Monuments and created and appropriated continuity

Aerial view of the Hill of Tara, Co. Meath, Ireland.

The creation of continuity

Throughout history people have built, copied and added to monuments according to the needs of the day. These alterations, emulations and additions draw on the histories and mythologies of the old monuments and the places and landscapes in which they are situated and recreate them to suit a new narrative. Richard Bradley (1987) drew on the ideas of Maurice Bloch (1977) concerning the use of the past in the present and Eric Hobsbawn’s (1983) concept of the invention of tradition (where practices of a ritual or symbolic nature seek to instil values and norms which imply continuity with a suitable past) to suggest that the use of the ritual past is one way in which groups establish their own political positions and put these positions beyond challenge. The past becomes a resource in the hands of the living who may legitimate their position through the promulgation of origin myths. Bradley suggested that the past was also re-used through the strategic use of old monuments that were incorporated into a new landscape. He called the appropriation of meaning held in the mythology of old monuments the creation of continuity.

The appropriation of continuity

These processes can be seen at work in the development of monument complexes where both the copying and the physical conjoining of monuments are evident. In a forthcoming paper on the monument complex at Rathdooney beg, Co. Sligo I propose the concept of appropriated continuity as a means of interpreting the development of monument complexes (Mount in press a). Appropriated continuity is a  strategy intended to forge a physical link to a dominant social group through the creation of conjoined monuments. In oral tradition appropriated continuity is paralleled by the development of false genealogies intended to justify the position of one group by claiming lineal descent from another (Byrne 2001, 3).

Created and appropriated continuities in the landscape

There are a number of landscape locations in Ireland with prominent monument complexes that were re-used and recreated at various periods. The re-use of old sites and ancient monuments represents more than simply a continuity of practice, but a conscious decision to use sites that would have had an established significance, mythological identify and landscape prominence. The occurrence of this re-use at a number of sites indicates preoccupation with forging links with the past, to draw on or recreate the past in order to support emerging social or political developments by creating a new continuity.

The greatest concentration of conjoined barrows (prehistoric burial monuments) in Ireland is found on the Hill of Tara in Co. Meath, where they occur in five of the six main barrow groups. The barrows groups at Tara represent the continuation and elaboration of Early Bronze Age lineage groups through the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age (Mount in press). As the Tara barrow groups developed, lineages could be spatially and historically linked and be seen to descend from remembered ancestors and the grouping of barrows reflect both the links and tensions between ancestral lineages reflected within the groupings Cooney (2009, 379). The practice of physically conjoining a new barrow to an old one and encompassing old barrows into new monuments was probably intended to link lineages together or emphasise an existing, a new or a falsely created lineal descent.

The conjoining of barrows and other earthworks during prehistory indicates that at times it was important to physically link a new monument to an existing one. This expressed a physical relationship between the new and old monument so that the new and old became one. In the case of barrows this symbolically linked those commemorated by the later monument to the earlier one. The emergence of conjoined monuments and the preoccupation with old sites and monuments are all related to the creation of continuity. Emulating, re-using and recreating old monuments is characteristic of groups creating history to suit contemporary needs. Building a barrow to resemble and emulate an ancient monument with associated mythology signals that a group is similar to or even descended from the mythological figures of old. Building a new monument that physically joins or encompasses another goes beyond emulation and represents the attempt to annex, appropriate or even eclipse the symbolic, familial or social associations of the earlier monument.


The concept of created continuity provides us with insights into the development of prominent monuments complexes in the landscape. The concept of appropriated continuity allows us to explore the nature of the relationships being created. The former strategy looks to the formation of a new political or social order using the past as a frame of reference. The latter strategy is about establishing direct relationships within a political or social system and is involved with the creation of lineage and descent relationships. In lineal descent groups conjoining monuments is a way of promoting a more distant relationship or supporting an entirely fictitious one and is an attempt to appropriate continuity with the earlier monument.

Further reading

Bloch, M. 1977. The past and present in the present. Man 12, 278-92.

Bradley, R. 1987. Time regained: the creation of continuity. Journal of the British Archaeological Association 140, 1-17.

Byrne, F.J. 2001. Irish Kings and High Kings. 2nd ed. Dublin.

Cooney, G. 1994. Sacred and secular Neolithic landscapes in Ireland, in D.L. Carmichael, J. Hubert, B. Reeves and A. Schanche (eds) Sacred Sites, Sacred Places. One World Archaeology 23. London. 

Cooney, G. 2009. Tracing lines across landscapes: corporality and history in later prehistoric Ireland, in G. Cooney, K. Becker, J. Coles, M. Ryan and S. Sievers (Eds.) Relics of Old Decency: archaeological studies in later prehistory. Dublin, 375-88.

Hobsbawm, M. 1983. Introduction: inventing traditions, in M. Hobsbawm and Ranger, T.O. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge, 1-14.

