The post-medieval archaeology of Ireland, 1550–1850

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Early Modern History Social Perspectives, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2009), Reviews, Volume 17

1The post-medieval archaeology of Ireland, 1550–1850
Audrey Horning, Ruairí Ó Baoill, Colm Donnelly and Paul Logue (eds)
(Wordwell, for the Irish Post-Medieval Archaeology Group, €70)
ISBN 9781905569137
This welcome collection serves several purposes and prompts even more questions. First, it surveys comprehensively what post-medieval archaeologists have achieved, mainly during the last 30 years. It also proposes agendas for further investigations. It emphasises—sometimes obliquely—the differences in attitude across Ireland towards buried and fragile remains. In Cork and Galway, for example, the city councils and private developers have helped to record what was about to be buried or destroyed. Elsewhere such assistance has been patchier. One contributor roundly blames a form of cultural nationalism for a deliberate disregard of the sparse and vulnerable material. Others attribute the neglect to the mundane factors of inadequate money and expertise. Tara and Wood Quay may have been the most publicised victims, but the destruction of later buildings such as the Grammar School in Drogheda is equally to be mourned. Moreover, the pace of dispersal or obliteration seems to have quickened in the new Ireland. Losses, or the threat of them, have at least alerted the vigilant to the significance of subjects—such as fragile parklands or manufacturing sites with their machinery—previously little regarded.
As an introduction the volume is invaluable. Different regions and localities are first considered; archaeological types are discussed next. The latter range over domestic, industrial and ecclesiastical structures, together with their contents. Traces of animals, clothing, glass, coins and pottery are scrutinised. Waste pits disclose their secrets. The chapters vary greatly in the extent to which the authors draw larger conclusions. Some are more inclined than others to try to match the physical survivals to contemporary documentation. There are similar variations in the contributors’ use of the specialised historical literature. The latter has enlisted sources such as wills, inventories, printed advertisements and auction catalogues to elucidate changes in the volume and nature of consumption. A few assume the importation into Ireland, albeit with a time-lag, of the commodities and tastes popular in Britain. Yet increasingly sophisticated studies of material culture in Western Europe and North America from the sixteenth century onwards have modified notions of slavish imitation of metropolitan habits by provincials. Nor did the middling and humbler sorts always ape the behaviour of their social and economic superiors. In the face of these nuanced interpretations, some of the explanations of the Irish situation look decidedly naïve.
More persuasive are the sceptics. Tom McNeill, for example, doubts the accuracy of any sharp distinction between medieval and later types of settlement and building introduced by immigrants. Similarly, William Roulston provides telling examples of the uneven spread into seventeenth-century Ireland of houses impossible to defend against assault. Nor does he embrace wholeheartedly the tendentious proposition of internal spaces rigidly differentiated according to function and their accessibility confined to distinct social categories. Even if a taste for privacy developed, it was hard to satisfy in the cramped quarters in which even grandees dwelt in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Ireland. In contrast, a craving for a larger selection of the alluring goods on offer is both more plausible and better documented. Many contributors emphasise direct and indirect links outside Ireland. The planning, detailing and materials of building show strong influences from Scotland and western Britain. Artefacts unearthed in Ireland indicate well-established traffic within and far beyond the island. Careful analysis shows wares being shipped in not just from North Devon and Staffordshire but also from continental Europe, including Iberia, Saintonge, Rouen and the Rhineland. Such discoveries prompt questions about the volume of overseas trade and the dates at which markets—even in inland districts—stimulated and reflected a voracious Irish consumerism.
Many of these issues have been tackled by investigators of societies outside Ireland. Illuminating comparisons and contrasts can now be attempted more confidently thanks to this survey. It is also to be hoped that it will stimulate greater collaboration between historians and archaeologists. At the moment, many work in parallel but independently, using different types of evidence with their distinctive methodologies, when cooperation would be more fruitful. As specialists burrow deeper into their chosen seams, there is an unfortunate tendency towards compartmentalisation and mutual ignorance, if not incomprehension. Yet, as the volume suggests, well-worked topics, such as the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century plantations, could be reinvigorated if more attention was given to the sparse physical remains. Several chapters survey this evidence. Tom McNeill suggests that there may be fewer differences in what was built than the newcomers hoped, necessity obliging them to accommodate themselves to local materials and practices. Sometimes historians may have been misled into supposing that idealised models represent what appeared on the ground. At the same time, outside influences, reflecting the origins of the settlers, their continuing links with Britain and further afield and trade, added to striking regional variegation within Ireland. Audrey Horning helpfully uses what has been unearthed at Jamestown in Virginia to hint at what may have been distinctive about Irish settlements.
