Developing Digital Resources for the Exploration of Medieval Ireland: The Monastic Ireland Project

Author: Niamh NicGhabhann (University of Limerick)

I. Introduction

The aim of this paper is to discuss some of the opportunities and challenges around the creation of digital resources for the study of medieval Irish architectural heritage and monastic culture more generally. In particular, it explores the ways in which digital resources must respond to the nature of source material for this subject, given variation in place and family names, as well as the creation of an interface that will be usable by the different types of groups involved in research on medieval Irish architectural history and heritage, including scholars and researchers, tourists, and local heritage groups. This paper outlines the initial development stages of the Monastic Ireland project as a case study, and is based on the experience of engaging with the process of creating digital access to sources for the study of Irish medieval architecture in flexible and innovative ways.[1] It is therefore focused on potential user needs and engages with the challenges posed by the nature of the source materials for the creation of digital tools. This essay reflects the development process from the project’s inception in December 2012 to July 2013. It outlines, therefore, the collaborative design process and initial experience in dealing with the sources and images available for the study of medieval Irish architecture in digital contexts. Given that this essay focuses on the initial phase of the project, it does not include evidence or analysis of user experience—this will be available at a later stage in the development of the project.

Monastic Ireland began as a collaborative research project between a number of institutions, including The Mícheál Ó Cléirigh Institute for the Study of Irish History and Civilisation, University College Dublin, University College Cork, the Discovery Programme, and Trinity College Dublin. The project received initial funding from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, and has also been in receipt of two funding grants from Fáilte Ireland through their Applied Research Scheme and a Seed Funding grant from UCD. The project has also been generously supported by the Monastic Wales project team, which provided initial content management system (CMS) templates and advice. In 2013, the project was awarded a major grant by the Irish Research Council, and has, with an expanded team, developed a broader project remit.[2]

This article, therefore, aims to capture the initial design and development stages of the project, reflecting the collaborative approach of digital humanities scholars and those working in the field of medieval history, architectural and art history, and archaeology. The key problems addressed by the initial development phase of the project centered on the lack of digital access to a comprehensive range of images and sources for the study of Irish medieval architecture. Furthermore, while some key data and images had been digitized, a centralized repository did not exist which would provide access to the range of sources available. The first development phrase of Monastic Ireland, therefore, aimed to address these problems in access by developing a centralized database of the digital resources available, by digitizing as much relevant material as possible, and through the development of a user-centered content management system which would allow the information collected and collated to be accessed in flexible ways, facilitating individualized use and interpretation by a range of users, including scholars, tourists, and local history groups.


II. The Historiography of Irish Medieval Architecture

The creation of flexible and user-centered digital resources is, for many reasons, important for the development of scholarship on Irish medieval architecture. In his influential article on contemporary and future directions in medieval architectural history, Michael T. Davis pointed to an increasing attention to what have been seen as liminal or peripheral areas, as opposed to a more traditional focus on, for example, the cathedrals of the Île-de-France and the great Cistercian and Benedictine abbeys of England.[3] According to Davis, the study of the architectures of the Middle Ages in Europe, typified by Christopher Wilson’s The Gothic Cathedral: The Architecture of the Great Church, 1130–1530 (1990), is increasingly alive to “a multiplicity of independent iterations, each shaped by intricate interactions of local architectural history, foreign influences, pragmatic problem solving, and patronal vision.”[4] Indeed, Davis’s article chronicled what he felt was an impasse in medieval architectural research–whether, that is, the scholarship should continue to focus on traditional methodologies of formal analysis, with an emphasis on the gathering of comprehensive data, or whether this emphasis reflects a lingering “modernist paradigm that isolates the object in plans and cross sections that have nothing to do with medieval subject positions.” This, some scholars have argued, can result in “rich polysemous meanings” trapped in “masonry hulls reduced to vacant collections of coursing joints and moulding profiles.”[5]

The historiography of medieval European architecture has been determined, in many ways, by available methods of publication and, in particular, the reproduction of images. Investigation into architectural history of the middle ages was transformed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the development of printing techniques, which facilitated greater illustration.[6] The reproduction of increasingly accurate representations of buildings and architectural details, measured plans, sections and elevations, was formative in the development of a more “scientific” model of scholarly inquiry from the mid-nineteenth century, with its attendant suite of taxonomies and methodological standards.[7] The introduction of photography as illustration from the late nineteenth century had a similarly transformative impact. It could be argued that a number of key texts published throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries established hierarchical canons in terms of style and artistic achievement, and determined, in many ways, patterns of scholarship into the future.[8] The restrictions of the printed book, illustrated with a limited number of images, have materially formed the historiography and understanding of medieval architectural form, privileging certain viewpoints and perspectives over others.[9] According to Davis, however, canonical patterns of scholarship, and dynamics between what might be considered the centers and peripheries of cultural capital in the middle ages have been challenged by a robust level of scholarly publishing on Gothic architectures in Italy, Germany, Poland, and elsewhere, while maintaining a sense of the importance of France as inspiration for architects and patrons across Europe. These reassessments over the past four decades can be considered within the context of the methodological “turn” in art and architectural history, necessitating a reappraisal of “the strategies used in the telling of the various narratives of architectural history.”[10] Anna Brzyski, in her interrogation of canons of value, argues that this critical process must continue to question “how and where canons are formed, by whom and why, how they function under particular circumstances, how they are maintained, and why they may undergo change.”[11]

