Atlas of the Irish rural landscape (2nd edn)

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Celtic Tiger, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Early Modern History Social Perspectives, Issue 5 (Sept/Oct 2012), Medieval History (pre-1500), Medieval Social Perspectives, Pre-history / Archaeology, Pre-Norman History, Pre-Norman Social Perspectives, Reviews, Volume 20

Atlas of the Irish rural landscape (2nd edn)F.H.A. Aalen, Kevin Whelan and Matthew Stout (eds) (Cork University Press, €59) ISBN 9781859184592

Atlas of the Irish rural landscape (2nd edn)
F.H.A. Aalen, Kevin Whelan and Matthew Stout (eds)
(Cork University Press, €59)
ISBN 9781859184592

The first edition of the Atlas of the Irish rural landscape (1997) was immediately hailed as a classic. For its time it was a ground-breaking publication, featuring a previously unsurpassed array of maps, aerial photographs and detailed explanatory text combining broad overviews of Irish rural settlement with detailed treatments of individual regions. Perhaps unavoidably, the new edition cannot lay claim to being a pioneering work in the same vein as its predecessor, although its production values remain at the high standard that so impressed reviewers of the first edition back in 1997.Edited by F.H.A. Aalen, Kevin Whelan and Matthew Stout, the work is divided into four main sections. ‘The making of the Irish landscape’ deals with the natural and settlement history of the island. ‘The challenge of change’ contains a provocative article on ‘Facing the future’ by Kevin Whelan and a discussion of Celtic Tiger housing by Ruth MacManus. ‘Components of the Irish landscape’ contains a series of short essays by individual scholars dealing with landscape elements ranging in size from the bogs and woodlands to such familiar micro-features as handball alleys. The book ends with a selection of ‘Regional case studies’; these have completely replaced those in the original work, so that ideally a student of the Irish rural landscape should have both editions in his or her library. A reference map comparing the areas covered by the first edition’s case-studies to those in the new edition might have been useful. The new case-studies deal with areas of the Wicklow uplands, Tory Island off the coast of Donegal, Aughris Headland in Sligo, Inistioge and the Nore Valley in Kilkenny, and Point Lance in Newfoundland, colonised by Irish settlers from the 1820s onwards.In the first section, F.H.A. Aalen’s article on ‘The Irish landscape: synthesis of habitat and history’, Geraldine and Matthew Stout’s work on the country’s early landscape and Kevin Whelan’s work on the post-plantation landscape all seem to have been largely retained from the earlier work, with the result that the archaeological section, while still a valuable and very readable summary, is somewhat dated and sticks firmly to what is now the traditional model. In particular, the massive arrays of new material produced in the last fifteen years by archaeological excavations on National Roads Authority schemes, Discovery Programme projects and Heritage Council-funded projects as well as the results of intertidal, maritime and lacustrine archaeology (all of which have produced a string of publications) ought to have been more thoroughly integrated into the whole. For example, the Mesolithic, the longest period in Irish prehistory (over 4,000 years), ought to have been given greater prominence (it receives a mere half-page). Numerous new discoveries since 1997 have enriched our understanding of this formative period and should have been incorporated into the revised edition. In particular, the early Mesolithic complex excavated by Tracy Collins at Hermitage on the Shannon near Limerick ought to have been included, containing as it does the earliest two cremation burials known from Ireland (the earliest dating from 7550–7290 BC).The ‘Components of the Irish landscape’ section provides a thorough introduction to the elements that make up the traditional Irish rural scene—bogs, woodlands, fields and (most importantly) the vernacular building tradition, which are all addressed in some detail. Terence Reeves-Smyth’s discussion of demesnes is particularly valuable, as demesne landscapes are still rarely discussed as features in their own right, while Whelan’s short discussion—‘The joy of small things’—and Áine Ryan’s piece on the rapidly vanishing handball alleys of rural Ireland remind us of otherwise overlooked features which will be sorely missed when they are gone. I did feel while reading this section that the respective importance of lakes and rivers to their surrounding human landscapes might have been given more prominence. While they are addressed in various places throughout the book, particularly in James Killen and Enda Murphy’s section on communications and Fred Hamond’s discussion of water power, the inland lakes themselves are an interesting field of study and have been the subject of a major research programme by the Discovery Programme—particularly as more effective underwater survey techniques may soon transform our knowledge of them as thoroughly as aerial photography has transformed our understanding of landscape archaeology.While their small scale means that each can only act as an introduction to its topic, each of the regional case-studies is valuable in its own right and shows the value of the study of local cultural geography, even on quite a small scale. For the average Irish reader, their subjects will vary from the quite well known (the Wicklow Uplands) to the otherwise utterly obscure (Point Lance in Newfoundland, Canada), with the outstanding example being Edward and Fidelma McCarron’s article on Inistioge and the Nore Valley. The treatment of each area incorporates insights into its archaeology, history and geography, as well as some treatment of its modern inhabitants and their relationship to both the past and the future. Gaeltacht areas are not covered to the same extent as in the first edition, however, and