Landscape and Settlement

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Landscape and Settlement

Ireland's landscape diversity is a product of glacial processes operating on the geological base of carboniferous limestone in the central lowlands and on ancient folded mountain ridges to the north and south. Glaciations more than 12,000 years ago eroded material from the uplands and deposited it as gravels and clays (in eskers, drumlins and moraines) on the midlands. These thin out in the western counties, where the underlying rock appears on the surface, most notably in the karst landscapes of Clare and Galway and the granites of Connemara. Eskers are ridges of gravel that were formed by streams and rivers underneath the ice sheets, and were important routeways historically through the midland bogs of the island.


Seventeen percent of the surface of Ireland is composed of peat bogs. Raised bogs are found in the lowlands, while blanket bogs are more characteristic of the uplands and western regions. The lowland bogs comprise great domes of undecayed matter, mostly sphagnum mosses, which accumulated in hollows and water-logged basins in postglacial times up to 8,000 years ago. Esker and morainic deposits of gravel obstructed the natural drainage, accelerating the growth of peat up to seven or eight meters in depth. Blanket bogs developed in the much wetter conditions of the western parts of the country, where the peat lands have spread over the hills and with their distinctive moor grasses and sedges add color and texture to the mountain landscapes. Deteriorating climatic conditions about 6,000 years ago and localized forest removal encouraged the spread of blanket peat over many prehistoric settled landscapes. The most dramatic recent discovery (in the 1970s) has been the uncovering of Céide Fields underneath the blanket peat in north Mayo, where an extensive field system with accompanying house and tomb sites dates from 3,700 to 3,200 b.c.e. Further ancient landscapes may still await discovery underneath the peatlands of Ireland.

Much of the midlands is honeycombed with fertile land as islands in the extensive wet boglands. During the early Middle Ages, this labyrinthine pattern of eskers and boglands sheltered a largely tribal localized culture familiar with the intricacies of passes through the bogs. Tyrellspass in County Westmeath commemorates one such pass through the bogs. One of the largest of these eskers was called the Eiscir Riata, which was an important pass in prehistory between the northern and southern parts of Ireland. The significance of these medieval routeways is today marked by the remains of monastic sites like Clonmacnoise, Clonfert, Terryglass, Durrow, Tihilly, Seirkieran, Kinitty, Rahugh, and Clonard.

In modern Ireland, as elsewhere in Europe, the great bogs were seen negatively as obstacles to development and refuges for rebels and other persons evading the laws of the Anglo-Norman and Tudor state. Canal construction in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries had the double advantage of providing an opportunity to drain these wetlands at the same time as bringing trade and commerce to the midland regions. Historically peat harvesting was a traditional local activity—"cutting turf" with spades in local communities was a centuries-long tradition throughout Ireland. Turbary rights, which went with farm leases from the seventeenth century, were important local assets and landlord interference with these rights often led to local disturbances. Many small bogs were extinct by the twentieth century, with cutover and cutaway bog forming important landscapes in parts of south Ulster and on the margins of the midland bogs. By the twentieth century the more extensive bogs were seen as opportunities for industrial harvesting and local economic development. A state peat authority (Bord na Móna) was established in 1946 to excavate the peat mechanically for electricity generation, for domestic fuel as peat briquettes, and as a horticultural product in form of peat moss. In the last quarter of the twentieth century popular interest in the conservation of these bog landscapes increased, and tourism and local interests have realized the botanical and environmental value of these extensive landscapes.

The Peopling of Ireland

The Irish environment has formed a stage for human settlement for thousands of years. The interaction between the environmental endowment and humanity on this small island has resulted in a tremendous topographical variety at the regional and local level, and this in turn has been one of the main driving forces for cultural tourism. Situated on the Atlantic fringes of Europe, much of Ireland's landscape and cultural experience is a product of peoples and processes diffusing out of the European mainland.

