Early Medieval Ireland AD 400-1100: the Evidence from Archaeological Excavations

Authors: Aidan O’Sullivan, Finbar McCormick, Thomas Kerr, Lorcan Harney

Publisher: Royal Irish Academy

Published: 2014, originally 2013

ISBN: 9781904890607

Pages: 584 pages including Appendix tables, Bibliography, Index, plates and figures.



How did people create and live in their own worlds in early medieval Ireland; what did they actually do; and to what end did they think they were doing it? This book investigates and reconstructs from archaeological evidence how early medieval Irish people lived together as social groups, worked the land as farmers, worshipped God, made and used objects and buried their dead around them. It focuses on the evidence from excavations conducted between 1930 and 2012 and uses that evidence to explore how people used their landscapes, dwellings and material culture to effect and negotiate social, ideological and economic continuities and changes during the period AD 400–1100.


As the synopsis says this book uses archaeological finds and data to investigate and reconstruct how early medieval Irish people lived. The book is full of interesting information and not just about the finds but also about how these finds came to be and all the interesting history of the Early Medieval Archaeology Project and all the work that went into it. And it is A LOT!

The book is made up of nine chapters; the last of which, chapter nine, is a conclusion.

The first chapter discusses is an introduction to what is coming.

Chapter two talks about antiquarian origins and the development of archaeology in the 19th century, the university and state funded archaeological excavations in the Republic of Ireland and in the North of Ireland from the 1930s to the 1970s, the origins and development of commercial archaeology after Ireland and the UK joined the European union in 1973, the urban redevelopment archaeology in Ireland during the 1970s to the 2000s, and the NRA road development schemes during the time period between 2000 and 2013 which had archaeologists attached to them. And the politics and dynamics of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland also played a role in how these finds were interpreted and through which lens. This chapter was a bit too full of names, but if you don’t focus on them what is left of the chapter is very interesting, especially how the Irish dealt with the building of the roads and the archaeological finds around them.

Early medieval dwellings and settlements are the subject of chapter three. This chapter does a great job of reviewing the different types of evidence available for secular settlement activities and the knowledge that these activities provide us about the society of the time. This chapter was so interesting to read. Some of it was straight forward telling of what was found on archaeological finds but then rest of it was pure gold.

Chapter four is all about churches, especially their archaeology, but it also talks about burial, and church craftwork. It wasn’t my area of expertise so I was very interested in reading it and digesting it. I still felt though that I needed to understand more that was not possible with this book focused on archaeology.

The next chapter talks about the economy of Medieval Ireland, specifically farming. The big take away from this chapter was that agriculture was the key element in the organisation of early Irish society and the glue that kept it together. For more information on this, Kelly’s book is seminal.

Chapters six and seven discusses Irelands crafts and technologies and their trading. It discusses the technological knowledge and skills needed for the craftwork, the different roles of specialist craftspeople in the community, the networks of production, they way it was used or exchanged, and the way crafts changed across time. I’ve read a few art books and I think this rounds out my knowledge nicely.

The final chapter is death and burial. This final chapter showed that the conversion to Christianity was very slow and very complicated. There was probably a differing pace between locations and regions.

I feel that this book could really be complimented by reading Ireland in the Medieval World AD 400 – 1000: Landscape, Kingship and religion. See my review of it here.

Ireland in the Medieval World AD 400 – 1000: Landscape, Kingship and Religion

Author: Edel Bhreathnach
Publisher: Four Courts Press
Published: 2014
ISBN: 978-1-84682-342-8
Pages: 293 including Endnotes, Bibliography and Index. The book also has illustrations, black and white and colored pictures plates.

17991406Synopsis: This is a study of Ireland’s people, landscape, and place in the world from late antiquity to the reign of Brian Borama. The book narrates the story of Ireland’s emergence into history, using anthropological, archaeological, historical, and literary evidence. The subjects covered include the king, the kingdom and the royal household, religion and customs, free and unfree classes in society, exiles, and foreigners. The rural, urban, ecclesiastical, ceremonial, and mythological landscapes of early medieval Ireland anchor the history of early Irish society in the rich tapestry of archaeological sites, monuments, and place-names that have survived to the present day. A historiography of medieval Irish studies presents the commentaries of a variety of scholars, from the 17th-century Franciscan Micheal O Cleirigh to Eoin Mac Neill, the founding father of modern scholarship.


