17.01.28, O'Keeffe, Medieval Irish Buildings 1100-1600

Main Article Content

Colum Hourihane

The Medieval Review 17.01.28

O'Keeffe, Tadhg. Medieval Irish Buildings 1100-1600. Maynooth Research Guides for Irish Local History. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2015. pp. 320. ISBN: 978-1-84682-248-3 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Colum Hourihane

This is one dense and information-laden book! There have been many books published on Irish medieval architecture; it is not difficult to remember Arthur Champney's Irish Ecclesiastical Architecture (1910) or the now outdated but nevertheless still extremely valuable three volumes of Harold Leask's study Irish Churches and Monastic Buildings (1955-60). Since these, there have been many books on Irish castles but comparatively few on Irish medieval ecclesiastical architecture of the later period, and certainly very few that include the secular as well as the religious to the extent of the coverage in this paperback.

The book is written in a scholarly yet engaging manner, and it is clear from the language used by the author as well as the attractive price of the volume that the intended audience is the university student. The book has five chapters, two dealing with ecclesiastical and two with secular architecture. The first chapter is really an introduction to the author's methodologies and looks generally at architectural styles and their study in Ireland. He outlines his three aims, the first of which is to enhance the reader's experience of visiting medieval buildings. This aim justifies the book as a field manual for the novice. His second aim is to provide the basic tools needed to identify medieval buildings in the first place, as well as providing a framework for dating such structures. The third aim is to explain how medieval buildings worked and were used --which is really a commonsense way of looking at function and design. The author justifies the start and end dates of his study as forming a separate and distinct architecture in Ireland's history and then outlines the historiographical research in the field. The time frame of his study, corresponding with the period when Ireland adopts the styles of mainland Europe and ending with the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, really covers the Romanesque and the Gothic with a slight emphasis on the latter.

His second chapter is devoted to the ways these buildings can be studied. He begins by looking at style and says that it "is a complex, multi-layered and multi-scalar concept" which will be found throughout the volume. Like many other scholars, the concept of dating these structures is one of the author's main aims and underpins many of his case studies and approaches. His sections on the use and types of stone, their dressing, masons' marks, rubble construction, etc. is particularly useful. His second approach is based on spatial analysis. There were times in this section that I had slight difficulties in accepting some of his theories, such as the proposed differences and advantages of a straight over a spiral staircase or his interpretation of the head on the Lorrha Augustinian Priory doorway as indicating a female usage. I am not sure that the gendering of space was such an overriding principle as the author envisages but his opinions certainly open up the subject for further discussion. His third approach is to look at the architecture from the perspective of functional analysis--how society interacted with and used these structures. The many ways that these buildings or what remains of them can be used to understand them are exhaustively detailed in the remaining sections of this chapter. He discusses methodological analysis--the ways in which proportions and measurements can be used to reconstruct the ways the builders worked. It is a particularly useful section in which the author's strengths are to the fore. The following section on the "Analysis of Meaning" seems too refined an approach and I am still not sure if it is necessary. In explaining what he means, the author admits that it is the "the most interesting and trickiest of the analytical challenges." He says that meaning is more subtle than function or symbolism and yet it includes both. It is an attempt to see what the building stood for or represented, and is a difficult concept to define or evaluate over time. Perhaps this section might have been included under the division on functional analysis as, in many ways, it is a refinement of such and may not need its own separate category. He ends this chapter looking at the constraints of the terms Romanesque and Gothic and an analysis as to whether they still work.

The next chapter gets to the core material and looks over eighty-three pages at Irish ecclesiastical architecture from the reform to the reformation. In an introduction, he suggests to the reader that before looking at any building they need to understand two concepts--the clergy and the liturgy--and then proceeds to justify his advice while discussing the different types of clergy from the Canons Regular to the anchorite and hermit. In this section he discusses the clergy more than the architecture, but when it comes to the liturgy he looks at its influence on the buildings under study. A variety of architectural elements from the altar to the tomb are separately discussed and in considerable detail, but no overall picture or case study is given and it would have been nice to see how these elements interacted with one another in a unified picture. The liturgy is discussed from baptism to burial but the author does not look at the latter in detail as he says is would take another study to deal with that particular subject. He then examines the various types of buildings and orders including Gaelic Irish Cathedrals (a descriptor I had not heard before!) as well as Gothic churches, including parish churches. This is a particularly dense section of the book and is profusely illustrated with photographs as well as ground plans. His approach is both narrative as well as chronological.

The last two chapters discuss secular architecture and the castle in particular. Castle building in Ireland was concentrated into three different phases, the first of which happens in the late twelfth century and goes on into the early-middle of the fourteenth. This is the phase that is studied in Chapter four. It looks at earth and timber precursors as well as stone structures from the Anglo-Norman invasion to the Black Death--the early formative period. The second phase is concentrated on the later Middle Ages and lasts until the 1500s, while the third phase happens in the seventeenth century and is outside the scope of this book. The physical structures are studied in detail but the author is at pains to point out his new approach which, like his earlier work on the ecclesiastical buildings, looks at how they worked inside and how did they accommodate the rituals of domestic life. He sees the castles as centres of community life and, as such, involved in a large part of daily existence. He does not neglect their military functions but is the first to admit that it is not his particular interest in this study. After looking at the actual process of building, the author details the principal types of structures from the keeps, donjons, great towers and hall houses all of which underpin the functional analysis of the interiors. The terminology may have changed from the earlier-used religious "institutional" and "personal" to the secular concepts of "public" and "private" space, but it is still the same general subject that is being discussed. The author's impressive handling of the various elements such as gate buildings, towers, and drawbridges is the first such treatment in Ireland of these features on a large scale and he deserves to be congratulated.

The fifth chapter looks at castles from the Black Death to the plantations and ends in the late 1500s. The most distinctive type of Irish building of this period--the Tower House--is dealt with rather briefly. He acknowledges that there are many small, localized traditions of tower house design in Ireland and then proceeds to outline some of them. The primary interest of the author, as the title of the volume proclaims, is architecture but it is to be regretted that architectural sculpture found in both the religious and secular buildings is not discussed except in passing. He looks at tomb architecture as well as foliate capitals and the occasional motif, but all of these are really asides. The author is clearly aware of related areas such as wall paintings, tiles, etc. as they are also discussed in passing but the fact that they are not integrated into the mainstream discussion seems unusual.

Despite the inexpensive cost of the book and its student audience, it would have been far more useful had it been slightly bigger in size as the maps and diagrams are sometimes very small and difficult to read. Similarly, the captions leave a lot up to the reader and sites are named with no reference as to where they are in terms of county or location. We all know where Cashel Cathedral is, but this book covers so much material that it is frequently difficult to locate exactly where sites such as Laraghbryan or Monsea are. There were times when the style of writing was slightly proscriptive, and the reader is advised to hold in mind the audience that the book is written for! I particularly enjoyed the sections where functionality and usage came to the fore. Even though the audience for this book is the student and, as such, is intended to paint a general guide to studying the architecture of the period, it does far more than that and is densely packed with many new insights. It is a book that is destined to be with us for many years to come.

Article Details