Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (July/August 2022), Reviews, Volume 30

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Cork University Press
ISBN 9781782054511

Reviewed by David Murphy

The late John de Courcy Ireland (d. 2006), the Irish maritime historian, often lamented the fact that, despite being an island nation, we had seemingly turned our back on the sea. In his public lectures and publications he pointed to the decline of shipbuilding and the fishing industry, the disgraceful demise of the national shipping company (Irish Shipping) and the seeming disinterest of both public and government in our ancient maritime traditions and coastal infrastructure. While not every Irish person lives by the sea, in truth, when one considers the size of our island, no one is so far inland as to make a trip to the coast impossible. In the decades before foreign travel became so popular, our own coastline was the key destination for generations of Irish holidaymakers.

We have rediscovered the importance of these coastal spaces in recent years owing to COVID-imposed ‘staycations’. As a nation we have a vast store of memories of glorious days on the beach. The weather is always more glorious in memory, and we selectively forget the rain, the sand in the sandwiches and wrapping ourselves in towels to stay warm. Despite these connections, national and personal, we have in the past remained detached from the significance of the sea in our lives. With each passing decade, fewer and fewer young people seemed to choose the sea as the location and influence for their lives and careers.

This was definitely the situation in the final decades of de Courcy Ireland’s life, but the present volume would suggest that this era of neglect of maritime issues at all levels has thankfully passed.

By any means of evaluation, this is a monumental volume in terms of its scope, size and breadth of vision. In over 900 pages, in 33 chapters, it represents the contributions of over 100 writers, each of whom is reaffirming Ireland’s relationship with the sea. In terms of content, the contributions are multi-disciplinary and include chapters on subjects within the disciplines of Geography, History, Archaeology, Engineering, Cultural Studies, Zoology, Palaeontology and Economics, among others.

There is much to fascinate and delight in this book, and the great difficulty for any reader will be how to read and absorb all the information. One suggestion would be to group the articles under disciplines and then try to absorb that content on a block-by-block basis. Alternatively, a casual practice of dipping into the volume from time to time will reward and this would be an excellent way to read and enjoy the content at one’s leisure.

Even a casual glance will make it immediately obvious that there has been an impressive amount of activity among the contributors in exploring Ireland’s coastal and maritime spaces. There are contributions on Ireland’s coastal and maritime history, and this content goes back as far as the initial populating of the country during the Mesolithic period. Rather fittingly, Peter Woodman and Robert Devoy’s contribution on ‘Early Coastal Landscapes’ confirms that these earliest settlers in Ireland were coastal dwellers. There are articles on the changing nature of our shorelines and discussion of mapping, including examination of Ptolemy’s second-century map of Ireland and Britain. The mapping aspect of this volume is a fascinating element, with discussion of the development of the mapping of our coastline and input on undersea mapping. As one might expect, there are articles on various historic wrecks, ranging from the Armada wrecks of 1588 to the wrecks of ships lost during the First and Second World Wars. Undersea mapping and imaging are associated with these sections.

For those interested in the diverse wildlife of our coastal and maritime spaces there are sections on the birdlife, maritime species and the varied habitats along our coastline. A strong theme within this volume is the physical evidence left over centuries by many generations of coastal dwellers. This content includes discussion of the sites associated with diverse phases of settlers, from Iron Age promontory forts around our coastline to monastic sites such as Skellig Michael. It is unlikely that any visitor to our coastline would not encounter evidence of settlement, industry or fortification, and these patterns can be traced back through the centuries. Marita Foster and Barry Brunt’s discussion of the impact of Famine relief projects on the coast of County Waterford shows how major national events affected our maritime space, and this pattern can be seen throughout the Atlas.

There is much discussion within the Atlas of the cultural impact of our maritime association and how its influence has affected our people. In an environmental sense, the sea is a powerful force that cannot but have an impact on the lives of coastal dwellers and those making their lives by the sea. Over the centuries it has been an immediate source of food or income for people living at the margins and, for the countless thousands who have emigrated from our shores, Ireland’s numerous ports provided a gateway to new worlds. Ireland’s island status has always provided some means of economic survival and, for the most desperate, escape. Indeed, my own father went to sea in the 1950s, aged just thirteen, as working on merchant ships offered an immediate source of income for him and his family. It also provided an outlet for travel and adventure, and this Atlas succeeds in capturing the draw and fascination of the sea—a powerful force that has affected Irish people over the centuries.

