Colony and Frontier in Medieval Ireland: essays presented to J.F. Lydon T.B. Barry, Robin Frame and Katharine Simms (eds.) (Hambledon Press)

Published in Gaelic Ireland, Issue 1 (Spring 1996), Medieval History (pre-1500), Medieval Social Perspectives, Reviews, Reviews, Volume 4

This collection of essays in honour of Professor J.F. Lydon, recently retired Lecky Professor of Modern History at Trinity College, is a worthy tribute to a scholar who has contributed so much to our present understanding of the history of the Anglo-Norman colony, and who has inspired a new generation of historians, many of them his students, to continue the task. Since he identified the frontier as the primum mobile of the high and late middle ages in Ireland almost thirty years ago, it is fitting that seven of the thirteen essays should be dedicated to this theme. The chief merit of this volume is that it provides, not an overview, but the results of the latest seismic tests by a new generation of medievalists.

How far historians have moved away from the static models of Gaelic versus Norman Ireland is demonstrated by a several contributors. Ciaran Parker’s essay on the Irish communities in County Waterford examines their position in relation to the Anglo-Norman context in which they lived. Ireland was indeed a land of frontiers, many of which were internal. The frontier factor, cultural if not military, impinged on the life of almost every community in that society. Certainly this could take violently adversarial forms, as in the case of the MicMhurchadha kings of Leinster, but such conflicts must be understood in the context of ‘a network of ties with Anglo-Irish lords, local communities, and central authority itself’ (Robin Frame). The nature of ‘this broad middle ground’ is only partly visible because of the nature of our sources, as Frame rightly insists, but it is nevertheless the defining context of these complex relationships. To see it only in terms of Gael against Gall is to distort the total picture and to cloud our understanding. The conditions of the frontier produced many subtle forms of ‘upward’ mobility both in Gaeldom and in the colony, aspects of which are carefully analysed by Aoife Nic Ghiollamhaith in her study of the rise of the MicConmaras in the fourteenth century, and to a lesser degree by Sean Duffy in his study of John de Courcy, or Brendan Smith on tenure and locality in North Leinster in the twelfth and thirteenth century. Terry Barry touches on yet another aspect of changing patterns of lordship in his examination of the late medieval phenomenon of the tower house, though he fails to relate it to the question of coign. It was the practice of billeting masons and carpenters on their wretched tenants that made it possible for petty lords to build on a grand scale. Katharine Simms’ study of ‘Frontiers in the Irish Church—Regional and Cultural’ is likely to be seminal. She sheds much light on the ecclesiastical tenurial system, and in so doing reveals subtleties and complexities which the Anglo-Normans clearly misunderstood when they occupied church lands.

Returning to the colony, Sean Duffy’s thoroughly researched study of the link between de Courcy and the men of Cumbria constitutes a long-overdue assessment of the first Ulster plantation. ‘For some reason or other, never satisfactorily explained’, de Courcy’s army passed through Louth without so much as lopping off a head.’ I think one can be more precise: almost certainly Henry II and certainly his errant son John saw Uriel as the strategic front door to the primatial see of Armagh. Margaret Murphy provides a careful reassessment of the episcopates of the first two Anglo-Norman archbishops of Dublin, correctly—in my view—identifying the motives behind the foundation of the collegiate church of St Patrick. Equally correctly she highlights the row between John, lord of Ireland, and Archbishop Cumin over de Valognes’s seizure of the temporalities of the see of Leighlin, though she misses its real significance—the assertion of the royal right over church lands situated within the liberty of Leinster. Two essays by Philomena Connolly and Dorothy Johnston deal with aspects of the royal administration in the fourteenth century.

The contributors themselves belong to the frontier—the frontier of new research and new issues. Their labours range from the structures of the pre-Norman church to the tower houses of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, from Antrim and Ayrshire to the markets of Lucca. The standard of scholarship is consistently high. The spirit of Jim Lydon will haunt us for at least another generation.

Adrian Empey

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