In the 14th century Europe experienced one of the worst crises in recorded human history which saw war, famine and plague decimate the population. In Ireland this crisis developed in a society already wracked by deep divisions and political upheaval.

Although brewing for decades this crisis began in earnest in 1315 when one of the worst famines of medieval history gripped Ireland.This was followed by a period of extreme violence between the resurgent Gaelic Irish and the Norman Barons. The crisis reached its zenith when the Black Death struck Ireland killing between 30% and 50% of the population in 1348 and early 1349.

This 14th century crisis is the subject of an upcoming audiobook I am writing at the moment and here’s a taste of what to expect!

The Norman Colony and Society before the Crisis

Background and the Norman Invasion

The Norman colony in Ireland was created in the late 12th century. Prior to the Norman arrival Ireland was divided between several kingdoms. Tensions between these kingdoms saw the king of Leinster Diarmuid Mc Murrough deposed in 1167. He sought help from the Norman king of England Henry II to restore him to power. Henry II was unwilling to directly intervene himself but gave Diarmuid permission to seek aid from his subjects. In South Wales the Earl of Pembroke Richard de Clare was more than willing to help on the condition that he would succeed Diarmuid by marrying his daughter Aoife.

The tomb of Richard de Clare a.k.a. Strongbow in Christchurch Cathedral Dublin

Mc Murrough agreed and by 1169 a Norman invasion began initially under the guise of aiding Diarmuid. By May 1171 Diarmuid was dead and De Clare commonly known as Strongbow became his heir. Through the 1170’s the Norman presence in Ireland was turned into an overt invasion. Within a decade Normans primarily from England and Wales had conquered most of the territory east of a line from Belfast to Cork. In the 1240’s the colony reached its greatest geographical extents when the kingdom of Connaught was finally conquered.

Agricultural and Military transformation

This conquest saw the Normans transform Ireland. Unsurprisingly one of the first things they built were defensive strongpoints. Most castles visible in Ireland are built from stone and date from the 15th and 16th centuries. In the 12th and 13th centuries in Ireland the Normans predominantly built earth and timber castles known as motte and baileys. These were often built at important pre-existing sites in the local landscapes such as monasteries or ringforts. One such structure survives at St Mullins in Co Carlow conquered shortly after the initial invasion. This well preserved motte and bailey was erected overlooking the Barrow river beside the ancient monastery of St Mullins.

The hill on the right was the Motte which would have supported a fortification. In the foreground the field marks are what remains of the medieval settlement – the bailey.

Around these motte and baileys the Normans created an extensive export economy. This was based around medieval farms called manors. These manors were often vast and also doubled as the local political and administrative units of the new Norman society. The motte and bailey served as an administrative centre known as a caput as well a strong defensive point. Through this process they replaced the previous Gaelic society which had focused on pastoralism.

Economic Successes

Despite widespread violence and incessant feuding between the norman nobility the economy of these manors in Ireland boomed for the first century after the conquest. Wheat, rye, barley and oats were all produced in vast quantities with wheat in particular being exported. The Normans also produced massive amounts of animal products. In 1290 alone around 51,000 cattle hides were exported from Ireland through Norman ports (Campbell, B. 2008, 918). Timber was exported in large quantities indeed it appears that by around the year 1300 they had cleared the lands surrounding Dublin of all natural forests.

To facilitate these exports the Normans built an extensive infrastructure. They used river networks and constructed numerous towns and ports in the river valleys of the Nore, Siur, Barrow, Liffey and Boyne. In all they created about 330 borough’s with increased rights and freedoms for those living in these settlements. This was done to attract settlers which they hoped would help the boroughs develop into towns. Most scarcely grew beyond rural villages but between 50 and 100 grew into urban settlements(Campbell, B. 2008, 907). Some were a great success; Kilkenny on the Nore river, Carlow on the Barrow developed into major settlements. These settlements saw some of the biggest buildings constructed in Ireland to that date.

