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Death in Irish prehistory

by  Gabriel CooneyConor McHale (Illustrator)
€ 30.00

Book Details

Published by Royal Irish Academy

October 2023

Paperback with French flaps

Number of pages: 456

ISBN: 9781802050097

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Out now!

Gabriel Cooney chats to Neil Jackman on Amplify Archaeology Podcast - part . See part 2 below

This is a book about life and death over 8,500 years in Ireland. It explores the richness of the mortuary record that we have for Irish prehistory (8000 BC to AD 500) as a highlight of the archaeological record for that long period of time. Because we are dealing with how people coped with death, this rich and diverse record of mortuary practice is also relevant to understanding how we deal with death today, which is just as central a social issue as it always was.

'This well-written and beautifully illustrated book is a valuable and extensive presentation of death in prehistoric Ireland and beyond. The way Cooney explores long-term patterns by moving between the past and the present is inspirational.'

- Anna Wessman, Professor of Iron Age Archaeology, Department of Cultural History, University Museum of Bergen

'Death in Irish Prehistory is a magnificent achievement. In taking on eight and a half thousand years of death in Ireland, Cooney celebrates life, and shows us how enriching a deep knowledge of the past can be, as our ancestors knew. His breadth of scholarship is evident not only in his thorough and detailed summaries of Irish evidence, but also in being able to contextualise that knowledge within a European perspective, and explain it with reference to the most important and sophisticated developments in archaeological theory. 

This book cautions us against over-simplifying. Death in Irish prehistory was never one thing, and change was never an abrupt replacement of one way of doing things by another. Instead, the people who lived and died on the island of Ireland were always looking back as well as forward, looking out as well as in. Cooney is clear-eyed and critical in his evaluations of currently fashionable lines of explanation, while drawing freely on ideas that help us get a more rounded and experiential sense of what it might have been to live and die in Ireland through the millennia. The book is evocatively illustrated by Conor McHale, and Cooney cites poetry and fiction, including using his own fictional vignettes, so that the human experience of dying and bereavement is never sacrificed in the quest for big patterns. Death in Irish Prehistory is a joy to read and offers riches both to archaeologists and to interested non-specialists. A strong recommend!'

- Sarah Tarlow, Professor of Historical Archaeology, School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester

'Our humanity and our history share the same rich humus – the soil out of which our cities, civilizations, and we ourselves all rise and to which we humans return, whether earth to earth, ashes to ashes or dust to dust.  It is what distinguishes us from the other sentient and mortal beings and Cooney’s erudition sheds a welcome light on the darker districts of our human being and ceasing to be.'

- Thomas Lynch – poet, essayist, undertaker.  

Gabriel Cooney chats to Neil Jackman on Amplify Archaeology Podcast - part 2

‘…without doubt the most comprehensive study of death and burial in prehistoric Ireland. … Gabriel Cooney expertly guides us through an extraordinarily diverse series of burial practices and varied monuments over a timespan of 8,000 years. Written with a general readership in mind, it is nonetheless a thorough and comprehensive study of a complex body of evidence. …The wealth of information about the living and the dead presented here is enhanced by numerous plates and by informative drawings by Conor McHale. The superb production skills of the Royal Irish Academy’s publishing house are very evident as well.’

John Waddell (former professor of archaeology and head of department, University of Galway), Irish Arts Review 40 (4) (Winter 2023), 499–500.

'Every so often, an Irish archaeology book breaks the mould of typical academic texts and raises the bar for everything which comes after it. …Professor Gabriel Cooney’s Death in Irish prehistory is the new contender for groundbreaking (no pun intended) publications. This is a hugely ambitious book, offering a state of the nation overview as to how humans in Ireland dealt with death, over a span of 10,000 years. …this book is not the final and definitive word on the study of death in Irish archaeology … its mission is to inspire a great deal more research and collaborations. As it can be as easily read by archaeologists as by students, or the passing tourist who wants to know more after a visit to the National Museum of Ireland, I suspect it will accomplish its mission.'

Reviewed by Rena Maguire FSAScot, in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, December 2023 (see full review)

'Archaeologists have the privilege of coming face to face with dead people from the past' article by Gabriel Cooney in the Irish Times Weekend Review, 11 November 2023. Read article

Gabriel Cooney and Conor McHale discuss the book with Ray D'Arcy on RTÉ Radio One, 2 November 2023 Listen back 

Read an extract 'Rings on her toes' on RTÉ Culture 

“...an unusual book. It informs, surprises, and challenges in equal measure.” Clodagh Finn: The dead show us how the past is always present, 4 November 2023 Read full column

Launched on 1 November, All Saints' Day, in the Royal Irish Academy. Read more about the event

Watch this illustration come to life

About the authors

Gabriel Cooney

Gabriel Cooney is emeritus professor of Celtic Archaeology, School of Archaeology, University College Dublin. He is a member of the Royal Irish Academy and has served on the Council of the RIA.

Gabriel’s research interests focus on the Neolithic period, particularly the use of stone, and on mortuary practices in prehistory. He has authored, co-authored and co-edited a number of books, and published widely in academic journals and book chapters. Previous books include Landscapes of Neolithic Ireland (2000).

Gabriel was the founding editor of Archaeology Ireland; a member of the board of the Heritage Council (2005–15); chair of the Historic Monuments Council of Northern Ireland (2009–19); and chair of the Discovery Programme (2019–20). He is an expert member of the International Committee on Archaeological Heritage Management of the International Council on Sites and Monuments (ICOMOS). In 2021 he was awarded an honorary OBE in recognition of service to heritage in Northern Ireland.

Conor McHale (Illustrator)

Conor McHale is an archaeologist/illustrator living in Dublin. Apart from an embarrassment of archaeological publications his work has also graced colouring books, tin cups, tee shirts, chopping boards and bread. His wife is a martyr to his banjo playing and he likes carving wood.
He would like to take this opportunity to say hello to his two grown up children.
Hello Oscar and Popi.