Yvonne Seale

Making Women Matter, One Medieval Manuscript at a Time

Category: Medieval Ireland

Public Talk: St Brigit Abroad

Next Wednesday, July 27, at 4pm I will be giving a talk at the Solas Bhríde Centre in Kildare, entitled “Brigit Abroad: The Reception of an Irish Saint in Great Britain and Continental Europe During the Middle Ages.” If you’re curious to know why and how a female saint from the Irish Midlands was known from Iceland to Italy during the Middle Ages, now is your chance to find out! Brigit’s cow—pictured above—will make a frequent appearance. The talk is free and open to the public.

[Header image: Detail of Getty Museum Ms Ludwig IX 3, f. 106]

Helen Maybury Roe—A Pioneering Historian of Medieval Ireland

On the night of the 1911 Census, Helen and her parents were living in 24, Market Square, Portlaoise, now best known to locals as the site of Donoghue's pub.

On the night of the 1911 Census, Helen and her parents were living in 24 Market Square, Portlaoise, now best known to locals as the site of Donoghue’s pub.

I can claim a certain kinship with Helen Maybury Roe: not only was she a medieval historian, as I am, but she was also from my home county of Laois in the Irish Midlands. Though never formally trained as a historian, Roe was a key figure in developing interest in the study of medieval Ireland during the early years of Irish independence.

Helen Roe was born in December 1895, the only child of a prosperous Church of Ireland family from the small town of Mountrath. Her father, William Ernest Roe, was a mill owner, and his family had been prominent in the town for many generations; her mother, Anne Lambert Shields, came from Birr, Co. Offaly. Roe attended primary school in Mountrath and went on to secondary school in nearby Abbeyleix, though for at least part of her teenage years she lived in the county town of Portlaoise.

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Roe joined the St John’s Ambulance Brigade. She served as a volunteer at the Cambridge Military Hospital and as a cook at Aldershot Barracks in England, before returning to Ireland at the war’s end. There, she worked briefly at the Military Hospital in Bray, Co. Wicklow. Her experiences during the Great War also shaped her perceptions of herself as an Irishwoman. Though she had volunteered to help the British war effort, as would have been expected of a member of the Protestant Ascendancy class, in England she was seen only as Irish—in fact, English soldiers spat at her for being Irish during the 1916 Rising—and for the rest of her life Roe was strongly inclined towards nationalism despite her religious background.1 Immediately after the war, Roe travelled in Europe as a private tutor, and her visits to museums in England, Italy, and Greece during this period helped to shape her later assessments of Irish art and archaeology in a broader historical context.2

Helen Roe then entered Trinity College Dublin, where she earned a B.A. in Modern Languages in 1921, and a Master’s degree in the same subject in 1924. According to Nicholas Robinson, “she would have been an unusual undergraduate: a fine woman with red hair, erect, assured and not to be cowed by the atmosphere of TCD. “What professor,” she used to say, “could intimidate someone who had faced a sergeant-major at Aldershot?””3

The medieval font of St. Lawrence's Church, Rathmore, Co. Meath, one of the artefacts studied by Helen Roe. TRIARC - Edwin Rae Collection. [Image source]

The medieval font of St. Lawrence’s Church, Rathmore, Co. Meath, one of the artefacts studied by Helen Roe. TRIARC – Edwin Rae Collection. [Image source]

On graduation, Roe began a teaching career, working briefly at The Royal School in Dungannon, Tyrone, and then in Alexandra College, Dublin. However, the failure of her father’s business—coupled with societal expectations that an only female child would serve as caregiver to her ageing parents—soon brought her back to the Midlands. In 1926 she became the first person to hold the post of County Librarian in Laois.4

Roe’s real interest in historical studies seems to have begun around this time. She collected artefacts which would become the core of the Laois County Museum’s collections. She also travelled around the county—driving her own car, a rarity for a single woman at the time—giving lectures on the antiquities of Laois, accompanied by a magic lantern slide show. Her car did double duty here, as its battery powered the lantern. One such talk was given at my alma mater, the Brigidine Convent Secondary School in Mountrath, where Roe helped to inspire a love of Irish history in one of Ireland’s first female archaeologists, Ellen Prendergast.5

