Archaeological Inventory of County Cork

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Issue 3 (Autumn 1995), Medieval History (pre-1500), Reviews, Volume 3

Archaeological Inventory of County Cork, Vol.1 (West Cork), Vol.2 (East and South Cork) Denis Power (comp.) (Stationary Office, £20 each)

Guide to the Archives of the Office of Public Works, Rena Lohan (Stationary Office)

Irish Archives Journal (Spring 1995) (Irish Society of Archives, £4.95)

In recent years, there has been a massive splurge of spending on heritage-related projects; however, national institutions have been shabbily treated. While there has been some cosmetic spending on those parts of their buildings accessible to the public, or in once-off capital spending on items like computers, their underlying staffing levels have been depleted to hopelessly unsustainable levels. Every politician loves a new building and its photo-opportunities; few appreciate the necessity for national institutions to have proper ongoing funding and the requisite number of professional staff. Using FÁS trainees as an exploitative stopgap is no substitute. Working with minimal staff, depleted resources and a hostile bureaucracy, and faced by ever-increasing users, institutions like the National Library, Archives and Museum have performed with remarkable courtesy, given the stretched—and stressed—environment in which they operate. Users of these pivotal institutions should be far more vocal in supporting them. There should be a much more clear-cut recognition of their unchallenged role as custodians of the nation’s intellectual and material history. Without public recognition and with it political clout, these institutions will shrivel before our eyes. Before long, politicians will be demanding that to pay their way they start lending their materials as props for visiting movie-makers!
These wider considerations are prompted by consideration of the four volumes under review here. Two of them emanate from the Office of Public Works—a body which has recently been burned at the publicity stakes, as a result of its overweening hubris in relation to Mullaghmore. This spectacular own goal has obscured the unobtrusive but vital professional work which the OPW performs in its less public persona. Its archaeological section, for example, has a solid reputation in both conservation and research. This is well represented in its archaeological inventories, of which those on Monaghan, Louth, Meath, Carlow, West Galway and these two volumes on parts of Cork have been already published. I do not propose to comment here on the ‘traditional’ archaeology in these volumes, but to alert potential readers to a treasure-trove of more recent material. By convention, archaeologists have imposed 1700 as the magic marker date which separates ‘archaeological’ and ‘historical’ material. And while one should not spare historians, folklorists, geographers and others who have a special interest in this modern period, this distinction has not been helpful to conservation in Ireland. Thus while there is copious (and welcome) recording of the island’s 45,000 ringforts, of which c.25,000 survive in the field, there is none at all of the approximately three million one-roomed houses in which lived the pre-Famine Irish poor (and of which at most a dozen survive). Therefore, Denis Power and his Cork colleagues are to be warmly congratulated for their innovative approach. Both volumes include a healthy post-medieval section, dealing with material as diverse as martello towers, lighthouses, coastguard stations, churches and chapels, mass rocks, market houses, big houses, fever hospitals, bridges, ice houses, lime kilns, sweat houses, mills, follies, potteries and gasworks. This inclusiveness is tremendously refreshing: historians have been slow to engage with material history but even a fleeting perusal of these volumes indicates how valuable a perspective it can offer. The pages are profusely illustrated and indexed, as well as having a wide format layout which makes it a pleasure to use.
Rena Lohan’s Guide to the Archives of the Office of Public Works is a landmark volume. It provides a tremendously useful guide to the 2,000 bound volumes, several hundred thousand documents and thousands of drawings which were recently deported into the National Archives in Bishop Street. While the Board of Works was established in 1831, its archive includes earlier material, although the bulk of its coverage is nineteenth and early twentieth century in origin. Lohan divides the records into seven sections, conforming to the Board’s internal divisions—public housing, national monuments, piers and harbours, inland navigation, arterial drainage, housing and railways. Each of these contains material of the greatest interest. The building section, for example, includes schools, lunatic asylums, courthouses, barracks, coastguard stations and post offices, as well as major buildings like the GPO, Dublin Castle, the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, and the Queen’s Colleges. The OPW archive contains one of the richest visual records that we possess of Ireland, and this is lavishly illustrated in this volume, with its seventy-eight photographs (twenty-six in colour). No serious student of the Irish past should be without this exemplary, attractive and cheap guide.
The busy Ms Lohan is also co-editor (with Tom Quinlan) of the most recent issue of Irish Archives. This contains a much needed and authoritative guide to ‘Sources in the National Archives for researchers of the Great Famine’ by the two editors and Marianne Cosgrove. A user-oriented study, it makes available the rich compendium of Famine material. For those who use them habitually, the abiding impression is of how little they are used; whole files fall open and the researcher is eerily aware that they are being looked at for the first time since the last official closed them. A plethora of books, theses and articles lie waiting to get out of these materials; this new guide ensures that there is no lazy excuse for not using them. The article is also well illustrated. A memorial from Templecrone (Donegal) in 1846 deals with the Marquis of Conyngham (ancestor of the Slane’s Henry Mountcharles); his agent Russell was approached by Michael Boyle of ? re. famine relief. Russell pointed to a dead rat, saying, ‘Go Mick and take that rat along with you, and it will relish the lumpers for you—that is my remedy for you, Micky, for the famine you complain of!’
Taken together, these volumes demonstrate the excellent work that is being accomplished in often difficult circumstances. Let us ensure that our national institutions will be respectfully treated and that users give them the public support that they need. For example, the rich Land Commission archives have been recently acquired by the National Archives—but where will the resources and staff to catalogue them come from?

Kevin Whelan

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