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22.05.17 Ó Carragáin, Churches in the Irish Landscape

22.05.17 Ó Carragáin, Churches in the Irish Landscape

Churches in the Irish Landscape offers an archaeological perspective on the origins and development of churches in early medieval Ireland from around 400 C.E. to 1100. Ó Carragáin’s target audience is not entirely clear, but non-specialists will find it to be a lovely coffee table book, as its over-sized pages are packed with color photographs, maps, and diagrams. Medievalists can cull information about the difference between Irish ecclesiastical institutions and those elsewhere, as well as an argument and method for using archaeological data to challenge or temper historical narratives. Experts in early medieval Ireland will appreciate Ó Carragáin’s complex archaeological intervention in the existing scholarship and his conclusions about the chronology and shape of Irish Christianization (apologies to the author, who rejects that term but allows the term “pagan”). Everyone will be happy with the low price of such a beautiful book.

The author’s introduction to the literatures of Irish history and to the methods and theories of current archaeologists is too brief for beginners, but it outlines Ó Carragáin’s basic premise that “religion” is like Pierre Bourdieu’s habitus--a collection of assumptions, behaviors, and habits that together create cultural reality. To study religion, Ó Carragáin declares--and I agree--we must examine its visible practice rather than whatever preachers said or hagiographers wrote. Practice took place on landscapes, hence Ó Carragáin bases his broader arguments on four highly detailed case studies of settlement and politics in small regions, which together represent themes of the book. By detailed, I mean not only a review of the archaeological literature or new excavation reports, but also evidence of political and property boundaries, toponyms across the centuries, and the onomastic literature of medieval Ireland, augmented by comparison to churches in other parts of Ireland and elsewhere. Multiple maps of each region reveal the labor involved, as well as the quality and depth of data, depicting various combinations of the following: locations of “early” churches (before 550), probable early churches, possible early churches, later medieval churches, ringforts both uni- and multivallate, enclosures, possible enclosures, cemeteries, crannogs, non-ecclesiastical burials, and holy wells, along with non-Christian ancient monuments, huts, souterrains, mound burials, standing crosses, and bullauns (bowl shaped stones with sacral significance both before and during the Christian period). These case studies and their maps result from collaboration with Paul MacCotter, who has argued elsewhere for the development of the socio-political units treated in this book. MacCotter has an appendix explaining his data in this book. A second appendix includes a chart of all ecclesiastical sites in the four regions.

Each case study treats an early medieval “local” kingdom (one of the roughly 180 that likely existed in the earliest Middle Ages): Southern Uí Faeláin (in Co. Kildare), Mag Réta (in Cos. Laois and Tipperary), Fir Maige (in Co. Cork), and Corcu Duibne (in Co. Kerry.) While relying on these four areas to support his conclusions about the integration of political and religious landscapes, Ó Carragáin warns readers of the exceptions, variations, and possible misinterpretations of the case studies. One of his most common laments is a lack of “archaeological visibility” for certain trends, which is to say, material evidence destroyed or not yet found. Chapters of the book move in nominal chronological order, although there is much referring back and forth across chapters. They move from native contexts for religious conversion beginning in the fourth century, through the sixth- and seventh-century flourishing of Christian settlements, the pre-Viking period, and finish with the period from 800-1100 and later, from Scandinavian to Anglo-Norman invasions.

Despite the lack of material evidence for religious practices in Ireland before the fifth century--no shrines, few idols, some depositions--Ó Carragáin points to continuities in the infrastructure of religion throughout the conversion period, for instance, in the ancient seasonal calendar, in building shapes, and in burials. Royal elites typically joined their ancestors at the most prestigious ancient burial complexes, usually focused around mounds symbolic of royal power, such as Knowth or Rathcroghan, both sacral sites since the neolithic. The earliest known churches appeared near these sites of power, indicating royal investment in new religion. But even before Christians appeared in Ireland, ordinary folk started burying their dead in large community graveyards that also functioned as habitation, assembly, or industrial sites. Both kinds of burial places continued through the early Middle Ages until the drift toward church burials began. It is difficult to tell early Christian from non-Christian burials, since the Irish borrowed the Roman custom of oriented graves (east-west) and rarely included grave goods; also, some obviously Christian graves occur in non-religious burial grounds.

An ongoing concern for marking and maintaining boundaries--of territories, of properties, of families, of political rule--also influenced the creation and location of new Christian settlements. The secular laws, kept orally and first written down around the seventh century, offer plenty of material on the importance of boundaries, but not the lines that we moderns recognize on a map. The population was mobile and pastoral while kingdoms were based on kin-groups and their symbolic royal sites rather than the fixed territories of later centuries. (As Ó Carragáin notes, in most textbooks the maps of early medieval Ireland feature tribal names floating in space.) The second wave of churches appeared in the wide buffer zones between the productive core lands (frequently, in Old Irish, mag, translated as “plain”) of individual tribal kingdoms. Later in the Middle Ages, when smaller kingdoms merged or disappeared into larger provincial overlordships, and “kings” of those tiny units were reduced to chiefs of largely kin-based smaller groups, “lesser” churches were built for local elites and communities of relatively free farming families built their own “middling” or pastoral churches.

