14.09.02, Smith, Crisis and Survival in Late Medieval Ireland

Main Article Content

Linda E. Mitchell

The Medieval Review 14.09.02

Smith, Brendan. Crisis and Survival in Late Medieval Ireland: The English of Louth and their Neighbours, 1330-1450. Oxford:Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. 288. ISBN: 978-0-19-959475-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Linda E. Mitchell
University of Missouri-Kansas City

Smith (University of Bristol) belongs to the newer generation of historians of medieval Ireland who are not afraid to discuss the Anglo-Norman and "Cambro-Norman" presence in the region without, Edmund Curtis-style, first proclaiming a nativist stance to the subject. Influenced, perhaps profoundly, by the foundational scholarship of Rees Davies in exploring the interactions of conquerors, settlers, and "natives" in Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, Smith focuses on the ways in which the county of Louth, which occupied a precariously liminal space as both the northern portion of what would become the "Pale" and the southern frontier of the contested earldom of Ulster/lordship of Airgialla, maintained its connections to England and struggled to defend itself against its neighbors--both Irish and English--by employing a diverse array of strategies designed to promote stability and continuity.

Most historians of Ireland see the period between the accession of Edward III and the Wars of the Roses as a time in which Irish incursions into the Lordship rendered English administration increasingly ineffective. The two visits of Richard II at the end of the fourteenth century (the latter of which provided the context for the Lancastrian usurpation) were desperate attempts to shore up the defenses of the Lordship and establish a return to royal authority in the teeth of successful Irish re-appropriation of territories--especially to the west and north--that had been under nominal English control. The Lancastrian willingness to ignore Ireland in favor of their continental ambitions is usually seen as the end of the medieval lordship, which held on by a thread until a resurgence of interest by the Tudors led to a kind of re-conquest of the island.

Smith considers this narrative to be too simplistic: the actual story is both complex and nuanced, full of localized resonances that affected the relationships among settler communities and between them and their Irish neighbors. Using Louth as his exemplar, Smith divides his study into two parts. First, he provides a chronological narrative of the fortunes of the major families of the county--Verdon, Dowdall, Preston, Gernon, Bellew, Carew, and Plunket--as they navigated the often-stormy waters of a multivalent agenda: accommodating the English administration in Dublin and Westminster; encouraging ties to landed interests in adjoining counties and territories, especially Meath directly to the south; and attempting to neutralize the threats from the north and west, especially from the MacMahon and O'Neill clans. Second, Smith looks in particular at three communities (both actual and ideological)--the Church, the towns of Louth, and the Marches--as the main loci of identity, activity, and sensibility in the era. Taking a combination of approaches derived from works such as those by Davies as well as Simon Walker (especially The Lancastrian Affinity) and Gerald Harriss (Shaping the Nation: England 1360-1461)--all of them in turn influenced by K. B. McFarlane (The Nobility of Later Medieval England)--Smith's methodology combines elements of local and micro- history as well as prosopography.

As always, when dealing with medieval Ireland, problems with conducting research lie in the paucity of public documents in comparison to the incredible abundance found for England and Wales. The destruction of the Public Record Office and its contents in the Four Courts fire of July 1922 makes doing extensive documentary research for Ireland problematic, unless copies can be found in British collections, such as the National Archives or the British Library, or the interactions involved the chancery at Westminster. The preservation of charter collections--especially the Gormanston Register and the charters of Builth Abbey and the earls of Ormond (both at the National Library of Ireland)--as well as ecclesiastical documents, such as bishops' registers, and the Record Commission's nineteenth-century calendars of chancery and justiciary documents do go some distance in ameliorating the researcher's misery at the loss of such a precious commodity, but the approach can be unwittingly skewed toward an overemphasis on the influence of church officials in the daily administration of counties in the Lordship. The real loss lies in just the kind of daily interactions within communities--litigation and other forms of dispute resolution, account records, manorial records--that would have been invaluable to Smith in reconstructing the strategies of "gentry" families in Louth to maintain peace and stability in periods of mayhem and disruption. The Record Commission calendars--most of which have never been printed and remain in draft and note form without indexes or, indeed, any corrections for inaccuracies or errors--provide some of this information, but the difficulties in utilizing them can outweigh their usefulness. Nevertheless, Smith's investigations into the extant records are impressive: he has covered as many bases as possible and explored both documentary evidence as well as chronicles and other forms of literary evidence. He has also made good use of the new website CIRCLE (Calendar of Irish Chancery Letters, c. 1244-1509) maintained by Trinity College, Dublin (http://chancery.tcd.ie) to acquire the largest compendium of public records possible. Smith's work thus represents years of exploration and compilation and can provide a model--as well as a bibliography--for future regional studies.

