The rundale system has held a certain fascination for Irish geographers and historians due to its prevalence in the cartographic record and comparative absence from historical record. As a system of cultivation and landholding characterised by share allocation through collective governance, popular conflicting accounts have interpreted it both as a functional adaptation to the ‘ecological niche’ of the Irish Western Seaboard or, controversially, as a modern survival of an archaic mode of production of great antiquity. To date, little attempt has been made to impose conceptual clarity on the rundale system, and agreement on its essential characteristics is absent. Beginning with an overview of the current state of knowledge, this article presents a critical assessment of the manner in which rundale has been conceptualised, and the dominant methodologies employed in its study. This assessment reveals a number of features and mechanisms which researchers have identified as its defining characteristics. As a result, many have tended to present it as the product of singular ‘prime movers’ such as its unique demography, or to characterise it in strictly spatial terms as a morphological oddity. Following this critical appraisal, and drawing upon recent works in resilience ecology, an alternative model of rundale is presented in terms of its institutional, spatial, and historical complexity. This model suggests that the rundale system be defined as a configuration of spatial and social-structural characteristics, varying according to place and time.