Thursday, November 24, 2016

Building the ultimate Library of Irish archaeology and history. Part III: The Irish Antiquarians

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'The Wilde Iresche' frontispiece from Borlase's The dolmens of Ireland, Vol. 1
George Petrie was many things – a vastly talented musician, painter, and antiquarian. In the latter guise he’s chiefly remembered for The ecclesiastical architecture of Ireland, anterior to the Anglo-Norman invasion; comprising an essay on the origin and uses of the round towers of Ireland, which obtained the gold medal and prize of the Royal Irish Academy (1845). It was among the first papers to seriously examine the Irish round tower and put its study on the firm bases of logical discussion and rational observation. On an unrelated topic – I was once told by an archaeologist who claimed to have researched Petrie’s personal correspondence (and I’ve no reason to disbelieve him) and that much of it was of a decidedly gay turn of mind (the LGBT kind – not the ‘happy’ kind). I’ve honestly no idea as to the veracity of this claim, and I’m not sure that there’s been a defined search for positive gay icons for Irish archaeology, but Petrie would make a great choice – a first-class scholar who made enormous strides forward in our thinking on many aspects of the discipline, was a prodigious collector and preserver of antiquities, and has influenced thought and research for almost 150 years after his death … what’s not to like?I'd love to find a good collection of readable PDFs of the Ordnance Survey Letters, preferably the Michael O’Flanagan typescript versions (as they're the ones I grew up with). Failing that, I would direct you to the collection of PDF versions of photocopies of the original letters at Ask about Ireland site: here. I'm afraid that even with the best of intentions, there's no way I have the time, patience, or eyesight to decipher these beautiful, copperplate letters ... but maybe you'll have better luck!
A Survey of Antiquarian Remains On The Island Of Inismurray (1892)
PS: The Ask about Ireland reading room has loads of PDFs, not all of which I'm familiar with ... go, explore!


Today I wanted to take a look at some of the works available as free downloads by the various antiquarians and early archaeologists, who set the foundations of modern Irish archaeology. Such works, even though many are heading into their second centuries, are still frequently referred to by modern archaeologists. Unfortunately, they are becoming scarcer and more difficult to access in the rare books collections of the better libraries. For most people – excluding the relatively wealthy and the lucky – many of these volumes are far too expensive to purchase. Thankfully, here they all are for free – provided your broadband can accommodate the download!

Nothing says ‘the beginning of serious archaeology in Ireland’ (to me, at any rate) more than Sir William Wilde’s Catalogues, so I’ll start there! Wilde was a noted surgeon and father of a mischievous chap by the name of Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde (all the best Oscars are saddled with multiple names!). I’m given to understand that this son earned something of a reputation as a poet and playwright. However, for those of us of an archaeological turn of mind, William has always been the more important Wilde.


The other two main works by Wilde (outside of his medical publications) should also be noted

While we’re at it, we can’t forget Lady Jane Francesca ‘Speranza’ Wilde. Her Ancient legends, mystic charms, and superstitions of Ireland (1887) remains an engrossing and inspiring read.

Even before Wilde set about investigating artefacts, Francis Grose had published two volumes examining the surviving field monuments of ancient Ireland in The antiquities of Ireland (1791). Grose had completed similar volumes for Wales and Scotland and was in Ireland to collect evidence and materials for these planned volumes when he suffered a stroke and died. These works were completed by Edward Ledwich.

Mervyn Archdall, of Castle Archdale, Co. Fermanagh, produced Monasticon hibernicum: or, A history of the abbeys, priories, and other religious houses in Ireland; interspersed with memoirs of their several founders and benefactors, and of their abbots and other superiors, to the time of their final suppression (1873)
Volume 1 (unable to find)
Volume 3 (unable to find)

He is also remembered for producing the 7 volume The peerage of Ireland: or, A genealogical history of the present nobility of that kingdom (1789)
Volume 2 (unable to find)



In the course of researching this post, I came across another Petrie volume, with which I was previously unfamiliar: Ireland and Scotland (1830). I’ve not had much opportunity to examine it in any detail, but it does seem quite interesting!

