International Journal of Historical Archaeology

, Volume 10, Issue 1, pp 35–48

Social Archaeologies of “Utopian” Settlements in Ireland


    • School of Environmental ScienceCentre for Maritime Archaeology, University of Ulster

DOI: 10.1007/s10761-006-0003-5

Cite this article as:
Breen, C. Int J Histor Archaeol (2006) 10: 35. doi:10.1007/s10761-006-0003-5

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century a number of “Ideal” or “Utopian” type settlements were established across Ireland. These tended to be religious groupings or “model” communities associated with industry. In the southwest a number of short-lived cooperative communities were established along Owenite principles which continue to play an integral part in the radical histories of the country. This paper examines the archaeologies of these sites and analyses the role of individual in their formation and collapse and addresses the social archaeology of their construct and layout. It is suggested that contemporary hierarchical norms were actually reproduced in these communities and this segregation is reflected in the physical morphology of the settlements.


owenismradicalcooperativenineteenth-century Irelandutopia


In 2002 Sarah Tarlow published a formative article in this journal advocating the study of utopian settlements from an archaeological perspective. She presented a number of salient reasons why we as archaeologists should be interested in such settlements including the critique they present to rampant capitalism, the challenge they present to the homogeneity of nineteenth-century society and to question our existing understandings of social reproduction (Tarlow, 2002, pp. 299–323). These are all pertinent themes to the study of the recent past in Ireland, a formative period which shaped the construction of contemporary politics in the country. Other themes also emerge which are particularly pertinent in a political context to Ireland. The differing religious make ups of these settlements in tandem with their often secularized, nonconformist or nondenominational structure presents an alternative to the traditional perspective of an island dominated by either Catholicism or Protestantism. Their differing approaches to the question of land ownership present alternative models to the landlord system where most of the land in the country was controlled by a small land-holding elite. In addition, their theoretical aspiration to a more egalitarian lifeway grounded in democratic practice serves as a direct counter balance to the rigid hierarchical society dominated by class and economic segregation. However, a caveat needs to be introduced here. A number of writers have suggested that much of radical Irish history has been largely about opposition to British occupation of the Island (e.g., Coates, 2001) and that a number of the communities discussed below were an integral part of this process. In reality the radical nationalist movements which emerged in the later part of the eighteenth century had little concern with socialist based politics and it was only much later in the early part of the twentieth century that an economic radicalism was apparent within the then-emergent political labor movement (O'Mahony and Delanty, 1998, p. 114). The extent to which radical concepts of socialist reform were central to the ideal communities of nineteenth-century Ireland then has to be questioned. Their pivotal place in later radical writing demonstrates the endurance of their myth but the reality of their structure and ideals were somewhat different to that ascribed to them by these commentators.

Three broad categories of designed or utopian-aspirant communities can be identified in Ireland: religious communities, model settlements associated with industry, and finally cooperative establishments, which were largely agriculturally based. Various religious groups established settlements in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a number of which continue to exist today. Moravians established a community, for example, at Gracehill in County Antrim in 1759 designed around a central square with a school, chapel, and separate gender choir houses (Hutton, 2004). Quakers built numerous communities across the country, and often associated them with a particular industrial works or enterprise including Ballitore, County Kildare in 1707 and Bessbrook, County Antrim in 1846 (Butler, 2004). Model industrial settlements were established at Stratford-on-Slaney (1785–1846) and Portlaw, County Waterford in the 1820s (Heritage Council, 2003). Other community forms also developed, including individual housing and arts cooperatives but this article is concerned primarily with the final category of cooperative agricultural settlements and concentrates specifically on Ralahine, County Clare, established in 1830/31, and Carhoogarriff, County Cork where construction began in 1833.


