Centering Spenser: A Digital Resource for Kilcolman Castle

January 18, 1014
By Thomas Herron

A new website built at East Carolina University analyzes and reconstructs Edmund Spenser’s life, writing and castle complex at Kilcolman, County Cork, Ireland, where the great poet and colonial administrator lived in the late 1580s and ’90s as part of the Munster Plantation.  The website draws connections between Kilcolman, other places in Ireland, and Spenser’s writing, so as to enrich our understanding of all three.  It takes advantage of a fresh wave of historiography, archaeology and biography on Spenser and early modern Ireland more generally.  The website is both factual and openly speculative.

While at Kilcolman, presumably, Spenser composed large parts of his famous romance-epic, The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596, 1609), as well as shorter poetry written in the 1580s and ’90s.  Spenser’s famous wooing and wedding poems, Amoretti and Epithalamion (1595), are concerned directly with making a home at Kilcolman with his second wife, Elizabeth Boyle. That poetry collection features frequently on the site as it relates to aspects of their colonial life together.  References to Ireland in other poems, such as Colin Clouts Come Home Againe (1595) and The Faerie Queene (including the “Mutabilitie Cantos,“ published posthumously in 1609) are also numerous and discussed (in piece-meal fashion) from many angles.  Spenser’s influential policy tract in prose, A View of the Present State of Ireland (c. 1596) is mined for information on the castle complex, the objects in it, English and Irish culture, and for further connections with the poetry.  Many connections are drawn from past and current scholarship, as listed in bibliographies.       

Sample teaching assignments focusing on two of the Amoretti are supplied, including an audio file. Longer essays are included that focus on the Desmond rebellion, the Munster Plantation and its destruction, Kilcolman’s settlement history, building functions, roads, rivers, and “Spenser and Raleigh“ (Sir Walter Raleigh was a highly prominent planter in Munster and fellow-poet and patron of Spenser).  Maps include archaeological data and modern renderings of Spenser’s immediate area, as well as an interactive plantation map from Spenser’s period.  Historic views of the castle as well as a photo gallery of the Kilcolman ruins are provided.

The centerpiece of the website is a three-dimensional computerized recreation of the castle complex.  The castle was recreated using Boolean Differencing in Maya software with textures, “bump maps” and other features.  Visitors can pick it apart, explore its interior, and discover its many individual objects.  Most of the objects are linked to Spenser’s literary works.  The recreation is speculative but based on extant ruins at Kilcolman and on archaeological evidence from recent excavations there.  Some of the castle recreation follows period reconstructions of similar castle interiors (particularly at Barryscourt, County Cork).  The website includes many descriptions of objects inside the castle complex as well as discussion of larger features, such as an Elizabethan knotted garden within the “bawn” (or perimeter wall) enclosure.  These descriptions connect objects and features to related subjects in Spenser’s poetry and prose.  The purpose is not to give an encyclopedic treatment of domestic objects in Spenser’s poetry, nor of those in a conventional Irish tower house, but rather to suggest ways that knowledge of Spenser’s material world might help inform our understanding of his creative work, and vice-versa.  Likewise, the website discusses only a few native Irish myths, objects, landscape features, etc. as they relate to his occupation at Kilcolman in particular.

Centering Spenser gives insights into the Munster Plantation by demonstrating aspects of Spenser’s experience there.  The website does not apologize for, nor try to romanticize, Spenser’s life and work in Ireland.  His role there was often a bloody one but also a highly creative one.  The website attempts objectively, pragmatically and imaginatively to study his place in Munster near the center of the Plantation and to better appreciate his works in relation to that situation.  Many studies of Spenser have ignored or minimized his Irish connections and environments, and/or have characterized him as an exile in a wilderness far from the English court in London.  This website instead highlight his connections with other important figures in Munster and at the English court, particularly Sir Walter Raleigh, and so deepens our understanding of the community and conflicted world around them.  This world greatly appealed to Spenser and enriched him, both in body and mind, as well as terrifying him and making him anxious for his safety and that of his home country, England.

The website aims to encourage further discussion and research into Spenser’s life and work in Ireland, as well as to highlight Spenser’s situation in the center of the Munster Plantation: hence the title, Centering Spenser.  Last but not least, it tries to raise awareness of medieval and early modern Irish culture both outside of and at Kilcolman.

Thomas Herron 


Centering Spenser features many weblinks to early modern English and Irish resources, including a recent exhibit in the Folger Shakespeare Library, Nobility and Newcomers in Renaissance Ireland (Jan-May 2013):

The exhibit, co-directed by Thomas Herron (also Director of Centering Spenser) and historian Brendan Kane, featured Spenser prominently within the context of English and Irish interaction in the early modern period (roughly spanning 1450-1640).  The exhibit focused on noble ties and not only wars, on London and the Continent as well as every province of Ireland.  The exhibit website reproduces many of its features as well as providing audio clips of Irish and English poetry. A lengthy and well-illustrated catalog was published by the Folger to accompany the exhibit.

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