St Canices Cathedral Kilkenny

However the greatest success of their urban programme was unquestionably New Ross. Situated on the Barrow river New Ross was built by William Marshall in the early 13th century. By the end of the century it had become one of the ten highest grossing ports in terms of customs in Britain or Ireland. During this period Ireland was heavily integrated into a wider European economy. The Manor at St Mullins based around the motte and bailey above was rented to an Florentine merchant in the 1280’s while the early bankers – The Ricciardi of Venice were active in Ireland before they went bankrupt in 1294.

Rurally the Norman transformation was evident in landscape. Between c.1175 and c.1320 between 100 – 150 masonry castles were built. Rindoon, Roscommon, Lea and Dunamase are all great examples, perhaps the most well known is Trim where an important town was built around this De Lacy Stronghold.

Trim Castle Co Meath

Among the lesser nobility hall-houses, became a feature of the rural landscape in the 13th century. Few survive intact but these took the form of a two storied house with a hall on the second floor. The apparent lack of serious defences are a telling sign that society was not suffering from the levels of endemic violence it would experience from 1270 onwards.

A rare example of a surviving Hallhouse in North Kilkenny. The hall-house is the larger building to the right (the extension is post medieval)

Along with hall houses and Castles rural medieval Ireland also saw the establishment of major religious foundations. These monasteries while being a religious centre had vast business interests, for example the Augustinians of Christchurch in Dublin owned 10,000 acres of land in Dublin alone. At Bective the Cistercians built a major monastery in county Meath.

Bective Abbey

By the mid 13th century the Normans had transformed the East and South of Ireland. They had destoryed the economy and structure of Gaelic society in the lands they controlled while creating a typical colonial economy that exploited the landscape to its utmost.

Origins of the Crisis

After the conquest of Connaught in the 1240’s the Normans had conquered nearly all the best lands in Ireland. While the economy and society outlined above was flourishing as the price of crops and dairy was generally rising in the 13th century, the future was not bright. Although historians such as Robin Frame have correctly pointed out it is not useful to analyse Norman society as one that was inevitably going to collapse it is important to acknowledge some inherit weaknesses in its structure.

Norman Barons

Politically the colony had almost no coherency. Norman kings in England aside from John (1199-1216) showed almost no interest in Ireland. This left powerful Norman Barons who owned vast estates in Ireland as a law onto themselves. These men had no collective aim or common view in developing a society in Ireland. They were solely interested in their own Lordships and self aggrandisement. They saw in each other a threat equal to that of the Gaelic Irish, whom they had dispossessed frequently resulting in violent feuds. Their lack of any collective approach to the problems Ireland would face would cripple Norman society when it faced a crisis. This was exacerbated by a crown unwilling to curb their power.

Gaelic Irish

While at a distance the Gaelic Irish seemed to be heading for annihilation in 1240’s as Connaught was conquered, there were some signs that colonisation process was not as complete as it appeared. While the property controlling elite of Gaelic Ireland had been dispossessed, killed or driven off the land, the majority of people living in the colony were still Gaelic Irish. Most were serf’s who had no rights under Norman feudal law or Gaelic Irish law for that matter. They worked on the manors often still holding lands in common between family groups rather than in the Norman practice of one single owner.

While motte and bailey castles, monasteries, stone castles and hall houses across Leinster and Munster were signs of a transformed econmy and society, in the west of Ireland the Normans made little inroads. In the lands they conquered, the lives of the Gaelic Irish who remained in the colony there, changed little with the conquest. The Normans never really instituted the manorial system of farming and intensive crop growth in Connaught. They acted more like overlords leaving much of the Gaelic societal structure in place beneath them. This society was far from stable and when the crisis would begin these areas would be almost impossible to control.

Outside the areas of Norman control the Gaelic Irish had been pushed to the fringes of society – in Leinster for example they were marginalised to the uplands of the Wicklow Mountains and the Sliabh Bloom Mountains. In spite of this, in these areas functioning Gaelic society survived. Initially they had adopted a policy of accommodating the Norman Lords but from 1270’s onwards in the face of famine and starvation this was no longer an option and what was a very fragile society moved towards tipping point.


Gaelic Irish Revival

From the 1260’s the Normans began to face serious challenges from the Gaelic Irish. Having lost 75% of the lands they once held and seeming on the verge of annihilation, the policy of previous generations of trying to fit into the new Norman Ireland were no longer tenable. This situation provoked several revolts.