On her retirement from the library service in 1940, Helen Roe moved to Dublin and was able to devote herself wholeheartedly to her studies of medieval Ireland: reading widely on Irish and European history, travelling the country photographing sites and artefacts, and gaining practical experience in archaeology. She was a volunteer on the excavation of the famous Neolithic sites of Fourknocks and Knowth in Meath, and contributed to the publication of the excavation reports on those sites. Her scholarly output was too prolific to discuss it here in detail—in the next 48 years, she published 37 articles in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland alone.6 She also contributed items to journals such as An LeabharlannBéaloideas, Seanchas Ard Mhacha, and Carloviana, and appeared regularly in the newspapers the Irish Press and the Leinster Express.

Helen Roe’s main area of research was medieval art history and religious history, on a variety of topics, including baptismal fonts, heraldry, and  illustrations of the Trinity. However, she published particularly on high crosses. She wrote pamphlets on The high crosses of western Ossory (1958) and High crosses of Kells (1959), but it was her article, “The ‘David Cycle’ in Early Irish Art” (1949) which was especially influential for historians working in this area.7 In the article, Roe argued that many of the figural scenes on Irish high crosses came from a distinct Old Testament sequence, an observation which had not previously been made.

Helen Maybury Roe's gravestone, Mountrath. [Image source]

Helen Maybury Roe’s gravestone, Mountrath. [Image source]

In 1965, Roe was the first woman to be elected president of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, a position which she held until 1968. Her presidential address, delivered in January 1966, focused on Gothic art and architecture in later medieval Ireland.8 By all accounts, she was an enthralling speaker with a gift for vivid description—a knight in armour was “encased in a glorified sardine can”; a tomb effigy in Kildare Cathedral was referred to as “good old Bishop Wellesley” and greeted with a hearty slap on the thigh—and Roe continued to lecture to audiences across the country into her nineties.9 She was elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy in 1984, a belated but fitting cap to her academic career.

Helen Roe died in May 1988 and was buried in the family plot in the churchyard of St Peter’s Church of Ireland, Mountrath. Her gravestone (pictured right) was a fitting one for a historian of early medieval Ireland and its funerary monuments: a simple recumbent slab with a Celtic cross etched into the head and the Irish-language phrase solas Dé da h-anam (“the light of God to her soul”) carved at the foot.

On her gravestone, Helen Maybury Roe is identified, solely and proudly, as “Antiquary.”

1 Rory O’Farrell and Christine Bromwich, “Helen M. Roe (1895-1988)” in Jane Chance (ed.), Women Medievalists and the Academy (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), 461.
2 Andrew O’Brien, “Roe, Helen Maybury,” in James McGuire and James Quinn (eds.), Dictionary of Irish Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). [Link]
3“Official Opening of the Helen Roe Theatre 21st January, 1993”, The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 122 (1992), 155
4 A collection of Helen Maybury Roe’s papers from this period are held in the Laois County Archives. [Link]
5 “Obituary: Ellen M. Prendergast”, The Irish Times, May 24, 1999. [Link]
6 A partial bibliography of Helen Roe’s writings can be found at RI-Opac. [Link]
7 Helen M. Roe, “The “David Cycle” in Early Irish Art”, The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 79:1/2 (1949), 39-59.
8 Helen M. Roe, “Some Aspects of Medieval Culture in Ireland”, The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 96:2 (1966), 105-09.
9 H.A.K., “Helen Maybury Roe”, Archaeology Ireland 2:3 (1988), 86; O’Farrell and Bromwich, “Roe”, 465.

