An Exceptional Medieval Irish Book Returns to Ireland

An incredibly significant medieval book of manuscripts has been returned to Ireland. The Book of Lismore is a collection of hand-written texts that was donated by an aristocratic English family to the University College Cork. Ireland has a long scribal tradition and produced many remarkable medieval books and illuminated manuscripts, such as the Book of Kells. The Book of Lismore is one of the “great books of Ireland” according to the Irish Examiner . This special medieval book has a long history and will likely help scholars to better understand Irish history.

The Book of Lismore consists of almost 200 large vellum pages. It was probably written by professional scribes some of whom belonged to the Franciscan Order . The work was compiled in Kilbrittain, County Cork for the Lord of Carbery Fínghin Mac Carthaigh (1478-1505) and his wife. In the Late Medieval Period, many aristocratic Irish families commissioned scribes to write manuscripts.

A Medieval Book About Irish Myths And Saints And More!

The medieval book known as the Book of Lismore is written in Irish. It is a compendium of both Irish and European works. The first section is mainly concerned with the lives of Irish saints , “before passing on to material in translation: the History of the Lombards and the Conquests of Charlemagne,” reports RTE. Also, this medieval book contains the Travels of Marco Polo in translation, which is the only example in existence.

A page from the Book of Lismore, the medieval book that was recently returned to Ireland by an English aristocratic family.

The Book of Lismore also contains “Fionn MacCumhaill and the Fianna, as told in the lengthy saga known as Agallamh na Seanórach,” reports RTE. These tales narrate the life and adventures of the mythical warrior and hunter Fionn, one of the most important figures in Irish mythology. Many landmarks on the island are associated with the heroic Fionn.

How The Book Of Lismore Left Ireland And Why

The history of the Book of Lismore in recent centuries is remarkable. It was given to the Earl of Cork, the father of the great scientist Richard Boyle, after the siege of Kilbritttain Castle in the 1640s. It was then walled up in Lismore Castle along with a priceless crozier, a bishop or abbot staff, for reasons unknown. The medieval book was only uncovered during renovation works in the early 19 th century. It remained in Lismore Castle before it came into the possession of the Cavendish Family and was taken to Britain. The Cavendish family donated the book to the University College Cork.

The Book of Lismore was hidden away in Lismore Castle for a long time and then it was "taken" to England. Now, this exceptional Irish medieval book is back in Ireland again. (Bob / Adobe Stock )

The Lismore Medieval Book: Now Part Of An Irish Library

According to RTE, the Duke of Devonshire, a member of the Cavendish family, stated that “his family hopes the book will benefit many generations of students, scholars and visitors to the university.” Their donation will join over 200 precious manuscripts, texts and medieval book in the University College Cork’s collection. The Book of Lismore was previously on display at the university in 2011 and since then negotiations have been ongoing concerning its return to Ireland.

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The Prime Minister of Ireland, also known as the Taoiseach, Micheal Martin thanked the Duke of Devonshire and the Cavendish family for their donation. He welcomed the return of “one of the great books of Ireland,” according to the The Irish Prime Minister is also quoted by the Irish Examiner as saying that the book had an “extraordinary journey during its lifetime and was read and studied by noblemen and women, scholars and scribes.”

Another famous Irish medieval book: The Book of Kells. (Warren Rosenberg / Adobe Stock )

The Lismore Book Will Help Scholars Understand Irish History

This exceptional medieval book can also help scholars to better understand the culture and history of Irish society in the Late Medieval Period. Professor Pádraig Ó Macháin, of University College Cork, told RTE that it “gives a ‘new angle’ on scholarly lives and what was considered as entertainment to a noble lord of the Gaelic tradition.” He also hopes that it will raise awareness of the rich Irish manuscript tradition.

The Book of Lismore was officially donated during a virtual event. The University College Cork intends to put the medieval book on display in the Treasures Gallery, which is part of the famous Boole Library. The library was named after the English mathematician George Boole (1815-1864), who taught at the university. Boole’s invention of Boolean algebra was essential in the development of the Computer Age.

Medieval Manuscript Returns to Ireland After Hundreds of Years in British Hands

One of Ireland’s most valuable medieval manuscripts, the Book of Lismore, has returned home nearly four centuries after its seizure from Kilbrittain Castle in County Cork.

The text’s previous owner, the Trustees of the Chatsworth Settlement, donated the historic volume—which changed hands multiple times following its capture at Kilbrittain in the early 1640s—to the University College Cork’s (UCC) Boole Library.

As UCC notes in a statement, the collection of 198 vellum folios is considered one of the “great books” of Ireland. Created for the Irish Lord of Carbery, Fínghin Mac Carthaigh Riabhach, and his wife, Caitilín, in the late 15th century, the manuscript contains a number of rare medieval Irish texts and translations of European stories, as well as the only surviving Irish translation of the travels of Marco Polo.

