Ireland in the medieval world, AD 400–1000: landscape, kingship and religion

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/June 2015), Reviews, Volume 23

Four Courts Press
ISBN 9781846823428

Edel Bhreathnach book cover

For those of us preoccupied with Irish history it is a sobering experience to look up the word ‘Ireland’ in a History of the world only to find that it’s not there. For students and teachers of modern Irish history it is doubly chastening to discover that, almost invariably, when a History of the world does discuss Ireland—even when a History of Europe deigns to mention us—it is usually to record developments that occurred well over 1,000 years ago. What features is the evangelising activity of Colum Cille of Iona and his followers and of Columbanus and his heirs on the Continent; it is the scholarship of Eriugena and Sedulius and Dícuil at the courts of Charlemagne and his Carolingian successors, and it is the artistic genius that makes the Chi-Rho illumination in the Book of Kells the single most famous page in the art of the Middle Ages.

We all know that Ireland continues to make a contribution to the world (usually a positive one), and that important things sometimes happen here, but it seems that we were world leaders only in the early Middle Ages. All the more remarkable, therefore, that the era of Ireland’s greatest creativity and impact is the time about which most of us know least. There are obvious explanations for this. One is the 1916-isation of Irish history that has pushed everything but the last 100 years or so off the secondary school curriculum, producing a generation of students who think that the only thing that matters in Ireland’s past is what Michael Collins had for breakfast. This has fed the demand-led curriculum of our universities that must consequently have more and more specialists in twentieth-century Ireland to produce the next generation of teachers to propagate further their students’ interest in all things Collins.

To be fair, neglect of the study of Early Christian Ireland is as much a reaction against the efforts of an earlier generation of teachers to force-feed us a diet of the ‘Island of Saints and Scholars’. In the twentieth century, an extraordinary dichotomy emerged in our approach to the subject: while the masses were exposed to a naïve and outdated picture of Ireland in the early Middle Ages, advanced scholarship in the field became ever more esoteric and unwelcoming. The subject’s founding father was Eoin Mac Neill, a scholar of truly extraordinary brilliance, whose best work is, however, largely concealed in specialist scholarly periodicals. T.F. O’Rahilly’s Early Irish history and mythology (1949) is dazzlingly brilliant but eccentric and unreadable, and neither could the fresh-faced undergraduate or intelligent general reader be exposed unrehearsed to Gearóid Mac Niocaill’s Ireland before the Vikings (1972).

True, within a year Francis John Byrne had given us a masterpiece in his Irish kings and high-kings (1973), which one could read 100 times and still profit from; but though it certainly roams more widely than its title suggests, it is not intended to be a complete survey of the period. Dáibhí Ó Cróinín’s Early medieval Ireland 400–1200 (1995) is in a sense the mirror opposite: superb on things like the Latin learning of the early schools but lacking a general ‘what-happened-when’ narrative, a gap not bridged by the patchy (despite its 22 contributors) and cumbersome (more than 1,200 pages) New history of Ireland, Volume 1 (2008), which he himself valiantly nursed through to birth after a long gestation under the midwifery of others. Hardly less of a whopper is T.M. Charles-Edwards’s 700-page Early Christian Ireland (2000), a work of stupendous scholarship but not, however, for either the faint-hearted or the novice.

So, after 100 years of the professional study of early medieval Ireland we still lack a textbook which an eighteen-year-old entering university for the first time could be given to read without being frightened to death. News of the appearance of Edel Bhreathnach’s new monograph raised the prospect of filling this gap but it turns out that it, too, has its sights set on another audience. It is a work of considerable originality, based on the author’s many years of research in this field, brimming with insights and warmth for the subject. It is one of those books that wants to share the subject’s secrets with newcomers rather than keep outsiders at bay, and the author’s passion for her field of study is writ large on every page, but it is not an entry-level text: a first-year undergrad who had known nothing hitherto except bullet points and Powerpoint will struggle with it, while the final-year student and the postgrad will relish its every word.

