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The Personality of Ireland: Habitat, Heritage and History

The Personality of Ireland: Habitat, Heritage and History

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The Personality of Ireland: Habitat, Heritage and History

276 pagine
3 ore
Jan 1, 1992


I well remember the excitement I felt at the first publication in 1973 of The Personality of Ireland... I knew I was reading one of the most important books of my life' - Paul Durcan This classic study of Irish culture, extensively illustrated with photographs, maps and drawings, and reissued with a new foreword and an updated bibliography, gives a detailed yet panoramic view of Ireland. It follows in the great tradition of French historiography, adding the testament of landscape, antiquities and folk custom to that of document-based history as a primary source of knowledge of our past. It is a justly acclaimed, stimulating work of instruction, entertainment and enlightenment. 'The totally convincing case Evans puts forward is for a synthesis of geography, archaeology, anthropology and recorded history - an interpenetration of these sciences which he himself manages to raise to the level of historical art S no one claiming an interest in Irish history should fail to peruse [it] regularly.' - Robert Kee 'Owing to the reach of his mind and his skills as a writer, his works remain fresh and useful to a new generation' - Henry Glassie 'A classic study of Irish culture ... essential reading for students of Irish history and should be compulsory for all politicians interested in Ireland's future' - Fortnight 'A tremendously stimulating book, and one which can be highly recommended to all.' - Paul Gosling
Jan 1, 1992

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The Personality of Ireland - E. Estyn Evans







Title Page

List of illustrations

Foreword by Paul Durcan

Preface to revised edition, 1981

I Habitat, heritage and history: an anthropogeographic view

II The Irish habitat

III The Irish heritage

IV The personality of Ireland

Appendix: Facts from Gweedore





About the Author


List of illustrations


1 The Antrim coast road and chalk cliffs near Glenarm

2 Creevykeel court grave, County Sligo

3 Remains of the forecourt of Clontigora court grave, County Armagh

4 Poulnabrone portal grave in the Burren, County Clare

5 Decorated stone basin, Knowth passage grave, County Meath

6 New Grange passage grave, County Meath, entrance stone

7 Carrowkeel passage grave cemetery, County Sligo

8 Fossil spade ridges, Clare Island, County Mayo

9 Prehistoric cultivation ridges, Carrownaglogh, County Mayo

10 Digging lazy beds with a loy, County Cavan

11 The Hill of Tara, County Meath

12 A County Down landscape near Hillhall in the Lagan Valley

13 The remains of St Michael’s Monastery on the Skellig Rocks, County Kerry

14 Drumlin landscape, south Armagh

15 Kearneystown clachan, County Donegal

16 Ballard clachan, Glencolumbkille, County Donegal

17 Former openfield (infield) at Ballintoy, north Antrim

18 Traditional Donegal house with roped thatch

19 An ‘extended family’ in a Gweedore clachan about one hundred years ago

20 A Donegal byre-dwelling towards the end of the last century

21 A crowded clachan in the Gweedore district of County Donegal, c. l880

22 ‘Riders to the sea’, the Aran Islands, County Galway, c.1930


1 Two views of Ireland

2 Caledonian and Armorican convergence

3 Fragmented hills, drumlins and lowland bogs

4 A drumlin cluster in County Down

5 Distribution of early forms of megalithic tombs

6 Religious confusion on the Ulster border

7 Distribution of enclosed farmsteads (raths) covering approximately the first millennium





8 Traditional peasant house types

9 Types of rural settlement, 1832–40

10 The Gweedore district

11–14 The townland of Beltany Upper, Co. Donegal

Tailpiece: a Bunbeg curragh, from Facts from Gweedore


‘I took a course of history at the University College of Wales nearly half a century ago,’ writes Evans, ‘but found it so myopic in its insular view of the world… that it was a relief to turn to geography.’

In 1971, at the age of twenty-seven, I enrolled in University College Cork with the intention of taking a degree in English Literature but I found my course also myopic and the teachers aloof and in my first-year exams I received poor marks, especially in poetry. Luckily I had taken a course also in archaeology where I came under the tutelage of Professor M.J. O’Kelly, excavator of Newgrange, who re-introduced me to the reality of my native land, to the poetry of geography, anthropology, geology, folklore, and to the name and work of E. Estyn Evans. Thanks to O’Kelly’s encouragement, I abandoned English Literature and took my degree in archaeology and medieval history.

