CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF IRELAND, Vol. 1: 600–1550

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 5 (September/October 2018), Reviews, Volume 26

BRENDAN SMITH (ed.)
Cambridge University Press
£100
ISBN 9781107110670

Reviewed by Seán Duffy

When Oxford University Press’s nine-volume New History of Ireland was announced in 1968, few can have imagined that it would take 37 years to bring it to completion, though in most respects it was worth the wait: in its day, it merited all the praise heaped on it—‘landmark’, ‘monumental’, ‘transformative’, ‘indispensable’. Fifty years on, a ‘newer’ history of Ireland has appeared—albeit a trimmer affair at four volumes—from Cambridge University Press. In this book-weary and blasé age, landmarks are harder to spot. How will the new CHI fare against the dear old NHI?

Much has been made in the media and elsewhere of the rapidity with which its editors (Thomas Bartlett, James Kelly, Jane Ohlmeyer and Brendan Smith) have completed the project—it has gone from conception to birth in a mere five years—and, if speed is a virtue in scholarship, CHI is undoubtedly a success. The question is whether pause for somewhat longer and wider consultation might have enriched further such a splendid endeavour.

The overall structure, for instance, has questions to answer, certainly from the perspective of anyone concerned about the history of Ireland before the modern era. The editors decided that Volume 4 would deal with the last 136 years (back as far as 1880), Volume 3 with the previous 150 years (1730–1880), Volume 2 the 180 years before that (1550–1730), and Volume 1—wait for it—the 1,000 or more years before that, and this squeezed into what is by some distance the slimmest of the four volumes at 680 pages (Volume 4 is a whopping 1,004 pages). Put at its crudest, the history of Ireland after 1550 is given at least ten times—repeat, ten times—as much coverage as that before 1550. What is the casual reader to conclude from such an approach to Irish history? It can only be either that nothing much ‘happened’ in medieval Ireland, or that nothing much happened that the editors consider ‘important’.

But even allowing for the constraints within which the series’ sole early volume had to operate, there are other questions. If Ireland’s history is the human story of this island, it is a story at least 10,000 years old. The landscape that underlies everything written in this series took shape in prehistory; the people whose story it tells began arriving here in prehistory; the Irish language came here in prehistory. Therefore prehistory matters in history: the omission of it means that the Cambridge History of Ireland is in point of fact the history of the most recent one-tenth of Ireland’s human story.

We historians are of course snobs who give primacy to the written word. Fair enough: let us measure CHI’s achievement by this yardstick. The first recorded date in Irish history is AD 431, when, according to Prosper of Aquitaine, Pope Celestine I sent Palladius as bishop to ‘the Irish believing in Christ’. The first historical documents to survive from the island—written perhaps a generation or so after Palladius’s mission—are St Patrick’s Confessio and his Epistola to the soldiers of Coroticus. Here, surely, we have a ‘real’ start to Irish history. Not so. Volume 1, bizarrely, begins in the year AD 600. The great dynasties who dominated Ireland for half a millennium had taken power before this date; some of Western Christendom’s most celebrated monasteries had been flourishing here for many decades by then; the Justinian plague had wreaked its havoc; the Scoti were colonising in Argyll and the Isles, in Wales and Cornwall; the peregrinatio movement had begun; Colum Cille was dead and buried and Columbanus was an old man in Gaul defending Irish mathematicians’ calculation of Easter—all before CHI even begins its story. Yes, it is true that documentation becomes much more plentiful in the seventh century, but the history of an earlier age can be and has been written and it is baffling that CHI has abandoned the opportunity to contribute to a subject so utterly formative to the Irish story.

To make matters worse, even after AD 600 CHI does not attempt a political narrative until we reach the English invasion of the late twelfth century. The explanation offered (p. 8) for eschewing such a fundamental is that readers can find one in NHI, vol. i, which is akin to Arnotts pointing potential customers towards Brown Thomas. Besides, once we pass the 1169 threshold into Anglo-Norman Ireland, CHI comes over all narrative all of a sudden; readers are not, however, sent scurrying for NHI, vol. ii, despite its still-impressive narrative of the period. The contrast is extraordinarily stark. The three-quarters of a millennium of Irish history before 1169 have only three chapters, which touch on political narrative (and one or two of them do merely touch on it, as it was not part of the core brief). The less than half-millennium after 1169 has no fewer than nine chapters dealing either entirely or partly with the period’s political narrative. In terms of actual page count, the 700 or more years before 1169 are dispensed with in 141 pages, while the 481 years after 1169 get 393. And, for example, whereas Alex Woolf has almost four centuries to cover in his chapter on Viking Age Ireland, Beth Hartland has 70 years, and 70 years (1250–1320) when, to be frank, not a great deal ‘happened’ beyond the Bruce Invasion.