The earliest Mesolithic hunter and gatherer communities arrived in Ireland about 9,000 years ago after the end of the Ice Age. These small groups lived along riverbanks and estuaries, lake shores, and coastal districts, exploiting fish, plant, and animal resources. Neolithic settlement (from 5,000 years ago) using Stone Age technology, constituted the first farming communities—a civilization marked by the appearance of important megalithic tombs. Court, portal, passage, and wedge tombs (referring to the arrangements of spaces, particularly of the entrance to the tomb, within them) have been located in different regions, suggesting a variety of population groups settling in the landscape. The enormous passage tombs at Newgrange in County Meath and at Carrowmore in County Sligo were built about 3,500 to 3,000 b.c.e. and are part of an array of similar tombs in Brittany and western Iberia, a phenomenon that emphasizes the importance of the seaways along the Atlantic fringes in early migration flows.

The Bronze Age (c. 2,500–600 B.C.E.) was marked by copper-mining people who produced personal ornaments and jewellery of great beauty, as well as constructing large hilltop enclosures like Navan Fort near Armagh and great ceremonial circles and henges, such as those in the Boyne valley. From about 600 b.c.e. an ironworking culture spread to Ireland from continental Europe and made a significant contribution to the island's landscape and culture. Much of the linguistic and genetic heritage of the Irish people can be traced to this Iron Age Celtic culture. Most of the great fables and mythic figures, such as the Táin Bó Cuailnge, Cuchulainn, and Fionn Mac Cumhal, originated with these peoples.

The Celts made a lasting cultural impact on the Irish landscape in terms of its territorial and political order and its place-names. The historic provinces of Connacht, Leinster, Munster, and Ulster are simplified legacies of more complex divisions of the island among early Celtic population septs (lineage or kin groups). In broad terms they coincide with major environmental regions. The names of Ulster, Leinster, and Munster are ninth-century Norse constructions of earlier Irish names: Ulaidh or Cúige Ulaidh (literally the "fifth of the men of Ulaidh"), Laighin or Cúige Laighin, and Mumhan or Cúige Mumhan; the "fifth" is evidence of the probable existence of Mide as another provincial territory. Tír, the Irish word for territory, was added by the Norse to make Laighins-tír and so on. A more detailed lattice of territorial divisions emerged within the provinces, as population groups expanded and formed tribal entities. Approximately 150 tribal units known as Tuatha emerged, many of which formed a template for the medieval territorial lordships and baronies of the Gaelic and Anglo-Norman settlements. Tuatha were grouped into kingdoms, whose geographies have survived in dioceses established by the church in the twelfth century. By the Middle Ages, many of the tiny local territorial units known as townlands (of which there are more than 60,000 today) had taken shape as Gaelic landholding units, and many of their names continue in use.

Large fortified stone forts like Grianán Aileach in Donegal or Staigue in Kerry and other earthworks like Tara and Knockaulin (Dún Ailinne) were constructed during the Iron Age. Linear earthworks such as the Black Pig's Dyke (500–100 B.C.E.), which runs across the south Ulster landscape, and upwards of two hundred promontory forts in coastal locations represent attempts in this period to provide a form of regional security.

The early Christian period contributed some of the more familiar components of the Irish landscape. The ubiquitous ringforts (more properly called rath and dún) represented a pattern of dispersed farmsteads throughout the island, which are assigned to the second half of the first millennium. Raths refer mainly to sites built of earth; dún refer to larger, more prestigious examples. Ringforts in more rocky terrain were built of stone (called caiseal or caher), some of which contain the remains of houses within the enclosure. More than 50,000 of these circular enclosures (with single or multiple banks and ditches) were built in this period. They have been preserved down through the centuries as a result of superstitious associations with "fairy forts." Modern agricultural development, however, has destroyed great numbers of them. Crannogs or lake dwellings were settlements built for security in the period from 500 to 1000 c.e. on artificially constructed islands in lakeland regions especially in the northern half of the island.

The early Christian monastic church in Ireland established sites that came closest, in function if not in form, to urban centers in early Ireland. A large number of significant centers developed, such as Clonard, Clonfert, Clonmacnoise, Durrow, Devenish, Derry, and Armagh. They became the centers of federations of settlements, often located on sites with pre-Christian significance, populated not only by monks but by secular communities working at a variety of crafts. Located along important routeways through the midlands and associated with the settlement pattern of ringforts, it is likely that these monastic centers probably played a key role in contemporary rural economies. Becoming extensive owners of land, they were at the forefront in clearing woodlands, cultivating cereals, and managing livestock. As points of early wealth accumulation, they were repeatedly plundered by Viking raiders in the ninth century. Monastic sites mirrored ringfort morphology, though their circular enclosures were more extensive. The street morphologies of many small towns that originated on these sites still show the curve of ancient monastic boundaries. Throughout the Irish countryside today there are also the remains of small early medieval church sites, usually located at walking distances in the landscape and frequently marked by circular-shaped cemeteries. These small rural parishes from the early medieval period sometimes have holy wells associated with their founder, at which pattern (patron)-day pilgrimages still occur.

