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16) A History of the Black Death in Ireland, by Maria Kelly

Prompted by young F's fascination with the subject, I bought this from the remainder pile in the University Bookshop in Belfast the other day. Given the extreme paucity of sources, Kelly has done a very good job - she makes the most of what few records there are, signals clearly where there is disagreement in the secondary literature, and is honest about the extent to which she is arguing evidence of absence from absence of evidence. It builds up into a convincing story: the 1348-50 outbreak of plague was devastating to Leinster and Munster, and much less so to Ulster and Connacht; and in particular it was devastating to the towns and communities of Anglo-Irish settlement, some of which never recovered - she estimates the pre-plague population of New Ross, Co Kilkenny Wexford, at over 12,000; today it is less than 8,000!

The result of this was a depopulated and reduced area of English control in Ireland, retreating into the Pale, and an effective decentralisation of power to the Gaelic and Anglo-Irish chieftains and intensification of warfare between them, all in the context of a devastated economy - merchants and sailors were especially badly hit, so trade effectively vanished, and meanwhile the price of labour soared, and the plague had literally killed off any chance of importing workers from England. The Irish population may not have returned to pre-plague levels until the 18th century. If anything Kelly slightly undersells the huge impact of the plague on Ireland, given the evidence she presents.

Kelly mainly draws on administrative and archaeological evidence, but there are a couple of personalities who stand out. One is Richard FitzRalph, the Archbishop of Armagh, who preached fiery sermons while worrying about church administration (especially staffing levels, for obvious reasons). The other is Friar John Clyn of Kilkenny, who chronicled the advance (and symptoms) of the plague from the Dublin ports across Leinster, seeing it as the end of civilisation and the first step of the apocalypse, before himself falling victim to it; the closing words of his chronicle, written perhaps when he already knew he was ill, are poignant.

Anyway, a good book, though I have a serious complaint about the index which has completely inaccurate page numbers.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 17th, 2008 10:41 am (UTC)
Population levels
The Irish population may not have returned to pre-plague levels until the 18th century.

Just in time for the Great Famine. Not a lucky country, Ireland.
Aug. 17th, 2008 10:59 am (UTC)
Doh! Need this book!

There are also parts of the Languedoc where the population never got back to pre-Black Death numbers.
Aug. 17th, 2008 11:34 am (UTC)
Sounds like an interesting book. Must keep an eye out for it.

she estimates the pre-plague population of New Ross, Co Kilkenny, at over 12,000; today it is less than 8,000!

The problem with something like this is that it may ignore the affect that both the Famine and emigration would have had on such a town. New Ross is a port town, and in fact actually has at a museum to Famine ships.

It was also a very important cross roads, as it was one of the key ports in Leinster during the middle ages (or so Wikipedia tells me) however with a bridge over the river Barrow, allowing travel between Wexford to Waterford and Cork.

However while it is hard to tell what has caused the population to stay at such so low levels, i believe Emigration, and the famine, has had more of an effect than the black death.
Aug. 17th, 2008 01:59 pm (UTC)
In fairness, the population contrast was mine not Kelly's. But in the case of New Ross I think it is fair. One of the biggest effects of the Black Death was that the economic centre of gravity shifted drastically away from the south-east to the much less affected west of the country - hence the rise of Cork and Galway. That in itself drove emigration.

On the famine, Lewis has the population of New Ross at 7136 in 1841, only a little less than it is now. (And that was a rapid growth over 5000 in 1831 - a 43% increase in ten years!) I'm sure that the famine reduced it further, but it's worth noting that it still wasn't as populous as it had been 500 years previously!
Aug. 17th, 2008 11:54 am (UTC)
New Ross, Co Kilkenny.

Co Wexford, actually, although the Kilkenny border comes very close.
Aug. 17th, 2008 02:00 pm (UTC)
Er, yes.
Aug. 17th, 2008 04:12 pm (UTC)
aka spot the Wexford woman! Although now I have to go and look up when New Ross actually came into existence. Old Ross is still there after all (up on the hill where my godparents live).
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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