Mount, C. (In press a). Created and appropriated continuity at Rathdooney Beg, Co. Sligo. In C. Corlett and M. Potterton  (eds) Life and Death in the Iron Age in Ireland.

Mount, C. (In press b). The context of the Early Bronze Age cemetery in the Mound of the Hostages, Tara, Co. Meath. In M. O’Sullivan at al. (eds) Tara from the Past to the Future.

Newman, C. 1997. Tara an Archaeological Survey. Discovery Programme Monographs 2. Dublin.

Cite this post as:

 Mount, C. Monuments and created and appropriated continuity. The Charles Mount Blog, June 7, 2011.

Ireland’s Ghost Estates: Continuing the Historical Cycle of Development and Abandonment

The castle and harbour at Rindown

Ireland’s ghost estates are nothing new. Examination of Ireland’s history indicates recurring cycles of development, failure and abandonment of villages and towns.

In recent years the Irish news has been filled with the struggle with the problem of ghost estates, how to deal with more than 2,800 speculative housing developments that remain empty and may never be occupied. But a landscape of ghost towns is not a new phenomenon, throughout history Irish villages and towns have gone though recurring cycles of development, failure and abandonment. The buildings of the abandoned ghost towns eventually fell into disrepair and then decayed back into the earth leaving nothing but agricultural fields.

Looking at the Medieval period, the thirteenth century was a boom period for development as the new Anglo-Norman lords encouraged English and Welsh settlers with promises of prosperity and civil privileges to immigrate to Ireland and establish new villages and towns. These new settlements initially thrived but in the following centuries large numbers of the towns, like Rindown, Co. Roscommon and Newtown Jerpoint, Co. Kilkenny, were deserted by their inhabitants. Other towns, like Ballysadare, Co. Sligo and Kilcullen, Co. Kildare, moved to new locations. The reasons for the failure of these towns were varied. Incessant ethnic conflict and warfare isolated the towns from their natural hinterlands, discouraged further immigration and drained civic resources, leading to economic decline. In the mid-thirteenth century the plague known as the Black Death reduced the populations of the towns by a third to a half and hastened the decline. The development of new infrastructure, particularly the construction new bridges, also contributed to the failure of towns as commerce shifted to new routes and locations.

Google Earth image of Rindown, Co. Roscommon showing the deserted town now under pasture.

A classic example of a Medieval ghost town is Rindown, Co. Roscommon. Rindown was established in 1227 and consisted of a castle, harbor, church, market with cross and numerous houses all defended by a high town wall with guard towers. The town was very prosperous, imported corn, cloth and wine from as far away as Bordeaux and achieved a high annual rated value of £320. But poor relations with the native Irish population resulted in the town falling victim to isolation and attacks that eventually caused its abandonment. Today the stone castle, church and walls survive but the rest of the town has reverted to pasture land, its only inhabitants are cattle and sheep.

William Petty's 1654 map of County Sligo indicating the location of Ballysadare.

Other towns, like Ballysadare, Co. Sligo and Kilcullen, Co. Kildare, moved to new locations. Ballysadare had developed around St. Feichin’s Abbey to the west of the Owenmore River near the fording point of Ballysadare Bay. In the fourteenth century a bridge was built across the river further east. At some time before 1654 the town moved from its original location to the site of the bridge as is indicated on William Petty’s 1654 map of the area. The original location of the town reverted to farmland with nothing but the stone church of St. Feichin marking its location.

Google Earth image of the site of Old Kilcullen. All that survives today is the church, round tower and crosses. The rest has returned to farmland.

Kilcullen, Co. Kildare was originally situated on a hill top 2.5km south of the River Liffey. The construction of a bridge over the river in the fourteenth century lead to the foundation of the new town of Kilcullen at the bridge. The original town, now called Old Kilcullen, was eventually abandoned in favour of the new location. All that survives at Old Kilcullen today are the remains of a church, round tower and crosses, the rest of the town has disappeared and the fields are now grazed by sheep.

Although Ireland no longer suffers from ethnic strife and plague, cycles of settlement development, decline and abandonment are still driven by migration, economic change and infrastructural development. The modern Irish ghost estates are not unique to our time, but are part of this recurring historical cycle. Like the abandoned Medieval villages and towns that came before them these ghost estates may one day also revert back to farmland.

Dr. Charles Mount is a Cultural Heritage Consultant and Archaeologist with an interest in history. You can read his recent publication on the history of the Medieval manor of Nobber, Co. Meath here.


Further reading

Harbison, S. 1995 Rindoon castle, a royal fortress in Co. Roscommon, Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, 47, 138-48.

O’Rorke, T. 1878. History, antiquities, and present state of the parishes of Ballysadare and Kilvarnet, in the county of Sligo; with notices of the 0’Haras, the Coopers, the Percevals, and other local families.


Cite this post as:

Mount, C. Ireland’s ghost estates: continuing the historical cycle of development and abandonment. The Charles Mount Blog, May 31, 2011.