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Saturday, June 16, 2012
This wonderful atlas has been updated to reflect the madness of the Celtic Tiger decade. William J Smyth is impressed by the results
Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape, Second Edition
Edited by FHA Aalen, Kevin Whelan and Matthew Stout
Cork University Press; €59.00
READERS may wonder about the level of continuity and the nature of the changes from the first edition of this Atlas. Sections that have remained substantially the same are Aalen’s ‘The Irish landscape: synthesis of habitat and history’, the Stouts’ ‘Early landscapes: from prehistory to plantation’ and Whelan’s ‘The modern landscape: from plantation to present’. The sections on the ‘Components of the Irish landscape’ are in the main replicated. But these sections are now enhanced by new images and photos and excellent caption summaries for each map and photo. There are two major transformations to the first edition. Firstly, ‘The Challenge of Change’ section (now by Kevin Whelan) has been completely rewritten and is now the pivot of the Atlas. Secondly, five highly original new regional case-studies of the Wicklow uplands, Tory Island (Donegal), Aughris heartland (Sligo), Inistioge (Kilkenny) and Point Lance (Newfoundland) have replaced the first edition case-studies.
Fred Aalen was central in providing the stimulus for the making of the original Atlas and his philosophical, caring attitude towards the Irish landscape shines through in this volume. He is well aware that both new technology and a global economic system ‘have an invasive capacity of unprecedented power, far beyond anything previously imagined’. Consequently, fragile landscape quality can only be maintained by conscious design and comprehensive and sustained action. Recognising Ireland’s profound European heritage, Aalen sees the island’s culture as very much part of the Atlantic world while emphasising that the creation of its landscapes always involved a dialogue between insular and continental, as well as indigenous vis-à-vis exogenous, forces. In short, the Irish cultural landscape is plural.
In the following section, Geraldine and Matthew Stout bring the reader on a thrilling journey through Ireland’s early landscapes from Mesolithic sites, Neolithic tombs, Bronze Age settlement and early cultural/ political nuclei such as the great hill forts onto the mysterious ‘Celts’ whose conquering invasions have been challenged by negative results from DNA analysis. Supported by fabulous maps of 47,000 ring forts and 5,534 pre-Norman churches, they recover millennium old settlement patterns and rich landscape layers that have survived into the 21st century — a state of completeness unique in Western Europe.
In the analysis of the modern landscape, we encounter the crisp, eloquent writing of Kevin Whelan. His command of the cultural and historical geography of this colonial era is immense; he has a sure understanding of the ecology of Irish settlement and farming practices and his use of the Irish language is always effective. His writing is always apt and to the point. For example on page 82, the big farm / small farm divide in Co Cork ‘demonstrates the hurling/ football divide. Christy Ring’s succinct advice as to how to best promote hurling in Cork was to stick a knife in every football found east of this line.’ Kevin likes dramatic statements: ‘the potato, not Cromwell, peopled the west of Ireland’ (p.89). The continuing survival of Irish landlords there, the Gaelic partible inheritance system and proto-industrialisation may also have helped.
But it is in the newly written section, ‘The Challenge of Change’, that one encounters the full force of both Kevin Whelan’s writing and his passion for the Irish landscape. He begins by noting that ‘between 1995 and 2005 over half-a-million (584,073) new houses were built’. His view that the ‘economy was bingeing on property, a promiscuous planning regime, profligate lending standards and reckless government’ seems valid. But this chapter is not just a critique of the failures of this period — it also puts forward a whole series of sensible policy initiatives. The encouragement of a dynamic vernacular architectural tradition and the conservation of a rapidly depleting stock of surviving vernacular buildings are recommended. The furthering of Ireland’s priceless international reputation as a ‘green’ country should be encouraged to boost both food production and tourism activities. An impressive feature of this section is its emphasis on local and regional responsibilities in caring for landscapes and its absolutely essential emphasis on nurturing cultural landscapes as a whole rather than an overly site-specific emphasis — planners and Heritage Council please note. Ruth McManus’s subsection on Celtic Tiger housing details both the context and impact of the property boom as ‘new housing estates, fuelled by a land rezoning frenzy, formed accretions on the edges of rural towns and villages’.
The use of terms like ‘muck-mansions’ may reveal a lack of sympathy for and understanding of the motivations of couples seeking better homes. Are the ‘over-the-top’ excesses of the Celtic Tiger era now being matched by ‘over-the-top’ reactions? Was nothing good achieved in this era? This section on the ‘Challenge of Change’ does not address the saddest feature of the post-Celtic Tiger era — that many young people are again leaving for foreign shores.
The concluding section of regional case-studies is superb. Geographer and Dubliner, Arnold Horner turns his attention southwards to explore the Wicklow uplands, its geology, and its historical geography. Administrator Jim Hunter skilfully reconstructs the historical and social geography of Tory Island. However, his view of the island today may be just a little romanticised. This once authentic and resilient farming and fishing community is now almost totally dependent on state supports and summer tourism.
Archaeologist Elizabeth Fitzpatrick’s recreation of the rich heritage of the small Aughris headland in Co Sligo is a loving and superb portrait. Her knowledge of every square inch and every monument in this once pivotal assembly place shines through as text and images are skilfully interwoven to form a wonderful vista.
Ethnographer Fidelma and historian Edward McCarron’s recreation of the historical geography of that beautiful and strategic village of Inistioge makes for pleasurable reading. The River Nore forms a central thread for the stories of this well documented region, from its rich medieval heritage to the landscapes of emigration as the families of Inistioge’s townlands make their way all over the English-speaking world, beginning with Newfoundland.
And Newfoundland provides the final case-study. Here geographer John Mannion brings a lifetime’s harvest of research on Irish settlement in Canada and Newfoundland to bear on the farmer-fishing settlement of Point Lance at the top of the Avalon peninsula. Mannion highlights that the haphazard arrangement of the Point Lance farm settlement is very deceptive — underpinned by a strictly organised kinship and social network which the author documents while skilfully locating this settlement in the wider context of Irish migration to the New World.
There are many other gems in this second edition of the Atlas. The now newly integrated subsection called ‘The Joy of Small Things’ is a poetic cum-photographic celebration of a host of neglected landscape features. Anne Ryan’s piece on handball alleys is particularly outstanding, reminding us all — including Departments of the Environment and other relevant agencies — that vernacular features like the handball alley, farm villages and composite if fragile cultural landscapes require careful nurturing. This book is a treasure trove of images, insights and critical interpretations of the diverse and rich cultural and natural landscapes of Ireland.
* William J. Smyth is the author of the prize-winning Map-making, Landscapes and Memory: a geography of colonial and early modern Ireland c1530 – 1750 (Cork University Press, 2006) and joint-editor (with John Crowley and Mike Murphy) of the forthcoming Atlas of the Great Irish Famine (Cork University Press, 2012).
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