Jim Hunter’s treatment of Tory Island does not address the issue of linguistic fragility and the long-drawn-out decline of the Irish language as a community language in general or its imminent collapse on Tory itself. The extension of the concept of ‘Irish’ rural settlement to Newfoundland is interesting, and the discussion of the retention of an Irish identity by the settlers in Point Lance over the course of many decades is excellent, but it does open up several related questions. Should not the Irish in western Britain in the early medieval period be treated as an extension of the Irish rural landscape? For that matter, should the Pale and other areas of dense settlement by our nearest neighbour be treated as part of the British rural landscape?In many ways the heart of the work is Prof. Whelan’s article on ‘Facing the future’. Dealing with the diverse range of threats and changes that have impacted on the rural environment, he continues the honest, if very bleak, assessment of Ireland’s track record in the field of rural management that he began in the first edition. The discussion ranges from the irrational exuberance of the Celtic Tiger era through the questionable assumptions behind the National Spatial Strategy. Clearly the magnificence of the historic landscapes described in the Atlas has not been matched by our willingness to protect them at either an official or unofficial level. For example, the extremely important Early Christian landscapes of the Dingle Peninsula, earlier damage to which is illustrated on pages 71 and 72 of this volume, have continued to be destroyed piecemeal, with no effective official protection of what was once one of Ireland’s best-preserved historic landscapes. Whelan is one of the few voices willing to recognise the reality of the situation, and his damning indictment of cultural resource management practices is in stark contrast to the widespread failure on the part of both official and academic Ireland. Fortunately, among the depressing litany of mismanagement that he identifies (including some interesting, if nostalgic, thoughts on the decline of the rural pub), he nevertheless manages to point out potential opportunities for future recovery and the possibility of a wiser, more sustainable growth than that which characterised the boom years. Chief among these is the likely growth of demand for Irish agricultural products driven by the increased consumption of meat in the expanding Asian middle classes, along with increasing domestic demand for a higher-quality product.But while Prof. Whelan excels both in pointing out the extent to which we have gone astray and in suggesting a tempting destination, his proposed route from A to B looks less promising. He recommends an approach focused on cooperation with local people, in contrast to what he describes as ‘draconian compulsion and adverse relations which simply do not work’. While this is unquestionably true, he fails to address one of the underlying causes of the general malaise. Whelan rightly points out the extent to which private greed and a dysfunctional local planning system allowed a range of counter-productive and simply baffling decisions but does not appear to come to grips with the way in which this was facilitated by the larger state bodies tasked with regulating the whole. In the field of cultural resource management, the relevant state bodies, notably the OPW, have remained largely unreformed since the nineteenth century and are unaccountable. Large-scale destruction, running into thousands of monuments, has been reported since the publication of the Sites and Monuments Record and published in the newspapers. Nevertheless, with rare exceptions, the perpetrators remain unprosecuted and unchallenged.Thus, while in theory a system of ‘draconian compulsion’ may be said to exist, in practice there is a state of anarchy across much of the country. The law-abiding often face what appear to them to be entirely arbitrary regulations, while the lawless can bulldoze known monuments without any visible response from the state. Meanwhile, the apparently untouchable caste of conservation architects remains free to remodel and remove key elements of the historic fabric of the small percentage of monuments in state care with impunity. International Council on Monuments and Sites regulations, which ought to regulate the work, are routinely ignored, or are adhered to only selectively. Standards remain far below those of our nearest neighbours and European partners, particularly when it comes to multi-phase architectural remains. Whelan mourns the loss of Dúchas, although things were not in fact markedly better before its abolition. Unless these root causes are dealt with by far-reaching reform, his otherwise well-thought-out proposal to switch the focus of conservation to a more dynamic, landscape-based approach may prove futile or even counter-productive. Simply adding a new layer of landscape protection might simply provide another set of cracks for our heritage to fall through.Both J.H. Hart and Andrews (reviewing the first edition) drew attention to an attitude, discernible whenever the authors dealt with the later twentieth century, that ‘old is better than new’; indeed, Hart argued that the authors seemed to be ‘among those lovers of the past who favour all that is old and traditional, who cannot quite bring themselves to accept the present’. A similar attitude can be detected in the second edition, with perhaps too much attention being given (particularly in the case-studies) to the traditional, immemorial, communal nature of traditional landscapes.In spite of these comparatively minor concerns, the second edition of the Atlas of the Irish rural landscape is well worth the asking price and deserves a place alongside its predecessor on the shelf of everyone with a serious interest in Ireland.  HI

Michael Gibbons is an archaeologist and former Co-Director of the Sites and Monuments Record, OPW.



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