The center periphery dynamic in the historiography of Gothic is manifested within a particular colonial paradigm in an Irish context. While the debates—from the mid-eighteenth century onwards—around the Irish scripture crosses, around the origin and date of the round towers, and around the presence or otherwise of an early civilized culture in the country more obviously reflect the tense cultural nationalism and cultural politics of the period, the study of Gothic architecture reveals much about how Irish culture was positioned in relation to the wider world.  This is due in part to the extensive intellectual networks that existed between antiquarians and architects in the period, but also to the fact that the study of the Irish Gothic became part of a pre-existing and well-defined scholarly field of inquiry. As John Frew and Simon Bradley have explored at length in their studies on the subject, the discourse on English Gothic as it developed in the nineteenth century was significantly shaped by the political nationalism of the period—a notion neatly encompassed by John Carter’s phrase “Gothic is English.”[12] Throughout the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, Gothic was increasingly perceived as having an inalienable link to autonomous and independent English identity.[13]  Given the close relationship between medieval Gothic buildings in England and Ireland—in stylistic terms as well as in terms of the circumstances of the introduction of the style into Ireland—scholars of Irish Gothic throughout the nineteenth century had to negotiate a highly nationalistic conception of English Gothic, which did not include Irish material, but which was its closest referent. Indeed, Peter Kidson’s more recent questioning of the categorization of Irish medieval buildings as “Gothic” at all in 2004 impels scholars to consider the extent to which the discourse remains informed by the need to conform as nearly as possible to a measure which has been forged within highly nationalistic canons of value and frames of cultural and scholarly authority and influence. In this review of Colum Hourihane’s Gothic Art in Ireland: Enduring Vitality 1169-1550, Kidson asks “How does it rate on the wider scale of Gothic art across Europe? And to what extent does it serve any useful purpose to call much of it Gothic at all? One cannot escape the impression that all his geese are swans because they are Irish.”[14] This view also behooves scholars of Irish material to engage closely in an international dialogue in order to deepen the discourse around value, heritage and frameworks of interpretation and classification within the context of Davis’s concept of a “spectrum of variables” as opposed to an established canon of stylistic achievement.[15]


III. Digital Resources for the Study of Medieval Architecture: Expanding and Extending Research Paradigms

Digital resources for the study of medieval architecture have the potential to transform ways of seeing by creating access to a far greater number of images than the printed book and by facilitating multiple visual perspectives through panoramic views. One example, developed by Stephen Murray and Andrew Tallon, is the online resource Mapping Gothic France. This website allows users to access a vast number of images for all the major cathedral buildings in France—there are almost 500 images for the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Chartres alone. To put this in context, the 2004 edition of Christopher Wilson’s The Gothic Cathedral has 221 illustrations, and the 2000 edition of Paul Frankl’s Gothic Architecture has 220 in black and white, and 75 in color.[16] Mapping Gothic France includes historical black and white images, a range of high resolution images of almost every facet of the buildings and their architectural detail, both interior and exterior, as well as a range of image types—from laser-scan images, 360-degree panoramas, stereoscopic images, and gigapixel images. While these visual resources aid in close readings and in the attribution of artistic authorship, identity, or influence, comparative studies are also facilitated through the inclusion of maps, plans, and elevations for each of the buildings included, which can be compared according to a range of options such as nave height and approximate construction start date, among others. While they do prioritize the visual—as opposed to a more comprehensive sensorial experience of buildings—rich resources such as these have the potential to transform the scholarship on medieval architecture. They broaden the understanding of the fabric of the structures due to the level of visual documentation, but crucially they also create access to key physical information about the buildings to a range of scholars across the world and facilitate comparative research which would not have been possible without such a comprehensive database. While Mapping Gothic France is currently limited to the cathedrals of France, the inclusion or development of medieval buildings from locations across Europe would enable researchers to carry out comparative analyses across different locations and time periods, or according to building type, potentially extending and furthering our understanding of building practices throughout the Middle Ages.