It was early in the course of O’Kelly’s first-year lectures that he introduced us to Evans. There was a certain timbre in O’Kelly’s voice whenever he cited Estyn Evans; it was the timbre of respect tinged with admiration and affection. We students sensed that for O’Kelly this name was a special name – the possessor of qualities which O’Kelly himself embodied and which he sought but rarely found amongst his colleagues: a catholic curiosity in learning of all kinds, a Protestant commitment to field work, a reverence for the wisdom of ordinary people.

Reading Evans I became aware of him as being, like O’Kelly, a scholar, a humanist, a teacher, a communicator, a field worker, a pioneer in Irish studies.

I well remember the excitement I felt at the first publication in 1973 of The Personality of Ireland. Reading it I knew I was reading one of the most important books of my life. It enabled me to jettison much of my own cant and prejudice and to articulate suspicions I had been having for many years about the murderous mythologies of an Irish racial purity. It was a small wisdom book and I knew it, and I felt lucky and privileged to have read it.

I remember also in 1973 communicating my enthusiasm for The Personality of Ireland to a distinguished academic in Cork and how, to my shocked naïveté, he poured droplets of scorn on Evans. I should know – he hinted darkly – that while Evans was a competent geographer he was ‘a crypto-Unionist’. To this day I remember the sunny smile on the great academic’s face and I knew I was being touched by the fingers of that evil which has destroyed almost all possibility of normal life and growth in this island in my lifetime. It is primarily Evans’s passion as a scholar that is his hallmark but what also gives The Personality of Ireland its edge is the author’s sense of writing and living in the context of our Irish nightmare. He makes explicit observations: ‘If we take the longer view, we see them [the two communities in the north] as a potential source of enrichment through cross-fertilization, both in Ulster and in all Ireland. To achieve this, it seems to me, one should first look towards the renewal of regional consciousness in the old province of Ulster, and to a culturally productive borderland.’

Evans was a Welshman who was a poet of place, a singer of transhumance, and who became more of an Ulsterman that the Ulster people themselves. He was a European whose heroes were Bloch, Febvre, Braudel – names which to a student in Ireland in 1973 were as exciting as Camus, Heidegger, Kazantzakis. He was a materialist with a spiritual sense of life so that as a scholar in the pages of this book he is ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’. He had an instinctive as well as intellectual grasp of the affinity between Gaelic Ireland and African culture. He was an environmentalist who believed with all his heart and conscience that a landscape and a people cannot be understood except in relation to each other. He had the courage to be a Darwinian in Ireland and to say as well as understand that ‘in Christian doctrine, human destiny was envisaged as independent of the earthly environment, which was a temporary abode to be endured rather than adored.’ A genuine Irish heretic, he thought for himself; a rare bloom on the rose tree of Irish thought.

As a Welshman also, Evans is one of that inspiring company of foreigners who were Irish patriots: Robin Flower, Micheál MacLíammóir, George Thomson, Eric Cross. In his love of detail of Irish life he was a kind of Chekhov for whom Ireland was his beloved and maddening Cherry Orchard. He could write as passionately about the Irish rural house as about the Irish hostility to trees. If Claudio Magris were to compose an Irish ‘Danube’, one of his holy source books would have to be The Personality of Ireland by E. Estyn Evans.

Paul Durcan

16 June 1992

Preface to revised edition, 1981

I have taken the opportunity presented by the publication of this paperback edition – which was recommended by several reviewers of the hardback edition, published by the Cambridge University Press in 1973 – to correct some factual errors which were also pointed out by reviewers. It is essentially a reprint, but I have expanded some sections in the light of new information and the findings of recent research. I have also increased the number of illustrations, and in this and other ways the Blackstaff Press has co-operated to make the book more attractive to the general reader than the somewhat austerely academic hardback. I am grateful to several friends for providing illustrations, and particularly to Mr Noel Mitchel, Dr Alan McCutcheon and Dr Desmond McCourt, and to Mr Cecil Newman for permission to use his splendid colour photograph of the Mourne Mountains on the cover. I am deeply indebted to Mr John Campbell, lecturer in geography at Queen’s University, who has given me great assistance in many ways in the preparation of this paperback revision.