Later, more lavish ecclesiastical buildings followed attempts to reform the old church in Ireland, with impressive new structures like those at the Rock of Cashel being built in the twelfth century. Abbeys such as Boyle in County Roscommon, Mellifont in County Louth, and Holy Cross in Tipperary are the work of continental orders (Cistercians and Benedictines) who came to Ireland in the early twelfth century and who pioneered a new phase in agricultural activity. Most of the medieval ecclesiastical structures in Ireland are in ruins today following the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536 at the time of the Protestant Reformation. The Established Church of Ireland inherited the ecclesiastical buildings, but never obtained the allegiance of the majority population in Ireland, so that maintenance of the structures was difficult.

A number of significant immigrations from the ninth century contributed to the modern Irish landscape. The Vikings (or Norsemen) first arrived on raiding missions from Scandinavia in the late eighth century, and although there is evidence of their having settled in parts of the countryside as farmers, they have been credited mainly with introducing the first urban overseas trading settlements around the coast in the ninth and tenth centuries, and these have endured to the present. Dublin grew into a major Norse settlement presiding over a kingdom that embraced the lower Liffey valley. Port towns were also established at Waterford, Wexford, Cork, Youghal, and Limerick, all place-names incorporating linguistic elements of Norse.

The Anglo-Norman colonization that occurred in the eighty years after 1169 represents the beginnings of Ireland's centuries-long political and cultural engagement with the neighboring island kingdom of England. The invaders who came from the western regions of England and Wales were part of the expanding Angevin empire that had engulfed Anglo-Saxon England a century earlier. The Anglo-Normans were responsible for the introduction of a fully fledged feudalism into Ireland, expressed on the ground in a manorial system of land organization, an open-field tillage economy, incastellation of the countryside, and establishment of an embryonic market system. However, it was an incomplete colonization, with large parts of the island remaining under Gaelic control. The English Pale emerged through the Middle Ages as the principal region of English control in Ireland, containing a king's representative in Dublin and a parliament that was subservient to England. Outlying feudal lordships and liberties in Munster and Connacht had a weakened connection with the English crown, and pressure from Gaelic lordships on the borders of the colony from the fourteenth century resulted in contraction and gaelicization of the colony. Most of the counties of Leinster and Munster were created by the Anglo-Normans by the thirteenth century as part of the administration of the colony.

By the mid-sixteenth century the expanding English state began a process of subjugation of Ireland that involved the elimination of regional lordships and the incorporation of the island as a unitary economic and political entity. This policy was carried out through a sometimes brutal series of land confiscations and plantation schemes that encouraged planters and settlers to come from Britain. This process of settlement continued into the middle of the seventeenth century, leading to an effective modernization of the Irish landscape with the introduction of a commercial landed-estates system and the consolidation of a market economy over the entire island. Where possible, British (Protestant and Presbyterian) settler tenants were brought in to introduce new farming methods, especially in Ulster. The native (mainly Catholic) population was largely dispossessed of landownership and relegated to tenant status. New plantation towns were added to the medieval urban network and were important agents of economic development in Ulster especially. The remaining counties of Ireland were created during these sixteenth- and seventeenth-century plantations as jurisdictions of local administration.

The Woodlands

Although there was continuous forest clearance in Ireland from ancient times, most of the native forests were destroyed during the seventeenth century in response to the demands of an expanding mercantile economy and a rush to exploit the country's natural resources by new British settler communities. By the middle of the eighteenth century the Dublin parliament and the owners of Irish landed estates were concerned at the denuded state of the Irish woodland resources. Reflecting a Europeanwide age of improvement, the Royal Dublin Society, for instance, offered incentives to landowners and tenants to plant estates with hardwoods. Much of the legacy of beech, oak, and lime trees today can be traced to this period of planting and continues to be an important feature in Ireland east of the Shannon, especially in the demesne lands of former estates. In the more windswept west of the country the landscape is largely treeless.


