Ireland in the Middle Ages, Seán Duffy, (Gill and Macmillan, £9.99) ISBN 0-7171-2374-X

Published in Issue 1 (Spring 1998), Medieval History (pre-1500), Reviews, Volume 6

It would be hard to exaggerate the significance of Duffy’s book which marks an important stage in the development of Irish historiography. It represents a new point of departure in the study of medieval Irish history by beginning closer to the year 1000 than to 1169. Duffy identifies elements of continuity from pre- to post- invasion Ireland as central to his story. He transcends the traditional bifurcation in the course of Irish history whereby, in the second half of the twelfth century, the Anglo-Norman invader occupied much of Ireland and imposed there a political and socio-economic system totally at variance with Gaelic society and culture. In that sense, the system introduced by the invader was foreign in every sense of that word. Hitherto, this development greatly affected not only Irish history itself but also the writing of it.
Much of the book is devoted to bridging that gap and he has done so with such success that he has thrown new light on some of the formative events of the early phase of the Anglo-Norman conquest. Two developments will illustrate this point. Duffy emphasises the growing importance of the Hiberno-Norse town of Dublin, in both economic and political terms, which the twelfth century witnessed. Thus, the growth of Dublin’s importance before the Anglo-Norman invasion and its place in the Irish Sea province explains in many ways the crucial role played by that city after the Anglo-Norman invasion and the significance of its capture by Strongbow in September 1170. The second matter concerns the attitude of the high-king of Ireland, Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair, to the breaking of the Treaty of Windsor of 1175 by the Anglo-Normans when John de Courcy launched a raid into the kingdom of the Ulaid, essentially the present-day counties of Down and Antrim, and quickly occupied those territories. Robin Frame has suggested that Ua Conchobair may not have been greatly concerned about this since he was more concerned about his own position as province-king of Connacht. Duffy, however, while admitting the possibility that this was so, is inclined to doubt that Ua Conchobair was indifferent to the breach of the treaty on the grounds that ‘the lesson of Irish history in the previous 150 years or so is that these kings believed in making the kingship of Ireland a reality.’
Duffy is particularly good in discussing twelfth-century Ireland and the English lordship of Ireland in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and he does so on the wider canvas of the Irish Sea province. This is not surprising since this is his own area of research, one in which he has already made his name. Too little space is left, however, to deal with the apogée of the English medieval lordship of Ireland, its decline, recovery and ultimate stabilisation, and its replacement by the kingdom in 1541. Surely, the latter date rather than 1500 or thereabouts is the appropriate terminal point for this book. If elements of continuity were transmitted from pre- to post-invasion Ireland, so too certain lines of development in the late medieval lordship reached their culmination only in the mid-sixteenth century.
In his preface, Duffy tells us that he ‘had limited space to devote to the church and even less room for society and economy’. Despite the foreboding which this warning induced, it is a pleasure to report that his coverage of the church is adequate enough for a non-specialist work, particularly one severely limited in length. He discusses what, by the standards of the contemporary western or Latin church, were held to be the aberrant and idiosyncratic structure and practices of the Irish church before the invasion, against which both Irish and non-Irish churchmen railed and which, particularly following the granting of the papal bull Laudabiliter to Henry II in 1154-5, were used as a pretext for invasion by the Anglo-Normans in the name of crusade. Following J.A. Watt, he discusses the Anglicisation of the church, under the guise of reform. This raises the question of racial tensions in the later medieval Irish church and the policy of overt racism pursued by the English government in Ireland against clerics of the Irish nation. On this issue, I am not persuaded by Duffy’s argument about William Marshal. Surely the general ambience rather than Marshal’s personal conflict with the (Irish) bishop of Ferns explains the English royal policy of excluding Irishmen from ecclesiastical preferment.
Duffy’s coverage of economic affairs, however, while he provides useful material in regard to economic activity before the invasion and, particularly, to settlement after it, is simply inadequate particularly in regard to the key question of the economic organisation of the English colony in Ireland. As part compensation for this, he refers the reader to his bibliography. Here again the reader is disappointed, for there are important and, indeed, astonishing omissions. These are inexplicable and cannot be justified on grounds of pressure on space. For example, important works by Gearóid Mac Niocaill, Anngret Simms, Adrian Empey and the medieval contributions to be found in the various recently-published county histories have been omitted.
Socio-economic matters are not of marginal significance and this inadequate treatment of them is a matter of some importance. For example, quite apart from ecclesiastical structures and practices to which I have referred, Irish society and economy were singled out by the English invader as proof that the Irish were ‘barbarians’. Thus, as Duffy recognises, economic underdevelopment betokened ‘barbarity’ in the eyes of the Anglo-Normans. Equally, the Anglo-Norman invasion, colonisation and settlement, as Simms has emphasised, wrought profound changes on the Irish landscape with the introduction of the feudal manorial economy. That development alone brought about massive deforestation and land clearance, the growth of arable agriculture and a burgeoning economy, and, particularly in the fertile, densely settled areas of Ireland, the development of an impressive network of towns, markets and fairs. In addition, the settlers who made it all possible—and there was a massive inward migration of peasants, artisans, merchants and churchmen in the aftermath of the invasion—ensured, in the memorable words of Adrian Empey, that ‘in spite of everything—the Gaelic recovery, economic decline, the virtual collapse of royal authority—the fact remains that Ireland would never again be Gaelic in the sense that it had been before 1169.
Since the invader regarded the Irish as ‘barbarian’, the question arises as to why Irish culture, institutions (secular and ecclesiastical), and economy were so markedly different from those which had developed in the heartland of western Europe, the core as it has been termed. Duffy addresses this question in his first chapter. He seems to find the answer essentially in Ireland’s ‘remoteness’ from the European continental landmass. But was Ireland so remote as all that? After all, the Norse alone had incorporated significant parts of Ireland into a wider maritime trading nexus. Thus, long before the Anglo-Norman invasion, Ireland, and not just the Hiberno-Norse towns, was actively engaged in overseas trading. Duffy is particularly aware of this. Moreover, he argues in favour of institutional change in twelfth-century Ireland—this, indeed, is one of the strengths of his survey—and it can be suggested that these changes, to a significant extent, were prompted by forces emanating from outside Ireland. Accordingly, I find the argument regarding geographical remoteness unconvincing. Rather than isolation, it was the fact that Ireland had never been part of the Roman Empire and, accordingly, had never experienced the political, social and economic convulsions which western Europe experienced in the early medieval centuries in the aftermath of the fall of the Empire and the wave of invasions of imperial territory which marked it off from the general trend of western European development, notably the emergence and development of political and economic feudalism. The result was that Irish society, though never static, remained a kindred-based society and, as such, became increasingly aberrant in the context of western Europe as a whole.
The main strength of the book lies in Duffy’s analysis of political change and development both before and after the Anglo-Norman invasion. His discussion of events and developments, particularly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the period of his own research interests, is masterly as will be clear from the examples I have cited. By taking the story back beyond the invasion itself, the book illuminates important elements of continuity and crucial turning points in the course of the invasion. The politics of the period are analysed and discussed lucidly. Duffy’s observations are always interesting and the book is well written. It does not supersede previous textbooks but it does add greatly to our knowledge and perspective of medieval Irish history and can be recommended to students as an introductory textbook. In fact, it transcends this role because it is replete with solid information and perceptive conclusions.

A.F. O’Brien


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