According to Gareth Harris of the Art Newspaper, the book also includes accounts of the lives of Irish saints and secular tales such as Agallamh na Seanórach, a lengthy medieval Irish poem that centers on the legendary hero Fionn mac Cumhaill and his Fianna warriors.

A curator handles the Book of Lismore. The historic tome will eventually be displayed in the Treasures Gallery at the University College Cork's Boole Library. (University College Cork)

In an opinion piece for Irish broadcaster RTÉ, Pádraig Ó Macháin, an expert on Modern Irish at UCC, argues that the selection of stories featured in the manuscript makes “a self-assured statement about aristocratic literary taste in autonomous Gaelic Ireland in the late 15th century.”

He adds, “The geographical area in which the Book was written . was a thriving center of intellectual activity. The seaboard of west Cork was a focal point for poets and for scholars of other disciplines such as medicine and history. . There was also an active interest here in the translation of works popular at the time in mainland Europe.”

After its removal from Kilbrittain in the 17th century, the Book of Lismore came into the possession of the first Irish Earl of Cork, Richard Boyle, who was then living at Lismore Castle in County Waterford. The following century, ownership of the castle transferred through marriage from the Boyle family to the English Cavendishes, Dukes of Devonshire the precious artifact was subsequently stowed away inside Lismore’s walls—possibly for safekeeping. The tome was only rediscovered in 1814, when renovations ordered by the sixth Duke of Devonshire were underway.

Per the statement, the book was housed mainly at Lismore until 1914, when it was transferred to Devonshire House in London. Later, the Cavendish family moved the manuscript to their ancestral seat of Chatsworth in Derbyshire. It remained there until its recent donation to UCC.

John O’Halloran, the university’s interim president, describes the Book of Lismore as a “vital symbol of our cultural heritage.”

In the statement, he adds, “This extraordinary act of generosity by the Duke of Devonshire reaffirms the shared understanding between our respective countries and cultures, an understanding that is based on enlightenment, civility and common purpose.”

UCC plans to develop a Treasures Gallery to display the book to the public. Ó Macháin writes that staff also hope to work with students to transcribe the Irish text and make it openly accessible through the university’s online portal. Both undergraduate and graduate students will have opportunities to study the text firsthand, he notes for RTÉ.

In a separate statement, the Trustees of the Chatsworth Settlement, who have owned the book since their organization’s establishment in 1946, note that talks about repatriating the manuscript have been ongoing for about a decade.

“Ever since the Book of Lismore was loaned to University College Cork for an exhibition in 2011, we have been considering ways for it to return there permanently,” says Peregrine Cavendish, 12th Duke of Devonshire, in the Trustees’ statement. “My family and I are delighted this has been possible, and hope that it will benefit many generations of students, scholars and visitors to the university.”

Want to know about Ireland now? Here are the books to read

Anne Enright

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

The Spinning Heart gives us a kaleidoscopic view of rural and small-town Ireland in the years after the economic crash. Donal Ryan knows everything about his characters: not just their hopes, dreams and disappointments, but also the numbers on their payslips and social security cheques.

He is a generous writer and the book is filled with light and shade, love and tragedy. There is, for a young male writer, very little disgust. Ryan also believes in the redemptive power of narrative and makes big stories out of small lives in a way that is almost operatic (in much the same as way JM Synge was operatic). Strong emotions, indelible family ties, forensic social detail: if it was a song you could sing it, especially on a day like this.
Anne Enright is the laureate for Irish fiction. Her latest novel is The Green Road

Eimear McBride

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

I would heartily recommend Kevin Barry’s brilliant Beatlebone to anyone arriving in Ireland for the first time. Although the action centres on an imagined visit by John Lennon to Clew Bay and Achill in the 1970s, the way Barry captures the utter strangeness of the west seems to me – and I am something of a native to the area – to remain as true of Mayo’s coast and people today as it was back then.

There is such an unusual quality to the atmosphere he creates, with these people clinging to a rock at the end of the world soaked by the rain and drenched in the most glorious language and yet it is also incredibly evocative of that unique place. Both the book and the region are beautiful, unsettling and riddled with pockets of the unexpected.
Eimear McBride is the author of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing and The Lesser Bohemians