Sticking with Round Towers, we should note Henry O’Brien’s theory (predating Petrie). He proposed that the Irish round towers were created by a pre-Christian phallic cult among the Tuatha Dé Danann who he connected to the daughters of Danaus. His theory when first published caused a lot of controversy at the time, as well as sparking criticism (via Wikipedia). The book was initially published as The round towers of Ireland, or, The mysteries of Freemasonry, of Sabaism, and of Budhism: for the first time unveiled (1834). However, when it was reprinted in 1898, the title was changed to the somewhat less alarming The round towers ofIreland; or, The history of the tuath-de-danaans. Round Towers do appear to attract the nutters, don’t they? [Evidence: here | here *ahem*]. Adding to this list is Marcus Keane, 19th-20th century landlord in west Clare. He opposed the local population’s wish for a Catholic church, resulting in their creation of the Little Ark of Kilbaha [also here]. He was basically so much of a dick to the people of west Clare, where he was known as ‘The Clare Exterminator’, they dug up his body and hid it. Being canny Clare folk, they hid the corpse and coffin practically in plain sight in another part of the graveyard. In no way connected to this is his book The towers and temples of ancient Ireland; their origin and history discussed from a new point of view (1867) in which he argues that the towers are not Christian in origin, but the remains of ancient ‘Cuthite’ worship. This postdated Petrie by over two decades, and he really should have known better!

Not strictly archaeology, but I’ve often found Samuel Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland to be of great use for background reading. The 1st edition of 1837 is available online as a web page. However, if you prefer to be able to download it as a PDF, I’m currently only able to find the second volume of the 2nd edition, dealing with towns and parishes from Kanturk to Youghal. *Update*: I've just found both volumes of the 1837 edition, complete with the accompanying maps on the Ask about Ireland site: here.

Scholarship has moved on an awful lot since the publication of Margaret StokesEarly Christian architecture in Ireland (1878), but it remains an interesting and engrossing read, with many fine illustrations. One line in her Wikipedia article intrigues: “One brother, Whitley Stokes, was a leading Celticist, ... Important figures in the field of antiquities such as artist Sir George Petrie, lawyer and poet Sir Samuel Ferguson, Edwin Wyndham-Quin, 3rd Earl of Dunraven and Mount-Earl, and historians James Henthorn Todd and William Reeves were frequent visitors to the Stokes family home, and this is said to have begun Margaret's interest in Irish antiquities.” It makes me wish I’d been a fly on the wall at some of those gatherings! Apparently, Margaret, Whitley, and Dunraven, accompanied by the latter's photographer, toured many sites and monuments together across the country - it must have been some road trip!

The 3rd Earl of Dunraven wasn’t the stereotypical titled layabout - apart from an interest in ‘spiritualism’, fashionable for the time, he had vast knowledge of early Irish architecture and published his two-volume Notes on Irish Architecture, edited by the above-mentioned Margaret Stokes. Again, the scholarship may have moved on, but you will have to look hard to find publications that can match the quality of either the line drawings or the photography.
Volume 1 (1875)
Volume 2 (1877)

I’d like to add a small, personal note about the Dunraven volumes. The only time in my life when I’ve been able to hold a copy of this work in my hands was in the main Reading Room of the National Library of Ireland – I’ve never seen another copy anywhere else – not in a library, not for sale, and certainly not in a private collection. It was only through doing the research for this post that I found these PDFs. It underlines to me the fantastic resource that the Internet can offer for this form of research – what was a fantastically rare (and unbelievably expensive) book is now available to anyone who wants it – and in my opinion that’s pretty damn cool!

The Irish Archaeological Society was founded in 1840. A key figure in the foundation and work of the Society was William Elliot Hudson, who also supported the Celtic Society, founded in 1845. Both societies merged in 1853 to form the Irish Archaeological and Celtic Society. Prior to this merging, they published a single volume of The miscellany of the Irish Archaeological Society (1846).

If he could look back, I’m guessing that William Copeland Borlase would be happiest if we remembered him for his three-volume The dolmens of Ireland, their distribution, structural characteristics, and affinities in other countries; together with the folk-lore attaching to them; supplemented by considerations on the anthropology, ethnology, and traditions of the Irish people, rather than his career as a Liberal politician that ended in penury and ignominy.

In fairness to him, not many pioneers of Irish archaeology have a Wikipedia entry that contains the line 'His Portuguese mistress exposed his debts and the scandal brought him ruin and bankruptcy' ... so it must all even out!