Although these two designed communities were short-lived ventures their impact continued to be felt throughout the formative period of emergent political identity and thought in late nineteenth-century Ireland, when new nationalist movements and a resurgence in Gaelic traditions and culture develop. The ventures were variously held up as abject failures and viewed with suspicion, especially amongst the landed elite and by the Catholic Church, who viewed the secular and nondenominational character of Ralahine with alarm. The communities were also held up as model settlements which many later socialists, both in Ireland and abroad, admired and respected. James Connolly, for example, the noted Irish republican and socialist, saw in Ralahine a social model that could be adopted throughout rural Ireland. Connolly (1973, p. 89) in 1910 writes that “Had all the land and buildings belonged to the people, had all other estates in Ireland been conducted on the same principles, and the industries of the country also organised … the framework and basis for a free Ireland would have been realised.” He goes on to state that “Ralahine was an Irish point of interrogation erected amidst the wilderness of capitalist thought and feudal practice, challenging both in vain for an answer.” Socialist republicans within the Sinn Féin movement of the later twentieth century also developed an idealized version of the Ralahine structure (Allen, 1999) and similar perspectives were developed by labor-leaning politicians and academics. It was referred to as a “magnificent socialist experiment” in the periodical of the Irish Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Worker, (Basketter, 2001, p. 8), while the Irish anarchist movement labeled Ralahine a “model of socialist ideas in practice” (McCarron, 1994, p. 3). These interpretations have contributed a number of challenging perspectives to the recent past and emerge in support of a perceived idealized lifeway from a radical leftist perspective. They serve as a valuable alternative to the national social debate about the future direction, structure and values of Ireland in an immediate post-independence (1921) context. The settlements are used as supporting evidence for the past existence of a successful subaltern community which thrived beyond the direct control of the landlord system and the emergent capitalist structures of governance and economy. The settlements were used to advocate secular and economic difference and serve as a counter balance to the capital-led society of empire at the beginning of the twentieth century. But to what extent were the settlements in Clare and West Cork truly utopian? Was there truly the same degree of egalitarianism and idealism within the Clare community that the later socialist writers and campaigners spoke about?

It is clear archaeology can be used here to question the value judgments placed on the communities by agenda driven commentators and variously informed observers. Archaeology is especially important in this context in that the commentators on the settlements had both vested interests in the sites and produced highly subjective interpretations of their individual histories. The retrospective imaging and construction of these histories, while informative and inherently interesting, has to be recognized for its imbalance. Specifically archaeology can be utilized here to question site morphology and hierarchical relationships through location, construction, and interrelationship between the communities' buildings. Successful production can be analyzed through the examination of contemporary industrial buildings at the sites and through the creation, management, and development of the lands worked by the settlements. Material culture can provide important insights into lifeways, social values, and expressions of identity and ownership. Socially informed landscape analysis was especially informative at the Irish sites under study here, in the context of a politically subjective authorship.

The early nineteenth century was a period that saw the growth of alternative political thought firmly embedded in earlier French and Scottish mid-eighteenth-century writings, the principles of the French Revolution and growing concern about the economic disparities which existed in European society. This period witnessed the emergence of a number of radical movements including early socialism and other schools of reconstructive thought. One movement in particular, based on the social philosophy of Robert Owen, won a great deal of support throughout Britain, Ireland, and America and was primarily responsible for the emergence of the model or ideal communities under discussion here (Harrison, 1969). The industrialist Owen (1771–1858) purchased the New Lanark cotton mills, Scotland, in 1797 and began to embark on his own program of social and workplace reform (Donnachie, 2000). Owen's philosophy was based largely on the creation of work and living spaces that were more conducive ultimately to productivity. This was based around his socioscientific view of society where an individual could contribute more if they were communal beings working towards a shared economic parity and embedded with a greater degree of ethics and morality. Owen ultimately advocated a form of cooperative development and organization which saw able individuals extracting from the system the equivalent to what they put in on a sustainable footing, while also providing a better living environment for children, older members of the community and others. His was a form of benevolent paternalism achieved through nonviolent means. While much of his writings may now appear to be communitarian or neoconservative, early socialist writers did engage with his work and supported it albeit in an ambivalent sense. They saw value in the approaches and methodologies he developed but were less forthcoming on his ideology. Engels writes in the 1969 Condition of the Working Class in England that, “English socialism arose with Owen, a manufacturer, and proceeds therefore with great consideration towards the bourgeoisie.” In Ireland Owen's ideas received some attention, most notably amongst a small but growing band of influential socialist advocates. Amongst these was the Cork-born William Thompson (1775–1833), one of the leading early socialist theoreticians who influenced both Engels and Marx (Pankhurst, 1991, p. 1) and John Vandeleur, a landowner from County Clare. Both came into contact with Owen and were directly inspired to establish cooperative settlements on their respective Irish estates in the 1830s.