Joseph O’Connor

The Ross O’Carroll-Kelly series

The greatest book about what contemporary Ireland is like is always the most recent Ross O’Carroll-Kelly work. There are occasional rumours that his books are actually works of comic fiction written by a mischievous, very naughty and supertalented Dublin journalist, but any sensible reader knows that this is not so. They are a truthful, accurate and meaningful record of the social class that destroyed Ireland, written from the inside.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine Ross ever writing or (indeed reading) a novel, unless it happened to be written by a rugby player. No full understanding of what Ireland has gone through since 2000 is possible without O’Carroll-Kelly’s monstrous, unapologetic, unforgettable chronicle of a shitstorm foretold, that is sometimes (but rarely) hard to believe.
Joseph O’Connor is Frank McCourt chair of creative writing at the University of Limerick. His latest novel is The Thrill of it All

Diarmaid Ferriter

Amongst Women by John McGahern

John McGahern spent a decade writing Amongst Women, which was published in 1990. It depicts the tortured existence of Michael Moran, a War of Independence veteran, and the experiences of his family whom he manages to alienate and torment and yet endow with a distinct identity. It is about Irish mid-century provincial life, including its darker side, but also raises bigger, national themes.

The question Moran asks about the struggle for independence in the early 20th century – “What was it all for?” – resonates for many reasons. Moran feels he and his comrades had fought for independence at the best time of their lives, only for native misrule to render it somewhat meaningless. When he dies, it is perhaps appropriate that the Tricolour that drapes his coffin is so faded.

For Moran, so alienated from public life, the republican dream has long since vanished, though his involvement in the themes of family, survival, money and the repression of women make him an appropriate symbol of 20th century Ireland.

McGahern did mesmerising work on a small canvas he was an accurate and graceful wordsmith, and apart from his insights about character and what propels people, he was also able to write beautifully about nature and rural Ireland, small and independent communities and local concerns, employing rich dialogue and an acute sense of place.

McGahern’s book remains both an indictment of the failures of Irish independence and a celebration of Ireland’s distinctiveness.
Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at UCD

Claire Kilroy

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

Mike McCormack captured something phenomenal in Solar Bones, a novel about an ordinary, decent guy considering various aspects of his ordinary, decent life. Much of this baffles him, some outrages him (the corrupt politician is exceptionally well depicted) but all of it is bathed in his love for his family life, a life which he doesn’t quite grasp is already over, because this is All Souls’ Day, the day the souls of the dead return to their family home.

The scope of McCormack’s experimentalism and his humanity – two qualities which are rarely found in the same author – indicates that the great 20th century Irish prose innovators, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, are in his DNA, but he captures the confusion and turmoil of Ireland’s recent transition from major to minor with such heart and stylistic agility that he can already be considered one of the great 21st century Irish prose writers.
Claire Kilroy’s novels include Tenderwire and The Devil I Know

Marina Carr

Inventing Ireland by Declan Kiberd

It’s a brilliant excavation and exploration of the Irish psyche through the prism of our literature. It starts with Wilde and goes right through to Friel with other chapters setting historical and social context. If my description sounds dry, the book is not. It is written with great humour, erudition, aplomb and a healthy dose of irony on the invention of ourselves, the nation, who we think we are and who we might possibly be. What Kiberd captures brilliantly is the tragic grandeur of the Irish imagination and the harking back to vanished times: harps, bards, Tuatha dé Dannan, Cúchulainn,

Kathleen Ni Houlihan and many more. All the touchstones of our mythic and mystic past that that still seep like fog through our veins despite our best efforts to cut them out. Like Nell in Beckett’s Endgame our refrain still seems to be: “Ah yesterday . . . ”

And maybe that’s the best of us . . . and if we’re lucky, it may take us to the future.

Inventing Ireland is a must-read for anyone who wants to know who we are, what we were and, with the grace of God, what we might one day become.
Marina Carr’s latest play was an adaptation of Anna Karenina at the Abbey Theatre. She has just won the $165,000 Windham-Campbell Prize

Sara Baume

Martin John by Anakana Schofield

What is particularly intriguing about Martin John, Anakana Schofield’s second novel, is that it feels as if the Vancouver-based Irish author might have set to work by drawing up a list of factors which make a book potentially unreadable. It’s disjointed and repetitive, the subject matter generally deeply disturbing.

The protagonist is a registered sex offender at large in the city of London after being expelled from his home in the west of Ireland by his haranguing mother. For most of the novel, we are trapped inside his cycle of struggle and stumble and remorse.

Martin John is a work of marvellous contradiction: the uncomfortable content belied by ravishing style, irresistible rhythm and exquisitely murky humour. This is risk-taking fiction at its most insightful what it tells us about the Ireland of today is superbly devoid of rose-tinted spectacles.
Sara Baume’s latest novel is A Line Made by Walking

Lisa McInerney

Young Skins by Colin Barrett

There is no truer portrait of post-millennium small-town Irish life than Colin Barrett’s sublime landscape-in-portraits short story collection Young Skins. The protagonists are largely rudderless, misfiring young men, but there are young women too, adrift or foiled by circumstance, and communities muddling through, and longings unexpressed, and sometimes a fierce and jolting awareness of the limits in living one’s life on a damp rock in the north Atlantic.