Eugene O’Curry was born in Doonaha, Co. Clare, only a few miles form Kilbaha – the scene of the events of The Little Ark, mentioned above. You could hardly imagine two more different people than Marcus Keane and O’Curry. As outlined above, Keane’s actions in life have ‘echoed through eternity’ and he’s still remembered as a harsh, tyrannical landlord. In terms of his academic output, he is largely forgotten and relegated to the ‘hilariously wrong’ pile of discarded theories. O’Curry on the other hand, with John O’Donovan, collected and published numerous medieval manuscripts and, though largely self-taught, was eventually appointed as Chair of Irish Archaeology and History by John Henry Newman, at the newly established Catholic University in Dublin (later to become the National University of Ireland). At the time, this was one of the first Chairs of archaeology in existence in the British Isles. Among his most important works are the Ancient Laws of Ireland (with John O’Donovan) – listed in Part II of this series, and a series of 21 of his lectures, edited by W. K. Sullivan, as On the manners and customs of the ancient Irish. A series of lectures delivered by the late Eugene O'Curry (1873).

Also worth a look is O’Curry’s Lectures on the manuscript materials of ancient Irish history.

Here, among the last of the 19th century books on my list, I have to mention Patrick White’s History of Clare and the Dalcassian Clans of Tipperary, Limerick, and Galway (1893).


Again, if for nothing other than the quality of the illustrations, Evans’ The ancient bronze implements, weapons, and ornaments, of Great Britain and Ireland (1881) is worth a look.

George Coffey was the first Keeper of Irish Antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland. Today he is chiefly remembered for his book The Bronze Age in Ireland (1913). However, his Guide to the collection of Irish antiquities. (Royal Irish Academy collection). Anglo Irish coins (1911) is still of interest.

John Abercromby, 5th Baron Abercromby, introduced the term Beaker into the archaeological lexicon to describe the late Neolithic drinking vessels being found all over Western Europe. He supported the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and served as its president from 1913 to 1918. His will provided for the foundation of the Abercromby Chair of Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh, a post occupied by Vere Gordon Childe and Stuart Piggott (via Wikipedia). Today he is best remembered for his two-volume A study of the Bronze Age pottery of Great Britain & Ireland and its associated grave-goods (1912).

While it's tempting to see many of these books as of interest only to the students of the history of archaeology, Abercromby's work is a good example that this is not always the case - I have seen it referenced in a number of modern specialist pottery reports. It may be past it's centenary, but it's still a valuable work of reference. In a downloadable PDF format it can go on being so for at least another generation! 

William Frederick Wakeman was a student of George Petrie and was for some time employed as an illustrator by the Ordnance Survey of Ireland. He produced a number of works, more directed at the tourist (especially ones travelling by train), than the serious archaeologist. His work A hand-book of Irish antiquities, pagan and Christian (1891) is still very readable and has much to recommend it. A 1903 revision, updated by John Cooke, was published as Wakeman's handbook of Irish antiquities.

Here’s as good as any place to mention A Guide to the Antiquities of the Bronze Age in the Department of British and Mediaeval Antiquities (1904) as a few of the illustrations are of Irish material.

No list of this nature would be complete without notice of Col. William Gregory Wood-Martin. He was a native of Co. Sligo and served as High Sheriff of the county from 1877 onwards. His major publications include:

History of Sligo; county and town; with illustrations from original drawings and plans (1882)



Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland: A Folklore Sketch; a Handbook of Irish Pre-Christian traditions (1902).

However, his most famous and enduring work is, without doubt: The lake dwellings of Ireland: or, Ancient lacustrine habitations of Erin, commonly called crannogs (1886).

I have to admit that, of all the early archaeologists and late antiquarians, my personal favourite is Thomas Johnson Westropp. He trained as an engineer, but gave it up to pursue all things archaeological and historical. Despite his apparent friendship with the odious Marcus Keane, I’ve admired him and his dedication to the subject since I first encountered his work on my first archaeology job after graduating university. I’m afraid that he’s quite underrated as a pioneer in the field, partly (I believe) because he produced such a prodigious amount of material that is off-putting to all but the most dedicated of researchers. Three of his most important works available online include:


While I have consciously limited myself to items of wholly or mostly Irish interest, I must break this rule to mention again Francis Grose who, with Thomas Astle, published The Antiquarian Repertory: a miscellaneous assemblage of Topography, History, Biography, Customs, and Manners. Intended to Illustrate and Preserve Several Valuable Remains of Old Times in four volumes from 1807 to 1809

If you like those, you may as well have a look at:


There have been times researching this piece where I’ve suddenly though ‘I wonder if there’s anything by …’ and been quite surprised by what I’ve found. It’s hardly been a resoundingly strict methodology! Thus, I fully expect that I’ve missed some great works … if you point me in the right direction, I’ll endeavour to include them in the updates!


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