The origins of Thompson's proposed communal settlement at Carhoogarriff near Glandore in West Cork lie both in the works of Owen but also more locally in the improvement works undertaken by James Redmond Barry in the district. Barry was appointed a commissioner of Irish fisheries with responsibility for the south coast of Ireland in 1819 (Coombes, 1970, p. 13). In 1823, he acquired a house estate in Glandore and embarked upon a number of public works including the erection of a pier, boat yards at Baltimore and Union Hall, and the construction of 19 hookers (a distinctive form of Irish sailing vessel). His estate was let out in holdings of 3–20 acres and each had a slate-roofed cottage supported by 3-year leases if the tenants introduced modern cultivation methods. In 1834, he supported the construction of the first of two schools with a model farm attached and run on cooperative grounds. Barry and other benefactors in the town were then guided by a concept of sustainable development through infrastructural improvement and development. It was against this background of generalized improvement that William Thompson attempted to establish a cooperative settlement at Carhoogarriff on his estate adjacent to Glandore. Thompson wrote extensively on a variety of topics including the emancipation of women, socialism and cooperative theory (Dooley, 1997). It was his promotion of the latter which led him to attempt to establish the communal settlement in 1833. A congress of cooperative societies was held in Manchester in May 1831 at which Thompson offered 600 acres of land on his estate to be made available to “Co-operators” (Pankhurst, 1991, p. 112). At a meeting subsequent to the Manchester congress, debate took place over who would lead a new model cooperative venture and Thompson was proposed in this role. Thompson replied that “If there were any dictatorship the community must come to ruin” (Pankhurst, 1991, p. 116). Thompson went on to describe the structure of his proposed communal building which would house the cooperative's residents and where every adult would have “two rooms [of] twelve square foot.” He also stated that its design secured privacy of its interior gardens and that the “structure should be on high land in the centre of the community farm” overlooking the lower fields. Significant difficulties followed, not least in Thompson's failing health and arguments with Owen. Undeterred by a lack of support and funding from the cooperative movement Thompson began construction of a communal settlement at Carhoogarriff in 1833. Thompson's death in the same year ensured the collapse of the project and consequently few records survive as to the nature of the complex. However, contemporary survey records show that Thompson built a central tower on the site which has been variously described as being between 11 and 100 feet in height. He also began to construct what was locally called a “row of cottages,” presumably the central communal building (Pankhurst, 1991, p. 128; Tobin, 2001, p. 37). Little above-ground material now survives (Fig. 1) as immediately following his death there was an acrimonious fight for his estate, which was eventually won by his estranged family who saw little value in social reform linked to the cooperative movement. Local informants state that the tower was finally taken down in the early 1900s and its stone was used to build a nearby farmhouse.
Fig. 1.

First edition County Cork survey sheet of Carhoogarriff townland.

