Monday, 5 September 2011

Book Review: Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200

Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200 (Longman History of Ireland Series)
Dáibhí Ó Cróinín

This is one of those books that's great for the history buff, and it's certainly one of the more readable tomes on the subject. Anyone looking for a good introduction to the early Medieval period in Ireland, this is probably the book I'd recommend you pick up first.

No, it's probably not the most exciting bedtime reading, but for considering what it aims to deliver to the reader, it does a fine job. It's primarily aimed at university level students or the serious amateur historian, so it offers a good introduction to pretty much all of the key areas you'll want to know about, and it's well-referenced if you want pointers to further reading. It's not too heavy on Teh Big Wurdz and jargon so you won't be stuck reading the same paragraph again and again, trying to figure out what the hell it's supposed to be saying - always a plus in my book.

The areas covered include the beginnings of Christianity, the Church and its influence, the growth of early Medieval Irish literature, society and law, the Vikings, and then a bit about the political landscape. Each chapter covers a specific topic and is fairly self-contained, and provides a good introduction to the main points and issues surrounding that particular subject.

In addition to all of this, because it's fairly wide-ranging in its scope it makes a good place to start if you want to get an idea of the basics without having to spring for several lengthier books that go into more detail. It gives a solid foundation before you think about going on to the more specialised (denser and perhaps drier) books like Kelly's Early Irish Law, Patterson's Cattle Lords and Clansmen, Byrne's Irish Kings and High Kings, or McCone's Pagan Past and Christian Present, and so on...Educational and efficient! Nobody could complain about that in today's economic climate, eh?

You won't find much in here about pre-Christian Ireland, although there is a good discussion on the arguments for and against the pre-Christian origins of ogam. The lack of anything particularly meaty about pre-Christian Ireland might be off-putting to some, but what it does do is give a good idea of the kind of things surrounding the time when the tales were being written down, and how influential the Church came to be, and so on. This is all good stuff to know, even if it doesn't help in giving any practical ideas.

There isn't much that detracts from the book in terms of content; I'm sure some could criticise parts of it for not going into enough detail here and there, but at the end of the day, it's an introduction and it can't cover everything. It's not necessarily the cheapest book you'll find, especially if you buy it new, but otherwise if there's just one book you want to splurge on for introducing you to medieval Irish history, then I'd probably recommend this one.