The book is made up of three chapters which should really be considered parts. Each chapter is further divided into sections, and while chapter one is relatively short, chapters two and three make up the bulk of the book. The Introduction of the book talks about the tradition of writing history in medieval Ireland and how important it was to the writers to write it. I learned quite a few new Irish words in this chapter, which I’m going to love using whenever I can.

Chapter one discusses the natural environment of Ireland, and the rural and urban settlements. It also discusses the antique trading hubs and the Viking coastal towns. I was very interested and what the author had to say about medieval Ireland’s land and climate but I was also very interested in WHERE she got her information. Archaeology of course was one source, law tracts and mythology was another.

Kingdoms, kings and people are the subjects of chapter two. The chapter starts with Ptolemy’s geography, then goes on to discuss Ogam inscriptions (and some of the formulas used in writing them), annals and genealogies, the concepts of Kingship, the obligations of the kings and their powers, the royal family and its extensions, the royal household, and ends with the life and death of the king. The chapter even has a section on the women in the royal household and what their rights were. This chapter is just so full of information. There is no way to get it all with one read. So many concepts and degrees of kings and kinds of kings to understand. And as with the first chapter the evidence is based on archaeology, law tracts and mythology.

The final chapter of the book from my point of view was the most interesting. It discusses religion, ritual and ritualists. It focuses on the Christian era of course, but it starts from the earliest possible phase of Christianity in Ireland and goes on from there. The big take away is that it was a SLOW and complicated process.

Should be complimented with Early Medieval Ireland AD 400-1100: The Evidence from Archaeological Excavations, read my review here.

Manx Calendar Customs

Author: C. I. Paton

Publisher: The University Press, Glasgow

Published: 1939

Series: Folk-Lore Society London Monographs (Volume 110)

Pages:147 including Addenda and index, with pictures.



So obviously another old book, but this one is so interesting because it had so many similar customs to the Irish and the Scottish.

The book follows the calendar starting with how the year was divided. The author describes the movable calendar days and then goes on to discuss the months and then the days with celebrations in each month.

The author included what people did on these days, omens (weather and heavenly bodies, Fire and ashes, Water, people, animals plants and food), superstitions, sayings, proverbs, observances, and poetry.

The last chapters of the book discussed the practices around wells and in fairs.

I think my only complaint with this book is the way it was organised. Under each month and day there are classifications, and the author chose to tell you what these classifications were at the very beginning of the book after the table of contents and then only had the number of the classification next to whatever he was writing. Many times I had to go back to the classification table to figure out what the numbers were referring too. It is however a very minor complaint.

The Story of the Isle of Man


Author: Arthur William Moore

Publisher: General Books LLC (Scanned)

Published: 2012, originally 1902

ISBN: 9781154154152937

Pages: 31


I guess I should start with what I didn’t like and get that out of the way. I don’t know what the original book looked like but this scan of the book has three columns on each page. It was hard to keep where I was in the reading straight because of that. The only way you could tell where the chapters were is that the word chapter was italicised. If you missed it, tough luck. I couldn’t really tell what was going on with the headings by the end.

Now that that is out of the way let me get to the meaty part. This book was written in 1902 so of course the scholarship is to that level, and I’m sure the information is out of date. It was obviously written as a text book for children in school, and while the author explained things like “state”, “sovereign” and “government”, he didn’t talk down to the students and he did not dumb down the text.

I also loved how he gave both the mythical origins of the Isle of Man and and the historical one, including a geological survey of how the island was formed. The author managed to weave the mythical/poetic with the historical and still showing how they both differ. I wish all our children were taught this way!

The book went through the history of the Isle of Man up until just before the time the book was published in 1902. I have to say that it wetted my appetite to read more on the subject and I hope I can find books that were written just as well as this book was for its time.

The Celts: The Construction of a Myth

Author: Malcolm Chapman

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Published: 1992

ISBN: 0-333-52088-2

Pages: 342, including 2 Appendices, Notes, Bibliography and an Index.


Synopsis: The Celts are commonly considered to be one of the great peoples of Europe, with continuous racial, cultural and linguistic genealogy from the Iron Age to the modern-day “Celtic fringe”. This book shows, in contrast, that the Celts, as they have been known and understood over two thousand years, are simply the “other” of the dominant cultural and political traditions of Europe. It is this continuous “otherness” which lends them apparent continuity and substance. Modern social anthropology, Celtic studies, literary and historical evidence, and the author’s own fieldwork in Brittany and Scotland, are brought together in demonstration of this.