In 1261 Finghin McCarthy defeated a Norman Army at the battle of Callann in Munster while Brian O Neill was proclaimed High King in Ulster in 1258 (the first man in decades to claim the title). While McCarthy was killed a few months after his victory and O Neill was killed at the battle of Down in an attempted invasion of Norman Ulster in 1260 these were signs of changing times.

This process of accelerated from the early 1270’s when famine gripped Ireland. The Annals of Inisfallen recorded a heavy snow fall in January of 1270 and the following year the same annalist recorded

Very bad weather and there was a great famine so that multitudes of poor people died of cold and hunger and the rich suffered hardship”.

The Gaelic Irish living in mountains and bogs had little option but to attack the richer Norman settlements. In the colony’s core of Leinster devastating raids on Norman manors were lead by Art Mc Murrough based in the South Wicklow mountains.

In 1274 and 1276 the Norman Justiciar of Ireland Geoffrey de Geneville lead an army into the Wicklow Mountains to attempt to pacify Mc Murrough based at Glenmalure. The Normans were defeated on both occasions. In 1276 the Norman army was trapped at Glenmalure and were reduced to eating their own horses.

Glenmalure (

The next year, a new Justiciar Robert D’Ufford, successfully drove the Mc Murrough’s from Glenmalure but this did not end the raids. By 1281 the manors of Castlekevin, Kilmacberne and Kilmastan situated in the foothills of the Wicklow mountains could not pay taxes “on account of the war with the Irish (Murphy, M. & Potterton, M. 2010 pge103)

In an attempt to stem the problem the Normans resorted to increasingly underhand tactics. Despite having agreed a truce they assassinated Art Mc Murrough and his brother Muirchertach in Arklow in 1282. This did not solve the problem of increasing raids. In 1294 famine broke out again. John Clyn a Norman Chronicler in Kilkenny wrote

“there was lightning and the flashing destroyed the grain and, as a result, there was a great scarcity and many died from hunger.” (Williams, B 2007 pge 154)

The following year the Mc Murrough’s in desperation, now lead by Art’s nephew Muiris, began to raid yet again. They were no doubt emboldened by the fact that feuding between the Norman barons had developed to epic proportions as a near civil war had broken between the Geraldines and the De Burgos.

These increasing problems were made worse still by the crown in England. Under the reign of Edward II (1284 -1327) the crown began to actively pursue a policy which damaged the colony. Vast amounts of money and resources were drained out of Ireland to fight wars in France, Wales and Scotland.

Caernarfon castle in the North of Wales, one of several partially funded from Ireland

If you want to read more about Caernarfon check out this article

As Ireland faced huge problems £30,000 of the £80,000 (Cosgrove, A. 1993 pge 199) spent on a chain of castles in North Wales was levied in Ireland.

These problems in the late 13th century were destabilising but they were not threatening to existence of the colony, however the following 50 years would present problems that even the most cohesive of societies would struggle to deal with let alone a deeply divided one like that in Ireland.


As Ireland entered the 14th century it clearly faced huge problems but they were not insurmountable. However in 1315 the situation deteriorated dramatically when what became the worst famine in the medieval period broke out. Caused by wet weather for several years in a row, crop yields collapsed between 1315 – 1318. With no relief available massive amounts of people began to starve. Terry Jones and Alan Eriera vividly describe in their book Medieval Lives what famine does to a victim:

“At the start of a famine people would often eat bad bread, often made with rye, that had developed a fungus (ergot) that produced a burning sensation in the body and LSD type hallucinations. Then came starvation………Starvation kills a healthy human in six to eight weeks. To begin with, a person can loose up to 10% of their body weight without losing much strength or energy. At this stage they can still work or do othernormal activities. Then they begin to weaken. When the have lost 10-15% of their normal body weight they become depressed and apathetic and can no longer participate in day-to-day life. As a person continues to loose weight the stomach accumulates abnormal amounts of watery fluids and balloons outwards. Flesh wastes from the face and the eyes appear to balloon outwards. The flesh increasingly sags from the bones and permanently dark splotches from glandular disturbances may appear all over the body. Racked by pain caused by these changes a starving person becomes more susceptible to diarrhoea cholera and dysentery….. The victim can see and feel their body withering away and becomes obsessed with food. Indifference and apathy replace compassion for their starving neighbours friends and family. Mothers have been known to snatch food from the hands of their children, cannibalism is not uncommon. Eventually when a person has lost about 40% of their body mass death is inevitable.″(Jones, T & Ereira, A 2009 pge 26)

