Review: The Irish Tower House: Society, Economy and Environment, c. 1300-1650, By Victoria L. McAlister (2019)

To say that this book is ambitious is an understatement. There are many books on castle studies out there, and some of them are treated almost as gospel. With the work of Cairns, Barry, MacCurtain, McNeill, and O’Keeffe firmly entrenched in the discourse surrounding castle studies, how can anybody compete with that? Well, this volume does just that.  

Recent years have seen a reassessment of the role of castles in medieval society and this study continues this process, and significantly contributes to the field. This volume does not just seek to explore what tower houses are, how they were constructed, and their function, but rather how they functioned in society and what this can tell us about the lives of medieval people. The book seeks to argue that “…tower houses are a remarkably effective means of understanding the socio-economic actions of the majority of people within late medieval Ireland.” (p.1) The popular conception of a castle brings to mind images of lords and kings nestled safely away in their keeps, but the tower house was not just the building of the elite, rather they were constructed by ecclesiastics, merchants, and gentry alike. They crossed divides between rural and urban landscapes, and between those who work, those who fight, and those who pray. 

Traditionally, tower houses are viewed as primarily defensive structures. It is not difficult to see why. They show a variety of defensive features such as, machicolations, bartizans, murder-holes, loops, and high stone walls and bawns. However, to view these structures as purely defensive structures is to make them and the people who built them as passive, reacting to the political and social instabilities of the day and seeking to make themselves safe. On the contrary these structures are not defensive, but offensive. They are a statement of power, and a place to interact with the wider world, not to hide away from it. It was an attempt by their builders to control their landscape and cement their position in society. They are not just reacting to the world around them but attempting to shape it. 

In its approach this volume takes a multidisciplinary approach, and uses an all-Ireland focus, something which many previous studies failed to do opting for a more regional focus. However, it also goes a step further in locating tower houses in a larger pan-European framework. This may seem a simple thing, but many previous studies have failed in this respect being unfortunately influenced by Celtic-exceptionalism that so plagues the study of Irish history and archaeology. Tower houses “…hint at a fascinating web that tied Ireland to the rest of the British Isles and beyond, the European continent. This network was potentially more elaborate than has previously been recognised and it is argued that connections were sustained by the presence of the tower house.” (p.25)

Chapter 1, “Around the castle wall: The tower house complex and rural settlement,” delves into the issues of what we could expect to find around the tower house itself. “Tower houses…have a tendency to be regarded as solitary within the landscape, a view assisted by the disappearance of the buildings that undoubtedly stood around many of them.” (p.26). The evidence presented in this chapter suggests that there were diverse rural settlements surrounding tower-houses – the castle, landscape, and surrounding settlements were interconnected. 

The conclusion is somewhat ambiguous, in that it is nearly impossible to determine exactly what surrounded a tower house – “it depends.” (p62) They were versatile, appearing in urban and rural contexts, and were used by both Anglo-Irish and Gaelic-Irish alike with very little difference in style. However, it shows that a range of buildings did exist around a tower house and they did not exist in isolation. 

Chapter 2, “The medieval agrarian economy: Lifeblood of the tower house,” turns away from the buildings around a tower house and turns its focus on the those living around a castle, and their occupations. While most historians have placed emphasis on increased cattle farming throughout the later medieval period, McAlister argues, and provides evidence for, a large number of water mills located near to tower houses, implying the growth of grain. Historians have largely argued that crop growth was confined to the pale, but McAlister demonstrated the relationship between water mills and tower houses in fertile areas outside this area – water mills are the most common economic feature found on tower house lands. Therefore, while this was a period of transition, people still made their living, in part, from methods used in the earlier medieval period. The use of water mills is associated with manorial economy established by the Normans in the late 12th century. McAlister provides evidence that this form of economy survived much longer than previously thought and was refocussed around the tower house. However, there is a lack of physical evidence for ploughing in medieval Ireland that is relatively common in the rest of Europe, known as ridge and furrows with only a few examples known. McAlister suggests that this may because flat ploughing was preferred which leaves less of a profile. Further evidence for the survival of a manorial economy comes from the use of rabbit warrens near many tower houses, another remnant of the Normans. Evidence seems to point to a mixed agriculture in many areas. However, as the pollen records show there was considerable regional variance in the form this took, and types of crops grown. McAlister concludes that the evidence collected indicates a more mixed economy surrounding tower houses than previously thought, but that regional variance was diverse. 

