Donegal: History and Society, William Nolan, Liam Ronayne and Máiread Dunlevy (eds.). (Geography Publications, £40) ISBN: 0906602459

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Anglo-Norman Ireland, Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Gaelic Ireland, Issue 2 (Summer 1997), Medieval History (pre-1500), Reviews, Volume 5

The editors have set out to place County Donegal in its local, national and European contexts by combining the work of archaeologists, medievalists, Celtic scholars, geographers, place name scholars and historians of economics, culture and politics. The result is the most comprehensive interdisciplinary study ever undertaken of Donegal.
The geographical entity we know today as County Donegal is a seventeenth-century construct containing within its boundaries several ancient territories which had, at different times, their own geographical and political identities. The individual essays in this book dovetail neatly together to take us on a grand sweep through time that allows us to read and understand the contemporary landscape while at the same time providing glimpses into the lives, concerns and fortunes of the various peoples who shaped its history.
Brian Lacy’s opening chapter on prehistoric and early historic settlement sets a very high standard which is maintained throughout the volume. Michael Herity, Helen Lanigan Wood, Eithne Verling and Raghnall Ó Floinn deal with early Christian decorated slabs and their function in systems of ritual, and the stone sculpture and metalwork produced by the early inhabitants, both pre-Christian and Christian. The people groups and early Christians who emerged to play important parts in the early political and religious development of Donegal and surrounding areas come into sharper focus in an excellent essay by Dónall Mac Giolla Easpaig on place names and early settlement. His skilful restoration of place names to their original Irish language forms reveals history, associations and physical descriptions that most of today’s Anglicisations obscure. ‘Late Medieval Donegal’, ‘The Renaissance and the Late Medieval lordship of Tír Chonaill’ and ‘The End of O’Donnell power’ chart the growth and eventual demise of the dynasty that sprang from the Cinéal Conaill. The first, by Katherine Simms, introduces us for the first time to Scottish interest in and influence over affairs in Donegal and Ulster as a whole. In the second Darren Mac Eiteagáin points to flourishing diplomatic contact between the lords of Tír Chonaill and various Irish leaders, as well as with the courts of many European kings. The third, by R.J. Hunter, shows how the relentless extension of English crown authority eventually brought the house of Ó Domhnaill crashing down, in spite of—and doubtless too, because of—its European contacts. Hunter concludes with the short and pithy sentence: ‘Plantation followed’. In his second contribution he assesses what was intended and what was achieved under the plantation of Donegal. John Silke’s ‘Raphoe and the Reformation’ deals with the fortunes of the Catholic church at a time when the successful resistance of Gaelic Ireland to crown expansion seemed to hold out the only prospect of its survival. Kevin McKenny deals with British settler society in Donegal, 1625-1685, a period which includes the 1641 rebellion and the extension of English civil war politics and conflict into Ireland. A number of Donegal settlers suffered for their royalist sympathies and the unity of the relatively young British colony must have been damaged both during the conflict and after. Graeme Kirkham gives a close up view of the management, land holding and economic changes on the Murray of Broughton estate, 1670-1755, a tale of absentee landlords, crises, indebtedness and a constant struggle to achieve economic viability. W.H. Crawford deals with the evolution of the urban network in Donegal while David Dickson provides a very thorough and valuable history of Inishowen, 1650-1800. James Anderson looks at ‘Rundale, rural economy and agrarian revolution in Tirhugh 1715-1855’ while Jonathan Bell writes on ‘Changing farming methods in Donegal’.
James Donnelly Jr. examines the making of the modern pilgrimage to Lough Derg, while Martina O’Donnell deals with settlement and society in East Inishowen c.1850, while Breandán Mac Suibhne examines ‘Agrarian custom and improvement: Lord George Hill and the Gaoth Dobhair sheep war 1856-1860’. Hill actually emerges from this balanced account with more credit than tradition has afforded him but Mac Suibhne’s skilful setting of the context of the dispute reveals the suffering of the people sharply. Jim McLaughlin makes a stimulating contribution applying the theoretical logic of Gramsci’s cultural Marxism to analyse the role of the Catholic intelligentsia in the politics of nation-building in post-famine Donegal. The vindictiveness with which Republicans were persecuted throughout Donegal from 1922 onwards would make me hesitant about endorsing his conclusions but nevertheless this was an interesting read. Anne O’Dowd’s essay on ‘Seasonal migration to the Lagan and Scotland’ is a glimpse into the lives of the rural poor. Drawing on Irish language sources O’Dowd demonstrates the hardship experienced by migrant workers, most of whom commenced their travels as children. The hiring fairs or the boat to Scotland were the means by which poverty was kept at bay at home. Pat Bolger deals with ‘The Congested Districts Board and the co-ops in Donegal’ while John Tunney examines Protestant politics in Donegal, 1868-1933. In an Irish language essay Nollaig Mac Conghail examines the history of Gaelic literature in Donegal in the last hundred years and Damhnait Nic Suibhne’s essay ‘The Donegal fiddle tradition: an ethnographic perspective’ once more emphasises the links between Donegal and Scotland. As well as examining the role of music in society and charting the careers of many local musicians, the cross-fertilisation of Scottish and Irish music is also discussed. Lillis Ó Laoire examines the singing heritage of Donegal in a lively Irish language piece which makes the point that Gaeltacht areas are not museums in which the national heritage from language to folklore is on continuous display but places where Irish culture has a contemporary value.  Ó Laoire concedes that people do not use songs as an integral part of their daily lives as was once the case; the Fenian lays have disappeared from Ireland and Scotland, keening is no longer part of mourning and many old hymns or holy songs are no longer sung. However, love songs, or songs dealing with the pain of love, continue to be popular. Some of the examples Ó Laoire gives concern forbidden or secret love, others are slightly risqué. They maintain their relevance because people can identify with the emotions being expressed. Fearghus Mac Giolla Easpaig provides the penultimate essay, with thirty mini-histories of the commonest family names in Donegal. The last piece is an impressive select bibliography for Donegal history and society compiled by Liam Ronayne.
The combination of grand sweep and detailed close-up is very effective. There are gaps of course, but the select bibliography covers most of them. I have only minor quibbles. Raghnall Ó Floinn (p119) states that the Cochall Colmcille is an unknown relic. Some sources record that it was kept at Grianán Ailigh and that Aed mac Ainmirech met his death in Leinster because the cowl—which Colm Cille had promised Aed would give him immunity from death in battle so long as he wore it—had been left behind at Ailech.  My other quibble is with the index. Some authors have chosen to use anglicised forms of particular Irish names, others have used the correct Irish form while others still have used a hybrid form employing elements of both. In the index these all appear as separate entries as if for different individuals and different page references are given for each version, e.g. An Inghean Dubh/Ineen Dubh, Rughraidhe O’Donnell/Rory O’Donnell/Ruaidhrí Ó Domhnaill snr.. There is enough Irish in Donegal to prevent such confusion and it shouldn’t have happened. All in all, this volume is scholarship at its best.

Caoimhghín Ó Murchadha


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