Earlymedieval Ireland 431–1169

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/June 2018), Reviews, Volume 26

Wordwell Books
ISBN 9781999790905

Reviewed by Pat Wallace

So much progress has been made on so many levels by so many specialists over the past half-century that there is now an ocean of data available on Ireland’s first historical millennium. Material culture is only part of this ocean and its specialities range from landscape and settlement remains and building forms, urban layouts, monasteries and ringforts to crafts, weapons, ornaments, decorative metalwork, sculpture, architecture, scripts and page layout, manuscript illumination, textiles, ceramics, silver and numismatics. This is before the even vaster expanses of the rich historical, literary and linguistic worlds and the vistas they open up are brought into play. Fields like these become minefields for those who dare to venture into them in search of the colour and balance they offer anyone seeking as holistic a picture as possible for the era in question.

The author is respected as an archaeological geographer, a landscape and map man, a pioneering contributor to the application of statistics to the Irish ringfort and its chronology. But Matthew Stout is taking on a bigger challenge here, compiling the first narrative history of early medieval Ireland, the period from St Patrick to Strongbow. While the book includes landscape, archaeological and art-historical evidence, it is structured as a history narrative in which major dramatis personae of the millennium play their parts against the rich tapestry of historical reference, the advent of Christianity and its spread from here to the Continent, as well as the Vikings, their wars and their impact on the great dynasties. And he starts the whole thing off with a fluent summary of the Celtic background before the arrival of Patrick.

Archaeologists will be gratified to see their evidence contextualised in historical and broad cultural terms, while historians and legal and language scholars should appreciate the recurring emphasis on the physical and economic environment in which events and developments in their areas of interest were transacted. Students of history, for whom Stout has primarily written this book, will be glad to have extensive extracts from so many sources included between the covers of what is a one-stop resource. The canvas is so expansive in its ambitions that it cannot always be expected to deploy the most up-to-date conclusions in every field.

Anyone with the temerity to undertake a unique synthesis such as this will be judged by how they succeed in knitting together the myriad often disparate sources and on the relative seamlessness and balance with which that patchwork is assembled, all the while making the period as accessible as possible in as readable and attractive a format as modern book design and colour will allow. In all of this Matthew Stout’s valiant attempt succeeds. Like all good synthesisers, the author’s own expertise juts above the general flow and, happily, our author does not disappoint us.

The book is a credit to its publisher and printer, and is beautifully illustrated with over 100 hallmark Stout maps and diagrams, punctuated with the best available photographs from the National Museum, Trinity College and the National Monuments Service. A stand-out feature is the list of personalitiesthat prefaces each of the chapters. These are correlated with the RIA’s Dictionary of Irish biography. The inclusion of columns of pronunciations of names is especially useful for readers not conversant with Irish who find such names impossible to pronounce. This can be a bit irritating for those of us who were fortunate enough to have studied the wonderful early medieval Irish history syllabus for the Leaving Cert before the Department of Education abandoned it for a more modern and contemporary emphasis years ago, but mainly, I suggest, because the pronunciations are printed in the same colour as the annalistic derivations and their dates.

Citations of evidence and maximum accessibility are welcome characteristics in this book and nowhere more so than in the excellent footnotes, which are not only chapter-headed but also page-led, which adds to the enjoyment for the reader/student.Modern-day experiences like elections, uprisings, treaties and technological introductions allow the use of actual years that ushered in major changes, but the historical sources of more than a millennium ago, good though they are, hardly do so.

Stout’s division of his work into tight chronological brackets presumes that such parcels of time are separable in the modern sense. It would have been more sensible if his divisions of time were more broadly rounded up. This is especially true from the material and physical standpoint, where one has a greater sense of gradual evolution. The so-called ‘Golden Age’ surely didn’t begin in 756 or finish in 808. Reigns of kings and spans of dynasties might have been better dividers.

Instead of opting for Etienne Rynne’s early and tightly boxed chronology for the production dates of the Moylough Belt Shrine, the Tara Brooch and the Ardagh Chalice, Stout might have opted for Michael Ryan’s broader and slightly later date brackets for the Chalice.It is also worth noting that Ryan has revised his own earlier view that the Ardagh Chalice and the Derrynaflan Paten were made in the same workshop, following Niamh Whitfield’s close-up examination of the respective techniques employed. Incidentally, can Stout and the experts be correct in thinking that a whole century divided the production of the respective chalices, Ardagh and Derrynaflan, from one another? I doubt it.

