Early Irish Farming, Fergus Kelly. (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, £16) ISBN 1855001802

Published in Gaelic Ireland, Issue 3 (Autumn 1998), Pre-Norman History, Pre-Norman Social Perspectives, Reviews, Volume 6

While the title under review hints at a book of limited focus, suggesting a curious blend of archaeology and dilettante history, what we have is an in-depth study more comprehensive than any other work to date. It could be given several titles: ‘a social and economic history of Gaelic Ireland’; ‘law and society in early Ireland’; or for that matter ‘land, law, and cult in pre-Norman Ireland’. The author has assembled what we know from a wide range of sources about the principal activity of the majority of people in the period before 1200. It offers insights into land, working on the land, caring for animals, sowing, harvesting, dividing labour, agricultural finances and technology—in a word: farming.
The work is built up of many layers of evidence. The basic layer is botanical and zoological: where did crops and farm animals originate; what forms are found in Ireland; and what are the difficulties inherent in agricultural activities involving them. This is not simply a mise-en-scène as there are many points made about animals in historical sources which to the average reader—and certainly one like myself who grew up in a city—which are incomprehensible unless one knows these technical points. Kelly has consulted vets, plant experts, and experts in husbandry, soil types, weather, and several more besides, distilling their expertise for us. This information is the first stratum of the book, and upon it the historical information about an actual society is laid. The next band of evidence is archaeological: evidence of field systems, boundaries, pollen from plants, and bones from animals. Next, he presents the evidence from written records, ranging from the earliest writings (Patrick’s Confessio) to the first ‘tour-guide’ of Ireland (Giraldus Cambrensis’ Topographia), and even snippets from later accounts of Irish farming practices. However, the book’s key sources are extant texts of early Irish law. This is an area where the author is already an acknowledged expert and where he combines the skills of textual exegete, philologist, and legal and social historian to produce a description of early medieval life in Ireland unrivalled in detail. While it has none of the human engagement of a Montaillou, this is a reconstruction of a life, economy, and a mentalité that reminds one of all that is best in the Annales historical tradition.
The book begins with general questions of geography, sources, and the problems of writing the history of agriculture. It then goes through what all the various sources say about different animals (cattle, sheep, pigs, etc.), the work involved with them, the benefits derived from them, the crimes committed by them (we learn, for example, that defecation by animals on roads, pp. 143-5, is not a new urban problem), and the diseases that afflicted them. In the process we learn about weights and measures, units of currency, the work of slaves, the honour-price system, as well as many of the basic principles of early Irish jurisprudence and how it differed from canon law, other legal systems, and law today. By this stage the book has you hooked. Kelly then deals with crops, everything from wheat to beans, hunting, fishing, diet, and cooking. While each of these topics will attract interest from researchers into specific topics, the overall picture of life and living is attractive to historians in general. It brings these people before us in depth, and gives these austere legal documents with their regulations, caveats, and conditions a life, and a value as historical evidence, like no work before this has done. Having dealt with what was produced on the farm, chapters eleven to fourteen deal with what we know of the organisation of the farm: who owned it, worked it and how. This brings in everything from tools to social structure of labour: what was the role of slaves in the society, what was the role and status of women, and what constituted economic freedom in the society? These chapters will open up a field of investigation into social history and women’s history which up to now has been the preserve of a handful of specialists in early Irish law.
Having given us a book of some 500 pages, Kelly adds another 250 pages of appendices. First, he offers some more editions of legal texts, along with translations and discussions of their possible meanings (seven texts are given). Second, a treatise on the units of measurement needed in farming from land-area to weights. Lastly, there are indices/glossaries of the languages used in the work (e.g. Irish, Latin).
This book will find eager readers in anyone dealing with early Irish history professionally but it will also appeal to local historians who wish to understand how their locality lived and worked in the earliest period for which we have records. But, perhaps the most interested audience will be teachers of history  in schools. At last there is     a book which can fill in the detail needed to imaginatively reconstruct the life   of the distant past: how did the people who lived in an area 1000 years ago work, eat, and live. While the work uses all the apparatus of a learned work, it translates as it goes, and does not assume that one already is an expert in early law and several other disciplines besides. To use the current phrase, it is ‘user-friendly’ and both general reader and learned scholar will enjoy and benefit from it.

Thomas O’Loughlin


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