The most common features in the landscape today are the hundreds of thousands of individually enclosed fields, separated by hedges, banks, and ditches. In the rockier western regions fields are enclosed by an intricate mesh of stone walls. Most of this enclosure occurred in the largely open-field landscapes that prevailed before the eighteenth century and is part of a revolution in agriculture that diffused throughout the British Isles, reaching the west of Ireland latest after the famine in the 1840s. Unlike England, where parliamentary enclosure reorganized most of the older medieval open fields, in Ireland the land was enclosed mainly by landlord and tenant initiative. The more commercially minded landowners in Leinster and Munster were at the forefront in having their lands enclosed in the eighteenth century as part of a drive for more efficient agriculture. Usually, the outbounds of the tenant farms were enclosed initially, with the tenants being left to hedge and ditch their own fields. In the 1820s and 1830s landlords in south Ulster were giving their tenants thousands of quick setts (whitethorn hedge plants) on the November "gale days" (rent days) to plant on their farms. As population soared in the decades before the Great Famine, farms and fields were subdivided and new boundaries installed. The story of the hedging of the countryside in its characteristic patchwork-quilt pattern represents a critical formative phase in the making of the landscape and the sense of place today. Because of the intimate connection between farmer and field over generations of manual labor, field-naming was a common practice in many regions, adding another layer to place-names in the landscapes.


Most of the material features in the modern settlement landscape developed within the parameters of the landed estate. In common with much of Europe from feudal times, the land of the island was owned by a privileged minority. This estate system was firmly established in Ireland following its final incorporation in the expanding modern British state. Some estates traced their origins to powerful Anglo-Norman families, but most emerged from plantation schemes or purchase in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Landowners, who might generally be characterized as ascendancy and gentry, leased their land to tenant farmers for rent. Tenants were expected to make the land productive, through drainage and good husbandry. It was the large and small tenant, under the managing eye of the owner or his agent, who made the landscape, and who molded and imprinted on it the marks of his community and culture. Landless laborers were employed either by the landlord or the tenant, their numbers reflecting the nature of the local agricultural economy. The busy tillage lands of Louth and Wexford had large settlements of laborer cottages near the farms.

In the cattle-grazing midlands these were fewer. As population grew and employment shrunk in prefamine decades, it was the poorly managed estates that experienced the brunt of subdivision of the landscape. Landless populations squatted on marginal lands on the edges of the bogs, high up on mountainsides, or along new roads built to open up remote areas in Munster or Connacht. Landless sons added cabins to swelling house clusters in coastal regions and mountain valleys in the west, from which bands migrated seasonally to work in eastern counties, Scotland, or England. More carefully managed properties controlled their tenant populations, or encouraged some to leave under assistedemigration schemes in mid-nineteenth century. On these properties, mostly located in the east and south, landlords invested in large mansions and lavish walled demesnes with ornamental gardens and model farms. Many landlords were also involved in attempts to induce economic development in planned estate villages, with markets to encourage trade and frequently with colonies of textile workers. However, following the ravages of the Great Famine, the landlord system was largely discredited, and commencing with the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in 1869 and land legislation transferring ownership from landlord to tenant at the turn of the nineteenth century, the estates and the social system that they represented were dismantled. The truncated demesnes and big houses, intact or derelict, are all that remain as landscape markers of the estate system.


The Irish heritage in buildings is modest by European standards. Before the seventeenth century, Ireland was a comparatively underdeveloped and politically fragmented entity, thus preventing the articulation of a significant island-wide economy. Unlike the rest of Europe, where significant remnants of the medieval-built environment survive, military and economic instability meant that most Irish medieval structures have been in ruins for more than three hundred years. The majority of inherited structures still in use today originated largely in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The more significant buildings are the mansion houses of the wealthy landed elite—referred to as the "Big Houses" of the gentry, or as "stately homes" by heritage tourism—which accompany estates. Great houses like Carton, Castletown, Powerscourt, or Florencecourt, with their demesne landscapes largely intact, are important components in the modern landscape.