A number of problems then remain with this communal site. Little information survives on its structural morphology and it will only be through a program of targeted archaeological investigation that more detailed architectural and material culture understandings can be reached. From what we do know pertinent questions can be asked of the proposed social hierarchy on the site and archaeology can be used here to question Thompson's democratic credentials. The erection of a centrally placed domestic tower from where Thompson could observe and supervise the operations of the estate is hardly indicative of devolved and communal ownership. The separation of the commune's leader in his tower from its “ordinary” residents in an adjacent communal building is not suggestive of economic egalitarianism or a movement designed to develop radical social reform. Instead they speak of an established middle-class individual more interested in theoretical aspiration to equality than working-class reality (see McGerr, 2003, for a later US perspective on the “progressive” middle-class reform movement). This follows the pattern of typical early nineteenth-century Owen-like reformers whose paternalistic outlook superseded class structure. Thompson does not appear to have been interested in the everyday functionality of the project but instead appears almost as a present day scientist operating a field station. While obviously mentally embroiled in the project he was physically removed from it, a pattern we see repeated at our second site, Ralahine in County Clare.


In 1830 John Scott Vandeleur, owner of a reasonably sized estate at Ralahine in County Clare and influenced heavily by Robert Owen and the cooperative movement in general, established an ideal community on his holdings (Fig. 2). He employed James Edward Craig, an established English socialist and strong supporter of cooperative projects, as his manager/estate supervisor. Many years later Craig published a highly informative account of his years at Ralahine, a book which continues to inspire radical movements today (Craig, 1983). Craig's volume contains a number of useful descriptions of the estate:
Fig. 2.

Map of the Ralahine estate after the first edition County Clare Ordnance Survey (sheet no. 51) 1834.

On my arrival at Ralahine I found the estate admirably adapted for the purposes of a co-operative farm. It consisted of 618 acres, about one-half of which was under tillage, with suitable farm buildings, and situated between the two main roads from Limerick to Ennis. A bog of sixty-three acres supplied fuel. A lake on the borders of the estate gave a constant and available supply of water power, and a small stream flowing from it gave eight-horse power to a thrashing mill, scutch and saw mill, a lathe & c. A fall of twenty-horse power was available at a short distance, when required, for manufacturing purposes.

A large building had been erected, 30 feet by 15 feet, suitable for a dining hall, with a room of the same size above, suitable for lectures, reading-room, or classes. Close to these were a store-room and a dormitory above. A few yards from and at right angles to the large rooms were six cottages in course of erection [1831]. At several hundred yards' distance stood the old Castle of Ralahine, with its lofty square tower and arched floors, capable of being temporarily adapted for the accommodation of those whom it intended to unite in the proposed association. The estate is about twelve miles from Limerick and about the same distance from Ennis. Newmarket-on-Fergus is three miles distant on one side, and Bunratty Castle the same distance in the other direction' (Craig 1983, p. 10).

The project was initially set up with 52 individuals consisting of 21 single adult men, 14 married men and women, five single women, four boys and three girls under 17, and five infants under 9 years of age. Tenants were brought together to form an association under which they would collectively manage the estate. The general objects of the association included the acquisition of a common capital, the general improvement of tenants through education, mental and moral improvement, and education of children. The group also aspired to obtain collective protection against poverty, sickness, and old age (Craig, 1983, p. 24). The association promoted a number of progressive philosophies including freedom of expression in political opinion and in religious worship while independent work and self-responsibility were important tenets of practice. However, the landowner Vandeleur retained ultimate control over the estate and the tenants continued paying rent to him. Only the net profits that remained after rent payments and interest would be divided amongst them as a group. Ó Gráda (1983, p. 199) has pointed out that these rent-related payments were set well above average national rents. Craig (1983, p. 25) makes the point that the primary advantages to Vandeleur under this system were higher rents for his land, capital interest and general security and better agricultural practice on the estate.

