Exploring the archaeology and architecture of medieval Ireland

The Director of the school, Dr Rory Sherlock, has been exploring these fields for twenty years and is best known in the archaeological profession in Ireland as an expert on late medieval tower houses, though he also works more broadly in the fields of late medieval settlement and architectural history.

The work of the Galway Archaeological Field School spans the full range of medieval Irish history, from the simple churches, monasteries and secular settlements of early medieval Ireland (c. A.D. 500 – 1100) through the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in 1169, the construction of the great high medieval castles of the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the fortunes of the pan-European monastic orders from their arrival in the twelfth century to their dissolution four hundred years later, the growth of the tower house as the typical Irish castle of the late medieval period and the subsequent decline of the castle as a stronghold and high-status residence in the post-medieval period.

At present, the excavations undertaken by the Galway Archaeological Field School will focus firmly on the tower houses of late medieval Ireland. It has been estimated that as many as 3,000 or 4,000 of these small castles were built in the Irish landscape in the fifteenth, sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, a process which made Ireland one of the most encastellated areas of western Europe at that time, and this profusion of castle construction may be linked to a weak central authority – where the government was not in full control of a region, landowners had to take steps to protect their families and their possessions through the construction of small castles, now called tower houses. This process, also seen at the same time in Scotland, led to a remarkable density of castles in certain areas and it is important to note that tower houses were built by people of Gaelic and Anglo-Norman descent alike, where before only the Anglo-Normans had built masonry castles in significant numbers.

Most of the significant castle excavations undertaken in Ireland to date have focussed on Anglo-Norman castles of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, including Trim, Carrickfergus, Nenagh, Dunamase, Kilkenny, Limerick, Dublin, Carlow and Ferns, and it is only in recent years that late medieval castles such as Barryscourt and Dunluce have received significant attention. The Galway Archaeological Field School intends to investigate a number of late medieval tower houses in the Galway region over the coming years with a view to developing a more rounded understanding of the physical and social environments within which these castles existed and this is where the assistance of our students is required! We need to assemble a team of enthusiastic students from around the world every summer who are keen to learn the practical techniques of archaeological excavation while they also contribute to an exciting excavation at a medieval castle site. We fully intend to involve our students in as many aspects of our research as possible and we are fully committed to publishing our results – see the publication record of our Director, Dr Rory Sherlock, to appreciate what he has published to date.