In the Irish past, how most people earned their proverbial crust was in agriculture. In the late-modern period this was especially true for the decades between the early-nineteenth century retraction of textiles, and the late-twentieth-century advent of foreign direct investment. This centrality is not, however, reflected in scholarship. Consequently, Transhumance and the Making of Ireland’s Uplands is especially welcome. It is the first full-length published work on the archaeology of agriculture and rural life in, primarily, late-modern Ireland since the 2006 essay collection, Unearthing Hidden Ireland, edited by Charles E. Orser, Jr. The present reviewer is a sociologist, and this is a work in archaeology, so doubtless there will be disciplinary-specific aspects which I will not necessarily appreciate. However, we surely want to ascertain how the book speaks to a wider cross-disciplinary audience. It is worth noting that while the rural West, in particular, was a great focus of sociology and anthropology up to the 1980s, this interest has dissipated, something which ill serves the need to understand agriculture as we experience the twin crises of biodiversity and climate.
Transhumance, or as it is more usually called in the Irish context, booleying, is a form of mobile pastoralism where herds and herders move to seasonal pastures and settlements. It occurred in a specific short-distance form in north-western Europe, with a further divergence between patterns in Scandinavia, on the one hand, and in Britain and Ireland, on the other. Transhumance in mainland Europe is typically associated with more long-distance seasonal movements. The simplest way of putting it in the Irish context is that transhumance has principally meant the summer pasturing of dairy cows in upland areas of rough grazing commons, usually under the watch of young people, often young women, who reside in seasonal summer dwellings while engaged in this work.
Eugene Costello’s book has three study areas: Gleann Cholm Cille, in Donegal, and on the north-western seaboard; the Carna peninsula, in Galway’s Connemara and on the western seaboard; and the inland Galtee mountains in the south. He also draws on two sites of previous archaeological fieldwork, Achill Island in the West and the Mourne mountains in the north-east. He makes a sensitive study of these landscapes drawing on archaeology, placenames, oral tradition, historic documents, and soil science. However, even with that great interdisciplinary strength it is perhaps the starting premise of regional diversity which is the real key to the book’s success. The selection was based on ethnographic evidence for the existence of transhumance in the relevant areas at least up until the mid-nineteenth century, and, crucially, the diversity of environments they represent. That diversity is not just a matter of altitude; the Galtees are much higher that the uplands found in Carna or Gleann Cholm Cille. In the opinion of this reviewer a crucial aspect is, as Costello puts it “there is much more agriculturally productive land around the Galtees than in the two western study areas” (6).
Is it possible that the evidence of transhumance in the Galtees is representative of a wider phenomenon of transhumance in the south-west? Costello identified other uplands in the region as having potentials for archaeological fieldwork, namely the Comeraghs and the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, but less oral tradition on booleying has been recorded there (e.g., by the Folklore Commission). Other uplands in the south-west have been afforested by conifer plantations and consequently are less conducive to archaeological fieldwork. In fact, Costello has identified at least some evidence for transhumance for at least some of the 1550-1900 period for an even wider range of south-west upland across Kerry, Cork, Limerick, and the borders of Tipperary and Waterford. Of course, in one sense, it should hardly be surprising if booleying played a significant role in Ireland’s south-westerly dairying heartland, as dairying was central to the practice. Transhumance is remembered today in such evocative placenames, as, in the southern slopes of the Galtees, Cnoc an Bhainne, or Hill of the Milk (120), or, alternatively forgotten, in archaic names on old maps such as Glaunary, or Gleann Áirí, meaning Valley of the Summer Milking-place (114). It was specifically dairy herds that required the daily attentions of pastoralists on their summer pastures and hence a need for people to relocate with the herds.
The broad south-west is important to an overarching argument of the book. Costello challenges the E. Estyn Evans school with regard to the apparently archaic, conservative, and timeless nature of social forms in the far West of Ireland. That suggests that the seaboard Western periphery is essentially a sort of open-air museum of the past, or at least it was in the more recent past, Jean Graham having carried out “pioneering” (46) work on transhumance in the 1950s in Evans’s Queen’s University Belfast bailiwick. That is all well and good; there is no part of modern Ireland that was somehow outside of modernity. That granted, it must be said nonetheless the impression one gets from Costello’s case studies is of a comparative conservatism in the two western ones adjacent to the Atlantic. As he puts it, “landowners in certain parts of Connemara and Donegal had generally shied away from altering rural society over the preceding century and a half or more” (138), that is, before opening decades of the nineteenth century. Likewise, he argues that, with the exception of the Galtees, late transhumance, into the mid-to late nineteenth century, was “generally practised only by the land-starved communities along the western seaboard” (171), which seems like a verdict of marginality. Kelp, yarn, and migration get occasional mention, in what is in fairness a book on a specific agricultural practice, but perhaps these issues speak more to how communities of Western seashores were integrated into global capitalism.