So what should I say about this book? Should I say that it attempted to show that the Celts did not exist? Should I say that devolved into an exercise of “the poor misunderstood English, they had nothing to do with anything that went wrong in Ireland, and Scotland”? Should I say that the author seems to be insisting that Wales is not really a Celtic speaking populace?

I think I am going to stick to what I liked about this book: the first four chapters and the essence of what the author was trying to say rather than the way he said it.

The author approached the subject of the Celts from a social anthropological world view. He discussed how the Celts got their name and from whom, and how that colored everything else that came after. The author points out that the main problem with the Celts is continuity. Did they really have it? Was there really a linguistic continuity? A cultural one? A biological one? Did they call themselves Celts, did they identify one another as such? Should it matter?

I think at the time that this book was written people still assumed that the Celts were one ethnic entity spread across the Atlantic fringe. We know that is not true now and we know that the work Celt refers to a linguistic designation rather than a biological one.

I think the main thing that I got out of this book is that the whole “the Celts ruled a wide swatch of land all over Europe through expansion” is an out dated idea (already knew that from my own readings) and that it was more like a small band of people (maybe warriors, maybe artisans) moved their culture and language where they went and it was adopted by the people (which confirms my own thought process on this issue).

Should one get this book? Honestly, it depends. Are you like me and you want to read what the “there are no Celts” camp is saying out of curiosity? Then go ahead, just maybe get it from the library or borrow it from someone. If you aren’t curious or you are just starting out, skip it for now, and if you get the curiosity later then again borrow it from the library of from someone who has it.

A God Who Makes Fire – The Bardic Mysticism of Amergin

**This review was first published in Volume II Issue I of Air n-Aithesc

A God Who Makes Fire

Full Title: A God Who Makes Fire: The Bardic Mysticism of Amergin Author: Christopher Scott Thompson
Copyright: 2013
ISBN: 978-1-304-45726-4
Pages: 202


An in-depth examination of the famous “Cauldron of Poesy” text describing the mystical practices of the poet-seers of medieval Ireland and the legendary bard Amergin. Includes a new translation of the text, a line-by-line analysis of the original Old Irish, a new interpretation of the Cauldron system unlike any in current use and exercises for practicing the Cauldron system as a method of spiritual cultivation.


To be honest if someone I trusted hadn’t recommended this book to me I probably would never have picked it up. I didn’t know the author and the book title…not my cup of tea. Or so I thought.
At first glance I couldn’t tell you how many chapters there are in this book because there is no table of contents, not important overall, but I like to skim them before reading a book to see what sort of themes it contains there is also no index or further reading section or a bibliography. However, the book is footnoted so it satisfies my inner nerd. Now that I’ve got that all out of the way, let me talk about the content of the book.
The Legend of Amergin was a very interesting and emotional chapter for me. It felt to me like I was reading my thoughts about the poet Amergin, and the poem “Song of Amergin”. I especially loved the confirmation of a practice that I was using to go into trance (the chanting of the first three lines of the poem “Song of Amergin”).

The next chapter in the book was on the text of the Three Cauldrons, known as the Cauldron of Poesy. The chapter begins with the text of the Three Cauldrons itself, then goes on to discuss the writer of the text and his possible connection to the filid/Druids. Thompson then has a discussion about some of the different translations of the text, namely P. L. Henry, Liam Breatnach and Erynn Rowan Laurie. Mostly though it was about the translations of Breatnach and Laurie. He also discusses how he arrived at his own translations of the text in question. I found the whole chapter fascinating. I loved reading the author’s discussion of the differences between Breatnach’s translation and Laurie’s, and how in the end they were both correct but had focused on different things in their translations. I found myself nodding in agreement with his conclusions at the end of the chapter.

Chapter three contains the comments of the author on his own translation of Cauldron of Poesy, which he provided in the previous chapter. I decided to photocopy the pages and follow along on them instead of going back and forth (he does provide the parts he is going to talk about in the subsections of the chapter but they are still at the beginning and would require going back to them if I needed to). I loved going through the text line by line, there were little nuances that had always escaped me while reading the translations (mainly Laurie’s) which now I fully get. Also the background of where these nuances might have come from and tying them into similarities in I-E comparative studies as well as other myths in the Irish and Welsh cultures was eye opening.

Chapter four is entitled Incubation. Incubation talks about the cauldron of incubation and how it is the “place” where poets study and come up with their poems. The author also ties it to the Underworld, the sea, chthonic forces and oracular work. The process by which he did that was very interesting and informative. He managed to tie a lot of things together that I had read before and thought connected but couldn’t quite put into words myself.