There is a growing demand for books dealing seriously with the land, the people and the cultural history of Ireland going behind and beyond political history. How can the evil happenings in Northern Ireland, now in their twelfth year, possibly be explained or justified? Yet the continuing destruction of buildings, including many of historic importance, the appalling human suffering, can apparently be justified by appeals to political history or pseudo-history, to ancient hatreds and the most primitive instincts. Having lived through ‘the troubles’ which the people of Northern Ireland have endured for twelve years, I have been deeply impressed by the resilience this divided community has shown, demonstrating a remarkable stability in the face of bombings, indiscriminate violence and sectarian murders which might have been expected to lead to civil war.

Here a little personal history will be in place. I have lived in Belfast for over half a century and have many connections with friends and institutions both in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland. My training in geography and anthropology and my archaeological interests should have given me an objective view of Ireland, its landscapes and its peoples and cultures. Although I never learnt the Welsh language, I was brought up in a Welsh-speaking home, a Presbyterian manse on the Anglo-Welsh border, and became familiar with two cultures, one Welsh and Nonconforming, the other English and Anglican. I attended primary school in a picturesque Shropshire village which had all the established trimmings, a medieval church and a resident squire and deer-park, and I went to secondary school in Wales and then to University College, Aberystwyth. I have no recollection of ever meeting a practising Catholic, but because my parents were Liberal in politics, in the tradition of Welsh Nonconformity, I was well aware of – and generally in sympathy with – the movement for Irish Home Rule.

As a student I had taken part in several archaeological excavations in Wales and Wiltshire, and some of my first contacts in Belfast were with the archaeological sections of two venerable societies – the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society and the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club. Together with another academic, Oliver Davies, I very soon became involved in a programme of archaeological exploration and excavation which took me to every corner of Northern Ireland, and these interests soon extended into the Free State. At the same time, as Head of the Department of Geography which I had established at Queen’s University in 1928, I was engaged in a programme of geographical fieldwork and for many successive years took parties of students on intensive local studies of selected areas in all the major regions of Ireland. These parties always included a fair proportion of Catholic students among the Protestants and all found a common interest in exploring the Irish countryside and investigating the marks of habitation, cultivation and enclosure left on the landscape by successive occupants since prehistoric times.

When the outbreak of war in 1939 curtailed our more active investigations, I occupied my leisure in recording details of country life, crafts and customs, relating them to the Irish environment. In 1942 I wrote my first Irish book, Irish Heritage, with the encouragement of my publisher Harry Tempest of Dundalk, who also co-operated with me in the publication of Mourne Country (1951). I became convinced that a significant factor in what is sometimes called the essential unity of Ireland, besides the unities of climate and landscape – notably the dominance of proudly independent scattered farms and the weakness of long-established village communitieswhich make the country seem foreign to the Englishman, has been the retention, persisting in many areas into modern times, of certain attitudes towards the world and the otherworld, of traditional customs, beliefs and seasonal festivals which had often assumed the guise of Christian piety, but which had their origins in the Elder Faiths of pre-Christian times. (One of the most obvious differences between England and Ireland today is the high level of Sunday observance in Ireland, whether among Roman Catholics or Presbyterians.) It was the conviction that the traditions and folkways of the countryside are a common bond and source of interest to all sections of the Northern Ireland community that led me to promote the establishment of a folk museum, now the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra, County Down.

As a geographer, with interests in the land and what I call unrecorded history, as revealed by archaeology, anthropology and ethnology and by field studies of the cultural landscape, I have long advocated a broader approach to history, and that was the substance of the Wiles Lectures delivered at Queen’s University in 1971 and published as The Personality of Ireland in 1973. My plea for a broader and less political view of Irish history has recently had the powerful support of Dr F.S.L. Lyons, Provost of Trinity College, Dublin, who has been called ‘the most perceptive Irish historian of our time.’ In The Burden of our History (the W.B. Rankin Memorial Lecture given at the Queen’s University of Belfast in 1978) he summarised the new approaches to Irish history that are now being made, covering every aspect of life and culture and challenging many long-established myths.

