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Concurrent with the rest of Europe, Ireland suffered the plague several times in varying intensities throughout the half-millennium after the Norman English invasion. Ireland was, at the time of the plagues, a deeply stratified mix of three societies on a small island. Nominally there were the Irish, the naturalised norman lords and the English. Each of these groups were essentially feudal in practice, but there was probably much cross-over and exchange between groups.
The naturalised normans would eventually rebel against the English crown and become “more Irish than the Irish themselves”. Their place was an awkward one. Being landowners in the country and speaking the native tongue they were rooted to the land. The truest English were generally an urban population congregated around towns whose history could be traced to their Viking origins.
The effects of the plague in its various guises was twofold in Ireland. Traditionally it has been taught that its effect was lessened among the native Irish due to their propensity for living in smaller, more isolated groupings. There is assuredly some truth in this.
The ringed farmhouse was still widely in use among the native Irish and depending on its size was referred to as a dun or rath. This isolationist style of living seems more stark to us today. The fortifications which seem so repellent were so minimal they would have had little influence on human intrusion; they were built to keep animals out. The practice of building earthen mounds began in a time when bears still roamed free. Wolves were nonetheless still frequent when the plague struck. So, although the houses appear as individual strongholds this was not the intention.
Native Irish were probably far more communal than more common histories would suggest. For example there are many historical records of continental knights, princes et al journeying to Ireland for pilgrimage, education and simply touring. We know these people were welcomed and feted when they arrived. So their removal from society and communal gatherings was not so absolute as many histories suggest.
That all being said, it still simply stands to reason that urban centres with their denser populations were at far more risk. According to Maria Kelly, 14,000 people died in Dublin from the plague at a rate of 100 a day in the final 5 months of 1348.
The account below was written in two parts, separated by a full year. It was written by Hugh MacEgan, a young man in his twenties. The notations were made in the margins of a book owned by his father, which would have been a very valuable possession at the time. The pitiful description casts a stark light on the utter devastation wreaked upon the medieval citizenry, and the fear the mysterious disease put in their hearts. Five hundred years later it remains a tragic testimony.
“It is 1350 years tonight since Jesus Christ was born, and this was written in the second year after the coming of the Plague to Ireland, and I am 21 years old. Let every reader recite a pater in pity for my soul. It is Christmas Eve tonight, and it is only with the protection of the King of Heaven and Earth that I am alive on this night. May the end of my life be holy and may this great plague pass safely by both my friends and me and let joy and gladness return in its wake. Amen. Pater noster, Hugh, son of Connor MacEgan wrote this on his father’s book, in the year of the Great Plague. It is just one year tonight since I wrote the lines on the margin below; and if it is God’s Will, may I reach this anniversary yet again. Amen. Pater noster.”
The benefits of the disease were wide ranging, and were essentially the positive expression of less competition for resources in the aftermath of the tragedy. Survivors had the opportunity, at least those further up the hierarchy, to increase their wealth and luxury. Even the lowliest found that what would have been divided by primogenitary inheritance would be less so. Of course, it is only with the passing of a long time that a cataclysmic event such as a plague can be viewed in such a harsh manner.
The Great Dying: The Black Death in Dublin, Maria Kelly, Tempus, 2003
Medieval Ireland, Gerhard Richter, Gill and Macmillan, 2005
This article was posted by Ronan McDonnell on
Thursday, October 14th, 2010 at
It is archived in Dublin, Health, History and tagged black death, buboes, bubonic, death, Dublin, health, Ireland, Normans, plague, sickness.