Future editions of the present work will hopefully illustrate the Ardagh Chalice from its most logistical and balanced perspective—that is, with its handles in view rather than side on. They will also hopefully tweak the caption about the glass studs which have grills laid onto them in imitation of the cloisonné technique in which pieces of glass are set into metal cells, and will also adjust the information about the decoration on the tiny Garryduff bird, which was achieved in beaded gold wire rather than by being stamped. That such sumptuous achievements originated in different workshops of the same school underlines the greatness of Munster’s metalworkers around the eighth century and makes us wish it were possible to equate some of these treasures to possible monastic workbenches or even the immediate neighbourhoods from which they emerged.

The author’s uncertainty about the home territory of the Uí Fhidgenti, who are moved around in successive maps, may not be unrelated to the difficulty of locating the place of production of the great chalice. Weren’t the same people independent enough to offer resistance to Stout’s non-hero Brian Boru much more than a century later?

It is gratifying for this writer to see the results of the Fishamble Street discoveries of successive neighbouring layouts with their plot boundaries and building foundations so graphically presented and discussed. It is necessary, however, to enter a respectful recurring caveat that chronological attributions cannot be as tightly inferred as the author, who was a member of the Wood Quay team, believes.

While coins are useful historical documents, their discovery can be accidental and dependent on a variety of circumstances. The nine-year average lifespan of the houses also seems a bit short. And incidentally, while Waterford, which was excellently excavated and published by Maurice Hurley and others, is undoubtedly the second most important urban archaeological site after Dublin, Limerick, which has not been blessed with the same preservation qualities, is historically the second most important Hiberno-Norse town in Ireland.

An intriguing thread running through Stout’s tapestry is his not-so-hidden empathy for Mide and its kings during the Viking age. This is to the detriment of some of the figures of the age,such as Brian Boru and the great Dublin kings, especially Sitric Silkbeard and his father, not to mention his mother, Gormflaith.

Jarl Sigurd of the Orkneys, who probably would have taken over Dublin if the Vikings had prevailed at Clontarf, doesn’t make the cut either, and we’ll have to check whether Bruadar was a chieftain of the Danes. By the way, Maelsechnaill was hardly ‘the innovator’ that Diarmuid Mac Mael na mBó or the later Uí Briain kings were.

A refreshing feature of the book is the author’s recurring though seamless return to the farming economy background. Using his own original work in this area, along with co-workers like Finbar McCormick and Fergus Kelly, he locatesthe development of tillage farming in the seventh century, with a shift towards arable farming around 800, and floats the ideal of a dual economy, with monasteries concentrating on tillage and secular rulers raising cows, the hides of which would anyway have been in demand at the scriptoria. No less remarkable is the conclusion that the decline of ringforts coincided with a diversification of agriculture, and especially with ‘a radical change in the economic status of pigs’.

I applaud the courage involved in this undertaking, recognise the work that has been put into it and welcome the attractive and holistic product that has emerged. It is a wonderful and exciting introduction to the richness of all the sources and shows how they can be woven together. It is an accessible one-stop reminder for students and general readers about the quality and originality of first-millennium Ireland.

Stout’s personal and unique take is unashamedly, almost proudly, an unfolding of as full a story as is possible for any one writer to do. If the book had been attempted by a panel of specialists, the linking threads and continuity from the disparate sources that are provided by a focused single author would have been impossible and there would be none of the originality, awe, bias and sparkle for the student and general reader to feast upon in the way they are invited to do here.

When the author writes of the later twelfth-century Welshman Giraldus that, ‘because he was an outsider, he presented a more detailed and inclusive account than offered by contemporary Irish commentators (mainly in the annals), who simply took Ireland’s characteristics for granted’, he might almost be referring to himself, because with this publication, as a proud Californian, he joins a tradition of other distinguished outsiders like Ludwig Bieler and Françoise Henry who strove to put the achievement of early historic Ireland on the widest map. The debt of that civilisation to early Christianity remains as vivid from this account as when Máire and Liam de Paor titled their classic exactly 60 years ago and alongside which Stout’s more holistic effort is poised to flourish for a long time.

Pat Wallace’s Viking Dublin: the Wood Quay excavations was recently nominated for Current Archaeology’s Book of the Year.


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