What follows is more of a personal reaction and a selection of the interesting points made in the book than a synopsis of the text. It would be worthwhile to have other people’s views posted…after all, I don’t want to be the one Ray Gillespie takes out at dawn…..


The book – add to your Library!

This is an excellent introduction to Irish Local History on 3 levels:

It explores the philosophy and defines the elements of L.H. in accessible terms.

It provides very basic and practical guidelines for anyone undertaking a study.

"New History" approaches are integrated into all sample case studies.

The Argument

These are the strands of L.H. thought which are common themes of the essays:

L.H. is the study of people primarily – believe in FINBERG!

There is an imperative to consider your community of study, and its "home" place, not as an isolated unit, but as an element on a larger canvas. You must compare and contrast!!! - the ABC of SPUFFORD…

Place acquires "personality" from the people…as much as from topography. So, hats off to HOSKINS…

Just as your community is not isolated, your approach to "doing" L.H. should be open to different influences – i.e. Geography, Literature, etc.

If the landlord/clergyman was the "broker" who jazzed up the local scene in the past, YOU, as a HISTORIAN, play a comparable role by bringing "the past" alive for the audience of today….what a noble undertaking!

To reiterate the previous point, you must COMMUNICATE (write, tell, publish…) your interpretation of the past for some audience…..e.g. John Joe’s book kept my mother-in-law enthralled for two weeks during Christmas!

I think that all contributors (directly, or indirectly) urge the historian

to be realistic about what one individual can do

to be careful, thorough and unbiased in approaching evidence

to be clear-thinking in your aims and your conclusions

keep it simple…the style and content of this book are a perfect example of interesting and attractive communication.


Part I - The pursuit of Irish Local History

These are 4 discussion papers on the general approach to "doing" (this term is preferred to "writing") Irish L.H.

Part II - The Practice of Irish Local History

These 4 essays are illustrative of the experiences of historians in doing specific local studies – all from Northern Ireland.




ESSAY 1: "An Historian and the Locality" by Raymond Gillespie

SOURCES are "of the first importance" but they do not speak for themselves – you must not simply list the names in Griffith’s Valuation, they "have to be enticed to give up their secrets".

UNIT OF STUDYIrish local historians have tended to write about a place; This was usually an administrative unit (parish, county, diocese, etc.) which was considered as a separate, permanently fixed entity within a "compartmentalised world". This was a cockeyed approach! The local unit must be linked to the national history and even Co. Mayo underwent mutations (e.g. townland boundary changes).

FINBERG – The proper focus of local history must be people ("community") in a particular place over time.

COMMUNITY – R.G. defines it simply as people "living together with something in common". Examples – Estate, Family, Church Congregation, Political organisation. There are many links between overlapping communities and any community is not static because "brokers" between the local and national worlds (clergy, landlord) introduced change.

PERSONALITY – Evans’ concept of the uniqueness of localities can be understood in one way as the particular manner in which changes are adopted by various areas – so, 19th C. industrialised Ulster differed from agrarian Leinster. R.G. holds that the community configures elements from local and centralised interests (State, Church) to create a distinct personality.

IDENTITY – As well as an outsider’s view the historian must take into account that the people of a locality have their own understanding of who they are and where they live.

Doing local history in Ireland – R.G.’s practical guide… "general principles"…

Select a human unit – e.g. river valley, Cooley region…Add some of your own!

Get a MAP to show where it is and to examine how the landscape changed.

From the map, go on to consider how the landscape was understood by the inhabitants – place-names, folklore, religious beliefs, travellers accounts…

Quantify the population fluctuations, using census data.

Now begin to deduce what the mental world of those people was like and interpret the way they responded to various events –

Did they emigrate from famine, migrate for work, marry within the locality (see Cloonfush),…..?

Do funeral monuments reveal attitudes to death?

Examine the relationship between people and resources – leasing, inheritance;

Were there tensions during land agitation? Workers strikes?

Consult a variety of sources to get different perspectives – e.g. Newspaper,

Folklore,….Parliamentary Paper!!!

R.G. hobby-horse coming along …Reconcile the religious incongruity of the Official sodality culture coexisting with the pagan(?) rituals – those "holy" well pilgrimages….

