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  • Landscape and History on the Medieval Irish Frontier: The King's Cantreds in the Thirteenth Century by Thomas Finan
Finan, Thomas, Landscape and History on the Medieval Irish Frontier: The King's Cantreds in the Thirteenth Century (Environmental Histories of the North Atlantic World, 1), Turnhout, Brepols, 2016; pp. xv, 215; 11 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. €75.00; ISBN 9782503542928.

Thomas Finan has written an engaging and interesting book using his expertise in the history and archaeology of one of the frontier areas of medieval Ireland. Over the past couple of decades, this and other archaeological projects have transformed our knowledge of medieval Gaelic Irish society. Finan's book is the first in a new Brepols series on medieval environmental histories and he puts forward [End Page 210] the case for the importance of landscape studies and attention to geography and archaeology as disciplines that offer important advances in our knowledge of medieval societies. He situates his study of the area broadly encompassed by the modern County Roscommon in the Irish midlands with introductory chapters on medieval Irish history and politics. This area was ruled by the O'Conor dynasty of Irish rulers in an often uneasy series of royal grants from the English crown, interspersed with Anglo-Norman settlements and military centres. Finan's chosen time period of the thirteenth century was when the Anglo-Normans pushed periodically into the west of Ireland, encountering resistance as well as some measure of success. While much of the material on the politics of the period will be familiar to scholars of medieval Ireland, Finan's introductory chapters do provide necessary context for his substantive analysis. The main section of the book starts with a chapter on the physical landscape and climate of the area, contextualized in relation to current theories on European and global climates. Finan here explores the documentary and environmental evidence for periods of poor weather in Ireland and Roscommon possibly caused by distant volcanic activity. He follows this with detailed chapters on the built environment, then the Anglo-Norman presence in Roscommon, and finishes with a chapter on the Gaelic Irish.

In Ireland archaeological excavations and research were to a large extent at the mercy of the needs of development during the boom years of the 1990s and early 2000s. Due to strict Irish antiquities laws, development and construction of roads require archaeological excavations. In the boom period there were many excavations in advance of the tide of building and infrastructure construction. Such rescue archaeology has slowed since the economic collapse in Ireland in 2008, and now there is a wealth of reports on the excavations conducted during the boom. A downside of this activity, though, is that it occurred in areas dictated not by the research questions and interests of archaeologists and historians but by development priorities alone. As Finan explains, this means that there has been a bias towards excavations in urban centres that are mostly built on the sites of Anglo-Norman settlements. Consequently there is much less archaeological evidence for Gaelic Irish domestic and political settlements. In particular he points out that the analysis of ringforts—the most frequently occurring domestic structures remaining from medieval Ireland—is so far limited by the paucity of archaeological excavations. Of the approximately 40,000 identified sites remaining in Ireland, only a couple of hundred have been excavated to date. This means that expert analysis of such basics as the dating of construction, continued use into the later medieval period, and even their function, has not been possible.

After explaining these and other difficulties with the available evidence, Finan then looks at settlement patterns using modelling of clusters of domestic structures such as reuse of earlier ringforts and construction of ecclesiastical buildings, through the use of a combination of documentary and physical evidence. He surveys and analyses the different Gaelic Irish and Anglo-Norman settlements [End Page 211] sites in Roscommon based on size and proximity to other strategic landmarks. Moated sites were associated with Gaelic Irish elite usage and ringworks and masonry castles with Anglo-Norman settlement. While some of the higher prestige buildings, such as the monasteries of Boyle and Lough Key, are well known and reasonably well documented, Finan points out the deficiencies in current knowledge of ecclesiastical and monastic landownership and use.

Roscommon was a frontier area, with Anglo-Norman settlement and building sometimes failing completely or not succeeding to the levels that had obviously been planned. Urban areas grew up around the Anglo-Norman military establishments at Roscommon, Athlone and Rindoon, although the latter was not successful. The chapter on Anglo-Norman settlement in Roscommon is nuanced and integrates documentary and physical evidence giving a complex and layered history of different political strategies, some of which failed. Bogs, roads, and waterways were crucial in determining success or otherwise of Anglo-Norman incursions into Roscommon during the thirteenth century. However, there was only tepid success in encouraging English settlers to undertake the risks of establishing themselves in the frontier areas, despite inducements. Outside the areas directly around the great castles, Gaelic Irish were able to resist the Anglo-Norman settlement push. Through a variety of political and military means, Gaelic Irish lords did maintain 'some semblance of regional hegemony' (p. 192).

Finan's book is a useful addition to scholarship on the history and archaeology of medieval Ireland and of medieval frontier societies generally.

Dianne Hall
Victoria University

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