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SLU history professor unlocks more secrets of medieval Ireland

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 15, 2013: Saint Louis University history professor Thomas Finan continues to unlock the secrets of medieval Ireland after the discovery of yet another Gaelic settlement dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries.

The settlement, in County Roscommon, in northwestern Ireland, was uncovered as part of a research project involving students from SLU and assistance from the University of Ireland-Galway.

The targeted area consisted of the Rock of Lough Key, a medieval Gaelic island fortress formerly inhabited by 12th century Kings of Moylurg, the McDermots, and, more interestingly, a moated site near the shore of the Lough.

“We knew the McDermots didn’t live on the island 365 days a year,” explained Finan, in an interview with the Beacon. “It was used as a last resort and for entertaining guests.”

If the island was a safe place to which people escaped, “there had to be a landed element and we found references to a market town in the Irish annals,” he said.

Further excavation of the land where the settlement had existed, however,  revealed a lot more than had been expected.

“The moated site was just a piece of a giant puzzle, not like we’d originally thought,” said Finan, “There were roads, numerous settlements, evidence of a port and other structures. What’s more, we only surveyed about one-fourth of the site; aerial photos show it extends far farther than we ever expected.”

Finan, whose primary area of expertise is the history and archaeology of medieval Ireland with a focus on the borderlands region of the Shannon in Roscommon in the 13th and 14th centuries, studies an often forgotten gap in Irish history. He had previously directed archaelogical work at Kilteasheen.

The Norman invasion of Britain and their later expansion into Ireland around the late 12th, early 13th centuries brought on a period of great change. Large portions of Irish territory came under the control of Norman lords who looked to impose their economic, political and social order upon the Gaels.

There is little textual evidence about the disruption to traditional life during this period of adjustment, which means historians have had to guess about what went on.  

“There’s a period of time for a couple of hundred years where we have a significant gap archaeologically, and hence we don't have much of an idea of their material culture,” explained Finan. “We don’t know what these folks were doing economically; the assumption is that it was predominantly pastoral, but who runs the cattle? How did they feed them? Did they grow grain to feed them? What was the real impact of the English?”

However, fortunately for Finan and the team, the north-western of region Ireland marks the finishing line of Norman advancement in the country, the Norman Hadrian’s wall if you like.

“There’s no real English settlement in the area during this time period and is a sort of frontier,” explained Finan. This provides a unique opportunity to examine what a real Gaelic settlement looked like in the 13th century; it also helps that the McDermots and O’Conors kept good records.”

Finan also hopes that study of the site could answer questions concerning dramatic climate change during this time period.

“There was a lot of cooler, wetter weather heading across Europe in the 13th century and Ireland, due to its geographical location would have been one of the first places to experience this,” said Finan. “It might show us how society changed, how the economy was affected; it could answer a lot of questions.”

The answers may be found in the ongoing research. Publication of what the team has learned so far is expected to begin this spring.

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