In an Irish context, the development of digital resources has the potential to extend the scholarship on later medieval buildings in new directions, expanding the frame of contextual and comparative reference through the availability of digital images and other relevant information such as maps, plans, and elevations. Moreover, while the scholarship of medieval Irish building would gain much from the integration of highly-developed resources such as those described in Mapping Gothic France, it would also have much to offer to the wider study of medieval architecture more generally. The remains of parish churches and the monastic houses and friaries of the late medieval orders are visible throughout the country. While some medieval buildings have remained in continuous use—such as the cathedrals of St. Patrick and Christchurch in Dublin, St. Canice’s cathedral in Kilkenny, the cathedral of St. Carthage at Lismore, and the parish church of St. Multose in Kinsale, Co. Cork—the vast majority of monastic houses and friaries fell out of use during the early modern period. At the Reformation, the parish churches became the property of the Established Church. As Olivia Horsfall Turner’s research has demonstrated, the small and dwindling Church of Ireland congregations during the seventeenth century resulted in the abandonment of many medieval buildings.[17] Other buildings, such as the now-iconic cathedral of St. Patrick on the Rock of Cashel, were abandoned for more conveniently located, newly built replacements, and the funds which were made available for church building through the Board of First Fruits, and later the Irish Ecclesiastical Commissioners, also led to congregations abandoning medieval churches which needed continual repair.[18] While some medieval ecclesiastical buildings were given alternative uses—such as law courts, hospitals, and domestic dwellings—and others, such as Waterford cathedral, were simply demolished, the majority of the buildings remained in their ruined state. While medieval buildings in many European countries such as Spain and Portugal were refashioned according to Baroque or neo-classical tastes, the ruined monastic houses and friaries in Ireland were relatively unchanged. As Rachel Moss has written, “More than any country in Europe, Irish medieval architecture is characterised by ruins, and scholarship of our Gothic inheritance has grown out of analyses of skeletal remains.”[19] The comparative wealth of late medieval remains in Ireland means that it has much to offer to an increasingly decentralized scholarly view of medieval architecture. While Irish material is currently considered in the context of European-wide building in the Middle Ages, increased access to a wide range of images, as well as to sources, bibliographies, and other contextual information will support and enable ongoing and future comparative research. Furthermore, the creation of digital repositories of images has the potential to expand the frame of reference for an understanding of Irish Gothic architecture, extending comparative studies with other peripheral areas or areas undergoing a comparable colonial process, and examining patterns of growth, development, and patronage. Resources which facilitate comparative analysis have the potential to transform historiographical and methodological approaches to the study of Irish medieval architecture. However, as the case study of Monastic Ireland below outlines, the nature of the source material for the study of medieval Ireland does pose important challenges for digital humanities scholars in creating flexible and usable resources.

The Gothic Past image repository, developed by the IRCHSS-funded Reconstructions of the Gothic Past project (2008-2011) and led by Professor Roger Stalley and Dr. Rachel Moss, provided digital access to resources which were hitherto relatively inaccessible. Using an open source Omeka platform, this resource facilitates access to image collections of Irish Gothic architecture which were based at TRIARC, the Irish Art Research Centre at Trinity College Dublin. Records and images archived in TARA—Trinity College Dublin’s Dspace-based Open Access repository—were selectively exported and displayed in the Omeka-based Gothic Past site, creating a whole new interface for interacting with these images. These image collections include the Stalley and Rae collections of medieval Irish architecture and sculpture, as well as the O’Donovan collection of Gothic moulding profiles. The Stalley and Rae archives are particularly valuable as they provide visual evidence of the appearance of buildings prior to restoration and other interventions carried out throughout the twentieth century. These resources are searchable by place name, and the site includes a number of curated exhibitions, with accompanying texts.

Gothic Past is one example of a body of digital resources that aims to connect the rich and growing corpus of knowledge about medieval Ireland within third-level educational institutions and government agencies. The Monasticon Hibernicum website, developed at NUI Maynooth under the directorship of the late Ailbhe MacShamhráin with Nora White, Aidan Breen, and Kim R. McCone, is one example of a great wealth of archaeological, historical, and geographical detail being brought into the public realm through a free and accessible digital platform. Monasticon Hibernicum is an invaluable scholarly resource, recording extensive details for 5,529 sites, ranging from the early Christian period to the twelfth century or Reform period. This database can be queried under a wide range of terms, and includes a comprehensive bibliography and glossary. The Logainm project, developed by the Irish Placenames Commission, also brings together a wealth of information on Irish historical geography and is presented in a relatively user-friendly format. Similarly, the Irish Archaeological Database, developed by the National Monuments Service enables online access to the extensive inventories of archaeological information, the Sites and Monuments Record, which is held at the National Monuments Service (NMS) Archive. This information, while extensive, is still incomplete, reflecting the ongoing work of gathering data on Irish field monuments and other sites of archaeological note by the NMS. The base mapping and imagery on the digital database utilizes the Ordnance Survey Ireland (OSI) MapGenie web-services under license, and operates a flat or simplified hierarchical “term list” for classification purposes. Finally, key online, open-access repositories for the study of Irish medieval architecture include Irish Excavations, the catalogues of the Royal Irish Academy—in particular its collections of prints and drawings—the National Library’s Sources database, and the Bibliography of British and Irish Archaeology. The Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland is also an important online source, although it is more complete for England, Scotland, and Wales than it is for the Irish counties. Other key sources have been digitized, but are not freely available. Many of the key texts for the study of Irish monastic history—such as the Calendars of Papal Letters, and the Calendars of Documents for Ireland throughout the medieval and early modern period—have been digitized and are available through MEMSO (Medieval and Early Modern Sources Online). Similarly, many important primary and secondary sources are available through subscription-based resources such as JSTOR and the Bibliography of British and Irish History. The list of resources provided above is, of course, by no means comprehensive and is intended to describe some of the recent developments in the digital humanities which have had an impact on research into later medieval Irish architecture.[20]