The south-facing slopes of the Galtees were altogether a more dynamic social environment, probably because of the presence in the adjacent valley of “much more agriculturally productive land” (6) than in the two western case-studies. These rich lands were subject to the so-called improving attentions of the Kingston and O’Callaghan estates, quite the contrast with the comparative lack of attention the Conolly estate bestowed on south-west Donegal. While upland colonisation took place elsewhere, there were radical discontinuities in the Galtees as permanent settlement moved up the contour line, bringing with it booleying to new altitudes. This took the form of what Costello calls “planned settlement expansion,” different from the more piecemeal organic expansion and targeted colonization of the other case-studies areas. This upland colonisation in the Galtees seems to have not been a matter of making permanent habitations out of booley sites, and, again, unlike the other case-studies, it created a new booley zone of dispersed seasonal settlement, dissimilar to the more clustered booley sites elsewhere, which themselves reflected the more nucleated pattern of permanent settlement in the West. It is not just a matter here of interventionist landlords. Booleying on the Galtees was part of an international butter trade, part of the south’s successive salted beef, butter, and bacon export booms.
The sections on the Galtees are the shining strength of the book. However, it is of course necessary to illuminate that situation through comparative case-studies. Regarding which, it is worth mentioning that suitable attention is paid to the comparative secondary literature on transhumance in Wales, Scotland, England, and Scandinavia. In the case of the Galtees, Costello can draw on the work of historical-geographer William J. Smyth and prolific folklorist Caoimhín Ó Danachair; the latter remarkably recorded oral tradition of booleying on the Galtees in 1940. Undoubtedly, though, Costello adds greatly to our knowledge, bringing in how the upland archaeology of transhumance fits into the changing patterns of land holding and estate policies identified by Smyth.
Costello argues that the Galtees were an outlier in the south-west in having a later, mid-to-late nineteenth century, history of booleying. However, a great deal of evidence is not presented either way as to how much of an anomaly it was. A great deal seems to rest on the work of folklorist Ó Danachair, who, in the 1940s, established the presence in oral tradition of booleying in the Galtees and its absence in the hills of West Limerick. The latter was given over dry cattle by the nineteenth century (170). However, Ó Danachair does not seem to have been involved in a systematic research into transhumance across the region. Costello’s other examples of nineteenth-century Munster uplands without dairy herds are from, at best, the fringe rather than the core of the dairying area, namely north Clare. On the other hand, the logic of his argument that booleying should be thought of as a modern adaptation rather than an archaic survival would suggest a greater presence in the primary territory of the dairy industry. On that note, as detailed above, Costello has in fact found a number of areas across the south-west where booleying was present, at least to some degree, over the 1550‒1900 period. It seems to me, then, that he is in fact undervaluing his own research by postulating the case of the Galtees as anomalous, based on what seems a fairly geographically limited secondary literature. Certainly, the Galtees may have seen comparatively late booleying, yet still there may have more Munster transhumance at least into the nineteenth century. It is worth bearing in mind there is a one-hundred-year gap between period before the Great Famine and the commencement of organised collation of folklore and oral tradition.
There is tremendous detail here on how the landscape was shaped. Of the 16,200 hectares in the Galtees study-area the work identifies 4,000 hectares improved and enclosed between the Down and Civil Surveys of the 1650s and the 1840s Ordnance Survey. A notable contrast is found with lands on and outside the Kingston and O’Callaghan estates, with their acid brown earths abutting the less advantageous peaty gleys of their neighbours’ land. Costello is attentive to the agency of the settlers in crafting this land: “Renegotiating the meaning of these landscapes in reality involved a lot of back-breaking work: digging ditches, hauling limestone up from lower ground, building lime kilns to burn and spread the lime, beginning potato cultivation and, of course, setting up house” (121).
Reference is made to “Whiteboy agrarian disturbance” (139), but unfortunately missed is the opportunity to consider quite how a contested landscape south Tipperary, in particular, was. There was more population growth in Carna, and very much more in south-west Donegal, than in the parts of Tipperary and Limerick bordering the Galtees. The safety valve sought by landlords in upland colonisation was not for demographic pressure, per se, but for programs of farm consolidation in the lowland valleys, that is, for the creation of larger tenancies, often a central measure in the concertina of development known under the misleading rubric of improvement, a contested process of dispossession and resistance. There was more of this around the Munster case-study simply for the reason of the comparative high-value of the farmland the Galtees look out upon. Much of what we are seeing here is regional specializations driven by the “greater emphasis on surpluses after the medieval period” (11), which it is important to recognise is experienced as compulsion and coercion and which can be resisted or evaded. Indeed, the ending of booleying on the Kingston estate section of the Galtees was down to the imposition of a rent per cow in the upland grazing. Equally interesting end points were made in parts of the West, with the colonisation of commons by more marginalised tenants or with the emigration of the young women (176-7). There is scope here for bringing in more of the agency of subaltern social groups, in different ways, in expanding booleying into new altitudes in upland colonisation but also in how that relates to class relations and class conflict in the lowland, or in dissolving booleying either in enclosure from below or in escape to the New World.