Rural landscapes of improvement in Ireland, 1650-1850: An archaeological landscape study
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Ireland's modern landscapes of fields and farms were largely fashioned in the later historic period, between c.1650 and 1850. This was the infancy of modern rural Ireland, when the concepts of property and tenure, landlords and tenants took form. It was a period when political, religious, and class contests came to define Irish society. This thesis is an archaeological landscape study which explores how Irish rural landscapes reflect, and became a part of, these contested social relationships, focusing in particular on the role of Improvement in these changes. Improvement was an Enlightenment ideology which held that society could be progressively enhanced though the influence of architecture, agriculture, and commerce on people's daily lives. Improvement, and the related ideologies of capitalism, colonialism and modernity, helped to shape the elite landscapes of the land owners, the towns and villages, the farms and farmsteads, the fields and enclosures. This involved fundamentally altering the way people in Ireland thought about property and landscape. My research uses four case study parishes from counties Derry in Ulster, Meath in Leinster, Clare and Tipperary in Munster, to investigate how Improvement in the landscape, in estate houses, gardens and demesnes, places of worship, towns and villages, farm dwellings and offices, field enclosures, reflected these changes and helped reshape Irish rural society. However, this was not a straightforward process of change. Improvement was contentious, not least because of its relationship with colonialism in Ireland. Improvement used modernity and change to support power-structures of the elite 'Protestant Ascendency'. At the same time, the landscape was used as a means of legitimising these elites through the association with, and appropriation of, significant ancient landscape features. Irish landscapes, viewed as a framework for our collective past, used in conjunction with extensive documentary material for the later historic period, provide an invaluable body of evidence for understanding Improvement in later historic Ireland. Reading landscapes involves interpreting complex interactions of time, space and human agency. Landscape archaeology, with documentary research and GIS analysis, provides an important suite of methods and concepts for these interpretative tasks. I conclude that the manipulation and creation of 'improved' landscapes was a key factor in shaping later historic Irish society.
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