This is Ireland at its most frustrating and inhibiting but also at its most sincere and brutally real. I know every one of these characters, every road they walk, every car they hop into, every pub they end up at, every retort they spit at their nemeses. For the reader who wants to see and know Ireland’s soul, this is it, this is the book.
Lisa McInerney’s debut novel, The Glorious Heresies, won the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction and the Desmond Elliott Prize. The sequel, The Blood Miracles, is out next month

Fintan O’Toole

The Gathering by Anne Enright

The Gathering, which won the Booker Prize in 2007, does what only the best fiction can manage: it makes something coherent out of impossible contradictions. And impossible contradiction is where contemporary Ireland is at.

The book is postmodern in its extreme globalisation but often premodern in its struggles to come to terms with a deep, dark past. Economically and culturally it is extremely open, yet it is full of silences and secrets.

Enright’s gripping novel gets to the heart of this duality. It is, on the surface, a very traditional Irish novel: a funeral, exile, a big family, secrets. But it takes this traditional form and pushes it into the hyper-consumerist world of the boom time Ireland of the mind-2000s.

It’s a beautifully written fiction rather than a work of sociology, but it gives you a very acute sense of a society that is utterly adrift in some ways yet still anchored to the past in others. It has a lot of sadness, some glee and a kind of hypnotic energy, which is pretty much what Ireland feels like in the 21st century.
Fintan O’Toole is co-editor of Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks

David Park

Children’s Children by Jan Carson

If you’re coming to Ireland, then a visit to Northern Ireland is essential. We can of course package the Troubles for you with bus and taxi tours but best to avoid a history that makes little sense and is usually just tribal mythology. For real history you can take one of our numerous Game of Thrones tours, wear a cloak, arm yourself with a sword. And if you want a book to read on your trip north choose Jan Carson’s Children’s Children to get an original portrait of Belfast’s citizens. In its world of magic realism you’ll meet a human statue that loses the ability to move, a floating child tethered to a backyard fence and a man who starts to brush the street outside his door and then keeps going. Darkly humorous, the stories are living proof that our world is just as crazy and beautiful as anyone else’s and up here at the top of the island that’s all we ever wanted,
David Park’s latest work is Gods and Angels

Peter Murphy

Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack

Notes from a Coma, published in 2005, was the first Irish novel to address the incipient effects of technology on the psyche, juxtaposing small-town realism with 21st century babble.

The central character is JJ O’ Malley, a troubled youth who grows up in west Mayo after being rescued from a Romanian orphanage. Cursed with a brilliant but unquiet mind, JJ suffers a breakdown after the death of his best friend and volunteers as a guinea pig in a controversial pilot EU penal scheme called the Somnos Project, which proposes deep coma as an economically viable alternative to present systems of incarceration.

Floating in a prison ship docked in Killary Harbour, his comatose form constantly monitored online, JJ becomes a national icon. In one memorable scene, assembled masses at a music festival bow before his image on the big screens, chanting, “We are not worthy.”

The book’s structure is contrapuntal: straightforward testimonies from key figures in JJ’s life alternate with a stylised and hyper-cerebral parallel narrative rendered in a form of Coma-speak whose vaulting complexity suggests Philip K Dick undergoing regression therapy.

McCormack wrote the book under the influence of totem works such Gravity’s Rainbow, Crash, Riddley Walker and Neuromancer, as well as books by Christopher Priest and Richard Powers. A speculative novel located in a medieval landscape, Notes from a Coma was one of the few boom-time novels to reject the tourist-board sanctioned version of Irish fiction in favour of a postmodern (and dystopian) vision of 21st century life.
Peter Murphy’s latest novel is Shall We Gather at the River

Martina Evans

Telling, Selected Stories by Evelyn Conlon

No one has a voice like Evelyn Conlon. You never know what she is going to say next. She comes from an odd angle that suddenly seems like the only angle worthwhile.

With stories ranging from the intensely lyrical memory of a flashlamp playing on a ditch the night Kennedy was shot to the contraceptive wars of the 1980s, rebellious women in a writing workshop and millennium hype, Conlon is truly modern yet rooted in the history of Irish women.