Ó Carragáin’s discussion of churches in relation to political organization touches on historical debates about the very nature of Irish Christianity--monastic or parochial and episcopal? Peripatetic or stable? Secularized or reforming? The plentiful written evidence from the seventh century onward only complicates these debates since so much of the material was essentially ecclesiastical propaganda. Ó Carragáin’s analysis challenges many text-based assumptions of twentieth-century historians, such as the notion that ecclesiastical lands were better organized, or that tenants on church lands were more “Christian” than tenants elsewhere, or that monasteries gradually became “secularized” or “commercialized.” The creation of church estates must initially have reverberated across kingdoms and their kin-groups, as churches commonly came to occupy a fifth or more of the lands in an average kingdom. These were chiefly royal lands, since Irish inheritance laws made it difficult to alienate property from the family. Or it may be that rather than granting land ownership to church communities, kings instead transferred the contracts of laboring clients attached to land. To complicate things, the texts regularly refer to the members of the royal elite who became abbots and bishops, and later on the managers of church estates were sometimes secular men. Laws and canons urged that ecclesiastical property be passed down within the family, either the abbot’s family or the kin-group of the saintly founder. Annoyingly, medieval Irish writers referred to these heirs and also to clients of church estates as manaig, derived from the Latin monachi (a usage that has misled many a historian, including me.) Ó Carragáin’s discussion of shifting relations between kin-groups and Christian foundations takes readers deep into the details of ring-fort-to-church ratios and legal terms for land units that most will find daunting. A vocabulary of important terms would have been useful.

Besides pointing to the sheer density of coeval churches of varying size and wealth, Ó Carragáin also locates other kinds of Christian sites--hermitages, holy wells, shrines--whose ubiquitous appearance suggests both the penetration of Christianity and a pastoral organization. Debate about the depth of Christian identity in the medieval countryside is not Irish alone: did religion spread top-down or bottom-up? In Ireland, textual and material data suggest both trends. Still, whereas bishops outside of Ireland strove, by the Carolingian period, to organize and manage the multiple forms of Christian community, all kinds of Irish churches persisted, acting as limits on the power of kings over religion and symbolically emphasizing local community identities. Even after 800, despite major social and economic changes--increasing power of provincial over-kings, a generally downward social slippage, the rise of arable on major ecclesiastical estates, the introduction of Hiberno-Scandinavian trade networks--the landscape of rural free farms and small churches maintained its old patterns. If some foundations vanished, others revived, including monastic sites. There was no post-Viking moment of building anew as in England; instead, if a few lesser churches disappeared, the remaining ones stood on the same locations as they had since the sixth century. It wasn’t until the twelfth or thirteenth century that a territorially based parish structure, organized around an episcopal seat, finally took root.

Ó Carragáin’s concluding chapter serves as an outline of the entire book and its themes, so if readers wish to skip the details of landholding patterns in Corcu Duibne or the fate of the ring forts in the heart of Áes Irruis Deiscirt, they may turn to page 278 and still benefit (but don’t skip the images and diagrams!).

No one has studied ecclesiastical landholding or the relationship between churches and settlements in such depth before. The archaeological evidence offers details unavailable in the documentary record and corrects several text-based conclusions in the historiography. Also, Ó Carragáin’s sorting of churches into major civitates (not urbanized churches, but major settlements),túath churches, kin-owned churches, and lesser churches gets closer to the habitus of Christian religion for ordinary folk than other methods. The absorption of ancient sacral landscapes and other aspects of religious practice into Irish Christianity becomes less mythological in Ó Carragáin’s rendering and more tangible in the continuity of forms and places, and the diffusion of religion across the island to farms and forts. The same dispersal of population that created a multitude and variety of ecclesiastical establishments also promoted the longevity of ancient seasonal holidays and the preservation of ancestral burial mounds, still visited by pilgrims and tourists today. Saint Brigit’s feast day, February 1, is still Imbolc, the ancient springtime holiday, and the world still celebrates Samhain on the eve of the feast of All Saints, but it doesn’t mean that Irish Christianity was more peculiar or the island less Christianized than elsewhere.

The similarities and differences with other European Christianities emerge clearly in this book. As in Ireland, Christianization in England and western Europe was characterized by the early buy-in of rulers, the initial establishment of rural kin-based churches, and a blurring of monastic and parochial functions. But the fractured political units of Ireland and native veneration of the ancient past also led to differences with reorganized, “reformed” Christianity of the post-Viking period elsewhere. Ireland’s kings and bishops lacked the monopoly of power over religion enjoyed by other European kings. Original church sites remained in use, or at least sacral, throughout the Middle Ages and later. The few major church settlements, such as Armagh and Kildare, developed “centrifugally,” acquiring bits of property and creating discrete structures for Mass, baptism, bell-ringing, relics, and burials in proximity, but not under the same roof. Parishes with secure boundaries and a single bishop were late on the scene.

And what explains the Catholic devotion that gripped Ireland until the end of the twentieth century? Not this book. That’s for another archaeologist to explain.