In conclusion, R.G. believes that we will rewrite history if we return to those 19th C. sources with new questions and if we also include ideas from folklore, literature, etc. which previous historians disregarded.

VERDICT: This is a wide-ranging essay which sketches in outline many topics that were the subject of class lectures. It is deceptively accessible because, in his sheep’s fleece this author has concealed a wolf of philosophical profundity….

Highly recommended….my mother-in-law is getting this for next Christmas!


ESSAY 2: "Locality and changing Landscape: Geography and Local History"

By P.J. Duffy

This is a more detailed look at the role of Geography in L.H. study, stressing three distinctive themes as its contribution:

The object of study is landscape and its morphology

Geography’s method is to examine the making of the landscape in the past

The sources it uses concentrate on spatial applications


Duffy examines place and points out that landscape is an "expression" of the community’s relationship with its environs.

Personality of a place is a combination of the physical environment, human settlements and the community living there [R.G. also examines this concept].

The geographer looks for traces of its evolution and sees the landscape as "a legacy of past contributions"…e.g. Golden Vale dairy industry developed its own particular field patterning, buildings, road networks, etc.

Processes involved in landscape change are Locational (e.g. region), Environmental (climate), Economic (urbanisation), Cultural (colonisation),

Social (population) and Ideological (partition).

Geography considers a locality is part of a network; This contrasts with the past when "locality" was a restricted concept that led to an inward-looking self-reliant mentality.

Views of Land Potential

Man had a more symbiotic relationship with the environment in the past – Gaelic toponyms are evidence of such….cluain, drom, Field names…

Surveys (Down, Civil) are evidence of a new intent – land was "arable" or "waste"…

Griffith’s Valuation indicates that central authority saw land as the basis for tax assessment.

Retrospectively, we can identify the evolution of Ireland’s east-west divide …the overcrowded boglands of the west, the fatlands and industry of Leinster/Ulster.

Ireland’s Heritage

In a European context, Ireland is peripheral and has evolved a unique culture, which is today promoted as a tourist attraction. Duffy praises Estyn Evans’ ideas of 1942, "Irish Heritage".

Townland, Parish and Field names are part of our "legacy" from the process of "building the landscape" in the past.

Other Social Influences

Population fluctuations crowded our landscape with hedges, small fields, John Healy’s deserted villages. Duffy proposes that population experience is "a useful surrogate of landscape experience".

Landholding practice leaves its mark also….The "bachelor farm" is singled out for mention as the result of a paradoxical decline in rural Ireland despite the arrival of the age of peasant proprietorship.

In reading the story of the landscape, we are maintaining contact with the past – but our interpretations may differ…compare the perspectives of Lord Altamont with those of farmer O’Hara………

SOURCES used by Geographers….and Local Historians…

Maps are sources of data – and a means of presenting data in a study…. [R.G. Recommendation!]. Pg. 42 suggestions for map presentation.

List of other sources used by geographers – Surveys, Griffith, Tithe, Census, Artistic works, Photographs, Literature

Duffy concludes with a rallying cry to local historians to defend the integrity of the local community and landscape in the face of an onslaught from technology which is bringing "spatial closure"….of which we are now availing!!!!!

ESSAY 3: "The Folklorist and Local History" by Linda May Ballard

This is a defence of folklore as a tradition bearer and, as such, a legitimate resource for the historian.

As with landscape, folklore must be interpreted objectively.

Oral narratives may be personal accounts of experience (e.g. American wake, Adoption) in prose or verse form. Some narratives may be cross-checked against other sources (e.g. Newspaper).

Fairy and Ghost tales may have "factual material imbedded". They may also help us to understand the "cultural climate of the past" – e.g. Changeling myths are associated with critical events, such as childbirth and marriage.

SOURCES are 3 types – published, archives (U.C.D.) and you can gather your own through fieldwork.

ESSAY 4: "Reading the Past: Literature and Local History" by Myrtle Hill

The literary author and historian both employ creative imagination to interpret an accumulation of facts and construct a narrative.

Traditional historical accounts were by the victorious and powerful.

Literature may be used to "humanise statistics"- e.g. Mrs Gaskell’s works…

Historians may revise the distinctions between good and bad….e.g. Narrative intrusions by the author may be poor literature, but exciting history!!


