- Medieval and Monastic Derry: Sixth Century to 1600 by Brian Lacey
Urban history has become a significant focus for historians over the past several decades, boasting at this point several journals and professional associations all around the globe. Much of what has been written under this rubric has been driven by economic and sociological agendas, sometimes expressed through the biographies of individual cities and sometimes through studies of the nature and consequences of urbanization as a process. Brian Lacey’s new book on Medieval and Monastic Derry: Sixth Century to 1600, commissioned in conjunction with the United Kingdom’s 2013 City of Culture festivities and launched as part of the 400th-year celebration of Derry’s historic city walls, does not overtly engage with this by now substantial body of scholarly literature. However, it does provide a superb overview of what can be known of “one of the oldest more or less continuously documented places in Ireland” (p. vii) in the period leading up to 1600, when Derry began its history as an English-ruled town. [End Page 606]
Lacey is one of the most proficient historians writing currently on the north of Ireland in the early Middle Ages. As this is a field that demands a high level of technical expertise, it is impressive that he has been able to produce a book that will be of interest both to specialists and nonspecialists alike. It is short, heavily illustrated with maps and period drawings, and (in all but a few places, where the sheer volume of names gets a bit overwhelming) easy to read. The book is chronologically organized, and for the most part consists of Lacey’s meticulous reconstructions of the growth and development of the site. Among the biggest surprises for readers not yet familiar with his more specialized work will be his contention that Colum Cille, or St. Columba, was not, in fact, the primary founder of the monastery as is commonly held in popular tradition. Rather, as he shows convincingly, the association with Colum Cille is the product of literally centuries of carefully constructed propaganda by a variety of peoples and families with interests in the site.
Lacey is particularly strong on the politics of the place: the manner in which secular and ecclesiastical interests meshed or came into conflict during the long centuries of its existence as a native town. Thus we hear of the site’s transformation from a small fort belonging to the Cenél nÉnnai, to its foundation as a monastery under the Cenél Conaill king Áed mac Ainmerech, to its heyday under the MacLochlainns of Cenél nEógain. Of particular interest is the vivid account of the reform under the colorful Flaithbertach Ó Brolcháin in the twelfth century, when Derry became the head of the Columban churches in Ireland. Cenél Conaill and Cenél nEógain continued to dispute—and share—power within what had by that time become a large and important town until the fourteenth century, when the island of Derry itself was partitioned. The book ends with Derry’s decline and eventual re-establishment as an English town. Three of the most interesting chapters are thematic rather than strictly narrative in nature. Chapter 6, on the layout and structures of the town itself, gives a vivid sense of what buildings were there and how they were related to one another, whereas chapter 8 recapitulates a remarkable visitation there in 1397 by Archbishop John Colton of Armagh, friend of King Richard II of England and his justiciar in Ireland. Chapter 10 addresses the manner in which Derry’s past and, somewhat surprisingly, Colum Cille himself, were remembered in the centuries after the English settlement by Catholics and Protestants alike.
In short, this is an important and accessible study for anyone interested in the history of one of the island’s most vibrant cities.