Motion is the title of the next chapter, chapter five. It is all about the cauldron of motion and the two different emotions of joy and sorrow. The author discusses Imbas in connection to the Well of Segais, Boann, the Dagda’s harp, and Brighid. This chapter had so many concepts that I see myself reading it quite a few times before getting all the information it has to give.

Chapter six, which discusses the cauldron of wisdom confused me at first with the classification of goddesses and how the goddess Brighid fit into these classifications, including her little known (at least to me) dark side. This dark side is the one associated with wisdom. I have to say I didn’t love or like this chapter, however, like all the other chapters of the book it was very interesting to read.

The next chapters (four to be exact) discuss the different joys and sorrows discussed in passing in chapter five. These chapters I found enhanced what was said in chapter five and made it better understood.

The next two chapters are about the Imbas Forosnai. Chapter eleven does a good job of explaining the practice and giving people who don’t know much about it a good background. And chapter twelve discusses the Gods that might be associated with it. The poem that the author provided us from his own practice of the Imbas Forosnai inspired me to try and do this myself.

In the final chapter of the book the author lays out his ritual for trying to activate the cauldron of motion and gain wisdom, or at least to try to gain wisdom. I was pleasantly surprised that it resembles my own efforts into the matter. I loved how Thompson gave reasons for working with this method.

In the appendices you’ll find some examples of visualizations for the cauldron ritual, the author’s personal experiences (his own UPG), Invocation of the Graces, and modern poems embodying the joys and sorrows in the cauldron’s list.

All in all, this book is an asset if you are thinking about trancing in a distinctly “Celtic” way. It is also an asset for people who, like me, have a very analytical mind and like to know how things work before they see the whole finished product and use it. I really enjoyed this book, as it confirmed that others were actually doing a lot of what I was doing when it came to trance work so I was on the “right track” as it were. Trance work has never been easy for me and to have come to the same conclusions in this book, down to almost the same kind of ritual, kind of blew my mind and also made me feel better about what I was doing.

Coire Sois – The Cauldron of Knowledge

Coire Sois**First published in Volume II Issue I of the CR Magazine Air n-Aithesc
Author: Tomás Ó Cathasaigh
Editor: Matthieu Boyd
Copyright: 2014
Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press ISBN: 978-0-268-03736-9
Pages: 618 including Further Reading, Notes, Bibliography, Works Cited and Index


Coire Sois: The Cauldron of Knowledge is made up of thirty-one essays that were previously published by Tomás Ó Cathasaigh at different times and in different places. Taken together, these essays are a very impressive survey of early Irish literature. All four of the mythological cycles are represented in the essays. The essays look at key terms, important characters, and recurring themes. The book also has an extensive notes section for each essay, and a further reading section at the very end.

I actually read this book three times. The first time was a quick read to write down my notes, thoughts, and questions as well as to note down which Irish sagas the book was going to be discussing. The second time I read the book was after I read the Irish sagas discussed in the book without distraction. The final time I read it, I read it along side the saga each essay was talking about so that I could see for myself what the subject matter it pertained to was, and this let me try and answer my questions for each essay.

I was going to write my review about the book by discussing each essay but then I realised that I would have to write a book on my feelings and thoughts about each

one so I decided to go a different route. The book was divided into two parts: themes and texts. The texts part was further divided into four sections, each one concerned with one of the Irish mythological cycles.

My favourite of the two sections was the texts section. In this section I was able to see the different layers of the myths that Ó Cathasaigh was talking about and how to go deeper into a myth with the analysis he provided for favourites like the Cath Mag Tuired, Ailill and Medb, The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne and Cú Chulainn.

Although the second section was my favourite for the reasons mentioned above, the first section concerned with themes was very important. I felt that when the editor divided the book this way he knew what he was doing. I took the ideas and themes discussed in the first section forward with me when I read the second section and it helped me in a very big way get what Tomás Ó Cathasaigh was trying to communicate to me as a reader.

There were some essays that bored me to death (The Sister’s Son in Early Irish Literature), others that I felt were going to be boring but ended up being so interesting (The Semantics of (Síd)), and others yet that had me wanting the essay to go on forever (Cath Mage Tuired As Exemplary Myth).

Putting all this together, I think this book should be read by anyone interested in Irish literature, after all it is described as a companion for it. I also think that reading the first section all together before reading the text section is a good idea. The text section could be read in chunks where you dip into and read individual essays that interest you at that moment in time. Coire Sois is another book in my library that I will probably be going back to time and again.