THE BIG BOOK: IRISH HOUSES AND CASTLES 1400–1700

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/June 2020), Reviews, Volume 28

ROLF LOEBER (edited by Kevin Whelan and Matthew Stout)
Four Courts Press
€55
ISBN 9781846828201

Reviewed by Arnold Horner

The late Rolf Loeber (1942–2017) worked for over 50 years on topics related to Irish architecture and to Irish social history and literature, broadly interpreted. Born in the Netherlands and for most of his life based in North America, his initial interest in Ireland had centred on modern Irish literature and on the quite different issue of Dutch influences on Irish architecture during the early modern period. Those concerns quickly expanded as he explored a broad agenda particularly related to Irish architectural history and to the settlement impact of the plantations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He wrote widely, contributing to a very broad range of outlets that included local history journals, book chapters and international works. His books included a pioneer attempt at a dictionary of Irish architects, and, in association with his wife, Magda Stouthamer-Loeber, a guide to Irish fiction 1650–1900. In 2014 he was chief editor of Irish architecture 1600–2000, the fourth of five volumes on art and architecture in Ireland, produced for the Royal Irish Academy and the Paul Mellon Centre. He was very much a scholar forensically sifting though archives in repositories across Europe, but, rather unusually perhaps, he was also a person very much at home in the field, exploring often-neglected country houses, old ruins and abandoned formal gardens across almost all of  Ireland.

All this is not counting the day jobs. The Loebers were professionally neither architects nor historians but distinguished specialists in psychiatry and psychology working at the University of Pittsburgh. Their longitudinal studies of American youth and their publications, many of them jointly authored, on social development, juvenile delinquency and criminology have attracted global attention, with well over 80,000 Google-listed citations to date. In effect, each Loeber had two parallel careers, and in both each has been outstanding.

As the 300+ entries in the ‘Tabula Amicorum’ in this book testify, Rolf Loeber had many friends and admirers in Ireland. He was deservedly widely respected; indeed, more than that, he was held in awe by many for the breadth and originality of his scholarship and for the thoroughness of his approach. This book is an edited version of six of his diverse repertoire of publications. Starting with an architectural history of Gaelic castles and settlements 1370–1600, subsequent chapters successively explore the geography and practice of English colonisation in Ireland 1534–1609, the architectural impact of the plantations in Ulster and the midlands, and Irish houses and castles 1660–1690. The final two chapters (the second co-authored with Livia Hurley) review the architectural legacy of the period between 1691 and c. 1740 under the headings of early classicism and continuity and innovation. The book concludes with a listing of Rolf Loeber’s publications on Irish history, art history and literature. Including jointly authored work, Loeber produced six books, 26 book chapters and over 30 articles, distributed across twenty journals, on Irish themes.

With his particular attention to the architectural transition that occurred among the larger residential buildings in Ireland between 1400 and around 1700, Loeber explores the move from fortified tower-houses and castles to the gracious country houses set in formal gardens that were the forerunners of the landlord houses of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The book thereby helps fill a gap between the painstaking works of Paul Kerrigan on Irish castles and fortifications and the works of Maurice Craig on the architecture of the eighteenth century, most notably his Classic Irish houses of the middle size (1976). The opening chapter, the first published version of which appeared in 2004, has in the intervening years lost little of its originality in being a careful, systematic exploration of the nature, distribution and dating of castles and settlements developed by ‘the native Gaelic population’, a body which in the 2004 version is further described as ‘a distinct culture group (or a multitude of groups)’. The text is supplemented by a listing of the location, builder and general date of 78 Gaelic castles built between the fourteenth and late sixteenth centuries.

Changes over the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, involving initially the building of semi-fortified houses, are especially well described, and it becomes possible to recognise both the widespread extent and the scale of investment associated with the new Ireland that was emerging. The focus is broad, and in the course of the book plantation Ireland is reviewed with particular reference to how English settlement was expressed in the landscape. Like the piece on Gaelic castles, the long (77 pages) colonisation chapter is accompanied by a detailed tabulation, in this instance identifying the date and location of over 300 developments (23 towns, 43 forts, 42 garrisons [many of them also towns] and over 200 ‘settlements’) known to be associated with the colonisation process between 1536 and 1607. Many readers will appreciate the topographical detail that flows so readily from a scholar with such an intimate knowledge of the Irish countryside. Perhaps more lucidly than anyone else, Loeber brings to life the settlement process of forts, castles, manor houses and villages that was associated with England’s protracted struggle to extend and consolidate its control of Ireland beyond the Pale.