IV. Case Study: Monastic Ireland

The Monastic Ireland project is an ongoing research project, which aims to create a freely accessible database of images and information relating to the later medieval monastic houses and friaries in Ireland. The case study of the first phase of its design and development, outlined below, engages both with issues around user-centered design, and with the challenges posed by the nature of the source material for the study of Irish medieval architectural heritage for digital humanities researchers and developers.[21] This phase of Monastic Ireland aimed to create a website and smartphone and tablet app, based on a database of information and images, for three specific tiers of users: tourist and visitor users, researchers and scholars, and education-focused groups, such as community groups and schools. The design process revealed that the needs of these three groups are markedly different, resulting in the realization that linked but separate tiers of the website would best respond to the requirements of potential users. These tiers were titled “Explore,” “Research,” and “Discover.” The following case study engages with these three groups, outlining the aims and challenges for the Monastic Ireland team in creating a flexible, engaging user-centered resource.


Tier 1: “Explore” (Tourist and Visitor Users)

While the digital resources outlined above provide access to a wealth of valuable information for scholarly users, they are not aimed at a non-specialist audience. While sites such as the Irish Archaeological Database and Logainm are not explicitly designed for a scholarly audience, the site design and search functionality are quite complex and do require some specialist knowledge to use and interpret. The Irish Archaeological Database query function is challenging, in that it is based on place name and monument type, requiring quite detailed information before the search is carried out, and thus limiting, in some ways, the opportunity for discovery for a non-specialist user. The use of the townland as the location for each monument poses another challenge for even specialist users. Townland names are variously given in English and Irish, and although the townland designation gives a more precise location than parish or other signifying boundary, it is rarely used and therefore will be unfamiliar to many users. The demarcation of boundaries and locations by townland, therefore, poses challenges for users that need to be overcome through user-centered design to improve accessibility. Despite the existence of such rich architectural remains from the later Middle Ages in the Irish landscape, there are few online resources which aim to enhance the tourist or visitor experience of this heritage. One-off projects do exist for specific areas, however, such as Clare Ecclesiastical Trails, an app designed by Clare County Council, and the Youghal4All app, which includes information about and guides to medieval architectural heritage of Youghal.[22] The recently developed Storymap and Dubline apps, together with the Dublin Walls app, also focus on providing information on Dublin’s heritage—including its architectural heritage—to a tourist or visitor audience.[23] Heritage Ireland, the website produced by the Office of Public Works that provides information on heritage sites that are fully accessible to the public, includes just six later monastic houses or friaries from the later medieval period: Sligo Abbey, Boyle Abbey, Ennis Friary, Jerpoint Abbey, Tintern Abbey and Old Mellifont Abbey. The site provides limited historical information on each site, including important visitor information such as opening hours and levels of accessibility for wheelchair users.

The user-centered design process involved engaging closely with the needs and activities of each user group. The first group, which might be termed “casual” or tourist users, require accurate, curated information and images about the sites, together with useful linked information. The determining factor for this group is likely to be location, and therefore the individual sites should be listed by county. The design also included options for people to create personalized searches from the database, including family name or religious order. In this way, visitors could create their own personalized tours, for example, of the Barry-affiliated foundations across Munster. In order to allow users to quickly navigate their way through the information available, we designed a visual “access key” for the sites that responded to important visitor requirements. This allowed people to see at a glance what would be fully accessible, what was on private land, family-friendly, and had intact ruins, among other possible considerations. The fact that the vast majority of medieval monastic sites are on private land, with entry at the discretion of the landowner, provides a challenge in terms of providing information on access. In order to provide clear and safe information, the website follows the guidelines outlined on the National Monuments Service website.[24] However, these guidelines neither address the issue of encouraging people to visit Ireland to view this unique heritage, nor provide clear information about how to do so without trespassing. While many landowners are very generous about access and are proud of the ruins on their land, others are understandably anxious about insurance claims and personal injury to tourists. While the “access key” developed by Monastic Ireland gives information on what sites are fully insured and wheelchair accessible, it is hard to avoid creating the impression that the other sites are completely closed and entirely inaccessible.