Once you’ve experienced her grip, you won’t want to stop, like the narrator of Taking Scarlet as a Real Colour: “I’ll tell you what it says in books, Susan. I never wanted to read and I wish I’d never started, but that’s like an alcoholic moaning about Christmas pudding, it’s too late now.”
Martina Evans is a novelist and poet. Her latest collection is The Windows of Graceland

Donal Ryan
The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith

The people still living who were involved in the enslavement of unmarried mothers and the terminal neglect and sale of their children apparently remember nothing of their deeds. Luckily, the memories of some of their victims are intact and have been committed to print. The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith tells the life story of a woman who was held at the Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea when she fell pregnant in 1950. After three years of caring for her son at the abbey he was stolen from her and sold, with a little girl, to an American couple. Philomena and her son Michael spent their lives searching for one another. This heartbreaking story will help anyone just landed here to understand why we’re currently in the process of facing up to the fact that our country is cankered with unmarked pits full of little bones.
Donal Ryan’s latest work is All We Shall Know

Colum McCann
Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett

One of the books that rattled me out of my comfort zone was Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett. The Ireland she creates is thoroughly familiar and yet it felt to me that I hadn’t been there before, at least not in the country of literature. I also really loved what Edna O’Brien did in her novel The Little Red Chairs. She extends her notion of Ireland right out into, and indeed beyond, Europe.
Letters to a Young Writer by Colum McCann will be published in May

Paschal Donohoe
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray is a masterpiece of many genres. Deftly
weaving comedy, tragedy and satire through the life and death of
Skippy, this novel has entertained and deeply moved me since
publication in 2010. The horizons of this work are so wide, stretching
from the physics of string theory, to first love and even touching on
the dangers of doughnuts. Set in the Seabrook College for Boys, the
tale of Skippy and his room-mate Ruprecht made me laugh and then wince
with sadness. At over 600 pages, it was also initially published as
three volumes. However, this should not deter any potential reader. It
begins and ends with death. But there is so much bustling life in
Paschal Donohoe is the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

“The rain drove us into the church – our refuge, our strength, our only dry place”

Limerick’s Georgian avenues and compact medieval quarter have finally emerged from the cloudy streetscape of Frank McCourt’s poverty stricken 1930s childhood to become a vibrant destination. This moving memoir and tribute to his mother, Angela, published in 1996, laid bare his bid for survival in tenement conditions on the fringes of Limerick’s society, and earned him a Pulitzer prize. Unknown to the young McCourt, across town future Hollywood legend Richard Harris and Terry Wogan were growing up in different circumstances, without the rainy-day backstory of death, near starvation and destitution. Head to O’Connell Avenue to South’s Bar and see where Frank’s father drank away their family’s meagre earnings.

‘Unheard-of Mortality’….The Black Death in Ireland

Study of the Black Death in Ireland is fraught with difficulties: the few Irish chroniclers and annalists tell us relatively little about it a further complication was the almost continuous warfare and the consequent economic decline already underway well before the arrival of plague in 1348. Nevertheless, there is enough evidence to suggest that the Black Death, and its subsequent outbreaks, had a significant and lasting effect in Ireland. For example, dendochronological studies have shown that oak forests regenerated in the later fourteenth century, evidence of a significant reduction in population archaeological evidence, though scanty, indicates disruption in trade and commerce that lasted until the mid-fifteenth.

Entered through ports

The plague’s effects were not uniform: the Anglo-Irish colony was affected more extensively and radically than Gaelic Ireland. It struck first in the colony’s ports, carried there by infected rats and their fleas in the holds of trading vessels or in merchandise. According to Friar John Clyn, the Kilkenny-based Franciscan monk whose record is virtually the sole eye-witness account, it first appeared in Howth or Dalkey and spread to Dublin and Drogheda by late July or early August. It had reached Bristol at the earliest on 24 June and at the latest on 1 August. The short time between its arrival in Bristol and in Ireland would suggest that the plague was brought to Ireland directly from the continent, probably from the region of Bordeaux.
In general, the paths of transmission to the rest of the country were along overland routes between the ports and market towns, along the rivers connecting market towns and seaports, especially in the east and south, and by sea traffic between ports on the east and south coasts. Clearly Dublin and Drogheda formed one nucleus of the disease. Given the rapidity with which plague spread in the opening months and the general slowness of overland travel, it is likely that the disease was introduced into the south directly from England or the continent through busy ports such as Waterford, Youghal and Cork. But in the hinterland of these ports, particularly in the more heavily settled parts of the east and south, transmission could have occurred overland, since the distances were not great. Moreover, the plague in invading virgin territory often took a pneumonic (air-borne) form, especially during the winter months, which meant direct transmission between humans, and consequently a more rapid spread and a higher death rate.