Less than half the estate was under tillage (i.e., 165 ha; 66.77 ha) including wheat, barley, oats, potatoes, and turnips. One hundred and seventy-two acres (69.61 ha) were set aside for pasture and plantations, while 39 acres (15.78 ha) consisted of bog. Two acres were developed as a walled orchard which was stocked with fruit trees and vegetables. An 8-hp thrashing machine and a flax-scutching mill were also built while a circular saw and a lathe were hydraulically powered from the lake at the north of the estate (Fig. 3). Cattle, sheep, and pigs were kept but these were largely stall-fed in a complex of farm buildings positioned between Vandeleur's residence and the settlement complex of the residents. Here 1 acre was set aside for their houses and associated buildings. Each of the seven married couples had a separate dwelling while the youths under 17 had their own dormitories and sitting rooms. Only those infants that were not weaned were allowed sleep in the individual married-couple dwellings. Six of these dwellings survived as a block of uniform single-room cottages immediately south of the communal dormitory and educational rooms. The cottages were single-story stone-built dwellings with a centrally placed east-facing doorway with a single window either side. The west facing rear wall had a single window. They had an internal length of 5 m and internal width of 3.8 m (Fig. 4). Each cottage had a hearth/fireplace located on its northern gable. These and other internal features, with red brick surrounds, added an element of feature decoration. A number of storage nooks were also positioned around each dwelling. Their presence is interesting as all food preparation, eating, and other activities took place in the storage block. Thus, some degree of material independence was present, albeit within a strongly conformist architectural construct. The dwellings are currently being used as cow sheds as part of a farm complex and are roofed with corrugated iron. It is likely that they were originally thatched or slated. Their floors have also been concreted to facilitate animal and implement storage. The communal block with its dormitories, eating place and educational hall survives intact but is currently occupied by two domestic dwellings.
Fig. 3.

Detail of communal settlement layout at Ralahine.
Fig. 4.

Plan of house site three, one of the six individual communal block cottages erected in 1831.

The spatial morphology of the estate is of interest. Vandeleur's own residence was a three-storey, eighteenth-century house located on raised ground immediately north of the estate farm complex. The building was destroyed in the early part of the twentieth century but its foundations survive as an earthwork in the corner of a pasture field. It was removed from the communal settlement in both a physical and theoretical sense. There would have been limited intervisibility between the two locations with only Vandeleur being able to observe the “lower” complex from the upper levels of his house. This suggestion of hierarchical observation, as seen at Carhoogarriff is then apparent again at Ralahine. His “big house” sat within gardens that the association members were not allowed to enter or work without his consent. The members' dwellings on the other hand are set integrally with the farm yard and industrial complex with a separate entrance by road into the estate from either the north or south. Vandeleur maintained his own entrance from the west via an estate entrance complete with gate-lodge and tree-lined avenue. There is clear social segregation present and an established physical difference in role and community structure. This disparity highlights the gulf between the educated elite advocating communal living and social reform yet maintaining their physical role and dominance in the landscape, unwilling to participate in the social actualities of the project.

Regardless, for two years the project functioned successfully with little apparent conflict. Most historical writers have made positive judgments on the project but some questions have emerged about its potential sustainability through the 1840s and associated famine (Geoghegan, 1989; Ó Gráda, 1983). Agricultural output was good, relationships amongst the members remained positive and contemporary commentators grew increasingly impressed with the project (Pare, 1870). However, following a typical pattern of blind bourgeoisie disregard for people Vandeleur lost his estate while gambling in Dublin and fled the country. He reputedly later ended his days driving trains in America. The consequent debts ensured the sale and collapse of his estate and the social experiment was quickly broken up and the Association was disbanded. Craig returned to England and renewed his work within the cooperative movement and produced a large body of literature relating to his experiences and socialist philosophy (Geoghegan, 1989).


It has been argued that many of the designed utopian communities of the nineteenth century were anticapitalist (Tarlow, 2002, p. 303) and engaged in a social form of resistance against the rapid advent of industrialism, modernity and monetary expansionism. The Irish communities mentioned here can be viewed as engaging not so much in resistance against this change but as attempting to find a balance between change, good practice and progressive social reform. This was, however, reform as imagined by an intellectual elite tied to progressive capitalist thought. These were sponsored settlements led from above by a hierarchical elite designed still to maximize capital through “improved” agricultural practice. Interestingly, the project also invested in many new labor saving devices and advanced agricultural machinery, indicating their desire to progress industrially on a commercial scale.