This website design allows people to build their own tours and trails, giving driving instructions, routes, and times, and would also provide links to local museums or archives with materials relating to the monastic sites.[25] All sites are mapped using a Google Map widget, thus tapping into systems already in place and familiar to users. This location-based design has potential for commercialization, as hotels, restaurants, or bars could advertise on the site according to searched-for location. Such initiatives increase the overall value of the site for the visitor and provide a funding stream for sustainable development and maintenance, which is often problematic for digital resources and sites created as part of fixed-term academic projects with limited funding. In presenting the information for this group of users, the design was inspired by popular shopping websites, and therefore patterns of use and navigation were incorporated which would be immediately familiar to the majority of users, as well as building options such as allowing people to create a personalized “basket” of favorites. Likewise, in structuring information for each monastic or friary site, a selection of key facts and images are curated to give an engaging overview, with an option to expand for greater detail, and to move through to the “research” tier for a much more comprehensive range of sources and images.

The partnership developed with Fáilte Ireland through their Applied Research Scheme was extremely important for this user-centered design process. As well as providing necessary research funding, the design team had access to tourism research networking sessions. These sessions gave the design team the opportunity to listen to and engage with a broad range of stakeholders in Irish tourism, from hoteliers and coach tour operators to tourism researchers in other institutions. This provided important access to ongoing research in tourism studies, much of which was relevant to digital humanities scholarship, including research by Dr. James Hanrahan, from Sligo Institute of Technology, into tourist demand and use for travel guides that utilize new technology such as smartphones and downloadable apps.[26] Key findings from this included the fact that many tourists were unlikely to use sites or apps which needed to be connected to the internet, due to both the fear of high roaming charges and the lack of public Wi-Fi in many parts of Ireland. These interdisciplinary and cross-sector networking sessions were extremely valuable in engaging with the perspectives and experiences of practitioners outside the academic sphere, and informed the design process of the Monastic Ireland project.

The app design process involved a similarly user-led design process, with a focus on location and the provision of well-curated, engaging information and practical guidelines for visiting. Resources such as the apps designed by English Heritage and Unesco Heritage provided key inspiration for the Monastic Ireland app, given their focus on the user experience. Future developments for the app include the potential for augmented reality, allowing users to visualize ruined sites at different points in time, using key GPS coordinates and reconstruction drawings to create a layered view through the smartphone or camera application. 


Tier 2: “Research” (Scholarly Users)

As outlined above, several valuable resources for the study of medieval Ireland have been created by both government agencies and third-level institutions, facilitating access to a wealth of information on Irish medieval history and heritage. Despite the wealth of physical remains of later medieval monastic and friary sites in Ireland, however, a comprehensive online database of information and images has not yet been created. Monastic Ireland aims to create a database which connects the data available online, as well as provides access to new material which has hitherto not been made accessible in a digital format online, such as new image collections.[27]

A core aim of this initial design phase for Monastic Ireland was to create three major resources for the research-led user: a comprehensive and updated bibliography for each site, a chronology based on as comprehensive a range of sources as possible, and an image bank for each site. A list of archival material relating to each site was also to be provided, giving reference numbers and the archive locations. The reproduction of sources in as full a form as possible was felt to be essential for this tier of users, as an interpretation or synopsis inevitably introduces personal bias and the potential for error. A second core facet of this tier was the provision of as many images as possible, in order to enable detailed analysis of the built fabric using digital resources. This would be essential in allowing scholars from elsewhere to carry out comparative work with Irish material. Several large image collections were generously donated to the website by individual scholars, which would be accessible as named image collections. These core aims, however, posed several challenges for the design team, which need to be addressed in the development of a comprehensive range of digital resources for the exploration of medieval Irish architectural heritage.

Firstly, much of the information for the chronologies is taken from published, edited versions of manuscript material—for example, the fiants or the Extents of Monastic Possessions (1943), and Gwynn and Hadcock’s Medieval Religious Houses, Ireland (1970).[28] This material cannot be reproduced in full without copyright implications. In some cases, this potential barrier was overcome: the Cistercian Fathers, who published the Letters of Stephen of Lexington, granted permission to reproduce the letters relating to certain monastic houses in Ireland.[29] Moreover, as many resources are already digitized, it makes little sense to re-transcribe material (with the risk of error each time) when the material already exists in a searchable format through, for example, MEMSO. This resource, however, is not open access, and many libraries—even those within third-level educational institutions—do not have access. It is counter to the aims and objectives of the digital humanities to reproduce data manually rather than to share it across platforms, creating a set of linked open data which can be utilized to create a hyperlinked and rich database. As outlined in the review of resources available above, it is clear that there is a great deal of valuable work done, and further collaborative work is required to link these resources in usable ways that also respond to the needs of contemporary scholarship. 