‘Unheard of mortality’

The plague raged in Dublin between August and December, setting a pattern for the terror it would spread through other parts of the country. Clyn writes that ‘from very fear and horror, men were seldom brave enough to perform the works of piety and mercy, such as visiting the sick and burying the dead’ and extant sermons hint at survivors in Drogheda seizing the property of widows and minors. Others responded by going on pilgrimage or by prayer. Public functions were cancelled as is suggested by an unprecedented break in the record of the sermons of Richard Fitzralph, Archbishop of Armagh, between 11 May 1348 and his next sermon on 25 March 1349, and then again until his departure from the country in June 1349. There is a complete gap in the record of parliamentary sessions between May 1348 and June 1350 and a similar disruption in the record of sessions of the justiciar’s court.
At this stage, the pestilence was highly contagious, such that ‘whosoever touched the sick or the dead was immediately infected and died’. Clyn also emphasises the devastation: ‘There was hardly a house in which one only had died, but as a rule man and wife with their children and all the family went the common way of death’. Friars and abbeys were hard-hit: twenty-five Franciscan friars died in Drogheda, twenty-three in Dublin. From Dublin, an annalist in the Franciscan friary at Nenagh tells us, this ‘unheard of mortality’ spread to surrounding towns and villages, many of which were left without inhabitants. That both pneumonic and bubonic strains of the plague were present is borne out by Friar Clyn’s graphic descriptions which incorporate the symptoms of both forms: he describes the eruptions on the groin or under the armpit characteristic of bubonic plague which is transmitted mostly by flea bite, but also the headaches and spitting of blood that distinguish the pneumonic form. Transmission by direct contact was quite likely then in Dublin and Drogheda in the first more virulent phases of the plague’s outbreak in Ireland. As it moved beyond these first stages to the surrounding countryside, it is not likely that it continued in its pneumonic form, especially once it moved away from the larger towns and areas of densest settlement. Its transmission to the rest of the country would have been by a creeping epizootic of rat and flea contacts, determined by the density of the rat and flea populations this in turn depended on the density of the human population, and on the frequency and extent of trade.

Before the end of the year 1348, the plague had penetrated into Louth, Meath and Kildare and had reached Kilkenny by 25 December 1348. The fact that it took so long suggests it reached the city from the south-east along river traffic on the Barrow, rather than overland from Dublin. Clyn tells us that the pestilence was rife in Kilkenny between Christmas and March and took a toll of eight Dominican friars in one March day alone. Clyn does not record any more deaths he died himself soon after, very likely of the plague. But given its contagious nature, the plague would have inevitably spread among others of Clyn’s Franciscan community as well as among the town’s inhabitants. The record falls silent again until June 1349 when the prior of the Augustinian monastery of St Catherine in Waterford died of it. The plague spread along the south-east and south, to New Ross, Clonmel, Cashel, Youghal and Cork, though we do not know the exact dates. The Nenagh annalist is our only direct source for its transmission in the south and he focuses only on those deaths of interest to the Franciscan order. He records the deaths on 10 and 29 August of two friars at Nenagh. By 1 November, the plague had reached Limerick, where the death of one friar is noted. It then very likely spread to Ennis, County Clare, where the death is recorded of Matthew Caoch MacConmara, a lay patron of the Franciscans. And in the following year, the annalist notes the death of Traolach, son of Donncha O’Brien, who was buried at Nenagh. Though the cause of these latter deaths is not mentioned explicitly, their juxtaposition alongside the entry recording the coming of the plague to Ireland strongly indicates that these were plague deaths.
Drogheda, Dublin, New Ross, Waterford, Youghal and Cork: the catalogue of port towns testifies to the fact that coastal areas bore the brunt of the disease. The English chronicler, Ralph Higden writes that the plague was ‘especially violent…around the coastal towns of England and Ireland’. Fitzralph in an address to the pope in 1349 stated ‘the plague had fallen most heavily on those who lived near the sea and has found more victims among fisherfolk and sailors than among any other class of men’. However, the less populated areas of the north and west did not escape entirely. The plague is recorded in Ulster in 1349 when ‘great destruction of people was inflicted therein’, though only two victims are named. The plague raged in Connacht and, according to the annals, especially in Moylurg in County Roscommon in 1349, again probably in late November or early December the Four Masters merely record that ‘great numbers were carried off’. The Annals of Clonmacnoise also record the Black Death in Roscommon in 1348, probably a scribal error since the plague would most likely have taken longer to reach the west of Ireland. The disease was active in Mayo as late as 1350 and the annalist there writes of the deaths of William Ó Dúda, Bishop of Killala, Concubhar Ó Lochlainn, Cathal Ó Flathartaigh, the son of Dónal Mac Gearranagastair and his brothers who all died ‘within six days because of the pestilence’. The Annals of Loch Cé record the deaths of five persons, including the Bishop of Killala, in 1350.

