Gaelic Ireland: land, lordship and settlement, c.1250-c.1650, Patrick J. Duffy, David Edwards & Elizabeth FitzPatrick (eds.). (Four Courts Press, £39.50) ISBN 1851825479

Published in Book Reviews, Gaelic Ireland, Issue 2 (Summer 2001), Reviews, Volume 9

In the period 1250 to 1650 covered by this book there was no single entity known as Gaelic Ireland. The term has been devised by modern historians to signify collectively the numerous quasi-autonomous Gaelic and Gaelicised lordships that existed in medieval Ireland. The sources from which the detailed workings of individual Gaelic lordships in the medieval period can be reconstructed pose both technical and methodological challenges to today’s researchers. One of the aims of the 1999 conference hosted by the Group for the Study of Irish Historic Settlement, where versions of the papers published here were discussed, was to tease out the possibilities for future research using the widest possible range of extant sources. The participants, whether archaeologists, historians or historical geographers, have now produced a stimulating collection of essays on the inter-related themes of land, lordship and settlement, that will become essential reading for anyone embarking on the study of any aspect of Gaelic society in the medieval and early modern periods. The book’s first achievement is to provide a reliable assessment of what has been achieved in the study of Gaelic settlement and society over the past thirty years, and the notes to the text are the most comprehensive guide that exists to the work of a whole generation of researchers. A composite bibliography would have made the volume more user-friendly pending the creation of the electronic database of sources listed among the editors’ desiderata for the future.
Authoritative essays by John Andrews on maps, Nollaig Ó Muraile on place-names and Katharine Simms on bardic poetry will guide future researchers on the settlement history of medieval Ireland. Studies by Rolf Loeber, Colm Donnelly and Thomas McNeill of the castles which are one of the most visible ‘settlement’ remains of late medieval elite Gaelic society set an agenda for further fieldwork combined with more thorough examination of documentary sources. The essay by Kieran O’Conor, pursuing some of the themes of his Archaeology of Medieval Rural Settlement in Ireland (Dublin 1998) provides a preview of what could be achieved through the kind of integrated study of crannógs, natural island fortresses and moated sites in north Roscommon now planned by Discovery Programme archaeologists. Liz FitzPatrick’s important study of Burke inauguration places in late medieval Connacht shows what can be achieved by individual researchers able to combine the techniques of historians and archaeologists.
The historical case studies by David Edwards, Simon Kingston and Fiona Fitzsimons with which the book opens, though important in themselves, appear slightly out of sympathy with the overall agenda of the volume. They rarely nod in the direction of the researches of historical geographers and archaeologists, preferring the context of the more familiar terrain of the debates on political history that have come to dominate writing on early modern Ireland in recent years. Paddy Duffy’s inspirational essay on the MacMahon lordship in the sixteenth century combines an examination of the surviving landscape with evidence from maps, estate surveys and place-names to decode the environmental logic of the territorial order that existed in Airghialla.
The editors’ lengthy introduction to this volume of essays gives researchers in any of the disciplines that fall under the umbrella of the Group for the Study of Irish Historic Settlement a balanced and pragmatic assessment of the achievements of the last thirty years. Their proposals for future research are ambitious, even intimidating. While many of the suggestions could only be achieved through large-scale (and expensive) co-operative research projects, it is important to emphasise that there is still plenty of scope for the individual researcher willing to work on local case studies. This collection of authoritative essays will have served its purpose if it alerts researchers in all the cognate disciplines to the reality that each individual piece of local research on Gaelic Ireland has significance beyond that of the individual researcher’s own discipline. If it encourages individuals to adopt a more adventurous interdisciplinary approach to their researches it will have succeeded in greatly advancing a core objective pursued by the Group for the Study of Irish Historic Settlement through its superb series of conferences and publications over the last thirty years.

Bernadette Cunningham


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