Gaelic Ulster in the Middle Ages

History, culture and society


Katharine Simms

Hardback €58.50
Catalogue Price: €65.00
ISBN: 978-1-84682-793-8
July 2020. 568pp; Colour ills.

“Medieval Gaelic Ulster was once a flourishing area and society, supporting schools of poets, physicians, historians and lawyers. Katharine Simms’s monumental work of scholarship delves into this neglected history, from the Anglo-Norman invasion to the Plantation. The first section is a chronological narrative of the political history, tracing internal and external political change and how Ulster related to the rest of Ireland. The second, covering Culture and Society, tells of its chieftains, churchmen, scholars, the role of women and the pastimes and everyday life of the people. Simms uses her specialist knowledge of Gaelic annals, genealogies and verse eulogies to great effect.” (Brian Maye, The Irish Times, 13th March 2021)

“This monumental new work by Katharine Simms is one of the most comprehensive studies undertaken on this province which sustained the Gaelic civilisation until the mid-seventeenth century. The role of women in this society and their place in Brehon Law is explored, a subject that is frequently overlooked in such studies ... the day to day matters of food, popular assemblies, farming, housing and settlement are explored providing a wonderfully vivid idea of the everyday living conditions in this Gaelic civilisation.” Ireland's Genealogical Gazette (September 2020).


“This impressive book is based on decades of research by Katherine Simms, beginning with her BA dissertation in 1969 and continuing to to present day. The first section covers the social history of Ulster from the Iron Age to the 16th century, discussing the rivalries between the Gaelic families and their kingdoms. This reveals the complexity of Gaelic society in Ulster and its interactions with the wider island. The second section deals with the culture of Gaelic Ulster. This section has chapters on kingship, the church, poets, ‘men of art’, warfare, and women. The final chapter looks at the everyday life of people, in particular their settlements, housing, clothing, and living conditions. This is a scholarly work and will form the cornerstone of all future studies of Gaelic Ireland, but it is written in an accessible manner for the non-academic audience. The book is vital for anyone studying medieval Ulster, or Ireland more generally, and there are many details that will be informative for anyone that has an interest in medieval Ulster and its Gaelic families. Katherine Simms is recognised as one of the foremost scholars on the Gaelic world and this volume demonstrates why. She is able to intertwine history and archaeology and bring the people, events, and landscapes alive for the reader.” Ulster Archaeological Society Newsletter (September 2020)

Gaelic Ulster in the Middle Ages is the fruit of half a century’s study of Irish history, specifically Gaelic Ulster and Gaelic Ireland. One may detect the influence of many trends of thought from those decades, with some other trends that have been in currency for centuries. The book has old-fashioned merits. There is no gratuitous jargon; instead of a tedious essay on methodology we are given plain statements of what is planned. Though the work is intended mainly for an academic audience, anyone at all may read it with a bit of application. The style is sober, lucid, serious with a vein of irony, energised by the author’s interest in her material. Contents are threaded together effectively in thematic chapters on the various centuries or time-periods taken sequentially, then on kings, the church, poets, men of art in general, warriors, women, and everyday life. The author makes extensive use of poetry written in the Irish language (of which she has assembled the single largest collection, in her online Bardic Poetry Database). In knowledge of sources no one else, I think, is so well-equipped and armed … The chronological account in the first 200-odd pages of the book has undeniable value. The author sees Ulster/Ireland as a huge chessboard or brannamh-board, rather as the poets sometimes did, except that she sees things more from the black team’s side. Her alert awareness of the possible significance of each individual move for the English colony animates her narrative. One will gather the advice that she would have given to key players at crucial moments, had she been there. Compared to the last ambitious effort in this thematic territory by a Trinity College historian, the dreary History of Medieval Ireland by Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven, this is infinitely more readable. Every reader will learn a good deal from the information provided, whether or not he/she accepts all elements of the broad overview … To say that Gaelic Ulster in the Middle Ages is a warts-and-all portrait would be understating things. Warts are sought out assiduously and highlighted. The author has an eagle eye for anything quirky or bizarre in Gaelic culture, as reported by foreign or, in fairness, also native observers. And undoubtedly her discoveries add colour to her book and stimulate the reader’s attention.” John Minahane, The Dublin Review of Books July 2021