O’Brien, Jacqueline and Peter Harbison. Ancient Ireland: From Prehistory to the Middle Ages. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. ISBN 0195212681.
Ancient Ireland is the third volume in a trilogy of similarly image-rich books. O’Brien’s work is also featured in the previous two volumes of the trilogy Great Irish Houses and Castles and Dublin: A Grand Tour. Harbison, in addition to a number of articles in various archaeology journals, is the author of Guide to National and Historic Monuments of Ireland (Dublin 1992) and Pre-Christian Ireland (London, 1988) as well as the third edition of The Shell Guide to Ireland. O’Brien and Harbison’s pairing in Ancient Ireland has created a fantastic book. The photographs (over 300 color photographs) are absolutely stunning; not only are they beautiful, but they are detailed enough that you can really examine the places, stones, crosses, buildings, ruins and artifacts. Unlike most “coffee table” books, the text is this one in just as well done, and fascinating, as the pictures.
The chapters are organized chronologically, beginning with “Ireland Before History,” followed by “The Early Middle Ages,” “The Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries,” “The Anglo-Normans,” “Late Medieval Ireland,” and ending with the “The Seventeenth Century.” Each chapter is sub-divided by category, and finally, by individual place and structure. For instance, the first chapter has sections on “The Stone Age,” “The Bronze Age,” and “The Arrival of the Celts.” Later chapters have sections on “High Crosses,” various styles of fortifications, churches and monastic orders, etc.
The chapter on “Ireland before History” is one of the best discussions of archaeological remains I’ve read lately. Often when authors discuss neolithic structures like standing stones and New Grange/Brugh na Boine they show only partial close ups; O’Brien includes both close ups and landscape images, showing the placement of the structures in terms of the local landscape. The same quality of scholarship and artistry is evident throughout the book. The accompanying text is both accurate and readable, specific about known details, and careful to distinguish scholarly speculation and theory from fact. Many of the pictures, throughout the book, are gorgeous full page spreads, but there are also many smaller well-chosen detail images. Every page has at least one image, and the captions and accompanying text are directly related to the photographs. Although most of the emphasis, for obvious reasons, is on physical structures and their remains, monuments, artifacts, crosses and manuscripts (the end papers are taken from one of the Irish manuscripts in the monastic library of St. Gall) are in no way slighted. There’s a very helpful index, and a thorough bibliography, organized both by historical period and subject matter or geography, as appropriate. A map in the front makes locating specific sites quite easy since each is identified by name and number.
Ancient Ireland is not only a perfect gift for the arm chair or active traveler preparing for a trip to Ireland or remembering one, it is ideal for those with a scholarly interested in a historical survey of the archaeological and historical landscape of Ireland.