The final chapters recall the sometimes little-studied architectural episode between 1691 and c. 1740 during which some 160 new country houses are estimated to have been built in Ireland. This was a period during which ‘early forms of Palladianism were introduced and a new era of sophisticated architecture appeared alongside the more provincial adaptations of classical ideas’ (p. 246). The stylistic features of the resultant buildings, interior as well as exterior, are here reviewed and further illustrated in a series of monochrome images, many of which depict houses that are now demolished. The range of images takes in places like the once-ornate Eyrecourt (Galway), Ardfert Abbey (Kerry) and Turvey (north Dublin), which was abruptly levelled in the late 1980s.

The chapters making up this book were originally published in a range of journals and books over a 40-year period from 1973. These earlier articles are now brought together for the first time, thereby making it much easier to appreciate the scale and originality of Loeber’s contribution to Irish social history. The original articles have been robustly edited by Kevin Whelan and Matthew Stout, with changes—both additions and deletions—being made to both the texts and the range of illustrations that were included when the various chapters first appeared. Articles are described as being reprinted in the acknowledgements (pp xiii–xiv), but the adjustments made here go well beyond that. Sentences and, on occasion, whole paragraphs have been recast or eliminated, and in some instances the sequence of the original text has been rearranged, whilst at least one short Irish-language quotation has been re-translated. Almost invariably the sense of the general argument is unaffected, but some of the rewriting, whilst undeniably skilful, appears gratuitous.

The commendable aim of the editors was presumably to produce a unified text that read smoothly, as far as possible dispensing with the dislocations that come with material created over a long period. Nevertheless, in some places the present text diverges from the original a bit like different versions of the Bible: the core message is consistent, but some of the imagery, words and inflections vary. So (perhaps because they could not be readily reproduced?) the three plates in the original version of the opening chapter, showing Leap Castle (Offaly), Blarney Castle (Cork) and Donegal Castle, are here omitted, whilst images of Parke’s Castle (Leitrim), Clogh Oughter Castle (Cavan) and Mongavlin Castle (Donegal) are newly introduced. Elsewhere (for example) the evocative original title of Loeber’s path-breaking piece on ‘Irish country houses and castles of the late Caroline period: an unremembered past recaptured’ now becomes the blander ‘Irish houses and castles 1660–90’. In the ensuing text, elements of the introduction to that chapter are rearranged, and the two-paragraph conclusion on the theme that ‘architecture and the arts of the period flourished greatly, facts which have gone unrecognized for decades’, is dropped. Gone, too, is an interesting eleven-line reference to the absence of an Irish Vitruvius Hibernicus and to the loss of James Robb’s 1688 text on early fortifications.

Other issues in this chapter include the replacement of Loeber’s arguably more neutral and general usage of ‘country house’ with the term ‘Big House’, whilst a reference to Petty’s political anatomy is conflated with his political arithmetic. Changes are also made to some of the illustrations, including a new figure (4.17) interpreting the 1680s development at Carton, Co. Kildare. Loeber’s text refers to ‘Carton’, but in the present book the site is incorrectly identified as ‘Old Carton’, which is a nearby townland. Some sort of editorial licence was probably necessary to impose coherence; indeed, it can be claimed that some of the changes, especially those to the illustrations, many of which are now informatively annotated, represent improvements. Yet it is also perplexing to contemplate the extent of the editing. Arguably, some readers might have liked to review this and other chapters as a series of period pieces—to ‘hear’ and read the text as Loeber originally expressed it. At the very least, the integrity of the present text might have been well served if the editors had signalled the nature and extent of their intervention in more detail.

That said, it can be readily acknowledged that this book abounds with interest and is also very well presented. The editors and publisher have created an exceptionally coherent—indeed, compelling—book that adds value to the multiple contributions of Rolf Loeber to Irish architectural history. Important research that ran the risk of being forgotten or consigned to obscurity is here retrieved and given its rightful setting as part of a wider narrative. Many readers may appreciate, perhaps for the first time, the significance of Rolf Loeber for Irish architectural and settlement history. This book is a fine tribute to a scholar who was truly a path-breaker and an inspiration, a person whose legacy deserves to valued and remembered.

Arnold Horner formerly lectured in Geography at University College Dublin. His Mapping Laois from the 16th to the 21st century was published by Wordwell in 2018.

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