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Ebook On the Edge of Improvement: Rathlin Island and the Modern World

The notion of “improvement” as it evolved in the discourses of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is inexorably bound up with the emergence of capitalism. While improvement in Ireland was intended to act chiefly as a catalyst for economic transformation, its implications extended to domestic and social spheres. The nature of British governance in Ireland saw the values of capitalism promoted as an avenue of moral redemption for a backward people. The far-reaching consequences of capitalism have been a popular subject of study for historical archaeologists given the multiplicity of its expressions in material culture (e.g., Leone and Potter 1999). These have ranged from architecture to artifacts and landscape organisation (Deetz 1977; Johnson 1996; Orser 1996). Of equal importance have been discourses concerned with the response to evolving conditions under capitalism by various strata of society (e.g. Beaudry et al. 1991; Hall 1992).

The aim of this paper is to attempt to detect the progress and features of improvement as experienced on an Irish island in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Rathlin Island is located some 9.6 km (6 mi) off the coast of County Antrim at the northeast extremity of Ireland (Fig. 1).

The island is also 20.9 km (13 mi) from the southern tip of Kintyre in Scotland and historically has had close cultural links with its northern neighbor (Forsythe and McConkey 2007). It was in the hands of the Scottish McDonnell family since the fifteenth century, and sold to John Gage in 1746. An Anglican clergyman from nearby County Derry, Gage was a member of the established ruling class in Ireland. The island property would remain in his family until the early twentieth century. Gage’s acquisition of the island coincided with a period of economic expansion in which Irish landowners were encouraged to view the improvement of their estates as a moral and patriotic imperative.

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