VILLAGES (Medieval Ireland)

Very little is known about village life in medieval Ireland. Archaeological work has been limited, and the poor survival of records makes it difficult for the historian, but fortunately it has been a subject of research by historical geographers. The lack of interdisciplinary study is further exacerbated by the fact that from about the tenth century onward most English and continental peasants lived in villages, while in Ireland dispersed settlements appear to have remained the norm.

A village is a settlement intermediate in size between a hamlet and a town, but in practice the borderlines are vague and undefined. Commonly, a medieval village consisted not only of the built-up area of houses, outbuildings, gardens, haggards, and orchards, but also the surrounding fields from which the inhabitants derived their livelihoods. It has often been remarked that the Latin word villa should really be translated as "township," rather than "village." Furthermore, the medieval village was more than a settlement form. It was also a community and, indeed, a special type of community, in that it was one defined by common residence and a shared economic and social interest, rather than one bound together purely by the ties of kinship. Medieval Irish villages varied in size, physical form, function, and population. These differences suggest that there was a hierarchical ordering in the landscape as well as an economic and social complexity, but insufficient work has been done to establish the patterns.

Village life prior to the Anglo-Norman invasion remains nebulous, but during the eleventh and twelfth centuries the evidence for nucleation increases. This is indicated by the appearance of new words such as baile and sraidbaile as well as the archaeological and documentary evidence for the concentration of craftsmen and artisans at ecclesiastical sites. The phrase "monastic town" has been coined for larger settlements such as Armagh, Clonmacnoise, Kells, and Kildare, but there were also places of intermediate size that could be called monastic villages. Seventy or eighty houses, for instance, are recorded as being burnt at Duleek in 1123, while eighty houses were destroyed in the remodeling of Derry in 1162. Houses are also recorded at Ardagh (Co. Longford), Ardpatrick (Co. Limerick), Ardstraw, Cloyne, Devenish, Emly, Louth, Ratass, Roscommon, and Slane, among others, and nucleation was not confined to ecclesiastical sites alone. Excavations at Knowth, County Meath, have uncovered six or seven houses clustered below the royal site during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, while by the mid-twelfth century, there was a mixed community of clerics and burgesses at Killaloe, the settlement at the foot of the Ua Briain royal site of Kincora. Similarly, there were intermediate-sized settlements in the Hiberno-Scandinavian world, such as Arklow and Wicklow, which probably functioned primarily as fishing villages. Nonetheless, in view of the kin-based structure of early Irish society and the somewhat tantalizing nature of the evidence, the degree to which these settlements were villages in the accepted sense rather than kin-based agglomerations remains open to question.

After the Anglo-Norman invasion, the migration of English peasants led to the foundation of many new villages. The manorial lords frequently offered burgess rights to the colonists, leading to the establishment of what scholars have called rural boroughs: settlements with an agricultural economy, but in which property holders had the status of townspeople. This permitted the development of an organized village community led by a reeve, who may have been appointed by the lord or elected by the burgesses, and whose responsibility was to oversee the annual performance of obligations to the lord and the collection of rents and dues.

There has been a debate about the extent to which the colonists introduced the English village system and the degree to which the traditional Irish pattern of dispersed settlement was adopted. English-syle villages are found in the densely settled parts of the Anglo-Norman colony, such as Dublin, Kildare, Kilkenny, Meath, and Tipperary. Typically these would have had an arable infield set in strips while the outfield was grazed in common, and in Meath the ridges dividing the strips are referred to by the Middle English word selion. In the less densely colonized areas, such as Ulster and Connacht, villages are largely absent, and it has been argued that the pre-existing townland scheme militated against the formation of large, English-style nucleations. It has also been suggested, however, that the absence of villages in the landscape may be the result of a historical phenomenon—the movement of English tenants to the periphery of the manorial lands when villages were abandoned or a phase of secondary colonization in the thirteenth century.

Deserted village earthworks are rare in Ireland, with the greatest number occurring in south Tipperary. Here one frequently finds a church and a manorial center (typically a motte), surrounded by peasant houses of the English-speaking settlers. Farther away lived the Gaelic Irish-speaking betaghs who farmed their land in common and owed labor services and rents to the lord of the manor. In her study of deserted villages in Westmeath, Meenan found that village earthworks were predominantly associated with churches, with or without the presence of a motte. The church was an indicator of centrality and drew allegiance to the village. The remains typically consist of three to five houses with their associated garths. The numbers of houses do not indicate the original figures, but rather were the last ones to be deserted. Settlements that were abandoned early tend to have few earthworks, and the more prominent the archaeological features the later the date of desertion tends to have been. Peasant long-houses have been excavated at Caherguillamore (Co. Limerick) and Jerpointchurch (Co. Kilkenny). These were rectangular buildings divided into two rooms, one of which was the dwelling room and the other a byre.

Many villages were abandoned in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. Dunamase, for instance, had 127 burgesses in 1283 but only 40 in 1324. The reasons for desertion were varied: economic decline; famine; the Bruce wars (1315-1318) and the lawless nature of the countryside for twenty years after; the Black Death (1348-1349); increasing Gaelicization; and simply because the inhabitants thought that they might find better opportunities elsewhere.

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