Family and Finances in Fifteenth-Century Dublin

I first came across the marvellously named Register of Wills and Inventories of the Diocese of Dublin in the Time of Archbishops Tregury and Walton, 1457-1483, when taking a course on the history of medieval Dublin as an undergrad. The Register is one of our best sources of information for the material life of Dubliners towards the end of the fifteenth century. Read the right way, it becomes more than just a dry collection of legal documents: it provides us intriguing glimpses of how these people decorated their houses, forged friendships and engaged in economic activity not just in the city’s hinterland, but as far afield as Italy.

Using wills as a source of social history is not, of course, a new one for historians, but my teenage self was fascinated by the Register. There were far more women than I’d expected, and some of them were doing things that, since we’ve lost the broader context, came across as delightfully weird: why did Joan White of Leixlip leave her three-legged pan and a trough with two trundles “for the use of her neighbours” in 1473? We can’t know anymore, but your imagination can conjure up whole worlds of interactions from that one little act.

Similarly, the 1474 will of northsider Nicholas Barrett:

I the aforesaid Nicholas, though weak in body yet (God granting it) sound in mind, do make my testament in this manner: first, I bequeath my soul to God, St. Mary and all his Saints, my body to be buried in St. Mary’s chapel in the church of St. Michan near Dublin. Item, I leave to the works of the aforesaid chapel 40d. Item, to the altar of St. Sithe 6s 8d. Item, to the high altar of the church of St. Michan 20d. Item, to the works of the church of the Holy Trinity Dublin 6s 8d. Item, to the works of the House of the Blessed Virgin Mary near Dublin 40d. Item, to the priests and clerks on the day of my burial 4s. Item, for spices and wine 40d. Item, I leave to each order of Friars Dublin 20d. Item, for bread and ale 40d. Item, for wax 6s 8d. Item, for a Trental 10s 5d. Item, I leave to the works of the chancel in the church of Glasnevin 12d. Item, to John Barret a small pot with a broken leg. The residue of my goods not bequeathed I leave to my executors, to discharge faithfully to my creditors my just debts not recorded. I ordain, make, and constitute Isabella Proutfote, my wife, and Joan Barret, my daughter, executors, and John Broun overseer of this my testament.

Be it remembered that on the day and year aforesaid, this agreement was made between Nicholas Barret and his sons John and Thomas, as well concerning houses, lands, tenements as concerning goods, before these witnesses, Sir Nicholas Barrey, then chaplain of the parish, Thomas Archebold, clerk of the parish, Thomas Bround, and Richard Boll. In the first place they have agreed that his wife Isabella shall have the house in which she now dwells during her life, and after her death, the aforesaid Nicholas wills that his daughter Joan Barret have the sum of 10 pounds, to be made up from the rent of the aforesaid house, unless it please John that she receive it out of the rent of the old hall of Sir Edward Howet in his wife’s life-time. Item, that Thomas Barret have the tenements of Finglas with their appurtenances to him and his heirs for ever. And if it happen (which may it not!) that my daughter Joan die before she be married, I will that the aforesaid sum of 10 pounds be expended in the best possible way for the health of my soul.

—pp. 70-72

Now, what John Barret had done that he ended up with only a small pot with a broken leg while his siblings were given property and cash is anyone’s guess, but those guesses are fun to contemplate. There are of course problems with using wills as sources: they’re mostly made by men, and by men who had enough property to make drawing up a will worthwhile; the executors might not have carried out the dying person’s wishes; they record the bequests and donations made at the moment of death, not throughout a person’s life, and so on. And yet they are some of the best written evidence we have for how middle-class Dubliners went about their daily lives towards the end of the medieval period.

My article about the Register, “Family and Finances in Fifteenth-Century Dublin,” will appear in the new May/June 2014 issue of History Ireland.

Further Reading:

This is a brief selection of primary and secondary sources which show the kinds of histories you can do using wills as a source—everything from economic history, to labour history, to the history of material culture.