How common cannibalism was in Ireland is difficult to ascertain as it is not something people are likely to have recorded. That said the annals of Loch Cé recorded in 1318

“famine, and destruction of men occurred throughout Erinn during his time, for the space of three years and a half; and people used to eat one another, without doubt”.

While famine conditions pushed most people to the edge the situation was made unimaginably worse when in 1315 Edward the Bruce, brother of the king of Scotland, Robert the Bruce invaded Ireland. This was extension of the ongoing war between the Scots and the English. For these three years war also raged across Ireland. This saw what crops that had grown taken or burned and vast amounts infrastructure destroyed. While maintaining a foothold in Ulster the Bruce army attacked South in 1315, 1316, 1317 and 1318.

Wreaking havoc across the South and East they avoided Dublin until January 1317. On January 23rd however a large Scottish army arrived outside a city ill prepared for siege. In desperation the citizens pulled down the church of Mary del Dam inside the Dame Gate (which gives Dame Street its name) and St Mary’s Abbey to use the stone in defensive works. As the Bruce Army camped at Castleknock the citizens in panic burned the suburbs of the city to deprive the Scots of shelter or cover to attack the walls.

The Cornmarket, Dublin. The New Gate of Dublin once stood roughly where the bus has stopped. One of the suburbs of medieval Dublin lay beyond this on modern Thomas St. This entire suburb was burned in 1317 by the citizens in fear it would be used by the Scots in a siege. On the left of the picture beside the arch is a remaining section of the city wall.

As the Scots awoke to a smouldering city they decided against an assault. The citizens fanaticism and perhaps more importantly the fact they did not have a siege train made would have made any siege long and dangerous. The cost of the war regardless was huge being estimated at £10,000 of damage in Dublin alone. Even though the famine began to subside in 1318 and Edward the Bruce called“the destroyer of Ireland in general” (AU 1318) was killed at the battle of Faughart, medieval Ireland was now entering a crisis of epic proportions.

Baronial War

As the island hauled itself out of famine, tensions between the Norman nobility spiralled completely out of control from the 1320’s.

In this building in 1323 Edmond Butler massacred several people by burning the church down with them inside

The brutality of the period was shocking. In 1323 Edmund Butler attacked a rival norman family – the Taloun’s in Co Carlow. In what remains of this church at St Mullins (above) he massacred men, women and children when he burned the church to the ground. Unfortunately this incident was not unique. Eight years later a similar incident took place at Freynestown where 80 people were burned in a church (Williams, B. 2007 pge 177 ).

This was happening as Gaelic attacks were becoming increasingly frequent and successful. For example in 1325 John de Bermingham and Thomas Butler attacked the O Carroll’s after they had attacked settlements and

“scarcely left a house, castle or vill in Ely O Carrol among the English and lovers of peace that was not burnt of destroyed” (Williams, B. 2007 pge 182)

It should not be surprising then in this increasingly violent society that the fanatical bishop of Ossory Richard Ledrede was able to push violent boudnaries in the world of religion. This saw the burning a woman for witchcraft who John Clyn described as “the first to suffer the death penalty for heresy”.

Amid such chaotic violence building slowed down and any building that was engaged in was largely defensive. It was in this period that the castle at Ballymoon in County Carlow lying in shadow of the Wicklow mountains was constructed and its history is a testiment to the period.

The Wicklow mountains as seen from Ballymoon

Although it was never finished this castle was a sign of the growing upheaval. Comparitively luxurious, the castle had several garderobes yet defense was also heavily on the minds of the builders with each wall covered by a flanking tower.

The Interior of Ballymoon castle

Ballymoon appears to have never been left incomplete for unknown reasons but given the region became a frontier eventually falling to Gaelic control it is not impossible that raids and warfare saw it pass from Norman control before it could be completed.

