Lough Swilly: a living landscape

Published in Book Reviews, General, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2011), Reviews, Volume 19

Lough Swilly: a living landscapeAndrew Cooper (ed.) (Four Courts Press, €35) ISBN: 9781846823077

Lough Swilly: a living landscape
Andrew Cooper (ed.)
(Four Courts Press, €35)
ISBN: 9781846823077

This attractive-looking edited collection brings together a team of geologists, scientists, archaeologists, conservationists and other researchers to produce a wide-ranging scholarly publication on Lough Swilly and its surrounding area in north Donegal. Its eleven chapters investigate such diverse topics as geology and geomorphology, history and archaeology, geography, aquaculture and conservation. The stunning photography on almost every page makes this book a pleasure to open, but the small volume of text in each chapter gives the reader a sense that in-depth knowledge will not be one of the outcomes of reading it from cover to cover.The first chapter gives the layman a general understanding of how the amazing hills and beaches around Lough Swilly were formed. Chapters 2 and 3 examine the natural habitats of the lough and issues about water quality. Neil Bass’s chapter on the waters of the lough points out that owing to the huge increase in population around Letterkenny the waste water treatment plant there is not fit for purpose, leaving the water in that part of the lough with critical levels of coliform. Owing to the lough’s rapid tidal flushing rate, however, Lisfannon beach (only 20km away) has blue flag status.Thomas McErlean’s chapters on the history and archaeology of the area are extremely wide-ranging, tracing human interaction with the area from 9000 BC to modern times. The chapters would work well for someone who wants to pick up a book and learn a few quick facts about the history of the area without delving any deeper, but from the historian’s point of view they are very disappointing. His treatment of the Neolithic era is very general. There is no mention of specific monuments (of which there are many), and a map showing monument sites does not name the locations or the type of monument situated there.There is more detail when medieval and early modern history is discussed. A good account of the power struggles and lordships up until the end of the Nine Years’ War is included, but there is very little detail on the major Lough Swilly event, the Flight of the Earls. Cahir O’Doherty’s uprising of 1608 is not mentioned at all, while the history of the British presence consists of a section on the seventeenth-century plantations and landlordism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In fairness, the size of the chapters would not allow any kind of comprehensive survey of this vast historical period, but it would have been prudent to include a few footnotes pointing readers in the right direction if they wanted to know more. It is actually maddening that the further reading section at the end of the book contains very few historical sources. The result is that anyone whose appetite for more historical information has been whetted by this brief survey is left without any resources to continue their research.McErlean’s chapter on maritime heritage is better. The section on the history of the fishing industry is quite interesting, but after reading through the chapter you feel as if you’ve missed out on more than you’ve learned. The lack of space means that McErlean has to jump from topic to topic quickly. Again, the lack of references or further reading here is frustrating. The book is perfect, however, for finding snippets of information on a range of subjects, such as nineteenth-century land reclamation, tourism and military heritage.John Niven’s chapter on fishing over the past century is much better. Niven benefits from a narrower chronology and produces an interesting and informative piece on the different fishing methods employed in recent times. He writes authoritatively about trawling, drift-netting, shellfishing, boatbuilding, and the challenges faced by the now almost defunct industry owing to EU policies.Historical interest is mostly left aside in the remaining chapters, which deal with geography, conservation, aquaculture and tourism, with an excellent concluding chapter on the environmental challenges faced by Lough Swilly in the future. Some of these chapters disrupt the flow of the book as a whole, however. For example, Chapter 6, entitled ‘The People of Lough Swilly’, starts off like a badly written travel guide and ends up in a deluge of facts that would have been better presented in tables and graphs as an appendix. At this stage the book also suffers from a lot of repetition (the same physical characteristics of the lough are outlined numerous times).Lough Swilly: a living landscape is a beautifully presented book with fantastic photography and snippets of information on a wide range of topics. It is best suited to and will probably sell well among the people of the area and its rapidly increasing diaspora. History enthusiasts will be disappointed with the omissions and lack of references, but this will make an excellent coffee-table book for anyone with an interest in the area or in Irish coastal heritage and conservation issues.  HI

Adrian Grant is a historian and the public relations officer for West Inishowen History and Heritage.



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