meets such definitions. That aside, "The Rock of Lough Cé, Co. Roscommon" advances our understanding of the nature of the fortification occupied by the MacDermots in the later Middle Ages and affords an insight into the vicissitudes of that family during a particularly turbulent phase in Irish history. It is regrettable that the ordinance survey map included in this chapter, and which could have been so useful in terms of deepening the readers understanding of the precise location of the various sites mentioned, is so reduced in scale that many of the placenames are illegible even when viewed through a strong magnifying glass.

Christopher Read's chapter, "Remembering where the bishop sat: exploring perceptions of the past at the Bishop's Seat, Kilteasheen, Co. Roscommon," deals with the late medieval site, associated with the OConnor kings of Connacht which overlooks the point where the river Boyle exits Loch Cé. The site known as the Bishop's Seat has been the subject of historical and archaeological research since 2003. The earliest reference to the parish church of Kilteasheen is in 1243 when the Annals of Loch Cé mention a killing that took place there. Those annals state that a mansion was erected by the bishop of Elphin at Kilteasheen in 1253. The latest of the medieval references to the site is the ecclesiastical evaluation of the diocese of Elphin in 1310 in which the parish church of Kilteasheen is recorded with a value of seven shillings--below that of the average parish in the diocese. The Kilteasheen site comprises about ten acres of pasture land. Excavations at different locations within the site have disclosed burials which radio-carbon analysis has dated in ranges from between the late-seventh to the early-ninth century through to the mid-thirteenth to mid-fourteenth century. The chapter concludes with an interesting reconstruction of how the site has been perceived at various times in the past.

"The rental of Holy Trinity abbey, Lough Cé," by Miriam Clyne considers an abstract, written in Latin, from the rental of the Premonstratensian foundation of Holy Trinity compiled by Abbot MacGyllochran towards the end of the sixteenth century. A copy of the transcript, together with an English translation, is appended to the chapter. The transcript has only recently come to light and is of considerable significance as it is the only Irish document providing information on how the affairs of the Premonstratensian Canons were managed in Ireland in the period leading up to the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The monastic estate consisting of inherited lands and the tithes from rectories and vicarages can be reconstructed from the rental. Clyne concludes from an entry in the Annals of Connacht that the abbey was acquiring its spiritual estate from the beginning of parochial organisation in the thirteenth century and continued to do so into the sixteenth century. The abstract, which was written some time later, possibly in the seventeenth century, is preserved at Coolavin House, home of the present-day MacDermot family which is descended from the medieval lords of Moylurg. By the time that the rental was compiled, Holy Trinity was the chief house of the Irish Premonstratensians. Clyne's paper is one of the more significant contributions in this collection. She deploys a variety of sources, including papal letters, calendars, fiants, annals and patent rolls with considerable deftness in seeking to contextualise her analysis of the Holy Trinity rental.

The essay by John Soderberg and Jennifer L. Immich "Animal contact: livestock approaches to understanding social boundaries in later medieval Co. Roscommon" is a confusing paper that does little to advance our understanding of social boundaries in later medieval Co. Roscommon. There is no clear hypothesis underpinning the article and the arguments deployed are lost amid qualifications and detailed descriptions which would have been better summarised and consigned to footnotes or appendices.

In "Romanesque sculpture in north Roscommon" Rachel Moss aims to gather up what evidence remains of Romanesque sculpture in that area and assess it within its twelfth and early thirteenth century context and examine the various artistic influences at play in the area. The essay focuses mainly on the Cistercian foundation at Boyle abbey while also considering evidence from a number of other late medieval monastic sites in the region. The construction of Boyle abbey commenced around 1160 and, following a long break, restarted in the early thirteenth century. The second phase of building work at the abbey has been ascribed to the "School of the West," a group of masons with a distinctive style, whose work can be traced over a large area to the west of the river Shannon.

Moss argues that the establishment of Boyle abbey was pivotal in introducing high quality craftsmen into the locality. Boyle became an architectural hub during the sixty year period of its construction. Moss postulates that it was the protracted nature of the building project at Boyle that induced masons to look for work at other monastic sites. She presents us with a cogent argument, which is very well supported by apposite illustrations, which discloses clearly the similarities in architectural styles evident in the various foundations where the same group of masons found work.

The discovery of a red deer skull and fragments of antler from a number of deer during recent excavations at Kilteasheen prompted Fiona Beglane to "synthesise what is known about deer and deer hunting in medieval Ireland." Her paper brings together interesting evidence for the aristocratic pastime of deer hunting in the Middle Ages in Ireland and includes an informative section on hunting methods. She concludes that, while it is not possible to determine whether the deer found at Kilteasheen were hunted under the auspices of the local bishop or given to the monastery as a gift, the presence of the remains of a number of deer raise the possibility that venison was eaten relatively frequently at Kilteasheen.

The concluding chapter: "O'Conor 'Grand Strategy' and the Connacht Chronicle in the thirteenth century" is authored by Thomas Finan. The central argument of this article is that the O'Connors managed to construct a strategy that was geared towards maintaining the security of the last remaining elements of the province of Connacht defined as the "King's Cantreds". The constituents of this strategy included sponsoring dynastic historians, seeking grants from the King of England, promoting the development of a chronicle, favourable to O'Connor interests, by north Roscommon historians and patronising bardic poets who would bolster their pretensions. This argument is well made. It is arguable, however, that very similar strategies were the stock in trade of many of the great late-medieval Irish dynastic families. Much of the chapter is concerned with the "Connacht Chronicle" and its part in the multi-faceted strategy employed by the O'Connors in the thirteenth century. Finan argues that historians have tended to utilise annals as chronicles of particular events, while neglecting to recognise them as "pieces of literature that were composed with particular political and social purposes." In reaching this conclusion, Finan ignores a whole generation of historians who, while using the Irish annals as a reservoir of historical data, have acknowledged that the content and presentation of the annals have been heavily influenced by local perspectives, bias and patronage.

Overall, Medieval Lough Cé: History, Archaeology and Landscape is something of a mixed bag. It includes some fine contributions to scholarship, most notably the essays by Rachel Moss and Miriam Clyne. Not all of the contributions match this standard.