Ballymoon walls appear unfinished as they are all developed to a uniform incomplete height.

The unfinished gatehouse at Ballymoon. The three rows of stone above the arch on either side were to accomomdate a later barbican. This was never added. The castle may well have fallen from Norman hands before it was completed

Although the Wicklow Mountains were a constant reminder to the threat posed by the Mc Murroughs it was by no means the only danger. In 1327 the baronial rivalries exploded into a full-scale, open and devastating war. Old tensions resurfaced as the Geraldines, de Bermingham’s and Butlers fought the de Burgo’s and Le Poer’s. The war was on the scale of the Bruce invasion the previous decade with damage being estimated in the region of £100,000!

Through the 1320’s life in Ireland was plunging further into chaos. John D’arcy before accepting the role of Justiciar in the late 1320’s asked for a vast increase in the wages because he could not “live on his fee in the state in which the land is now”. Unsurprisingly this chaos in the colony presented an opportunity to the Gaelic Irish and for the first time since time in nearly 150 years Donal Mc Murrough was selected as King of Leinster in 1327.

In local areas this constant violence was taking its toll. For example in 1328 Castlecomer in North Kilkenny was burned. Only 30 years earlier, in 1297 the area was under attack from the local Gaelic Irish and was described “burned down of old” and “a villata of land has been long waste owing to the Irish in those parts”( CDI VOL III no.481). It is not surprising that this area of North Kilkenny was starting to slip from Norman control.

The reminants of the motte at Castlecomer

The 1330’s and 1340’s offered little hope of recovery. The decade opened with a famine in 1330 as John Clyn the Franciscan Friar who wrote a chronicle during the period commented

“This year was for all men contrary and high priced and many perished from hunger” (Williams, B. 2007 pge 199)

Food shortages lasted into the following year and in 1331 Dublin was gripped by famine only to be saved by a pod of whales beached themselves on the shore of Dublin bay. Made famous by Joyce in Ulysses this incident was described by several contemporary sources. Needless to say the whales called “turlehydes” were quickly butchered and eaten.

In 1332 further Norman infighting saw the Earl of Ulster killed – gruesomely starved to death by his own cousin. The following years saw the Gaelic Irish in Ulster primarily the O Neill’s conquer territory taken by Normans in the conquest of Ulster in 1177. The colony in Connaught also began to falter although the De Burgo’s would adapt to the changing world and maintain power.

In this world of violence it is hard to comprehend how people survived Normally I ascribe to the Tuchman’s law outlined by Barbara Tuchman, the American Historian who when writing a book on the 14th century in France said

“Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place. Besides, persistence of the normal is usually greater than the effect of the disturbance, as we know from our own times. After absorbing the news of today, one expects to face a world consisting entirely of strikes, crimes, power failures, broken water mains, stalled trains, school shutdowns, muggers, drug addicts, neo-Nazis, and rapists. The fact is that one can come home in the evening–on a lucky day–without having encountered more than one or two of these phenomena. This has led me to formulate Tuchman’s Law, as follows: “The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold” (or any figure the reader would care to supply) (Tuchman, B. 1980 xviii)

However I remain unconvinced that this is applicable to mid 14th century life in Ireland at least life between 1315 and 1349. I would closer Identify with the words of contemporaries even if they tend to be negative. Ireland according to the contemporary bishop of Armagh Richard FitzRalph was known in 14th century Europe as a particularly violent place. He recalled the story of the Necromancer of Toledo who asked the Devil what country sent most people to hell. The answer was revealing – It was Ireland because “men robbed each other, never made restitution, and therefore died without true repentance (Walsh, K. 1990 120)

While it is important to remember that people still lived their lives, had fun and did all the things not worthy of annalists commentary it is clear the crises were beginning to impact on almost every aspect of life from culture to people’s sense of themselves, life was unquestionably harder and was only getting worse.