The chronological study that occupies the first half of the work provides the most interesting information about specific relationships experienced by the leading Louth families. These families pursued any number of marriage strategies with both each other and local Irish elite families (both forms of marriage requiring intervention on the part of the bishop and the crown) in order to neutralize conflicts, but with little effect. In particular, Smith provides a different perspective on the energies of Lionel (by right of his wife) earl of Ulster and the Mortimer lords of Trim and earls of Ulster to preserve their authority in regions beset by invasion and disruption: they were strenuous in taking an aggressive stance against the incursions of the O'Neills and MacMahons but ultimately, the early deaths of Lionel and of both Edmund and Roger Mortimer, and the lengthy minorities that resulted, rendered their success merely temporary. Internecine conflict among competing branches of the O'Neill family might have been more effective as a longer-term lull in the conflict between the English settlers and the Irish. Nevertheless, the communities of Louth perceived the energies of the lords of Trim and earls of Ulster to be helpful and championed them as engaged in the larger interest of preservation of the Lordship in general as well as them in particular. It is clear that Smith considered the mayhem and murders common to both sides of the conflict to be counter-productive, but that neglect on the part of absentee lords and landholders was far more pernicious to the stability of the English Lordship.

Part II of the book, which discusses three putative communities of interest--the Church, the Towns, and the Marches--is somewhat less successful specifically because the survival of church records and the absence of parallel secular documents leads Smith to focus on clerical figures in all three chapters to a far greater extant than interactions among the laity. Although the association of Louth's church leaders with the English administration in Dublin remained consistent, despite the presence of Irish professionals in monastic houses and parishes throughout the county, the blending of community identities led to the naming of churches after Irish saints and the minimizing of differences between the English and Irish practices of Christianity. Towns in Louth were far more associated with the system established by the English trade economy and were indebted to the kinds of trade networks that resulted from the Hundred Years War, as well as their reputations as important trade networks between the Irish east coast--with Dundalk and Drogheda as the most significant urban centers--and Bristol and the English west coast. The Marches both defined the county itself and operated as the mechanism through which interaction and competition occurred.

Smith's conclusions might not be revolutionary but they are important. He locates the county of Louth not only within the context of Irish history, but in the context of medieval British history in general. Far from being an isolated and precarious settlement, the people of Louth were active inside and outside the orbit of English administration, busily protecting and, when possible, enhancing their rights to land, power, and authority in their region. Louth did not collapse: it evolved. This notion thus presents Louth as not that different from post-conquest Wales, or the contested region of northern England and southern Scotland. If Smith has minimized the anti-Irish rhetoric at the center of most fourteenth-century legislation coming out of the Dublin chancery, it is not because he denies its prevalence but because it did not really factor into the day-to-day operation of the county with its neighbors. Thus, hostility against and vilification of the Irish expressed in documents, letters, and literature was a tool occasionally employed, but not really internalized. At the same time, the rhetoric of "Gaelicization" that presents long-term settler families as "going native" and "becoming more Irish than the Irish" is equally glossed over by Smith, and for the same reasons: the Louth families might have intermarried with their McNeill and MacMahon neighbors, might have acquired a smattering of Irish (especially invective), and might have chosen to dress like Irish residents, but these are largely peripheral: facades rather than a bone-deep rejection of Englishness. Indeed, according to Smith, the period he has studied witnessed a greater commitment to Englishness than a conversion to Irishness. This, too, could be a useful starting point to further exploration in late medieval regional Ireland.

Smith has thus produced a work with broad appeal and provides food for thought. Highly recommended.

Article Details

Author Biography

Linda E. Mitchell

University of Missouri-Kansas City