Gaelic Irish less affected

However, the brevity and formulaic quality of the annalists’ entries would suggest that the Gaelic-Irish population was not affected to the same extent as was the Anglo-Irish colony. Other commentators agree: Geoffrey Le Baker, a contemporary English chronicler, wrote that the plague in Ireland ‘killed the English inhabitants there in great numbers, but the native Irish, living in the mountains and uplands, were scarcely touched’, though he adds that in a later outbreak in 1357, the plague took the Gaelic-Irish ‘unawares and annihilated them everywhere’. In summer 1349, Archbishop Fitzralph asserted the plague had not yet reached the ‘Irish nation’. The Great Council in July 1360 complained of a plague that was ‘so great and so hideous among the English lieges, and not among the Irish’. The main reason for this disparity was that Anglo-Irish settlements were more vulnerable to the inroads of rats and fleas. The colonists were mostly concentrated in land below 600 feet, leaving the mountainous, hilly and less accessible areas to the Gaelic-Irish whose settlements were mainly pastoral and scattered, either in irregular nucleated rural settlements or individual farmsteads. The Anglo-Normans had settled mainly in well-drained, lower-lying land east of a line from Skibbereen to Galway to Coleraine this was the area in which the Black Death wrought its havoc. A network of villages with strong trading links characterised much of this area: ideal conditions for the transmission of plague.
Severe mortality was noted in County Dublin, on the royal manors of Newcastle Lyons, Saggart, Crumlin, Oughterard and Castlewarny in County Tipperary, on the estates of the Archbishop of Cashel and in the manor of Lisronagh numerous manors in Kilkenny and Meath by 1351 were left with empty cottages, untilled lands and fallen rents because of the deaths by plague of tenants. The priory of Augustinian nuns at Lismullin in County Meath suffered greatly from the plague and its successor of 1361 and its numbers were reduced from fifty-four to thirty-two, a mortality of 42.6 per cent that is close to the 45 per cent average death rate calculated for monasteries in England. The monastery of Llanthony Secunda in Duleek, County Meath, was left with vacant holdings because the tenants fled. These details suggest that the mortality from the plague in the more densely populated areas was between 40 and 50 per cent. Surviving records indicate high mortality among the clergy, though again since most chroniclers were monastic, they tended to focus on their clerical brethern. Mortality among the Irish bishops was about 18 per cent, similar to the estimate for the bishops of England. Mortality among the lower ranks of the clergy was higher, since they had greater contact with the public: Clyn writes that the pestilence was so contagious that ‘both the penitent and the confessor were together borne to the grave’. Mortality was highest among the regular clergy, given that abbeys and friaries offered ideal conditions for the propagation of the plague bacillus. The Franciscans lost almost 50 per cent of their houses in Dublin and Drogheda. In 1361 after a succession of plagues, only two friars remained in the Franciscan house at Nenagh, and a similar figure is reported in 1365 as surviving in the neighbouring Tyone Priory of St John. In other places, such as St Catherine’s in Waterford, only the death of the prior is recorded, but given the highly contagious nature of the plague, the number of plague deaths must have been far higher than has been recorded.

After the plague…

The effects of such loss of life were at once immediate and long-lasting. In rural areas, landlords were faced with a continuing shortage of tenants, falling rents and profits tenants were able to profit from the labour shortage and seek higher wages and better conditions, though conditions for tenants in the colony never became as favourable as in England. A few reports indicate its devastation: in 1351 on the estates of the see of Cashel the ‘lands and rents have been all but totally destroyed by the king’s Irish enemies and by the mortality of their tenants in the last plague’. On the de Burgh estates in Meath, Kilkenny and Tipperary, holdings fell tenantless and remained so through 1351 because tenants could not be found. Numerous manors in County Kilkenny, for example, were severely hit: on the manor of Latthedran over sixty acres of land were still reported as ‘waste’ in 1351 over 127 acres and three cottages on the manor of Loughmoran were reported as vacant in Easter 1350 because of pestilence on the manor of Callan one-sixth of the land was tenantless in 1348-9 and by the following year this had risen to over half, over 300 acres. By 1351, vacant holdings had dropped to twenty-six acres, but the fact that the manor’s revenues continued to fall suggests that some tenants may have enlarged their holdings to include the vacant lands. In other manors rents were reduced, to attract new tenants and to dissuade others from moving elsewhere. Obviously, the impact of the plague varied from region to region, depending on the nature of the terrain and communications. What is clear is that the continuation of warfare and the demands this created made recovery even more difficult. The 1352 plea for royal aid from the tenants and farmers of the king’s manors in County Dublin echoed a complaint common throughout the east and south:
as well because of the late pestilence in that land as on account of the excessive prises of the king’s ministers in Ireland, they are so entirely impoverished that, unless a remedy be applied, they will not be able to maintain themselves and pay the farm due to the king.
But despite all measures, reduced rental returns and vacant holdings are still reported for the royal demesnes well into the 1360s and later. A record from 1392-3 for the township of Colemanstown in the manor of Newcastle Lyons, Dublin, reported that only three tenants remained there, sixteen of the tenants having been ‘cut off by the late pestilence’.
In cities and towns the effects were even more immediately evident, given their larger populations living in quarters favourable to the transmission of disease. Clyn writes that 14,000 people died in Dublin between 8 August and 25 December, indicating an average daily mortality of one hundred. Whatever the mathematical accuracy of this figure, it highlights the extent of the mortality in Dublin which propelled a demographic decline that was to continue until the mid-sixteenth century when one estimate puts its population at 8,000 inhabitants. A report from 1351 notes that ‘in the time of the said pestilence the greater part of the citizens of Cork and other faithful men of the King dwelling there all went the way of the flesh’. Houses were left uninhabited, indicating that whole families must have died. High mortality is noted in Drogheda, New Ross, Waterford and in the busy port town of Youghal, where sources would suggest a mortality of about 45 per cent among the burgesses of the town, a figure in line with the 40-50 per cent figure calculated for coastal settlements elsewhere.