Throughout the 1330’s Ireland continued in the vein outlined in the story of the Necromancer of Toledo. The Gaelic Irish quite naturally pressed hard on the faltering Norman Colony trying to reclaim lands. This was particularly obvious in the Midlands where Norman rule collapsed seen most vividly destruction of the castle at the Rock Of Dunamase. (Williams, B. 2007 pge 228)

While society in Ireland was disintegrating particularly in the Norman colony but nothing could have prepared it for the existential threat to its very existence that was on its way when in 1348.

The Black Death

The Black Death known to contemporaries as the “Great Pestilence” arrived in Dublin in the summer of 1348. Having already rampaged through Constantinople, the Arab Empires of the Middle East and North Africa and the Mediterranean basin, fear preceeded its arrival. Reactions were far from logical. In 1348 a desperate people seeking salvation having only a rudcimentary understanding of medicine turned to what they knew best – religion. People flocked to a holy well at St Mullins in County Carlow. The fransican John Clyn the only eyewitness in Ireland to write extensively on the plague wrote

In this year and in the months of September and October bishops and prelates, men of church and of religion magnates and others and commonly all persons of both sexes gathered from all sides of diverse parts of Ireland, to the pilgrimage and the wading in the waters of St Moling in crowds and in multitudes so you might see many thousands of men assembling at the same place for many days. Some came from feelings of devotion other (the majority) from fear of plague the then prevailed beyond measure and that first began near Dublin at Howth and Drogheda.

St Molings well at St Mullins. The water of this well attracted thousands in the Autumn of 1348 hoping to find salvation from the plague. Needless to say it didnt work, in fact it most lightly facilitated the spread of disease as large numbers congregated there.

What prevailed at Dublin and Drogheda was horrific. Clyn relayed what he heard.

It was not heard of from the beginning of the world for so many men to have died from plague, famine and other infirmities in such a time….The disease stripped vills, cities, castles and town of inhabitants of men, so that scarcely anyone would be able to live in them. The Plague was so contagious that those touching the dead or even the sick were immediately infected and died and the one confessing and confessor were together led to the grave……For many died from carbuncles and from ulcers and pustules that could be seen on shines and under the armpits some died as if in a frenzy from pain of the head and others spitting blood…………….

These cities of Dublin and Drogheda were almost destroyed and wasted of inhabitants and men so that in Dublin alone from the beginning of August right up to Christmas 14,000 men died.

Clyn ‘s figure of 14,000 deaths if a little high is not totally implausible if we were we to accept Dublin’s population was at the upper estimates of 25,000. The black death killed around 50% of the population in urban environments. Late in 1348 Clyn’s home town of Kilkenny saw an outbreak. Clyn described how his Franciscan abbey was decimated before going on to give one of the most oft quoted famous accounts of plague

The Fransican Friary in Kilkenny now stands in Smithwicks brewery. John Clyn was guardian here during the plague.

“There’s scarcely a house in which only one died but commonly man and wife with their children and family going one way namely to crossing to death. Now I Friar John Clyn of the orders of Minors and convent of Kilkenny, have written in this book these noteworthy deeds that happened in my time, that I know by faithful eye witness or by worthy reliable report. And lest these notable records should be lost and the whole world as it were in a bad situation among the dead excepting death when it should come I have brought together in writing, just as I have truthfully heard and examined. And Lest the writing should perish with the writer and the work fail together with the worker, I am leaving parchment for the work to continue if by chance, in the future a man should remain surviving and anyone of the race of Adam should be able to escape this plague and live to continue this work”

As people died all around him, the world seemed at an end to Clyn in the early days of 1349 however it seems he did survive. He entered his last entry in his annal after June 17th, 1349 after the plague had subsided when mournfully he entered an account on the death of his friend Fulk De La Freyne who was killed by the Gaelic Irish. Although often assumed to have died of plague its unlikely Clyn succumbed. Instead he may have died of something far more banal. The plague quite literally tore the heart from medieval society in some areas over 60% of people died, in most areas the death rate appears to have been in at the most conservative estimate 30%. In Ireland an interesting dynamic was created in that the Gaelic Irish were less affected due to their dispersed settlements often above 600 metres where the plague couldn’t thrive.

Aftermath of this 35 year crisis?

