Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Archive: Early Irish Farming - Fergus Kelly

Early Irish Farming
Fergus Kelly

Cor blimey, this took a while to get hold of. After several attempts at ordering it from various places, I finally received an actual copy of it and I was going to be seriously annoyed if it turned out to be a steaming pile a horse manure. Thankfully, it didn't disappoint.

This one arrived on my doorstep with a very firm and formidable thud: packing in just over 750 pages, its size alone shows that its a meaty volume (tastes a bit like pork....). Don't worry, though. Around 150 pages are the indexes, glossaries, bibliography and selected translations of passages referred to in the text...So yes. I wouldn't say this is particularly light reading. It's thoroughly academic reading. It's an oddly fascinating read, though - by which I mean the title doesn't inspire much in the way of 'I simply must read this!' and yet, for the most part, I found it fairly easy to get through. The book's well laid out and the subjects are dealt with in a fairly logical order and unlike many of the more modern academic books I've read recently there's very little repetition throughout, which I was grateful for.

Kelly starts off with a good introduction and then goes on to cover what we know of early Irish farming, primarily through the law-texts of the seventh or eighth centuries with a healthy smattering of archaeological evidence thrown in to support the literature. First of all he looks at livestock - the types of animals that were typically kept on the farm, how they were managed and looked after throughout the year and the economic value they would have had. Offences that might be committed against livestock are then looked at, followed by the types of diseases. Kelly's attention then turns to crops, hunting, diet and then matters affecting the farm, labour and tools.

In terms of CR it might not seem to be such a great book to read - it's not about myths or festivals, say - but it does give a good insight into the more mundane, everyday aspects of life that can help to flesh out your practices and understanding of early medieval society. It's a good source to get an idea of why certain animals - cows and pigs in particular - were so important for one, but it also gives an idea of the sorts of things they did with the animals and the types of food they made which might make good dishes for festival occasions (Kelly notes that pork in particular was a popular meat to serve at these times, for example) if you want something more traditional. There's also a good summary of the types of plants and herbs they cultivated for brewing, dyeing and (to a lesser extent) for medicine, though I'm sure there are better sources to look at for this, and throughout there are some interesting tidbits thrown in where Kelly mentions things like the veneration of certain trees (the bile), evidence of pre-Christian thought or practice in terms of food taboos and the tarb-feis (the bull feast rite performed to determine the next king), and so on.

Kelly writes in an engaging manner* (as he does in Early Irish Law, which makes a good companion to this book) - and even when I got to the chapters on subjects that really weren't all that interesting - my life doesn't exactly feel enriched now I know about the finer details of the different types rods and goads that were used on the farm, or the penalties for all the different types of offences that might be committed against livestock and so forth, it has to be said - the lurches into dullness were forgivable. Unlike some authors who write about such specialised areas of interest, he doesn't fall into the trap of using teh big wurdz and dazzle the reader with a ton of jargon so the information he presents is much easier to absorb. I can appreciate that his frequent use of Irish or Latin words might be off-putting or distracting to some people who don't necessarily have a good grounding in early Irish legal terminology, though, even though he always gives a translation.

As an academic tome, there's not much to find fault with it. While parts may be dated now (having been originally published over a decade ago), generally these are things that are going to be of little relevance to anyone approaching it from a CR perspective, unless they're really keen on the intricacies of early Irish farming practice and so forth, and the book is invaluable for its presentation and in-depth referencing of primary source material (if not in-depth analysis, at times)...

The translations given in the appendices include the original Old or Middle Irish and extensive commentary on how he came to translate something in a particular way, or what a particularly obscure turn of phrase might mean and so on. Kelly also gives extremely thorough references and commentary on many of the interpretations he comes to throughout the book, even offering counter-arguments to point out a possibly different perspective, and the bibliography alone is invaluable if you want ideas for further reading.

Given the broad scope of the book, some parts felt a little less indepth than I would have liked them to be, but this is understandable - I would have liked some more stuff on food taboos, for example, but Kelly tends to present most things in a fairly neutral manner, providing a springboard for further study into various topics rather than getting down to the nitty gritty let's-look-at-it-from-all-angles.

I would say this is probably more on the advanced side of intermediate in terms of relevance and interest, providing some good fodder for more in-depth research, although the indexing and the straight-forward style of writing and presentation makes it perfect for just dipping into as a quick reference if you're not the sort to sit down and chew on it at great length. I do think it's worth it, though, especially with Kelly's Early Irish Law. Though take that with as much salt as you like - if you're like me and are tickled by discovering little things like battle-cries of "Fennockabo!" (anglicised form of feannóg abú! - "Hurra for the hooded crow!", apparently), then you'll probably agree. Otherwise, perhaps pick something else up instead.

* With the usual qualifier of "For an academic book, that is..."

Archive: Irish Folk Ways - E Estyn Evans

Irish Folk Ways
E Estyn Evans

If you ever have a desperate, burning need to know about the finer details of the sorts of pots, pans, tools and equipment the Irish used in that strange, unspecified time known as ‘the bygone era’, then this is the book for you.

Irish Folk Ways is not an easy book to sit down and get stuck into, because the detail on any subject Evans turns his attention to often tends to border on the anally retentive, mind-numbingly boring and Just. Plain. Dull. And this is me saying this, so I assure you – there's attention to detail, and there's this.

That’s not to say it’s a bad book. It’s very very good, in fact. In amongst all the detailsdetailsdetails are some hidden gems that you won’t find anywhere else, and I've found it particularly useful in finding more bits and pieces to flesh out my understanding of festival practices and lore, amongst other things.

Evans concentrates on all the different aspects of everyday life in Ireland, and for anyone who wants to go beyond the basics, I think this is a good place to look. An excellent place to look, even. I’d hesitate to recommend it as the very first book to read for anyone interested in starting out as a recon because I think the reader would end up either bored to tears and running away from reconstructionism for ever, or would think “where the hell's the good stuff?” (assuming the beginner wants to know the important stuff, like festivals, practices and so on). Evans does cover all this - and there's a lot of it - but you have to work for it. On the plus side, there's a very good index in the back so it's easy enough to pick all the good bits out, but for a beginner, something like Kevin Danaher's The Year in Ireland would be a much better place to start, providing some 'instant gratification' (as the enthusiastic gardening correspondent at the newspaper I used to work for would say...).

This book requires a certain amount of dedication, unless you happen to be the kind of person that lives for this sort of thing. If minutiae is your bag, then buy the book now. Otherwise, gird your loins and prepare yourself. I would say that this is on my 'should be read' list for anyone interested in Irish practices (and it's handy for a Scottish Reconstructionist like me, too, for comparison), but I've given fair warning...You're not likely to find it a thrilling read. You'll probably find you'll put it to good use as a reference book, though.

In short, this is probably the most anally retentive book EVAR. But I mean that in a good way.