New Book Review: Cattle in ancient and modern Ireland. Farming practices, environment and economy

New Book Review: Cattle in ancient and modern Ireland. Farming practices, environment and economy

New book review of Cattle in ancient and modern Ireland. Farming practices, environment and economy featuring a chapter by Achill Field School founder Dr Theresa McDonald. The book review is by Nigel T. Monaghan, and is published in the Irish Naturalists’ Journal. 

Cattle in Ancient and Modern IrelandMichael O’Connell, Fergus Kelly and James H. McAdam (eds) 2016.
Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne.
ISBN 9781443888950, Soft cover i-xvii + 147pp. £47.99

This volume is the result of a three day meeting in 2014 and includes thirteen papers on various aspects of cattle and cattle husbandry in ancient and modern Ireland. Some articles will have more relevance than others for the general reader interested in Irish natural history, but all are well researched and valuable contributions to the subject.

The impact of cattle farming on the Irish landscape is significant and has early beginnings with lasting effects. James Collins covers the underlying geology and soils that have been combined with manuring and improvements to grassland to develop the rich grazing that has characterised much of Ireland for centuries. Peter Woodman deals with the introduction of cattle to Ireland in the Neolithic period, which started almost 5,000 years ago and led to land clearance and reduction in woodland cover in particular as detailed by Karen Molloy and Michael O’Connell who demonstrate this through the pollen record.

In addition to the impact of cattle on the natural landscapes of Ireland, the volume covers the historic records that place cattle in the social context of the historic period. Fergus Kelly deals with legal and social aspects, Louisa Gidney details the anatomy of the classic Dexter breed, and while this small Irish Kerry strain is taken by archaeologists as a comparison for the earliest breeds, it is a nineteenth century variant but useful as a model nonetheless. Seasonal grazing practices are covered by Theresa McDonald for Achill and by Eugene Costello for Connemara. Patricia Lysaght illustrates how buildings housed cattle as well as families. Jean Walker explores the people responsible for caring for cattle. A contribution by Jonathan Bell and Mervyn Watson on slaughtering practices gives an insight into the processing of animals in recent centuries. Three papers on grassland ecology by James McAdam, Helen Sheridan and John Feehan, complete the volume.

While by its nature, this collection of conference papers is variable in coverage and focus, in all, the volume has a great deal of useful information, from many leading practitioners in the subject. It is a valuable contribution to the subject area, but comes at a hefty price that may place it more on the shelves of institutional libraries than in the hands of the many students of the history of agriculture who would find it most useful.

Nigel T. Monaghan

Monaghan, N.T. (2017) Review of: ‘Cattle in ancient and modern Ireland. Farming practices, environment and economy’. Irish Naturalists’ Journal 35: 161.