How did people react in its aftermath given perhaps 1 in 2 people they knew six months earlier were now dead? Did life continue as it had before? Did the nobility continue on the wanton destruction they had engaged in through most of the 14th century. These questions will be answered in the audiobook but they also pose tantilising question about how people dealt with the less cataclysmic but equally stark events of 1315 or the perpetual violence between the famine’s end in 1318 and the outbreak of plague 30 years later.

The upcoming audiobook will examine how these various crises impacted the lives of people who lived through what were the most extraordinary of times where famine, war and plague were the norm. In this overview of 80 or so years I have only scratched the surface, there is so much more – the tensions between men and women, rich and poor and the ethnic tensions within the colony which are all covered in the up coming book. All these create a fascinating part of our history – a period that seemed to many at the time as the arrival of the apocalypse.

In order to attempt to understand this period the book will be structured around the lives of historical figures such as the well known chronicler John Clyn but also many not so famous – the heiress’ Mariota and Mabilla de Ridelesford, the peasant Robert le Dryver and Christina Arlonde a wealthy widow in New Ross. Each have stories that help us understand what was a fascinating period in Ireland’s history.

The book will be available in audiobook and ebook format early next year. If you want to ensure your kept up to speed with the research about the book subscribe to the blog via email in the top right hand corner.

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If you would like to help this project I would greatly appreciate donations. Accessing books on this area more often than not involves using academic texts which are far more expensive than normal books. You can donate here.


Why write this book?

Finally just a few words on why I chose this subject. Having read about the period I think there is a dislocation in the historical understanding of the 14th century crisis in Ireland. Historians have long identified the political crisis in that gripped Ireland from the 1270’s (or later depending on the historian) but few have adopted an integrated approach to analysing these political developments in context of the Black Death and the 1315-18 famine. This has left us with little understanding of how politics and peoples lives in Ireland were directly impacted by the single greatest event in medieval Irish history – the outbreak of plague in 1348.

Having started researching the plague I realised that the Famine of 1315-18 was another major event interlinked with the impact of plague and have extended the book to incorporate this aswell. This along with the Gaelic revival and internal problems in the colony are all part of an interconnected story and indeed it appears may be crucial to understanding many of the changes often attributed to the plague, many of which may well have been under way already before it plague ever arrived.

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Select Bibliography

Campbell, B. Benchmarking medieval economic development: England,Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, c.1290 Economic History Review, 61, 4 (2008), pp. 896–945

Cosgrove, A. (1993) A New History of Ireland Oxford Press

Duffy, S. (1997) Ireland in the Middle Ages St Martin’s Press

Frame, R (1981) Colonial Ireland 1169-1369 Four Courts Press

Jones, T & Ereira, A (2009) Medieval Lives BBC

Lydon J (2003) The Lordship of Ireland in the Middle Ages Four Courts Press

Murphy, M. & Potterton, M. (2010) The Dublin Region in the Middle Ages A Discovery Programme Monograph Four Courts Press

Sweetman (1875-1886) Calendar of Documents relating to Ireland Vols I – V London

Sweetman, D (1999) The Medieval castles of Ireland Collins Press

Walsh, K. Richard FitzRalph of Armagh (1360) Professor – Prelate, Journal of the County Louth Archaeological and Historical Society, Vol. 22, No. 2(1990), pp. 111-124)

Williams, B. (2007) The Annals of Ireland by Friar John Clyn Four Courts Press

Lyttleton, J. & Doran, L. (2007) Lordship in Medieval Ireland Four Courts Press

Tuchman, B (1980) A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century Random House

13 comments on “Famine, War and Plague: In Search of a Medieval Crisis.

  1. Susan on

    Great work, Fin. I’m looking forward to the book. Although I’m sure I won’t ever be able to trace my ancestors back this far, your work gives me enough historical information so that I can at least put together puzzle pieces of what their lives may have been like and their motivations.

  2. Tim on

    This is a fascinating period of Irish history. I was inspired by it to write a novel set during the Bruce invasion of Ireland called “Lions of the Grail”. Sorry for the blatant spam but I don’t often find articles directly relevant to this time.

  3. Jacqueline on

    Really enjoy looking at your site and listening to your podcast; and I am looking forward to reading your book. There are not many places in California that I can learn about medieval Ireland! 🙂


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