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Ireland and Early Europe
Essays and Occasional Writings on Art and Culture
Liam de Paor


Irish Studies Review (1999)
‘This volume contains thirty-four essays written by the archaeologist, historian, lecturer and journalist Liam de Paor between 1968 and 1993, but mostly before 1975.  Some have not been published before, but most appeared in the Irish Times, which accounts for their short average length and lack of bibliographic details.  De Paor was a prolific writer of that erudite brand of scholarly journalism so well exemplified in the Irish press, and his Portrait of Ireland (1985) was similarly composed from over three decades of column-writing.  He also published a number of well-received books spanning five decades, including Early Christian Ireland with his first wife, Maire, in 1958 and Saint Patrick's World in 1993.  Whilst the appearance of this collection might be taken as something of an unintended valediction (de Paor died in August 1998) the content of Ireland and Early Europe has been well-selected.  An idle scan carried out in order to fasten upon the factually and conceptually obsolescent would be largely unrewarded.

This is partly because de Paor's work, in retrospect, has a revisionist tinge to it.  There is no explicit declaration, but the totality is placed at some remove from nationalist orthodoxy, which asserts rather different emphases on accounts of the origins and early development of Irish identity. He famously declared that the Irish were in part English, and lectured on the emancipatory and inclusive brand of '1798' republicanism, which he espoused, in the months before his death.  His writings across the decades, sampled in this volume, reach out to contextualise the acknowledged wonders of ancient Ireland within a European geographical and intellectual setting.  For de Paor, this context unavoidably involves the neighbouring islands as much as it does more distant points of contact, such as la Tène, the Rhenish and Danubian Schottenklosteren or Bobbio.  He takes us across the Irish Sea more regularly than Sealink - in late prehistory, through the twilit Celtic periods and into Norman times, in order to make and remake the theme to which the collection is explicitly devoted: that Ireland was most renowned in art and intellect when it was least isolated, or perhaps least isolationist.  These early phases of openness and accompanying productivity could well be compared, in the reader's mind, with shifts in culture and politics during the course of the present century.
The period covered by these essays concentrates on the first millennium AD, especially those early centuries often labelled Early Christian, Ireland's 'Golden Age' in the orthodox nationalist discourse.  Characteristically, de Paor embraces the Pictish, British, Frankish, Byzantine and English contributors to this period of intense cultural activity.  'Beneficent influence of empires' might be a fair summary of much of this oeuvre.  Needless to write, this same period has been crucial to Irish nationalist scholarship for decades, containing as it does the raw materials for building the origin-myth of the de Valeran Republic.  De Paor argues that the art styles commonly known as 'Irish' or 'Celtic' were actually blends: Hiberno-Norse, and more provocatively, Hiberno-Saxon.  In one article, he adds an update to a 1963 broadcast script on the Book of Durrow in order to emphasise the Germanic style of interlace used in its illumination.  Some pieces dwell on themes not centrally Irish: early Northumbria and the episcopal history of Arles, for instance.  Taken together this serves to broaden the scope of the collection, the result being notably less Hibernocentric than Frank Delaney's later TV celebrations of the Celtic, and of the quality of Irish light illuminating the English and continental Dark Ages.

De Paor's shorter and earlier articles are largely concerned with individual sites and artefacts which have achieved iconic status as symbols of Irishness and the Irish State the Tara brooch, the Ardagh chalice, Tara itself, the books of Kells and Durrow, hermit cells, church architecture, enamel work.  He situates these in webs of exchange and influence extending far beyond Ireland's shores.  There is in this writing no lack of scholarly detail, nor any lack of pride in Irish achievement.  To conclude that de Paor succeeds in balancing essentialist evocations of early Ireland, distinctive and aloof, with a territory intersected and defined by a traffic in ideas, inevitably influenced more than influencing, would be too superficial.  This volume lies closer to the genre of writing about broad European historical themes which self-consciously crosses borders, intellectual and territorial, to demonstrate that hunger for exotic stimulus and inspiration which is perhaps the most durable and atavistic of European traits ...’

John Robb, Irish Studies Review, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1999.

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