"Castle Rackrent" – the "first socio-historical…Irish…Big House…saga novel" provides an insight into landlord-tenant relationships in pre-Famine times.

William Carleton declared he was writing for "a class unknown" in literature or to "those in whose hands much of their destiny was placed".

Anthony Trollope – "The McDermotts of Ballycloran" – is a social criticism, again set in pre-Famine Leitrim…

Modern "Big House" novels (Jennifer Johnston..) and short story (Joyce, O’Connor, Corkery) inform our understanding of the past.

M. Hill has her own favourites which reflect her "interest in religious history" – these are works set in north-east Ulster….. "December Bride", et al.

ESSAY 5: "Doing Local History: Armagh in the late Eighteenth Century"

By Leslie Clarkson

Without going into specific details of his findings, etc…..Clarkson refers to the "Greats" – Hoskins, Ladurie, Elton…and a few dozen others I never heard of!

He used anthropological and sociological approaches in conducting his quest for Miss Cust…he must have cust….

The most interesting part of this essay was his outline of "doing" L.H. as a 4-stage process:

Have a reason for the study – either Hoskins’ noble "wish to enrich the general by a study of the particular"…or your own grubby curiosity!

Search for the evidence.

Interpret the facts that have been uncovered.

Communicate…He devotes the end of the essay to this: "History is a social activity…it is a conversation…between the historian, his or her sources, and the audience". He acknowledges that writing is not easy as it forces "thought into order and pattern".

The 3 principles for writing are - do not distort the facts, avoid patronising and write clearly, directly and grammatically.

ESSAY 6: "The Study of Townlands in Ulster" by W.H. Crawford

Here we have a textbook-style mass of particular details for the historian of the townland: Crawford takes you through the sources that should be consulted…Maps, leases, Valuation, census, Rural District Councils records, Parliamentary Papers…..


The central objective in this outline study is an effort to reach a full understanding of the rural economy as it evolved through Plantation to the age of the petrol engine.

Despite its "Ulster" title, the method applies equally from Malin to Mizen…

Crawford emphasises that his concern is the impact of all this activity on the people and he attends to the impact of land division and tenure on the townland landscape.

By this stage in the book, I feel you have a flavour of what lies in store…it is people and place all the way to the endline….

For all ye rustic historians, there is another clarion call to man the barricades – the "heyday [of the townland] has gone"…soon it will be too late to research rural community life…Tackle up the pony-and-trap, lads!




ESSAY 7: "The Built Heritage and the Local Historian" by Nick Brannon

Of all the contributions, this I found to be the least relevant to my own experience because it is written in the context of quite a comprehensive programme of archaeological and heritage study available to Ulster students. Perhaps some of you know whether we have the equivalent of the Monuments and Buildings Record, Environment Heritage Service, etc., etc. in our territory???????

Brannon draws attention to sites such as ecclesiastical, Early Christian raths, Medieval castles, industrial works and so on. Like Hoskins, he makes the point that the landscape is rich in built heritage.

He urges everyone – from schoolchildren to historians – to "police the landscape"…be alert for as yet undiscovered remains and be watchful in order to protect and preserve what is already identified.



ESSAY 8: "The Comparative Aspect in Local Studies" by John Lynch

I found this a very enlightening piece! Again, the starting-point is the "people-in-their-place-which-is-linked-to-the-wider-world".

Comparison is a useful tool to illustrate differences…but it should also identify degrees of similarity!

Community is the product of environment and external influences.

Because it is not isolated, we must quantify the community’s external influences by comparing it with others.

Comparisons may be external or internal – Belfast compared with Bristol or Dispensary Area V compared with D. A. XV.

Comparisons may demonstrate a fact – e.g. a higher casualty rate in W.War I for Belfast recruits than for Bristol men.

Comparison is used to identify reasons – a greater percentage of Belfast recruits were in Infantry divisions… "cannon fodder".


There is a restricted validity to comparisons – only compare like with like.

e.g. Could anyone compare Belfast with Cloonfush????

Data must be compatibleHorseloads versus Bags of turf…impossible…

The Volume of data that one can manage is limited…A good thesis could be done on "Surnames of China 1800-2001"…..

Don’t rely on Official Figures alone if comparing fish catches of Ireland and Spain…you must be capable/fluent in Spanish to trawl other sources…

That’s all folks!