Let’s take a few other examples. Call me biased, but why is it that that vainglorious nincompoop King Richard II is talked about on 29 separate pages in this book while there are half as many mentions (and they are mostly just mentions) of the greatest of Ireland’s kings, Brian Boru? Why is somebody called Sir William Windsor (a minor English viceroy of the later fourteenth century) referred to on ten separate occasions while Ireland’s greatest scholarly genius, John Scotus Eriugena, is mentioned how many times? Twice, one of them in passing. Why are there fewer references to St Colum Cille of Iona than to town life in late medieval Drogheda; as many references to Richard Ledred, a fairly inconsequential English bishop of Ossory in the fourteenth century, as there are to St Columbanus, one of the founding fathers of European monasticism; and far more references to the mendicant orders in later medieval Ireland than to St Patrick?

Again one is forced to contemplate why this is so, why the first three-quarters of a millennium of Irish history are blithely skipped over until we reach the moment when the English arrive; and again the unavoidable conclusion seems to be a value judgment that what happened before 1169 is less ‘important’ than what happened after.

This is not nit-picking. The editor of this volume, Brendan Smith, has done an extraordinary job in many respects. Barely one of its nineteen chapters is anything less than excellent. One thinks of John Carey’s brilliantly encyclopaedic (if, perforce, all too brief) survey of the belief systems, the learning and the literature of early Ireland, informed by an unparalleled knowledge of the sources: in a field of study in which extremities of opinion have threatened to strike terror into gentler wayfarers, it is moderate, welcoming and wise; and it is complemented by a correspondingly authoritative survey of the historico-literary material of the eleventh and twelfth centuries by Máire Ní Mhaonaigh. Similarly, Edel Bhreathnach expertly interweaves literary and archaeological evidence to conjure up a vivid image of secular and sacred life in early Ireland, and the editor could not have chosen more wisely than when recruiting Alex Woolf to survey the Viking impact: his approach to a subject occasionally dulled by repetition of the same dog-eared dossier of cliché and speculation is wonderfully refreshing and written in a delightfully accessible style.

Nicholas Vincent’s ‘Angevin Ireland’ is, likewise, sparklingly original, utterly brilliant and sure to cause offence in certain quarters—‘the conquerors who arrived in Bannow Bay in 1169 … found themselves time-travellers to an Iron Age’ (p. 205)—but the fact is that more new research and new thinking is displayed in this short essay than in many a dense tome. Brendan Smith himself masterfully reviews the period from 1320 to 1450, and what a joy to read Michael Bennett’s essay on ‘Late medieval Ireland in a wider world’. Like the exquisite concluding essay by the doyen of later medieval Irish historiography, Robin Frame, it is packed with fascinating and thought-provoking vignettes. And one of the volume’s finest studies is certainly Peter Crooks’s important examination of the theory underlying the English claim to rule Ireland: let us hope that it gets the audience it deserves among scholars both of medieval England and of early modern and modern Ireland.

I could go on: there is much more where this came from, and all of the volume’s eighteen learned authors (one of whom, Katharine Simms, actually provides two splendid chapters on the culture and politics of later medieval Gaelic Ireland) deserve enormous credit and have treated us to scholarship guaranteed to stand the test of time. This reviewer’s reservation is confined to that one point rehearsed above: this is not a history of medieval Ireland in the round. It matters that the editors of the Cambridge History of Ireland thought it not unreasonable to give an average of 150 years to each of the three modern volumes in the series and cram more than a thousand into Volume 1. And it matters that the latter volume begins only in AD 600, and even then gives short shrift to the subject until the moment the English arrive.

How poignant to recall the remarks of Donnchadh Ó Corráin in an interview (HI 26.1, Jan./Feb. 2018) shortly before his recent passing that

‘… in most European countries, if they have a Golden Age, the kids get taught it … But we have as the centre of our school curriculum for senior students one of the most disastrous centuries in Irish history, the nineteenth, that century in which we turn into a peripheral European country that doesn’t matter much to anyone. But take, say, the arrival of Columbanus on continental Europe, take for instance Sedulius Scottus, who was the finest Latin poet in Europe in the ninth century, or Eriugena, who is the most important philosopher for about a millennium, half on each side of him. If other European countries had cultural heroes of this kind, their students would hear about them.’

Sadly, for all its many virtues, the Cambridge History of Ireland does not pass the Ó Corráin test.

Seán Duffy is Professor of Medieval Irish and Insular History at Trinity College Dublin.

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