BORLASE, William G. The Dolmens of Ireland. Their Distribution, Structural Characteristics, and Affinities in other Countries; together with the folk-lore attaching to them; supplemented by considerations on the anthropology, ethnology, and traditions of the Irish people. With over 800 illustrations (including 2 coloured plates), and 4 coloured folding maps. Three volumes.
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London: Chapman & Hall, 1897. Royal octavo. pp. (1) xxxvi, 312, (2) 4, 399, (3) 4, 521. Original gilt decorated buckram. Top edge gilt. A very good set. Very scarce.
The first comprehensive survey, full of helpful drawings. The third volume contains an index and the material from folklore, legend, and tradition. A most attractive set of books and a must for the discerning collector.
Borlase spent at least a year and a half poring over the results of the work of the Topographical Department of the Ordnance Survey dating from the 1830s and early 1840s. Firstly, he read through the Ordnance Survey Letters now preserved in the Library of the Royal Irish Academy. These had been written from the field to headquarters in Dublin, describing the antiquities which the various workers, George Petrie, John O’Donovan, Eugene O’Curry and Thomas O’Connor among others, had encountered on their countrywide travels throughout Ireland. In conjunction with the Letters, Borlase obviously also scoured every single one of the Ordnance Survey’s detailed six-inch maps which marked the antiquities reported by the surveyors, and which are still a most valuable source as they record many items which have sadly disappeared in the meantime. On the basis of his map search, Borlase went out into the countryside himself to examine the megaliths often marked with traditional names such as ‘Cromlech’ (a concoction of the eighteenth century) or ‘Diarmuid and Gráinne’s Bed’, reflecting folk etymology to explain who had built the dolmens. Borlase obviously took pride in noting down instances he came across where a prehistoric grave was not recorded in the Ordnance Survey maps, or where one of their ancient monuments turned out to be not man-made but natural. It is remarkable how many dolmens he was actually able to inspect in person and, of these, he gives his own detailed descriptions, plans and measurements, even down to the length and breadth of individual stones making up a monument. For each one he also provides a most useful bibliography. No mean artist himself, he contributed a number of sketches from photographs. But among the greatest joys of thumbing through these volumes are the drawings of the various monuments done by a considerable variety of Irish artists, most of whom Borlase acknowledges in the Introduction – George Petrie, Margaret Stokes, G.V. Du Noyer, W.F. Wakeman, T.J. Westropp, George Coffey, G.H. Kinahan, John Windele, Henry O’Neill and Crofton Croker among others. Earlier than any of them was Gabriel Beranger, whose watercolours of around 1780 record the burgeoning interest in dolmens in the later eighteenth century, though already preceded by Wright’s Louthiana of 1748. The more than eight hundred black and white illustrations which pepper the text are much more attractive than the few actual photos he uses, or than those accompanying the drier descriptions found in the more detailed official modern Megalithic Survey of Ireland by Ruaidhrí De Valera and others starting in the 1960s, which spoke in brief disparagement of Borlase’s pioneering work. So detailed is the information Borlase gives us that his first stout volume covers only three of Ireland’s four provinces, as Leinster is spilled over into the second volume. What makes his achievement so remarkable is that this was really the first time that all of Ireland’s megalithic tombs – which he totalled to be 898 – had been treated together. The only earlier countrywide coverage he had encountered was a map accompanying a text in French which Margaret Stokes had published in the Revue Archéologique of 1882. Of course, others had dealt with more localised groupings such as Wood-Martin in Sligo, Windele in Cork, or Conwell, Du Noyer, Frazer and Coffey on Lough Crew, but here for the first time we have complete assemblage of the country’s megaliths – an achievement never properly acknowledged at the time, or since. Very far reaching for his day was Borlase’s well-illustrated survey of similar monuments in Europe and as far away as the Dekkan plateau in India, requiring vast research in foreign publications and periodicals, which Borlase must have found in libraries such as that of the Society of Antiquaries in London. Naturally, and justifiedly, Cornwall and Scilly are brought in as valid comparisons to the Irish material, and he even goes so far as to say that the wedge-shaped megaliths in Saxony, Cornwall and Ireland must ‘have belonged to one race, one state of culture, one order of customs, and approximately the same date’. Island tombs both in Orkney and on Gavrinis in southern Brittany he also wisely brings in as valuable comparisons, particularly to the Boyne Valley monuments. On its publication the Dolmens got only passing mention (but no review) in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland where, for the year 1897, Mary Agnes Hickson describes the work as ‘deeply interesting’ and, in the following year, the antiquary T.J. Westropp (whose drawings Borlase used) praised it as ‘valuable’. It was probably Westropp, too, who provided the only newspaper review in Ireland, which appeared, unsigned, in a single column in The Irish Times of June 12th, 1887, where, in ‘Books of the Day’, this ‘elaborate and sumptuous work’ is described as ‘the most complete and comprehensive account of those remarkable remains of primitive Ireland that has been written’.
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