  • British History Online, “Wills and Inventories.” [Link]
  • Lester, Anne E. “Crafting a charitable landscape: urban topographies in charters and testaments from medieval Champagne.” in Caroline Goodson, Anne E. Lester, and Carol Symes (eds.), Cities, Texts and Social Networks 400-1500: Experiences and Perceptions of Medieval Urban Space (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010), 125-148.
  • Lowe, Nicola A. “Women’s devotional bequests of textiles in the late medieval English parish church, c. 1350-1550” in Gender and History, 22:2 (2010) 407-429.
  • Sheehan, Michael McMahon. The Will in Medieval England: From the Conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to the End of the Thirteenth Century. PIMS: Toronto, 1963.
  • Whittle, Jane. “Housewives and servants in rural England, 1440-1650: evidence of women’s work from probate documents” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Series 6, Vol. 15 (2005), 51-74.
  • Wray, Shona Kelly and Roisin Cossar, “The Medieval Will,” in Joel Rosenthal, ed., Understanding Medieval Primary Sources: Using Historical Sources To Discover Medieval Europe. Routledge, 2011.

Coolbanagher Castle

We’re only a couple of months into 2014 and it’s already been a tough year for archaeological sites in Ireland. First we had the loss of most of Dúnbeg, a cliff-top Iron Age fort in Co. Kerry [Irish Times, Irish Independent], and now an eight-hundred-year-old Anglo-Norman castle in Laois has been demolished. I grew up only a couple of miles away from Coolbanagher Castle, and wrote my undergraduate thesis on nearby Dunamase Castle—Coolbanagher and Dunamase were likely part of the one network of defensive fortifications—so this is doubly shocking and disheartening to me.

As you can see from the picture above (photo from National Monuments Service), Coolbanagher was in a ruinous condition and had been for some time—the eighteenth century seems to have been the last phase of its inhabitation per the archaeological evidence. The most recent bout of severe weather brought down part of the castle’s south wall. News reports are still a little unclear as to what happened—according to a report in the Irish Independent, the structure was demolished following an order from Laois County Council; however, the National Monuments Service has issued a statement saying that they only “granted consent for the removal of such parts of the structure as was identified as being strictly necessary to comply with specific directions from Laois County Council under dangerous buildings legislation or by a qualified engineer as being immediately and urgently necessary on the grounds of protecting public safety.”

Right now, I cannot understand how reducing the entire structure to a mound of rubble in a matter of days was necessary to protect public safety.

I’ve seen some comments on line saying that Coolbanagher was simply a rather run-of-the-mill late medieval tower house and as such is no great loss. This seems to me quite wrong-headed. Even if we disregard the fact that Coolbanagher was likely an early example of an Anglo-Irish stone castle, if we preserve only the extraordinary, the exceptional, the monumental, we end up losing much of our heritage and are left with a skewed historical narrative which concentrates on the elite.

There’s also the fact that no archaeological site exists in isolation. As you can see from the map above, Coolbanagher Castle (marked in orange) was located just to the east of Shaen Castle (blue) and not far to the northwest of the great stronghold of Dunamase (pink). Coolbanagher existed in, and can only be properly understood in, relation to these and other defensive sites in Laois. Each time we lose a piece of the jigsaw puzzle, however small, we reduce our potential for understanding the medieval history of our county.

The collapse of Dúnbeag may have been unavoidable. The destruction of Coolbanagher Castle should not have been.


Mid-17th century map of area, taken from the Down Survey of Ireland. Dunamase is at the top of the image; Coolbanagher and Shaen are shown at the bottom.

Further Reading

  • Chapple, Robert M. “Demolition of 13th/14th century Castle | Coolbanagher, Co. Laois.” February 28, 2014. [Link]
  • Fitzgerald, Lord W.  “The history and antiquities of the Queen’s county barony of Portnahinch” in The Journal of the Kildare Archaeological Society 4 (1904): 184-204, 285-311, 325-51.
  • LA 008-015 (Archaeological Survey of Ireland, Record Details). Revised by Caimin O’Brien. Posted February 26, 2014.
  • The Standing Stone. “Coolbanagher, Hall/Tower House (demolished), Co. Laois.” March 1, 2014. [Link]
  • Sweetman, P. David, Olive Alcock and Bernie Moran, Archaeological inventory of County Laois (1995).

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