Secondly, the nature of the information about the sites themselves poses challenges for the creation of digital resources. For example, in structuring the “search” functions, a very nuanced “fuzzy search” needs to be created to cater for the variations in historical spellings of Irish place names—looking through MEMSO, for example, for all the mentions of Adare in Co. Limerick, you need to know to search for “Adair,” for “Ath-dara,” and for “Ath-dare,” among many others. Local variations need to be taken into account, and in many cases, this search will also need to be able to take Irish place names and variations on those spellings into account.[30] In designing search parameters, searching across diocese is an important tool for researchers. This particular search, however, needs to negotiate between medieval diocese, and then between Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic dioceses, as well as between pre- and post-nineteenth-century changes. The development of layered maps marking diocese boundaries across different time periods or confessional identity would enable researchers to gather valuable perspectives through the innovative visualization of data, and would overcome the challenge posed by shifting diocesan boundaries. The challenges outlined above are just two of the many discipline-specific issues that need to be addressed in the creation of functional and research-focused digital resources for the study of medieval Irish architectural history.


Tier 3: “Discover” (Community and Education Groups)

The third tier of users in the initial Monastic Ireland design scheme includes community groups, schools, and families. Given the enduring importance of local historical and heritage societies in the recording and study of Irish medieval architecture, it is fitting that the Monastic Ireland design includes a way for them to contribute to and engage with the resource. Further to the image groups gathered from researchers in the field, this section of the site would allow local historical societies to upload images, add metadata and create named collections, therefore fully recognizing the individual contribution of each to the overall research environment. While this development would have resourcing implications in terms of being moderated, it would create a valuable, interactive layer to the project. This aspect of the design engages with contemporary crowdsourcing initiatives around history and place—examples include the award-winning HistoryPin project, and the National Museum of Ireland Community Archive Project. Indeed, HistoryPin could be incorporated into this tier of the website to create a searchable, layered view of Irish historic towns and sites. Further potential user groups within this tier include school and family groups. Resources to be created for these users included easy-to-use illustrated glossaries, worksheets which would be downloaded and adapted by individual groups for local sites, curated links and resources from around the web, and introductory videos and short essays by expert scholars in the field on key themes and topics related to medieval Ireland.


Conclusion: Creating Sustainable Resources

The design process around the Monastic Ireland project was led both by an in-depth consideration of potential user needs, and by attention to the specific nature of the source material for this discipline to be included in the resource. The design team felt that these two core elements had to determine the design process in order to promote sustainability, engagement, and further development. The standard of content is also a key consideration, both in terms of public engagement and scholarly use. Finally, the treatment of the source material and the methods of access were designed to be as flexible as possible, in order to promote and enable innovative uses of the material, discovery, and new perspectives. In order to adhere to international standards in this regard, the project team used the guidelines established by the 2008 ICOMOS Ename Charter for the interpretation of heritage sites.[31] In creating a sustainable resource, the project team was advised to use open-source software such as Drupal or Omeka, and to avoid developing a custom-built CMS, in order to facilitate future development and linking to a broad range of related projects. Similarly, the project team used DublinCore metadata standards, and Library of Congress terms in order to promote future engagement with other resources and similar repositories. A key issue for this and similar projects is that of sustainable storage—the standards and systems provided by the Digital Repository of Ireland are a key resource for digital humanities projects in this regard.[32]

This case study outlines the first phase in the development of a major resource which, when fully developed, has the potential to be part of a new approach to the study of Irish medieval architecture, and indeed, the medieval architecture of Europe more generally. This resource would be vastly enhanced through the sharing of linked open data with other, similar resources—an aim promoted by many contemporary digital humanities initiatives, including the Europeana project, Ariadne, and LoCloud, and within the aims of the Cultura: Cultivating Understanding and Research Through Adaptivity project, ongoing at Trinity College Dublin. The design process for the Monastic Ireland project echoes the key tenants of Cultura, in its emphasis on:

  • personalized information retrieval and presentation which respond to models of user and contextual intent
  • community-aware adaptivity which responds to wider community activity, interest, contribution and experience
  • content-aware adaptivity which responds to the entities and relationships automatically identified within the artifacts and across collections
  • personalized dynamic storylines which are generated across individual as well as entire collections of artifacts.[33]

