16.10.24, McAlister and Barry, eds., Space and Settlement in Medieval Ireland

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Howard Clarke

The Medieval Review 16.10.24

McAlister, Vicky, and Terry Barry, eds. Space and Settlement in Medieval Ireland. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2015. pp. xv, 237. ISBN: 978-1-84682-500-2 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Howard Clarke
Royal Irish Academy

This collection of eleven essays is based on the first three annual conferences devoted to the theme of space and settlement established by Terry Barry of Trinity College, Dublin in 2010. The academic disciplines of archaeology, geography (especially historical geography) and history (including the history of architecture) come to the fore in this multidisciplinary and, to some degree, international exercise. All of the papers explore the material consequences of past human activity in Ireland in terms of buildings, settlements, hinterlands and regions.

Given the scope of such an undertaking and the length of the medieval period as conventionally defined (AD 400-1500), the coverage of the subject in such a modest collection of essays is generally thin. Moreover, two of the authors--Vicky McAlister and Damian Shiels--deal essentially with post-medieval Ireland, the latter ending with a consideration of the battle of Vinegar Hill, outside Enniscorthy in Co. Wexford, fought in 1798. In terms of settlement hierarchy, only two essays relate to towns--those by Rebecca Wall Forrestal and James Galloway--while the space under review by Gillian Eadie and McAlister is the same single county--Down in the northeast--and mainly the eastern half of that centred around Strangford Lough. Chronologically the nine essays on medieval topics are (as we shall see) evenly divided between the early, high and late Middle Ages.

Tellingly the book's "conclusion", compiled by Barry, is simply that "settlement studies are alive and well in Ireland" (203). There then follows a useful summary of some of the main points evinced by turns in each essay, since no more broadly-based statement or statements are possible. Any reviewer is likewise left with no alternative to this procedure.

The three early medieval essayists deal essentially with the Viking Age, best defined historically, if not always archaeologically, as ca. 800 to ca. 1100. The distinguished American historian Benjamin Hudson starts off with a relatively novel interpretation of the identity of the original space occupied by some of the ninth-century Vikings operating in Ireland named in the sources as Lothlind or Lathlind. Supported by an impressively learned array of textual references, Hudson seeks to demonstrate that this mysterious space, meaning something like "cesspool" in slang-satire, was not some part of either Norway or Scotland as has traditionally been thought but "a term of derision masquerading as a place" (13). Only later, in the eleventh century, was the name Lothlind replaced by Lochland, that is to say, Norway. By then the Irish had learnt more about Scandinavia and could identify part of it, as we can, as Norway. One of those reputedly Viking cesspools in Ireland was Limerick, whose designation as both a town and a city on the same page of the next essay (28) reflects poor control of the terminology of settlement history. Even in the case of Dublin, the concept of a Viking city is absurd and a gross abuse of the English language. Nevertheless Patrick Wadden explores carefully the complex if scanty sources relating to possible connections linking the Irish Sea region with Normandy between the 970s and the 1060s, concluding with the notion that, if Normans (from Normandy) were fighting in the battle of Clontarf in 1014, they were doing so on the side of Brian Bóruma. The main thrust of Wall Forrestal's essay is a sensible plea to the effect that the whole question of early medieval Irish urbanization, with the monastic town hypothesis "now at an impasse" (40), should be refocused on the study of social change in a regional context.

The high Middle Ages (the eleventh to thirteenth centuries) are served by three very diverse essays. Another American, Mary Valante, zooms in on the defensive geography of Toirdelbach Ua Conchobair's high-kingship of Ireland (1122-56). In order to build and to maintain power, this Connacht upstart used an impressive combination of fleets, forts and bridges, the latter unfortunately not marked on one of the key maps (54). Another drawback takes the form of a disease peculiar to archaeologists by treating the twelfth century as part of the Viking Age in terms of Viking seamanship in 1126 (56) and the Viking town of Limerick in 1137 (61). And it can hardly be accepted that Toirdelbach lived "many centuries" before the encastellation of the country by the Anglo-Normans (Barry, 205). Linda Shine's space is a small part of Leinster, the barony of Overk in the southern part of modern Co. Kilkenny. She takes issue, correctly, with the concept of a frontier between colonists and natives in Anglo-Norman Ireland, preferring the term "contact zone" for this sort of space. Archaeologists, as she says, have been slow to recognize this idea. Thus, for example, some moated sites may have been constructed by the Gaelic Irish, just as some tower houses undoubtedly were. On the other hand, deerparks were apparently a colonial innovation in Ireland and remained so. This judgement comes from a true pioneer in settlement studies, Fiona Beglane, whose monograph Anglo-Norman Parks in Medieval Ireland was also published by the Four Courts Press earlier in the same year and is cited on occasion. The present essay is usefully methodological, with sources of evidence identified and cautionary qualifications made. As many as 766 townland names in the country contain the element "park", including 91 with "deerpark", but those of medieval origin have to be proved to be so. Other pioneering work of this kind has been done in England in particular and Beglane's evaluation is successfully contextualized as a result.

