The history of Ireland before the first millennium is a perennially fascinating topic to students of the early Middle Ages. The scenario is a familiar one, in which the people of an island beyond the influence of the Mediterranean empires became the purveyor of those empires' religion and scholarship to their Northern European neighbours. Less attention has been given to the society in Ireland at that time, the theme of Edel Bhreathnach's important Ireland in the Medieval World AD 400-1000. The title of the book fails to do justice to the breadth of her scholarship as Bhreathnach moves from prehistory to the early modern era in this examination of the culture and ethnicity of early Ireland. While she places her work in the tradition of Eoin Mac Neill's Celtic Ireland, Bhreathnach goes far beyond the earlier book, where social history was employed as part of the political story. She looks at the organisation of early Ireland on the level of all individuals, from the peasant's home as well as the king's court. Ireland in the Medieval World is also a reaction to the idea of Irish eccentricity. Bhreathnach argues against the view of Ireland as the aberration of Europe, the beginnings of which can be traced to the twelfth-century curmudgeon Gerald of Wales in his History and Topography of Ireland. His attempt to justify the emigration into the island of the Anglo-Normans (among whom were members of his family) as the salvation of a primitive people became more accepted than he could have imagined (or possibly not, in light of his opinion of himself). Gerald set the standard and centuries later even a fervent Irish nationalist such as Bhreathnach's hero Eoin Mac Neill states bluntly in the second sentence of his preface to Celtic Ireland, "Ancient Ireland has a singular place in the history of Europe." The stereotype was more widely disseminated by the unfortunate title of Kenneth Jackson's The Oldest Irish Tradition: A Window on the Iron Age and D.A. Binchy's description of early Irish society as "tribal, rural, hierarchical, and familiar" in his essay "The Passing of the Old Order."
Bhreathnach divides the narrative of Ireland in the Medieval World into three sections dealing with the broad topics of geography, power, and spirituality. She presents a version of early medieval Ireland that is similar to the popular historical narrative found elsewhere for early Europe. An acknowledged national leader, the king of Tara, reigned over a population whose actions were regulated by laws created by a learned caste, and, after the fifth century, following a religion--Christianity--made popular largely as the result of the labours of a single missionary from Britain named Patrick. She argues her position eloquently and chooses examples from literature as well as the historical records to illustrate her general thesis. This can be complex and sometimes there is difficulty following her arguments. For example, Bhreathnach suggests that the king of Tara had anciently been preeminent among the Irish, but that this had declined by the historical period (60). Later, however, she claims that the ninth-century "king of Tara" Máel Sechnaill mac Máele Ruanaid was a paramount king in Ireland and then, a couple of sentences later, he has become the king of Ireland who is disposing the headship of the church of Armagh (71). While this could be more stylistic than interpretative, in real terms there is a vast gulf between a powerful (even the most powerful) king in Ireland and the king of Ireland. The former is recognition of a political reality that existed as long as it could be maintained, while the latter comes encrusted with sacral authority and dynastic continuity. Bhreathnach could have noted that one powerful institution--the Church--was an active enthusiast for a "king of all Ireland" along the lines of what were thought to have been the glory days of the Roman Empire.
As the best scholarship does, Bhreathnach's work stimulates questions. In presenting an early Irish history in this form, her reader might ask the question, why? An argument can be made that this approach is unnecessary. There is no need for Irish historians to continue to justify Irish history or force their history to conform to the conventional retelling of early Europe. The rest of Europe should be retelling its history more in the manner of early Ireland. The medieval Irish records describe a society that was complicated, confusing, and not now always comprehensible, but in its variations a culture that is more realistic than those found in the carefully prepared dossiers of other peoples. When going behind the tidy versions of events that make up the modern narrative of early medieval Frankish or Anglo-Saxon history, the reality was far more disorderly than is generally believed. The process of overlooking the difficult bits began at an early stage, and the Carolingian court chronicles or the Anglo-Saxon chronicles were designed to glorify a particular dynasty and advance a certain view of history. To tell that story, they employed a selection process that earned Napoleon Bonaparte's dismissal of history as generally agreed fiction. Rivals became rebels and competition became conspiracy. For the history of Britain, an alternative version of events occasionally emerges, as in the brief interpolation on Northumbrian history for the years 888 to 957 embedded in the Historia Regum attributed to Symeon of Durham or the Scottish Chronicle's account of northern British history during the mid-ninth to late tenth centuries. For Irish history the complex picture presented by the medieval Annals of Ulster or the so-called Annals of Tigernach sits awkwardly with the story presented by the synthetic histories of the twelfth-century and later, most prominently in the seventeenth-century Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters. The latter presents a narrative of steadily increasing royal power as a national ruler and important clergy work in tandem to build a kingdom that resembled a modern state.