While the Monastic Ireland project is primarily focused at present on building a flexible resource, on providing high-quality access to key sources, and ensuring sustainable storage and metadata standards, there are further possibilities for this resource and its collections through the innovative interpretation of the visual information included in the image database in particular, connecting more closely with the third aim of Cultura listed above. Recent research into creation of ontologies for artistic images has engaged with these concepts of content-aware adaptivity, including that by Khurshid Ahmad and Daniel Isemann  at Trinity College Dublin, and as highlighted by Michael Greenhalgh in his recent essay on art history and the digital humanities.[34] The potential for the digital humanities resources based around visual ontologies to extend the experience and/or interpretation of images or objects has also been explored in research focusing on the idea of curation.[35] These challenges have also been explored across different media, including manuscripts, involving a careful consideration of the digital representation and interpretation of the source in order to maximize potential use.[36] These concerns can be seen to inform contemporary practice within an Irish context. Several projects carried out by The Discovery Programme, for example, including the Ogham in 3D project, the 3D Icons project, and the Western Stone Forts project engage with producing high-quality data about the artifacts/landscapes themselves, facilitating inter-collection adaptivity on the level of the artifact.[37] The wealth and variety of medieval buildings within Ireland makes it an ideal case study for the development of such adaptive resources, further facilitating comparative research and discovery.

[1] Some aspects of the initial design process were featured in a UCD Innovation showcase, which is available on YouTube in a video titled Innovation and the Humanities: Monastic Ireland Project.

[2] Information on the second phase of the project, led by Dr. Rachel Moss (Trinity College Dublin) and Dr. Edel Bhreathnach (The Discovery Programme), can be accessed at “Monastic Ireland: landscape and settlement,” accessed July 9, 2015,

[3] Michael T. Davis, “‘Sic et Non’: Recent Trends in the Study of Gothic Ecclesiastical Architecture,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 58, no. 3 (1999): 415.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 414.

[6] Dana Arnold and Stephen Bending, Tracing Architecture: The Aesthetics of Antiquarianism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002).

[7] See, for instance, Carla Yanni, “On Nature and Nomenclature: William Whewell and the Production of Architectural Knowledge in Early Victorian Britain,” Architectural History 40 (1997): 204-221; and Philippa Levine, The Amateur and the Professional: Antiquarians, Historians and Archaeologists in Victorian England, 1838-1886 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

[8] The development of a tradition of scholarship around Gothic ecclesiastical architecture in Ireland is explored in more detail in Niamh NicGhabhann, Medieval Ecclesiastical Buildings in Ireland, 1789-1915 (Dublin: Four Courts, 2015).

[9] Conventions of architectural illustration also have a bearing on the treatment of the fabric of that building. Philip Aspin has explored the extent to which perspectives promoted by antiquarian illustrations influenced the actual restoration and changes wrought to the physical fabric of medieval buildings; see Philip Aspin, “‘Our Ancient Architecture’: Contesting Cathedrals in Late Georgian England,” Architectural History 54 (2011): 195-232.

[10] Dana Arnold, Elvan Eltan Ergut, and Belgin Turan Ozkaya, Rethinking Architectural Historiography (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), xix.

[11] Anna Brzyski, “Introduction: Canons and Art History,” in Partisan Canons, ed. Anna Brzyski (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007), 3.

[12] See J.M. Frew, “Gothic is English: John Carter and the Revival of Gothic as England’s National Style,” The Art Bulletin 64, no. 2 (1982): 315-319, and Simon Bradley, “The Englishness of Gothic: Theories and Interpretations from William Gilpin to J.H. Parker,” Architectural History 45 (2002), 325-346.

[13] This was a persuasive idea, but it is important to note, as Simon Bradley has pointed out, that it was challenged by many scholars writing from both Continental Europe and Ireland, and even by other English scholars in the field.

[14] Peter Kidson, “Review,” review of Gothic Art in Ireland: Enduring Vitality 1169-1550, by Colum Hourihane, The Burlington Magazine, 146, no. 1218 (2004): 623.

[15] Davis, 416.

[16] Christopher Wilson, The Gothic Cathedral: The Architecture of the Great Church, 1130-1530 (London: Thames and Hudson, 2004); Paul Frankl, Gothic Architecture, rev. Paul Crossley (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000).

[17] Olivia Horsfall Turner, “Ruin and Reparations: Medieval Parish Churches in Seventeenth-Century and Early Eighteenth-Century Ossory,” in Irish Gothic Architecture: Construction, Decay and Reinvention, ed. Roger Stalley (Bray, Co. Wicklow: Wordwell, 2012).

[18] Niamh NicGhabhann, “Irish Architects and the Restoration of Medieval Buildings, 1835-1904,” in Irish Gothic Architecture: Construction, Decay and Reinvention, ed. Roger Stalley (Bray, Co. Wicklow: Wordwell, 2012).

[19] Rachel Moss, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: Irish Monastic Architecture c. 1540-1640”, in Irish Gothic Architecture: Construction, Decay and Reinvention, ed. Roger Stalley (Bray, Co. Wicklow: Wordwell, 2012).

