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The tower house complex and rural settlement

When we visit tower houses today, they usually stand abandoned, in isolation within modern landscapes. This chapter finds the medieval reality was very different. It assesses what archaeological features might be found in the immediate vicinity of the tower. This includes the buildings found within the bawn, or enclosing wall, as well as the peasant settlement located around rural tower houses. Whether this associated peasant settlement was nucleated or dispersed is analysed.

in The Irish tower house
Abstract only

The innovative and original contribution made by the tower house to the fields of archaeology and history is assessed. A new methodology is elucidated that combines historical, archaeological, architectural and geographical sources. The introduction likewise locates the book within its wider historiographical context.

in The Irish tower house
Society, economy and environment, c. 1300–1650

Tower houses are the ubiquitous building of pre-modern Ireland. A type of castle, the tower house was constructed c.1350–1650, and extant examples number in the thousands. This book examines the social role of the tower house in late medieval and early modern Ireland. It uses a multidisciplinary methodology to uncover the lived experience of a wide range of people. This enables exploration of the castle’s context, including how it was used as a social tool and in environmental exploitation for economic gain. By challenging traditional interpretations of the Middle Ages we find new evidence for the agency of previously overlooked individuals, and thus a new insight into the transition from medieval to modern. Each chapter in the book builds on the one preceding, to echo the movement of trade good from environmental exploitation to entry into global economic networks, keeping focus on the role of the tower house in facilitating each step. By progressively broadening the scope, the conclusion is reached that the tower house can be used as a medium for analysing the impact of global trends at the local level. It accomplishes this lofty goal by combining archival evidence with archaeological fieldwork and on-site survey to present a fresh perspective on one of the best-known manifestations of Irish archaeology.

Lifeblood of the tower house

Medieval Europe was a predominantly agrarian society. Although the extent to which manorialism existed within medieval Ireland has been debated, pre-modern Ireland’s economy was nevertheless dominated by agriculture. This chapter identifies what specific kinds of agriculture occurred at tower houses. The distribution and roles of arable, pastoral and mixed agricultural economies are considered. An underappreciated evidence source for tower house control of the historical agrarian economy are water mills, found here to be a manorial feature often located in conjunction with tower houses.

in The Irish tower house
Tower houses and waterways

Not only did rivers provide water and food, they were the arteries of pre-modern Ireland’s transport and communication networks. This chapter explains how tower houses were uniquely distributed to control long-distance movement, both by navigable river and by sea. Many tower houses were constructed at communication nodal points or chokepoints, which enabled them to control movement as well as providing an income for occupants. Tower houses are therefore regularly associated with bridges, fords, causeways, ferries and passes.

in The Irish tower house
Environment and economy

Tower house distributions are strongly correlated with rivers. The function of rivers in pre-modern Ireland is examined in this chapter. This chapter gives an overview of what fresh water supplied to historical populations, and then considers environmental exploitation. Fish weirs and fishponds are both encountered at tower house sites. These were a source of both food and income. The evidence for fish weirs and traps as a preferred method for catching fish is weighed against the tendency for fishponds elsewhere in medieval Europe at high-status sites.

in The Irish tower house

Tower houses provided a contact point between Ireland and the wider pre-modern world. The trading activity that existed between Ireland, the British Isles, the Irish Sea zone and continental Europe is summarised. The exports from Ireland’s ports reflect the economic activities based at tower houses. Imports reflect luxury items consumed by tower house dwellers, as well as raw materials required by the primary-sector industries discussed in previous chapters. The tower house association with ports and landing places is explained by control of trade and commerce, whether official or illicit.

in The Irish tower house

Until now, the function of tower houses within a predominantly rural society has been discussed. This chapter illustrates how they were equally urban phenomena, present in pre-modern towns and cities. Their functions in these urban landscapes were different to their roles in the rural environment. In towns they operated as merchant residences, business venues and extensions of commerce. New evidence is provided for a public role for urban tower houses, reminding us that we cannot simply view fortifications as a communal–private dichotomy.

in The Irish tower house