There are obvious attractions to a vision of an Ireland merged within the perceived developments elsewhere in Europe. In order to argue this thesis for Ireland, as has been suggested above, a choice needs to be made on which records to follow. To return to the problem of a king of all-Ireland, two groups of records give different interpretations. For an untidy political situation in which violent and sophisticated princes competed for what was a geographically limited or chronologically temporary supremacy there is the Annals of Ulster (its poor editing by a medieval compiler is a gift to scholars) while an alternative view of a single acknowledged overlord of all Ireland is found in the carefully-edited version of history of the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters. A different problem lies in the legal materials and Bhreathnach is to be commended for mining them extensively for examples of everyday life. She is convincing in her use of them for what they tell about the social order. This leads to the question, what were these laws? The surviving legal materials are a conglomeration of maxims, wisdom literature, regulations, and fines; the earliest seem to have been committed to writing circa seventh/eighth centuries to which were later added commentaries, and examples from the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Bhreathnach considers them to be regulations composed by trained jurists, enforced by royal authority, and applicable throughout the island. She believes them to be an accurate reflection of society (14) and that is certainly a compelling opinion. There is, however, a debate on the purpose of the earliest legal materials. Are they faithful replications of Irish society's ordinances during the fifth to tenth centuries or are they a learned caste's ideal of what that society should be? If the former, then why was such a mass of learned commentary needed (and some of it wide of the mark) by at least the eleventh century, but if the latter, then what was the true rather than idealized state of affairs? In the final, and best, section of her book--on the Church--Bhreathnach gives a much-needed corrective to the customary reading of hagiographical texts. To take an example, she notes that the mission of Columba to the Pictish king Brude (Bridei) was remembered as the victory of the saint over the king's magus Broichan (139), but there is no mention that either man converted to Christianity.
In the next edition of this noteworthy book, the author might elaborate on some of the intersections among her three major divisions. For example, there is a connection between landscape and political expansion. The movement of the Uí Néill dynasties (so to say) eastwards was dictated not just by the location of ancient ceremonial sites, but also by the good agricultural land. Bhreathnach accurately notes that Brega was the most coveted area of Ireland (47), but a reason in addition to ceremonial sites was the amount of land suitable for the mixed agriculture that was the staple of farming in the British Isles until the nineteenth century. Farther south, the fights between the Uí Néill and Leinster (so famous from literature) took place in some of the best agricultural land in the island. A second example turns to Bhreathnach's analysis of the role of the church in the secular as well as spiritual lives of individuals. An expansion of her views on the involvement of the Church with princes that went beyond soliciting royal support for ecclesiastical legislation would be interesting. In Ireland, as throughout Europe, the clergy wrote the surviving records in certain churches, such as Armagh, that feature prominently. Thus, there is little surprise that Armagh, either on its own or behind the cult of Patrick, appears to dominate Irish ecclesiastical life. Added to this were immediate political connections and by the ninth century the Uí Néill princes of Cenél nEógain maintained a house within Armagh. Equally worthy of attention are the interesting southern king/clergy such as the powerful ninth-century king-cleric Fedelimid mac Crimthainn or, half a century later, the famous king-bishop Cormac mac Cuilennáin who became a wisdom figure in literature.
Ireland in the Medieval World AD 400-1000: Landscape, Kingship and Religion should be read by everyone interested in early Ireland. Edel Bhreathnach writes with panache and presents much fascinating material. Four Courts Press has produced another admirable volume. The text is complemented by numerous illustrations, including some excellent colour photographs, and there are copious citations with a full bibliography and a useful index.