If what might be called the old view of the role of geography in history was a negative one – in which geography was not part of history but merely the place where it happened to have taken place – it was less dangerous, because less emotive, than the naive conception of geography’s place in history apparently held by some pious nationalists who see Ireland as a God-given island which was predestined to be the home of a single nation. What would Scottish and Welsh nationalists say if they were told that the sister isle was similarly predestined by the mere fact of its insularity to house one nation and no more? Discussing various views on Irish cultural and political unity in his recent book, Culture and Anarchy in Ireland, 1890-1939, Dr Lyons concludes that what is emerging is a realisation that cultural unity and cultural diversity have co-existed in Ireland throughout history – and I might add prehistory. I would suggest that its cultural diversity springs not only from the diversities and difficulties of its geography but also from its very insularity, for the island has attractive harbours on all sides, and intrusive cultures, from megalithic times onwards, have established bridgeheads linked on the east with western Britain and France, on the north with Scotland, and on the south and west with the nearest parts of Europe. In some ways one may see the four historic provinces as a reflection of this diversity. The patriotic Irishman’s picture of the Irish past tends to be coloured by his hopes for the future, and by the dream of Irish unity. Most dangerous in its consequences was the appeal made by Patrick Pearse to the heroic tales of Ulster to support his plea for bloody sacrifice and for the glorification of violence in the pursuit of political ends.

Those who are familiar with the historic strength of the Elder Faiths find it difficult to accept the pious assumption that the early missionaries quickly converted the mass of the Irish people to Christianity. Professor R.A.S. Macalister of University College, Dublin, a Gaelic enthusiast turned cynic, used to say in private that the number of believing Christians in the early centuries of Christianity could probably be reckoned by counting the number of Irish saints. The endurance of the Elder Faiths in some mountainy parts of Ireland to this day is well illustrated in the advice given not long ago by a County Tyrone countryman to Michael Murphy, a collector of folklore: ‘Give priests and old thorns their dues, and leave them alone’. The Elder Faiths are part of the Irish heritage. It was cultural diversity and cross fertilisation between pagan and Christian that brought into being what will always count as Ireland’s greatest cultural achievements in the Golden Age of the seventh and eighth centuries: the Books of Durrow and Kells, the Ardagh Chalice, the great Celtic monasteries and countless works of art and architecture.

It comes as a shock to be told that the high level of devotional piety among the Irish people had its origins in what Professor Emmet Larkin has called the ‘Devotional Revolution’ of last century, which was part of the modernising movement following the Great Famine. Estimated regular attendance at mass of little more than 30 per cent of the population rose sharply after 1850 to a figure of over 90 per cent. Before 1850 attendance was very low in Gaelic-speaking areas where it frequently fell to 25 per cent: ‘native Irish culture is not the source and strength of modern Irish piety’. To quote Professor Larkin again, it was only after the Great Famine that ‘the mass of the Irish people became practising Catholics’. While accepting the view that the reforming zeal of Paul Cullen, appointed Archbishop of Armagh in 1849, had much to do with this, he sees a deeper cause in the reduction of poverty and violence in the Irish countryside, in the general modernising movement, and in the profound emotional shock of the Great Famine. Moreover, for the best part of a century the Irish people had been steadily losing their identity in losing their native language and heritage, and they were to find a new identity in the Catholic faith, which became a substitute symbolic language. The old idea that there was a common Irish identity indifferent to religious belief was thus superseded by the concept that Catholicism was the essence of Irishness. With the abandonment of the Irish language and the Irish heritage, supported by the strong advocacy of Daniel O’Connell, the Catholic faith came to be seen as the main distinguishing mark of the Irish people; and this had the unfortunate consequence of convincing northern Protestants, many of whom had espoused the cause of Irish nationalism, that one of the aims of the Repeal Campaign was to promote the cause and power of the Catholic faith.

Professor David Miller, in his study of ‘Irish Catholicism and the Great Famine’, states that the figures for formal attendance at mass before the Famine hide the fact that the Elder Faiths, which had been only partly taken over by Christianity, were still strong. He suggests that it was the manifest failure of their protective magic, demonstrated in the tragedy of the Great Famine, which led to the full acceptance of the Catholic faith. What is emerging from recent studies is a realisation of the significance and long survival of Ireland’s Elder Faiths.

The eminent authority on the ancient laws, Professor D.A. Binchy, in a recent article on ‘Irish History and Irish Law’ discussing continuity and discontinuity in Irish culture, concludes that it is in the traditional customs and festivals, pre-Christian but Christianised, of early medieval Ireland that the Gaelic inheritance lingers on. He attributes this to the remarkable cross-fertilisation between pagan and Christian customs that took place in the early centuries of Christianity. In contrast, ‘the old native system of law

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