Regrettably few sites associated with the Munster and Ulster plantations have as yet been excavated systematically. Later settlements attract even less interest. An exception is Ballykilcline in County Roscommon. For several years a team headed by Charles Orser has been piecing together from the recovered fragments something of how poorer people lived. The results—Unearthing the hidden Ireland (Wordwell, 2006)—reveal a community economically and socially stratified and far from hermetic. Yet they do not uncover an exploitative colonial society of the sort, to take an extreme example, documented at Drax Hall by Douglas V. Armstrong in The old village and the great house (University of Illinois Press, 1990). Elsewhere in Ireland, a farm at Mayglass, its contents largely intact from the early twentieth century, has been preserved and documented minutely and is reported in Roberta Reener’s (ed.) A Wexford farmstead: the conservation of an eighteenth-century farmstead (The Heritage Council, 2003).
Occasionally museums seek to save and interpret the vulnerable remains. Notable successes are the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra outside Belfast (not in the least folksy in its unvarnished treatment of hard and penurious lives), the Tower Museum in Derry and the National Museum of Agriculture and Rural Life at Johnstown Castle in County Wexford. Smaller collections are frequently treasure-troves of curiosities and the humdrum, salvaged sometimes from big houses but also from the modest. In their different styles, the museums in Clonakilty and Armagh give vivid insights into the material realities of both urban and rural living.
The reasons why few orthodox historians utilise evidence of this kind are understandable. Much has been assembled randomly. Little has been catalogued. Provenance, age and even purpose are too often matters of conjecture. Interpretations veer between the anecdotal, the sentimental and the simply dismissive. Yet, with a dearth of detail for the everyday existences of all but the prosperous before the twentieth century, anything that has survived above and below ground can help. Nevertheless, there seems to be a reluctance to incorporate the archaeologists’ material into standard histories, which still prefer ‘high’ politics. Even matters that might seem far removed from post-medieval archaeology—the hypothetical confessional revolution, political mobilisation (whether in the late eighteenth or early twentieth century) and the alleged ‘modernisation’ of Irish society—could benefit if possessions and objects were used to address questions about chronology and impact. Subjects such as the physical accoutrements and memorabilia of the Volunteers and United Irishmen or the insignia and bijouterie of sodalities and confraternities are now receiving attention in the hope of solving comparable puzzles. Not many of these objects lie buried in the ground, but those that have not been consigned to the skip and bonfire need to be documented and evaluated before they vanish into the cabinets of collectors. The financial value of some buried objects has constantly hampered archaeologists, with sites disturbed and pillaged.
Political and economic historians may be deterred from straying into these matters since the specialists contest their meanings with vigour, even with rancour. Material culture has ceased to be the preserve either of connoisseurs, who grade according to generally subjective notions of style, or of prosaic utilitarians. What some see as tools with clear functions, others see as symbols. Styles of houses and gardens, even the choice of trees and plants, have been invested with political and semiological significance.
Not all artefacts from post-medieval Ireland that pre-date the mid-nineteenth century require archaeological recovery. Buildings, furnishings, clothing and utensils survive erratically. What remains belonged overwhelmingly to the important and affluent. Humbler possessions tended simply to wear out or to be destroyed. Until recently, the study and care of such objects interested few. Ada Leask, Rosemary ffolliott, the Knight of Glin and Mairead Dunlevy have been precocious in their appreciation of the historical as well as aesthetic (and monetary) worth of such things. Mairead Dunlevy, in particular, ensured that such neglected things were collected, conserved and interpreted. Thanks to her guides to specific collections in the National Museum in Dublin and to her pioneering treatment Dress in Ireland (originally 1989, then reprinted by Collins Press in 1999), understanding of the contexts in which the goods were made and used has improved. Claudia Kinmonth’s Irish country furniture (Yale University Press, 1993; paperback edition, 2006) and Irish rural interiors in art (Yale University Press, 2006) and Peter Francis’s revelatory investigations into the manufacture of glass and pottery in Ireland are also noteworthy. Despite investigations of this quality, most historians remain reluctant to trespass into areas in which they feel uncomfortable and disoriented.
Historical geographers and historians in Ireland have a long tradition of friendly interaction. The annual jaunts of the Group for the Study of Historic Irish Settlement bring them together and oblige the sedentary to forsake the study, armchair or computer screen. Destinations are more likely to be an inauguration site or passage grave than an exhibition of the innovative agricultural implements marketed by Pierces of Wexford. Armed with this guide to the subject, the timid historian should be emboldened to traverse the terrain. Perhaps the Group for Post-Medieval Archaeology, having provided this manual, can start interdisciplinary evangelism to unite the sadly separated archaeologists, historians, art and architectural historians, geographers and anthropologists. Together they could gather to ponder the faint outlines of parterres and wildernesses or the relics of icehouses, cold baths, grottoes and hot beds. Rather than stumble through rain and cowpats to a wrecked tower-house, they might contemplate one of the most elusive fragments from eighteenth-century Ireland: the image in an earthenware chamberpot of the reviled Richard Twiss. Unlike Twiss’s account of Ireland in 1775, this wide-ranging tour d’horizon should excite rather than enrage. HI

Toby Barnard, a fellow of Hertford College, Oxford, is currently holder of a Leverhulme senior research fellowship.


Copyright © 2022 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568