Were these sites “utopian” in character? Nozick (1974, p. 298) in his seminal Anarchy, State and Utopia suggests that “Utopia must be, in some restructured sense, the best for all of us; the best world imaginable, for each of us.” His framework for such an imagined entity was through the creation of associations which were truly egalitarian, stable, and cooperative. It is unlikely the world created for the tenants of Ralahine was their concept of an ideal world but the question is was this a far better world than what they previously knew? Certainly Craig suggested that it was easy to convince the Irish tenants of the advantage of communal living as formerly they lived in “extreme wretchedness, from their irregular employment and small earnings” (Craig, 1983, p. 23). However, he goes on to state that they were strongly attached to their old customs and “isolated miserable cabins, with their apparent freedom,” so Vandeleur's change may not have been universally accepted or appreciated. This is an especially salient point given that the majority of the initial residents of the project were existing tenants on the Vandeleur estate. Craig's contradictory statements highlight again the problem of subjective historical commentary.


It is clear then that these communities were not the idealized egalitarian settlements passionately advocated by later political commentators. This archaeologically based landscape study instead tells us different story. The Glandore settlement never really got off the ground. There is little above ground traces of either Thompson's tower or associated row of cottages. Considerably more survives at Ralahine but the former commune and estate buildings are now being used as domestic residences or as farm out-buildings. Neither of these were socialist communities; rather, they were Owenite experiments in a form of cooperative living and production. They maintained strict and rigid socioeconomic hierarchies dominated in each instance by the landowner and this relationship is clearly reflected in the respective dwelling places of the projects' workers and residences of the owners and their overseers. This disparity is especially evident in Vandeleur's continued preference to live in a large demesne house both removed and omni-present over the cluster of communal buildings in the settlement. One is struck by a certain degree of continuity of dominance of structure associated with the sixteenth-century McNamara tower house at the site and the effective transference of this lordly like control to the “big-house.” This is effect a replacement of former Gaelic sept territorial power by a form of nineteenth-century economic and land-holding power. Each was about control and overt visual presence. This form of architectural dominance is even more obvious with Thompson's centrally placed tower where the proprietor would have presumably visualized himself overseeing the “egalitarian” toil of the commune's workers in his surrounding fields. This was a top–down form of social control which did engage with social debate and community based discourse. One constantly questions, however, whether this was ever truly debate or merely an enforced set of social values.

As with many other social experiments of this kind a perfect utopian world was hardly achieved. Indeed economic and political realities across the Island of Ireland have ensured that most designed communities, whether they be religious, political or economic, have confronted considerable problems from sectarianism, political oppression or the lack of renegotiation of economic hierarchy. The traditionalist structure of Irish society has proven very difficult to break down. Resistance has never resulted in wide-spread class conflict but has instead manifested itself as the all-embracing national question associated with British occupation of the island. This conservative and politically constructed nature of society ensured the maintenance of dominant family dynasties, a mercantile elite and the continued subjugation of large portions of the population. Cooperative projects, like those studied here, were then rare occurrences. Their difference has marked them out as unique events in Irish history and it is probably this difference that has ensured their survival within contemporary radical literature. They cannot be labeled as socialist, although they did have socialist aspects. They remained rigidly hierarchical and dependant on individual. “Utopian” Ireland is then primarily about selective and limited economic improvement and advancement closely paralleling the general movement and philosophy behind “improvement” across Britain and Ireland. The pursuit of capital remained their driving force and ultimately it was this singular pursuit which ensured their downfall.


The author thanks Charles Orser for his support, expertise, comments and the McGerr reference, Sarah Tarlow for her original seminal article and for her very constructive comments here, Darragh Breen and Eileen O'Brien for sourcing material relating to William Thompson and Thomas McErlean who read and commented on this text.

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© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2006