Published in Issue 2 (March/April 2014), Reviews, Volume 22

A supplement to the Dictionary of Scandinavian words in the languages of Britain and Ireland
(Four Courts Press, ?29.95 hb, 128pp, ISBN 9781846823800).

Princes, prelates and poets in medieval Ireland: essays in honour of Katharine Simms
(Four Courts Press, ?55 hb, 600pp, ISBN 9781846822803).

The friars in Ireland, 1224–1540
Four Courts Press, ?29.95 pb, 432pp, ISBN 9781846822254).

The man in the middle: St Laurence O’Toole, patron saint of Dublin
(Veritas, ?9.99 pb, 100pp, ISBN 978184730434).

Strongbow: the Norman invasion of Ireland
(O’Brien Press, ?16.99 pb, 256pp, ISBN 9781847172006).

Witches, spies and Stockholm syndrome: life in medieval Ireland
(New Island Books, ?19.99, 226pp, ISBN 9781848402843).

The royal manors of medieval Co. Dublin: crown and community
(Four Courts Press, ?55 hb, 240pp, ISBN 9781846823886).

Crisis and survival in late medieval Ireland: the English of Louth and their neighbours, 1330–1450 (Oxford University Press, £65 hb, 288pp, ISBN 9780199594757).


What is a Berlin? A city in Germany, yes, but it is also ‘a half-decked galley or rowing boat’; the term derives from the Scots Gaelic birlinn (the medieval Irish equivalent of which is beirling), from an Old Norse term for a merchant ship. And if this all sounds like it came from the work of Diarmaid Ó Muirithe, it did. Last December Ó Muirithe published the final edition of his long-running Irish Times column, ‘Words we use’, which for 22 years served as a wonderful guide to the more eclectic reaches of the English language as spoken in Ireland and Britain. While the columns have long been available in book form, Ó Muirithe is not done just yet. Behind his newspaper column lay a formidable body of linguistic scholarship, the latest example of which was released last year: A supplement to the Dictionary of Scandinavian words in the languages of Britain and Ireland. Apparently prompted by a conversation the author had with a shopkeeper on the Isle of Skye, this supplement to his earlier dictionary explores the linguistic heritage of those areas ‘colonized by the Norse for many centuries’.

As should be obvious from Charles Doherty’s article in the current issue, the Viking and Gaelic worlds coexisted in Ireland, often fractiously, for centuries. So in the interests of fairness mention should be made of a festschrift to one of the pre-eminent scholars of medieval Gaelic society in Ireland: Seán Duffy (ed.), Princes, prelates and poets in medieval Ireland: essays in honour of Katharine Simms. Its 33 chapters cover a vast range of topics, from medieval genealogies and the murder of a sheriff in Louth to the portrayal of women in medieval religious poetry. Indeed, religion is touched upon by many of the contributors in terms of intellectual and social history, but another aspect of medieval religious life in Ireland is dealt with comprehensively by the winner of the 2013 NUI Irish Historical Research Prize: Colmán Ó Clabaigh, The friars in Ireland, 1224–1540.


Sticking with the religious theme, but going back further in time, there is a reissue of the late Desmond Forristal’s The man in the middle: St Laurence O’Toole, patron saint of Dublin, originally published in 1988. O’Toole (Ua Tuathail) is, as the title suggests, the patron saint of Dublin, and was most recently in the public eye in 2012, when the container that supposedly contains his heart was stolen from Christ Church Cathedral (it has not been recovered). Part of the reason for his status seems to arise from the fact that, as archbishop of Dublin at the time of the Norman invasion, he acted as an interlocutor between the citizens of Dublin and the Normans led by Richard fitz Gilbert de Clare (Strongbow)—who, incidentally, married O’Toole’s niece (O’Toole’s brother-in-law was the notorious Diarmait Mac Murchadha).

After the Battle of Clontarf, the best-known event in medieval Irish history is the Norman invasion that Mac Murchadha precipitated. Conor Kostick’s Strongbow: the Norman invasion of Ireland offers a lively retelling of this well-known tale. Kostick’s credentials as a medievalist are impressive, but his skills as a novelist presumably came in handy here: this is a vivid and learned account that ranges far more widely than its subtitle suggests (and also puts forth a good case for just using the term ‘Norman’ to describe Strongbow and his cohorts, rather than fudging it with prefixes such as ‘Anglo’ or ‘Cambro’). It is handsomely produced, but a minor quibble is the paucity of references for further reading: surely a few more details wouldn’t have gone amiss? But if Kostick’s work proves to be of interest, readers might also want to check out Finbar Dwyer, Witches, spies and Stockholm syndrome: life in medieval Ireland. Dwyer, an archaeologist, has written an equally en-gaging social history of (as he puts it) ‘the Anglo-Norman colony in Ireland during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries’. His book rests on a very impressive bedrock of scholarly research (showcased in an extensive bibliography) that he deploys with a light touch and an eye for human detail: the focus here is on ordinary people rather than élites. Kostick and Dwyer have written two impressive and hugely readable works, both aimed at a popular audience, that wear their considerable scholarship lightly. Given the inevitable attractions of the Irish Revolution for Irish trade publishers at this time, it is heartening to see that they haven’t completely forgotten other aspects of Irish history.

There is still room for academic publishing, however, and the dynamics of life in two regions of Ireland colonised by the English in the Middle Ages are explained in two recent monographs: Áine Foley, The royal manors of medieval Co. Dublin: crown and community, and Brendan Smith, Crisis and survival in late medieval Ireland: the English of Louth and their neighbours. Foley’s book examines the royal manors of Crumlin, Esker, Saggart and Newcastle in south County Dublin from c. 1170 to c. 1400. These were (according to the blurb) ‘the largest direct stake that the king of England maintained in his oft-neglected lordship of Ireland’. Perhaps surprisingly, they seem to have been overwhelmingly populated by Irish tenants. Relations between native and newcomer seem to have been relatively harmonious, but this began to change in the fourteenth century, as the colony began to decline (though many on the royal manors continued to prosper). The south Dublin manors were also vulnerable to attacks from the Irish fastnesses of the Wicklow Mountains. Life in a frontier area north of Dublin is the subject of Smith’s book, which deals with the world of the English colonists of Louth in the later Middle Ages, beset as it was by natural dangers such as the Black Death and Irish enemies such as Magnus MacMahon, whose enthusiasm for beheading leads Smith to dub him the ‘Mr Kurtz of medieval Monaghan’. In many ways these two books complement each other. It would appear that the history of medieval Ireland continues to be well served.


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