Two of the three late medieval offerings (on the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries) relate to a specific and ubiquitous building type--the tower house--that was a cultural as well as an architectural construct. Rory Sherlock's essay has an all-Ireland perspective: based on a sample of 120 tower houses, five sub-groups have been identified. In addition a broad distinction is drawn between an eastern type, including the area that eventually became known as the Pale, in which floor-levels often occurred above the hall, and a western type with its hall and central hearth open to the roof space on the top floor. Mural fireplaces can be deceptive since they were commonly later insertions, so that at least 81% of western tower-house halls were originally heated by means of a central hearth. The sheer verticality of tower houses meant that different arrangements of internal spaces were invented and Sherlock demonstrates the dynamic nature of metrological analysis with eight wonderful spatial diagrams featuring tower houses in Counties Cork, Galway, Kilkenny, Offaly and Tipperary. Gillian Eadie's gate-house type of tower house fits in with Sherlock's Group B, which has a low vault and at least two floors above it. Six examples of this type are known for Co. Down and three of those are here studied in some detail, using the more customary floor-plan diagram. There is an appropriate emphasis on the lifestyle led by their owners, other occupants and guests: this sample of three had estimated dining spaces for between eleven and thirteen people in the principal chamber. The diners, including the bishop at Kilclief, would have enjoyed a more formal and intimate experience than in the more public hall of larger buildings. As Eadie comments, tower houses are a reflection of different priorities and agendas; indeed, "we have yet to fully define the Irish tower house in terms of its basic function and its role within late medieval Irish society" (111-13). The last late medieval contribution, by James Galloway, focuses on a single town, Drogheda, in its regional setting astride a county boundary and is informed methodologically by the author's previous feeding the city of London experience.

As in England, though more belatedly, post-medieval archaeology has been given due recognition in Ireland and is best regarded as such. It so happens that one of the items in this book's bibliography is The Post-medieval Archaeology of Ireland, 1550-1850, edited by Audrey Horning and others (2007). Vicky McAlister argues in her consideration of the "death" of the tower house that economic changes (in Co. Down) can be linked to the decline in their construction. In plantation Ulster trade was being diverted away from the dominant late medieval ports towards other places such as Ardglass, some of whose tower houses served probably as "port buildings" for merchants. Economic competition, of course, was accompanied by all-too-frequent politically inspired warfare at the same time and Damian Shiels takes us into the highly specialized space illuminated nowadays by what has come to be called "conflict archaeology".

In his conclusion, Barry adverts to this book being the first of a projected series of similar volumes. If that is the case, settlement specialists will welcome them. All the same, it should be remembered that other groups of scholars have been working for many years on the subject of space and settlement in medieval Ireland. These include the Group for the Study of Irish Historic Settlement, the Friends of Medieval Dublin and contributors to the Royal Irish Academy's Irish Historic Towns Atlas. None of these organizations is referred by name at any point in this book. Indeed, one gets an impression of a certain narrowness of academic outlook, reflective perhaps of the home institution of this series of annual conferences. To take a case in point, in which I must declare a personal interest as one of the general editors, fascicles of the Irish Historic Towns Atlas always contextualize each town (or city) in the interpretative essay, in its regional setting as depicted on Map 1, and sometimes elsewhere. Many of the published towns, such as Armagh, Athlone, Carlingford, Carrickfergus, Dundalk, Kells (Co. Meath), Kildare, Kilkenny, Limerick, Maynooth, Trim and Youghal (all indexed) are referred to in the subject of this review, yet none of their fascicles or any others are mentioned by way of footnotes or bibliography. Furthermore the international dimension claimed editorially barely exists beyond the English Channel, with the exception of Viking-related Normandy and Scandinavia. In the index Belgium, Germany, Italy and Spain are awarded one reference apiece and the rest of France a few more. If there is an international dimension beyond the island of Britain, it resides chiefly in North America, the permanent or temporary home of some of the authors. Accordingly, there is much more to the study of space and settlement in medieval Ireland than meets the eye in this book.

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