Readers should not deduce from the title, Ireland in the medieval world, AD 400–1000, that the purpose of this brilliant study is to situate the story of early medieval Ireland in a wider context, geographical or otherwise; rather the key to understanding it is its subtitle: landscape, kingship and religion. These form its three parts, although slightly unevenly, so that the delightfully evocative and freshly imaginative opening excursion through the physical landscape of early Ireland is taken at quite a canter (30 pages) before the book arrives at the more familiar territory of kingdoms (90 pages) and churches (110 pages). Familiar themes they may be, but within them exciting new avenues of investigation are opened up, and even those well versed in early Ireland will benefit greatly from Dr Bhreathnach’s introduction into her kingship chapter of lengthy discussions of such things as how an Irish king’s life was organised (the córus ríg), what his actual living conditions might be, what he did all day when he wasn’t at war, what he might die of and how he might be buried; and how refreshing it is to find that kings’ wives, sisters, mothers, and young children and foster-children are given a place in this new enquiry.

It is the avowed purpose of the author to introduce into her account evidence not usually marshalled by writers on this subject and insights from recent discoveries. Thus, for instance, in Chapter 3 she attempts to shed light on the belief systems that might have prevailed in Ireland before the Christian conversion by incorporating anthropology, comparative religious studies and even cognitive science into her analysis, and she draws on, for example, her own work on burial practices undertaken with Dr Elizabeth O’Brien and others on the Mapping Death Project ( Likewise, the latest archaeological findings augment the literary and onomastic evidence adduced in her discussion of the settled landscape of early medieval Ireland and of the residences of kings and nobles, for instance, and of the earliest Christian churches.

Occasionally, the presentation of new evidence threatens to distort the balance of the discussion. If this is a book ‘aimed’, as the cover blurb states, ‘at the student and general reader’, it cannot afford to take too much for granted, and must ensure that the reader has grasped the rule before calling attention to newfound exceptions to it. For example, the early medieval settlement landscape of Ireland was overwhelmingly rural. In her ‘Landscapes’ chapter, Dr Bhreathnach discusses this in seven pages but has eleven on urban settle-ment. Imagine the proverbial ‘general reader’, who might know little of early medieval Ireland before reading this account: he or she would come away with a very skewed impression.

Settlement in early medieval Ireland was also largely dispersed, comprising many thousands of enclosed farmsteads—the raths/ringforts/cashels and crannogs with which we are so familiar. I suspect that Dr Bhreathnach assumes too much on the part of many readers when she merely refers to these (p. 27) before proceeding to describe at greater length recent investigations of ‘a form of nucleated settlement that many commentators on medieval Ireland are reluctant to categorize as such’ (p. 24). She adds that such commentators prefer ‘to describe the island’s settlement as dispersed and haphazard’ whereas, in fairness, few argue the latter: but, despite some newsworthy exceptions and despite the fact that raths and crannogs sometimes come in clusters in the same way that modern family farms can, most scholars will, I think, persist in defining as ‘dispersed’ a landscape dominated by enclosures that appear to be the farmsteads of the cattle-rearing well-to-do.

One might venture one other minor quibble with the ‘general reader’ in mind. How does one survey the political landscape of early Ireland? One of the great teachers whom Dr Bhreathnach thanks in her acknowledgements, Professor F.J. Byrne, tackled this in his Irish kings and high-kings by a series of chapters on the Uí Néill of the midlands and north, on the Ulster kings, and on the kings of Leinster, Munster and Connacht in turn. Bhreathnach gives us instead a case-study of one second-rank kingdom below the level of these great provincial powers, that of the Southern Uí Néill kingdom of Brega. Likewise, in a part of the book entitled ‘Concepts of kingship’, she provides a mini-biography of one individual—by no means the most illustrious—who attained the kingship of Tara, the Brega king Fínnachta Fledach mac Dúnchado (d. 695); and in a section entitled ‘The extended royal family’, the royal kindreds of the south midlands dynasty of the Loígsi are singled out for special analysis. Presumably these (and other case-studies which follow in the third part of the book, on religion) were selected as representative of the whole and for the laudable objective of keeping the word-count down. But the targeted ‘general reader’ will remain largely in the dark about other kingdoms beyond Brega, other kings before and after Fínnachta, and peoples other than the Loígsi, and will inevitably form the misplaced impression that they somehow matter more.

These are small worries in the case of a book that offers so much. This is not a book to read; it is a book to read and re-read, it is a book to savour, to ponder and to explore. It should not be a light read because its subject-matter is heavy indeed, but it is in fact a joy. Is it value for money? It is worth three times its price because its triad of themes—landscape, kingship and religion—is each a book in itself.

Seán Duffy is Associate Professor of Medieval History at Trinity College, Dublin.


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