In recent years we have seen increased attention in Ireland to the condition of the world’s oceans and our own seas. These concerns are not overlooked in this volume and there is a valuable contribution on ‘Plastics in the Marine Environment’ by Erin McGovern and Shane O’Boyle. The importance of the sea and our coastal spaces for Ireland’s future is captured in a series of chapters on management of the coastal and marine environments, while the final chapter is on ‘Climate Change and Coastal Futures’. The message is clear—our coastal environment has huge potential in terms of energy generation, fishing and other industries and the promotion of our coastline as a restorative space. However, we are not immune from the dangers of the current climate crisis, and the impact of extreme weather events will be felt first in our coastal areas. Looking forward into a new century, there is an implicit call within the Atlas for more focus on our maritime spaces—in terms of conservation, coastal engineering, the exploration of its potential, and its preservation as a living and working environment for so many of Ireland’s population. For anyone curious about how to develop a career that is connected to the sea, there is a substantial block of content on ‘Resources, Communications and Industry’, which discusses the impressive level of current economic activity. Daire Brunicardi has contributed several sections, not only on Irish maritime traditions and history but also on the role of the Irish Naval Service and nautical education in Ireland.

The Atlas on occasion also shows us what has been lost over the centuries and how cheaply our maritime culture and infrastructure have been valued in the past. Ray O’Connor and Richard Scriven’s article on ‘Coastal Railways’ provides evidence of how we have essentially lost our coastal railway system. While the rail network along the eastern seaboard remains largely intact, by the 1970s most of Ireland’s coastal railways had been closed and dismantled in our southern and western counties. It is ironic how successive Irish governments dismantled this infrastructure, given that we now have so much discussion in the national sphere about communication and connectivity. It is no exaggeration to state that, in terms of rail connectivity, we had more capacity 100 years ago. Ireland’s sea towns and resorts have also not fared well. While many remain popular resorts, they have seen key pieces of infrastructure lost, only to be replaced by seemingly uncontrolled commercial and residential developments. For example, who could not regret the demolition of the splendid Turkish Baths in Bray, Co. Wicklow, which were opened to much acclaim in 1859 but were demolished in 1980 (photo on p. 446)?

There is some discussion within the Atlas of ‘remote coastal life’, and in several places in the volume the historic patterns and realities of island life are discussed. Our islands and their communities have always fascinated us and dwell in our national imagination, while they have always proved to be a significant attraction for foreign visitors. In recent decades we have seen some refocusing of attention and resources by the government in an effort to convert this interest into providing viable futures for our island communities. Within the Atlas there is an appeal that such focus be maintained.

This is a landmark volume, and in publishing terms it is testimony to our renewed interest in the sea, our coastline and all the history and experiences that these spaces bring to our lives. In a physical sense, we have seen new attention and activity in our coastal environment, and this has manifested itself in new phases of maritime industry, settlement and the creation of recreational spaces and greenways, such as the Wild Atlantic Way. At present, the Dublin Port Authority has significant plans for a new heritage space, and we can see similar projects developing across the country. In total, there are now over 60 maritime museums and heritage centres across Ireland, and this is evidence of the continuing interest in our maritime spaces. Many of these facilities are connected to other locations through co-operative organisations such as the Irish Sea Network. We have ceased to ‘turn our back’ on the sea and this will be a crucial environment for Ireland as we seek to use our national space more effectively and to become more self-sufficient in food and energy production. All this history and future potential is captured in The Coastal Atlas of Ireland. For anyone connected to the sea—by work, residence or recreation—this is a volume that will inform and fascinate. For researchers, planners, politicians and policy-makers, this will become a key resource and will help shape the discussion on Ireland’s future in the coastal and maritime space. Perhaps most importantly, for children and young adults, whether they experience this volume in their homes or in their local library, this Atlas will fuel the curiosity and fascination that will inspire our next generation of island-dwellers.

David Murphy lectures in History at Maynooth University.


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