[20] The Digital Repository of Ireland (DRI) has carried out research into the digital heritage tools currently in use in Ireland; this information can be seen in DRI’s “Digital Heritage Tools in Ireland—A Review,” accessed July 9, 2015,

[21] This case study outlines one aspect of the design process, which was a collaborative process between the author, who was the research assistant on the project, Dr. Danielle O’Donovan, who is both an e-learning specialist and a medieval architectural historian, and the project director, Dr. Edel Bhreathnach, currently CEO of the Discovery Programme. The final product when launched at the end of the research project may not reflect this early design process, due to the ongoing nature of its development.

[22] For more on these apps, see, for example, “iPhone app brings heritage sites back to the future,” accessed July 19, 2015,, and the Youghal4All website, accessed July 19, 2015,

[23] For more on these apps, see the Storymap website, accessed July 19, 2015,; the Dubline website, accessed July 19, 2015,; and Wallace, Arminta, “Time travel with an app,” Irish Times, Feb. 12, 2011, accessed July 19, 2015,

[24] The National Monuments Service includes a notice on their website which states that “All recorded archaeological monuments are protected under the National Monuments Acts 1930-2004.  Visitors to monuments on lands in private ownership should request permission from the landowner”; see under “Notice,” accessed July 19, 2014,

[25] As well as linking to museum or archive venues of interest, there is the potential to include the chant associated with particular Irish monastic houses and friaries, including an auditory layer to an otherwise visually-oriented resource.

[26] See Fáilte Ireland, “An Assessment of Tourist Demand and Use for Travel Guides: A Focus on the Use of New Technology Such As Smartphones and Downloadable ‘Apps,’” Fáilte Ireland Applied Research Scheme, I.T. Sligo, 2012, accessed July 19, 2015,

[27] An online catalogue of the holdings of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland would greatly add to the value of this set of resources.

[28] An example of the published fiants includes The Irish Fiants of the Tudor Sovereigns: During the Reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Philip & Mary, and Elizabeth I, intro. Kenneth Nicholls, pref. Tomás G. Ó Canann, (Dublin: Éamonn de Búrca for Edmund Burke, 1994); Extents of Monastic Possessions, 1540-1541: From Manuscripts in the Public Record Office, London, ed. Newport Benjamin White (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1943); and Aubrey Gwynn and Richard Neville Hadcock, Medieval Religious Houses: Ireland, with an Appendix to Early Sites (Harlow: Longmans, 1970).

[29] Stephen of Lexington; translated, with an introduction by Barry W. O’Dwyer, Letters from Ireland, 1228 – 1229, (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1982).

[30] Recent research into the potential for the Logainm resources to be available as linked open data has engaged with these issues in searching across Irish place names; see Rebecca Grant, “Sharing Irish Place Names as Linked Open Data: The Linked Logainm Project, accessed July 19, 2015,

[31] “ICOMOS Emame Charter,” accessed July 19, 2015,

[32] See A. O’Carroll, S. Collins, D. Gallagher, J. Tang, and S. Webb, Caring for Digital Content, Mapping International Approaches ( Maynooth: NUI Maynooth; Dublin: Trinity College Dublin; Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2013), DOI: 10.3318/DRI.2013.1; and A. O’Carroll and S. Webb, Digital Archiving in Ireland: National Survey of the Humanities and Social Sciences (Maynooth: NUI Maynooth, 2012), DOI: 10.3318/DRI.2012.1. Both are available at

[33] Quoted from Cultura’s website, “Cultivating Understanding and Research through Adaptivity,” accessed July 19, 2015,

[34] Khurshid Ahmad and Daniel Isemann, “Navigating Cultural Heritage in Style: Sketching an Ontological Representation of Metadata: The Example of Artistic Period and Style,” Museum Ireland 19 (2009) 149-155; and Daniel Isemann, Ontology and Information Retrieval: The Case of the Fine Arts (PhD Thesis, Trinity College Dublin, 2002). Some key challenges for the digital humanities as they engage with visual material have been explored in Michael Greenhalgh, “Art History,” in A Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), accessed July 19, 2015, Some principles in designing visual ontologies have been explored by Palash Bera, Andrew Burton-Jones, and Yair Wand, Yair. 2011 “Guidelines for Designing Visual Ontologies to Support Knowledge Identification,” MIS Quarterly 35, no. 4 (2011): 883-908.

[35] See Daniel Price, Rex Koontz, and Lauren Lovings, “Curating Digital Spaces, Making Visual Arguments: A Case Study in New Media Presentation of Ancient Objects,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 7, no. 2 (2013), accessed July 19, 2015,

[36] See Peter Ainsworth and Michael Meredith, “e-Science for Medievalists: Options, Challenges, Solutions and Opportunities,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 3, no. 4 (2009), accessed July 19, 2015,

[37] See “The Discovery Program: Research,” accessed July 19, 2015,