The houses of bigger tenant farmers aped the pretensions of their masters by embellishing their houses with a second story or a porch. Smaller tenant-farmer houses were more traditional in form, consisting of two or more connected rooms. Originally thatched, some survive, though most have been slated. The poorest category of house belonging to the landless laborer was replaced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by local authority or state-sponsored cottages. Today, however, most of the traditional buildings in the countryside have been superseded by modern bungalow type dwellings, which are universal throughout the Irish landscape.

The most important distinction in buildings is between the houses of the wealthy from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, which engaged with a wider world of architecture, taste, and building materials, and those of the local tenantry. Many of the eighteenth-century mansions reflect the impact of palladianism (derived from the ideas of the sixteenth-century Italian,Andrea Palladio), ornamented by fashionably popular Irish architects such as Richard Castle and craftsmen from Dublin or England. Frequently, building materials were imported, like the exotic plants for landlord demesnes.

In contrast, the houses of the majority of the population were embedded in the local landscapes literally and metaphorically. Built by local craftsmen, they reflected the constraints of traditional practice and local materials in plan and construction. Consequently, as in the rest of Europe, the domestic buildings of local communities blended into the countryside, snuggling into landscapes from which stone, straw, or reeds were obtained.


Church buildings in Ireland reflect diverging allegiances in the population: the majority native population which adhered to Rome after the Reformation and whose churches were impoverished and often illegal through most of the eighteenth century, and the Protestant minorities whose smaller but better-built churches reflected their social and political privilege. The Established Church of Ireland, which was state endowed up until disestablishment in 1869, inherited many of the old medieval cathedrals and built many small, attractive country churches, which, because of dwindling congregations, have been abandoned throughout the south of Ireland in the twentieth century. Northern Ireland with its much bigger Anglican and Presbyterian congregations has a more extensive heritage of churches. The Catholic Church embarked on a building program from the early nineteenth century following Catholic Emancipation in 1829, though in places some older vernacular barn chapels have survived from the eighteenth century. Its churches are larger and reflect elements of a neo-gothic triumphalism in the nineteenth century.


Ireland's regional pattern of urbanization is a combination of a legacy of colonial settlement superimposed on a more ambiguous Gaelic pattern. South of a line from Dundalk to Galway lay a region of comparatively intensive urban settlements from the Anglo-Norman feudal economy. To the north the Gaelic landscape was more rural and town-less. It has been suggested that the monastic settlements of the early medieval period presented protourban settlements in which the economic activities of an "urban" class occurred. However, the fragmented nature of Gaelic political authority and the localized and disarticulated nature of economic life prevented the development of anything resembling a market economy. Small Norse trading centers were established by the tenth century, but the Anglo-Norman colonization brought the first market towns in the European mold, with streets and market spaces, protected by walls, lords, and charters. Boroughs and market centers associated with manors were at the forefront of the Anglo-Norman colonial project to attract settlers and establish economic stability, as at port towns like Kinsale, Youghal, Dundalk, and Drogheda, or inland markets like Kells, Trim, Kilkenny, Carlow, and Clonmel. Many of these medieval towns were developed on earlier monastic sites. By the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries a network of towns with market functions had been established in the Pale and the larger lordships of the colony. However, the failure of the colony to incorporate the entire island meant that periodic instability, especially in the borderlands, inhibited the development of the urban network. Towns also became the lynchpins of later British settlement plans: the Laois-Offaly plantation (1556) and the Munster plantation (1586) were based on the implementation of town plans, resulting in the modern towns of Portlaoise (originally Maryborough), Daingean (originally Philipstown), Bandon, and Clonakility; the Ulster plantation program from 1610 succeeded in creating in excess of one hundred towns in the last Gaelic and rural province of Ireland by the 1650s. In the eighteenth century some new market and industrial towns were built with the encouragement of landlords and capitalists to encourage local economic growth, but it was East Ulster in the later nineteenth century that experienced heavy urbanization that resembled that of Great Britain. Apart from a few Bord na Móna villages, urbanization stagnated in the Republic of Ireland in the long emigration phase up to the 1960s. Since then there has been a steady increase in the country's urban population, with growing state investment in the industrialization of the economy.

SEE ALSO Belfast; Bogs and Drainage; Clachans; Cork; Dublin; Eiscir Riata; Estates and Demesnes; Ordnance Survey; Raths; Religious Geography; Rural Settlement and Field Systems; Towns and Villages; Woodlands


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