Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Armagh and the Royal Centres in Early Medieval Ireland: Monuments, Cosmology, and the Past

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Armagh and the Royal Centres in Early Medieval Ireland: Monuments, Cosmology, and the Past

Article excerpt

Armagh and the Royal Centres in Early Medieval Ireland:Monuments, Cosmology, and the Past. By N. B. Aitchison. (Rochester, New York: Boydell & Brewer for Cruithne Press. 1994. Pp. x, 356. $71.00.)

In Armagh and the Royal Centres, N. B. Aitchison manages to blend an archaeologist's understanding of material remains with a historian's critical use of the textual evidence for early medieval Ireland, and to come up with a synthesis that is both plausible and impressive. Aitchison's method is to explore the inconsistencies between readings of the material and textual evidence for the royal sites, and just generally to read the texts more critically. His argument is so complex and discursive that I cannot rehearse all of it here. His main aim, however, is to re-examine the connection between several complex archaeological sites, sometimes called "royal centers" by modern scholars, and the provincial capitals prominent in early medieval narratives and annals.

While written sources agree that royal" centers were sites of trans- and intertribal political gatherings, battles, and fairs, the main evidence for royal residence at the sites comes from only one genre, "mythological" sources such as epics. On the other hand, archaeologists have turned up earthwork enclosures, ring barrows, megalithic tombs, linear earthworks, and roadways at the sites, but the one thing they have not found is evidence for residence in the late Iron Age or early Middle Ages.

Why should the sagas lie? Because they were propaganda. The hills and barrows at Navan and the other sites were already ancient and still remembered as politically and spiritually important in the early Middle Ages. The literati portrayed them as both political foci and royal residences, drawing on the monuments' power and status in the minds of the Irish, and using them to legitimate emerging early medieval over-kingships. The Ui Neill, the dynasty that created the most successful over-kingship in early Ireland, the kingship of Tara, were especially adept at both political expansion and self-fashioning; and it was they who patronized the literati, their propagandists. In return, the literati created nothing less than an ideological basis for the high-kingship of Ireland.

As a counter-point to this historical theorizing, Aitchison synthesizes the latest excavation reports for two of the sites, Tara and Navan Fort, focusing mostly on the latter. …

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