Archaeology Architecture History Military

Ireland And The Roman Empire, Irish Tower Houses

I thought some readers might be interested in these two links from the Mediaevalist.Net. The first one leads to a recent essay by Elva Johnston, a lecturer in Early Medieval history at University College Dublin (UCD), presenting a good overview of Ireland’s position on the porous edge of the Roman Empire’s north-western frontier in the early centuries CE. The article makes lots of interesting suggestions, highlighting the importance of commerce with Romano-Britain – and the vast trading networks beyond – for socio-economic, cultural and political change on the island in the 3rd to 5th centuries. Thankfully, Johnston dismisses the fringe notion of a Roman military invasion or conquest of the country, describing such theories as “fanciful”.

From, Ireland in Late Antiquity: A Forgotten Frontier?:

“It is often assumed that Ireland entered recorded history with the emergence of organized Christianity on the island, at some point in the fourth or fifth century C.E. This assumption has meant that the histories of late antique and early medieval Ireland are primarily viewed through the lens of conversion. Religious identities, frequently imagined as a binary opposition of “Christian” and “pagan,” have been a dominant historiographical focus.

This paper argues that it is more fruitful to examine the relationship between Ireland and its neighbours from c. 150–c. 550 C.E., through a frontier dynamic, a dynamic in which religious identity was but one factor among many. By recasting the Irish experience in this way, a more comparative approach can be taken, one which cuts against the grain of Irish exceptionalism. Moreover, situating Ireland within the scholarly discourse of late antiquity allows for a new and nuanced understanding of the social and religious changes that characterized this period on the island.”

Next up is an older publication by Duncan Berryman of Queen’s University Belfast, taking a fresh look at Tower Houses in Ireland, a semi-military architectural feature which I find endlessly fascinating. From, The defensibility of Irish Tower Houses:

“Tower-houses are often considered to be small castles, with similar defensive features and functions. They are small, single towers, often four or five storeys high and have a simple plan. They were most likely to have been accommodation for the smaller land-owning lordship, both Gaelic and Anglo-Norman.

Tower-houses became more numerous from the late-fifteenth and early-sixteenth century; they mainly fell out of use after a few hundred years, but some remain occupied today. Tower-houses are found across Ireland, with concentrations in the southern Counties, the Pale the area around Dublin – and southern County Down. Similar buildings can be found in Scotland, mainly around the Borders, where they are called Peel Towers. The tower-houses of Scotland are similar in appearance, but differ in design.

Many scholars, such as Leask, Sweetman, Thomson and McNeill, have placed tower-houses alongside other castles in their respective studies. This exemplifies the position that tower-houses hold in the field of castle studies, being seen as a relatively minor area of study. It is true that they share many features with their larger counterparts, but they have a very dissimilar position in the social scale and must serve slightly different functions.

The earliest work on tower-houses was carried out by Leask, this formed two chapters in his book of Irish castles. Similar work was carried out by Sweetman in his book on Irish medieval castles. However, neither of these evaluated the effectiveness of the defence or living facilities. Terry Barry, of Trinity College, Dublin, considers tower-houses to be primarily defensive and has based his studies on an attempt to date them and to search for their origins. Tom McNeill, of Queen’s University Belfast, rejects the idea that tower-houses were primarily for defence, instead his studies have stressed the social factors and the architectural design of the towers. Research by Rory Sherlock and Gillian Eadie has attempted to investigate how the domestic functions of a tower-house would have operated.

Recent research carried out at Queen’s University, Belfast has taken a slightly different approach to the study of tower-houses. This research has taken a sample of tower-houses from across three counties of Ireland, Co. Down, Louth and Meath, rather than study every tower-house in one County. Instead of looking at the tower as a whole, this study focused on one important feature of the tower-house – the door – crucial to the defence of the tower. Being the only entry, it was central to the tower’s social function and its everyday life.”

The full publications can be read online, though Elva Johnston’s is hosted on the excellent I’d suggest signing up for a free account with this website and downloading the original PDF to your preferred reading device.

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