Towns and Villages

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Towns and Villages

The towns and villages spread over Ireland give the country its intimacy and charm. Any countrywide traverse will yield only a handful of larger settlements of above 1,500 inhabitants; small towns and villages are the norm.

Urban genesis in Ireland came in fits and starts, unlike the more stable evolutionary experience of continental Europe. It was closely correlated with colonization and with expansive epochs in the Irish history. Three pronounced phases of town and village creation are evident: during the heyday of Anglo-Norman settlement, in the plantation era of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and under landlord influence in the eighteenth century. Native roots reach back to the monastic "towns" of the early Christian period. Continuity as well as change may therefore illustrate the Irish town and village tradition. Early monastic settlements that left an enduring mark include the presentday towns of Kildare, Cashel, Armagh, and Kells. The last yielded the famous Book of Kells as testimony to its sophistication as an early cultural hub. It developed marketplace functions and by the eleventh century had paved streets and artisan quarters, along with carefully differentiated sacred and secular sectors.

From the ninth century the Vikings brought the radically new idea of the trading station, the rationale of which was long-distance maritime trade. Thus they shifted the center of gravity away from inland locales, and their most successful settlements Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork, and Limerick were all sited at the head of tidal estuaries. The trading and maritime impulses are well shown by the position of the town of Wexford (Weisfiord, "the harbor of the mudflats"). Defined by waterfront and earthen rampart, Viking Wexford was one of the principal trading stations in Ireland by 892 c.e., and was later expanded in the high medieval period.

The establishment of towns picked up decisively in the Norman period when another major innovation proved crucial. This was the town charter, bestowing a measure of autonomy within the limits of the town walls, and the rapid adoption of such charters led to a surge of urban development. The fittest of the towns survived mainly in the east and south, to furnish a well-articulated network, set in a prosperous countryside. County Kilkenny, often taken to be the Norman stereo-type, provides the walled towns of Callan, Inistioge, Gowran, Thomastown, and Kilkenny. However, for a bird's eye view of a medieval town in mature form, there is no better plan than that of Kilmallock in about 1600. Several of the recurring features introduced by the Normans as part of the urban institution are evident, including tomb walls, gates, castellated houses, church, abbey, and an Irish suburb outside the walls. The plan's great boon is that it shows in close-up the spatial arrangement of these items.

In Normanized country outside the towns, small manorial villages also developed. These villages featured the nuclei of castle, church, and mill, and were most prominent in south Leinster Province and the metropolitan region about Dublin. One of the best known is Newcastle Lyons on the Dublin-Kildare borderland, which lays claim to fame as a royal manor in the medieval period. It was presided over by a village with a motte (a mound where a Norman castle might be situated), a parish church, tower houses, and long open-field strips, such as were common in the manorial villages of medieval England.

Plantation brought a vigorous phase of town and village formation. Altogether, some four hundred new settlements were established by grantees and proprietors as foci for their estates in heavily colonized parts of the Provinces of Munster, Ulster, and Leinster. Strategic considerations were paramount. Towns and villages acted as military bastions and as stimuli to infrastructural growth, market germination, and were a state and church presence. A sign of the villages' insecurity of their genesis was their frequent formation around a triangular green. Examples range from places as diverse as Donegal town, Geashill, Co. Offaly, and Dromcolliher, County Limerick. A fetching case is Malin village in the Inishowen peninsula of County Donegal.

Towns and villages continued in episodic formation. The first wave of estate towns dates to the 1660s. County Cork alone saw the germination of several new towns. Among them was Charleville, where on 29 May 1661 the earl of Orrery laid the foundation stone of a new town as the centerpiece of his estate. Other waves followed in the eighteenth century, upon the effective conquest of Ireland. Then peace and prosperity combined with fashion and a new proprietorial class to generate a more expansive and aesthetic approach to the urban project. Formally planned estate villages began to appear, as at Summerhill, County Meath, Sixmile-bridge, County Clare, and Stradbally, County Laois. Wide streets and market squares now become the design foci, cast between the landlord's mansion and demesne at one end and the Anglican Church at the other. One landlord's wishes are instructive. He ordered that his new town of Kenmare, County Kerry, "may be begun by laying out two capital streets, fifty feet wide." It was to be "known by its industry and order" and its success to be predicated upon trade. Industry too contributed to new town foundation, not only in Ulster's proto-industrial region but also in the south and west where linen manufacture was the mainstay of settlements, such as Dunmanway in County Cork, Mountshannon in County Clare, and Monivea in County Galway.

The final phase saw new landlord-sponsored settlements in the far west. Roads were the enabling development; landlords provided patronage; trade did most of the rest. Examples of new growth points include Dunfanaghy in County Donegal, Louisburgh in County Mayo, Clifden in County Galway, and Cahirciveen in County Kerry. These western villages were also helped by tourism, which was developing by the time that the impetus for estate-village creation finally faded in the 1840s.

By then the network of Ireland's towns and villages had become established. Yet the overall weakness of that network must also be acknowledged. In 1841 only one fifth of the population lived in towns and villages—1,655,000 out of 8,175,000. The Irish domestic world was overwhelmingly rural, and in that world the town was at the heart of the rhythms of life in the countryside.

SEE ALSO Belfast; Cork; Dublin; Landscape and Settlement; Markets and Fairs in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries; Town Life from 1690 to the Early Twentieth Century


Cullen, Louis M. Irish Towns and Villages. 1979.

Nolan, William, and Anngret Simms, eds. Irish Towns: A Guide to Sources. 1998.

O'Connor, Patrick J. Exp1oring Limerick's Past: An Historical Geography of Urban Development in County and City. 1987.

O'Connor, Patrick J. Hometown: A Portrait of Newcastle West, Co. Limerick. 1998.

Simms, Anngret, and John H. Andrews, eds. Irish Country Towns. 1994.

Simms, Anngret, and John H. Andrews, eds. More Irish Country Towns. 1995.

Thomas, Avril. The Walled Towns of Ireland. 2 vols. 1992.

Whelan, Kevin. "Towns and Villages." In Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape, edited by F. H. A. Aalen et al. 1997.

Patrick J. O'Connor