Wexford castles: landscape, context and settlement

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 6 (November/December 2013), Reviews, Volume 21

Billy Colfer
(Cork University Press, €49)
ISBN 9781859184936


Few counties in Ireland have been better served by their scholars and writers than Wexford—and, of these, no one has better honoured his county’s landscapes and people than Billy Colfer. Wexford castles is not only a worthy successor to his monographs The Hook Peninsula (2004) and Wexford: a town and its landscape (2008) but is also a beautiful companion to the widely acclaimed Atlas of the Irish rural landscape (1997; 2nd edn 2011). The general editors of the Irish Landscapes series see landscapes as ‘history in slow motion’. In Wexford castles we are presented with an intimate and dynamic picture of a county’s evolution from c. 1200 to c. 1700 by a master craftsman in the full powers of his knowledge and skills as a historian. This book is written in a careful, clear, effective style and behind it is a lifetime of dedication to the study of his county.

Buttressed by magnificent maps and images—carefully integrated into the text—and following on from introductory chapters on Wexford’s location and Continental connections up to the mid-twelfth century, the reader is presented with a superb analysis of the place of castle-building in the evolution of feudal society in Europe. This evolution is explored in particular in relation to Normandy and the Normans—the latter so ‘very conscious and proud of their military heritage and prowess, investing vast amounts in castles and arms’, while spending ‘a fortune on the breeding and training of elite horses, noted for their endurance, speed and strength’ (pp 21–2). There follow contextual chapters on the Anglo-Norman colonisation of Ireland and Wexford, on the nature and character of the mainly thirteenth-century castles which ensured the colonial conquest of Wexford, and a chapter on the social turmoil as the area of colonial settlement in Wexford contracted, consequent on the Black Death and Gaelic resurgence. Billy Colfer is insightful in revealing the bitter nature of the conflict between ‘native’ and ‘settler’. Hence the need for the solidification of that most distinctive settler world of the Wexford Pale, whose natural defences were powerfully augmented by the building, with government support, of sixteen tower-houses along a line from Wexford town to close to Waterford harbour in the mid-fifteenth century. As along the north Leinster Pale frontier, south Wexford’s churches were also strongly fortified. Billy Colfer’s devotion to both his scholarship and his native county shines throughout, most particularly in the sequence of chapters on the tower-houses. There are particularly good chapters on the economy of the tower-house, its landscape and architectural features—the latter analysis revealing not only the author’s extensive fieldwork but also his expertise in dealing with intricate details of tower-house design and typology. There is a detailed map and table (p. 144) of the family groups who led in tower-house building: Sutton, Browne, Devereux, Hay, Hore and Roche.

The ‘end-game’ for the tower-house culture comes with the Tudor and Cromwellian conquests. The mapping of the distribution of Plantation castles (p. 205) all across middle and north Wexford in the early seventeenth century contrasts sharply with the compact world of the tower-houses in the south of the county. It also emphasises the first effective fortification (and conquest) of the whole county. The book concludes with a wide-ranging chapter on the legacy of the castle era in shaping modern Wexford’s society and culture. This is epitomised by the continuity of so many families in farmsteads located beside tower-house ruins, as well as in church architecture, art and literature, and most recently by the creation of the wonderful Ros Tapestry, which depicts the Anglo-Norman conquest of Wexford and beyond.

Equally important to the book are the detailed maps of many aspects of Wexford’s varying landscapes. For example, there is a most interesting and precise map of thirteenth-century land grants in County Wexford which belies the depth of research and good detective work needed to produce it (p. 31). Good use is made of maps of eastern Ireland and Ireland as a whole so as to locate Wexford in its overall contexts. These maps are often accompanied by photographs, including many of castle interiors and superb panoramic views across the landscape. There are many dramatic aerial photographs providing detailed perspectives on particular architectural landscape features. It is very helpful to the reader that the letters of the alphabet are used to identify specific features such as ramparts, churches, mottes etc. on these images. Excellent castle plans and sections are provided, prepared by the author’s architect son, Donal. There is good sourcing of illuminating images from continental Europe as well as Britain, including excellent use of the Bayeux Tapestry to highlight aspects of Norman feudal society. It is a little surprising that Maclise’s familiar and powerful nineteenth-century painting of the marriage of Aoife and Strongbow is not included.

In writing a book of this kind, historical geographers and historians are faced with the problem of seeking to combine two approaches: a cross-sectional one that seeks to analyse landscape and society in specific and successive slices of time, and a thematic one that focuses on, say, the castles and so transcends such space–time divisions. On rare occasions such a dilemma leads to some repetition in this book. Likewise, the richness of illustrative material now and again hinders the flow of the narrative. I am somewhat doubtful that ‘the unusually small townlands and parishes in Forth and Bargy [south Wexford] evolved from the initial patchwork of medieval land grants’ (p. 130). I do believe that the Viking heritage of south Wexford has been underestimated here. I also doubt the ‘ephemeral nature’ (p. 149) of castle villages. These were enduring features of landscape and settlement until ruptured by the Reformation and a plantation economy. Overall, the author’s judgements on the meaning of processes which characterised these turbulent eras in Ireland’s and Wexford’s history are most impressive.

Very tragically, this great son of Wexford did not live to see his wonderful book reach the bookshops.

William J. Smyth is joint editor (with John Crowley and Mike Murphy) of Atlas of the Great Irish Famine 1845–1852 (Cork University Press, 2012).


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