Chapter 3 narrows the focus to look specifically at “Rivers in pre-modern Ireland: Environment and economy.” McAlister begins by noting that a large amount of tower houses were within 500m of water, either sea, lake, or river. Now this may be coincidence as Ireland is a relatively small island crisscrossed with rivers and dotted with lakes. However, the evidence presented indicates that it is far from coincidence. With the amount of tower houses being close to one per parish in many areas other sources of income were necessary as it was probably not possible for the land alone to support a tower house financially – therefore, they turned to the water. Water was a source of food, a routeway that could be taxed (tower houses are often located on important routeways as McAlister demonstrates), and a natural boundary, water was used for washing, tanning, cleaning – it is no wonder that the occupants of tower houses made quick use of water as a way to generate income and bolster the economy. In chapter 2, McAlister analysed the proximity and use of water mills to tower houses and here she looks at the use of fish weirs which are commonly found near tower houses and mentioned in a number of sources. Physical remains of medieval fish weirs are lacking due to fishing restrictions imposed in the 19th century and are, therefore, often overlooked. However, we find today that many modern weirs are near the remains or sites of tower houses, and may represent continued use since medieval times in those locations. Fishponds, too, could be found near tower houses, albeit to a lesser extent. In England, fishponds were often used a private source of food, not to draw in income. This did happen in Ireland as well around Norman built castles, but not so with tower houses as they were costly to maintain and, therefore, only used by the very rich. Because of the abundance of waterways in Ireland, weirs were the better, and cheaper option. This use of waterways, and fishing in Ireland, benefitted from the decentralisation of power during the Gaelic resurgence which gave tower house builders more autonomy over the landscape and the extracting of wealth from it, in sharp contrast to Britain and rest of Europe at this time. 

Chapter 4 expands on the theme of tower houses and waterways by looking at movement, transport, and communication. While waterways could be used to generate income through the use of fishing weirs and traps, and taxes on routeways, they were also used to sustain economic networks by providing a natural network for communication that was somewhat cheaper than using land based networks of transport. However, it must be remembered, often frustratingly, that this varied widely from place to place and in certain areas land was the preferred means of transport. Tower houses, McAlister shows, could also be used as navigation aids in coastal areas – easily visible landmarks for ships approaching a coast. They were also used to control ferry crossings and causeways, along with bridges, which brought additional income through levies and tolls. 

Chapter 5 turns the focus to urban tower houses. The fact that tower houses are found in both rural and urban contexts suggests something of the universal appeal of these structures. We should not view urban tower houses as something wholly separate from rural ones, just as we cannot separate the urban from the rural, they were dependent upon each other and intertwined. Tower houses in an urban setting had an overlap in function with their rural counterparts, but they were a manifestation of urban wealth and an investment in it as they provided security for goods and business dealings (p.163). They could also have communal spaces and be used as warehouses, for storage, and as meeting spaces. There are some differences between urban and rural examples. Urban tower houses tend to be smaller than rural ones, owing to the lack of space in which to build within an urban setting. Urban tower houses also appear to have a wider range of function as working buildings as opposed to residences. However, urban examples at times defy categorisation and definition with some referring to them as fortified town houses, and others as town castles. McAlister applies the term tower house consistently throughout. 

Chapter 6 widens the focus to locate tower houses within their larger context of late medieval Ireland and the wider world. Ireland did not exist in a vacuum but existed as part of a larger pan-European society. Trade, often facilitated by tower houses, brought Ireland into contact with the European continent, and even with the New World in the 16th century. Goods produced in and around tower houses, which were transported using tower house controlled waterways and roads, found their way all across the medieval world. This completely goes against the previous insular view of tower houses. 

What we are left with today are the remains of tower houses. When taken in isolation we get what has long been assumed – that these were the refuges of powerful lords constantly under siege from an embattled people. We see defensive structures, full of machicolations, murder-holes, bartizans, batters, bawns, and loops. The context is lost. McAlister, in this important volume, has helped to recontextualise the tower house and show it as part of a larger medieval world, not just in Ireland, but also Europe. The tower house was part of a complex society and economy and representative of an emerging gentry class, both ecclesiastical and secular, that emerged slowly in the century following the Black Death. Tower houses, while having defensive features, represented so much more and were structures which helped to bolster the power of its builder and help them to maintain control over their landscape. Rather than keeping people out, they attracted people who lived in and around these structures which became a hub for local and national economy and society. They transcended divides, being used by both the Anglo-Irish and Gaelic-Irish alike, and functioned in both urban and rural contexts and purpose could vary widely depending on the context. They were versatile and malleable. 

McAlister’s volume is ambitious and sets out to do what it intended, and is undoubtedly a valuable contribution to the study of tower houses – indeed it is the first large scale work to focus solely on tower houses, something which came of a surprise to the reviewer. Any reader will come away with a richer understanding of these ubiquitous structures on the Irish landscape.

This volume is in depth, and in the context of a review it is not possible to delve into every issue, and argument made within the book. This review touches on the main themes of the book, and those that were of most interest to the reviewer. It is highly recommended to delve into this book for yourself to read all the nuanced and well-researched arguments that permeate this volume. 

This volume was published in May 2019 by Manchester University Press and can be purchased by clicking here

I would like to thank Manchester University Press for providing me with a copy of this book to review.