Towns devastated

The effects of the plague on the towns were devastating. Labour shortages and the consequent disruption of the rural economy threatened the food supply to towns: food shortages became frequent. Conditions for survivors continued to worsen: towns became the object of the incursions of resurgent Gaelic chieftains the resulting increased defence costs meant higher taxes on a shrinking population. Many towns fell into arrears and in ever increasing numbers petitioned for tax relief, citing both the pestilence and war as the agents of their misfortune: Dublin, New Ross, Clonmel all petitoned for aid in 1351. So too did Waterford, Drogheda, Youghal and others. The burdens were such that many left Ireland altogether. In Dublin, for example, in 1427 ‘owing to pestilence, incursions and divers heavy burthens…the citizens were unable to pay the rent to the Crown…Many of the commons had subsequently left Dublin and would not return to the city, on which great loss and manifest desolation was thus entailed’. Emigration continued, despite all efforts to stem the flow by requiring licenses to emigrate or to transport emigrants. Contemporary records create a picture of houses decaying, empty lots and ruined walls. In Cork, victims’ houses were reported to be falling into ruin in 1351. Contraction was an inevitable result: part of the quayside in Drogheda fell into disuse, indicating a downturn in trade in this busy port. A gap in the pottery record in Cork between 1350 and 1450 is a silent testimony to the decline in population, the decrease in demand and disruption in trade that happened in the wake of the plague. Even smaller inland market towns suffered, though those without a commercial base suffered most. In the smaller villages, many burgesses unable to support themselves probably drifted into becoming labourers, taking advantage of the labour shortages in the rural sector. The effect was to hasten the disappearance of smaller villages, a process that was to continue into the seventeenth century, though only one, Kinsalebeg, has been positively identified as having been deserted due to the Black Death.

Demographic effects

As with any epidemic, the outbreak of 1348 cannot be treated in isolation and a study of its demographic effects cannot be considered apart from the later related outbreaks. The recurring nature of the plague meant that sustained recovery was not possible and a chronic pattern of crisis mortality set in. In 1361, there was ‘a great mortality of people, consuming many men but few women’, and in 1363 there was ‘a great mortality in Ireland and especially in Connacht, Thomond, Kerry and Desmond’. There were outbreaks in 1370, 1383, 1390-3, 1398 and periodically thereafter. And these are just the outbreaks that have been recorded there may have been other localised outbreaks that were not noted in the official records. Admittedly, later outbreaks were less virulent, though research in other countries has shown that areas which escaped the plague in 1347-9 were severely affected in later outbreaks. Many chroniclers note that later outbreaks often affected young people particularly. Plagues affecting children are recorded in 1350 and 1361 and in 1370 the Annals of St Marys Abbey Dublin recorded a great pestilence ‘of which many nobles and citizens and especially young people and children died’. This had obvious consequences for fertility and ensured that the population’s chances of recovering from plague mortality were further damaged. The recurrence of the plague was in effect the single, most significant effect of the Black Death: the long-term result was crisis mortality, lower fertility and had a profound effect on slowing population recovery. Whereas there was some demographic recovery in the earlier decades of the sixteenth century in Europe, this did not happen until the seventeenth century in Ireland, thanks to the continuation of warfare, the frontier conditions of colonial life in Ireland and recurring outbreaks of plague.
The precise contribution of the Black Death to this demographic decline eludes quantification. The continuation of natural mortality, of other fatal diseases and our ignorance of contemporary population figures makes the task of estimation well-nigh impossible. There is the important consideration that Ireland in general had not experienced the same population growth in the thirteenth century as had England and other European countries and Irish towns in particular were not as crowded as European towns. Moreover in Ireland, it is difficult even to come up with satisfactory figures for specific groups or areas as the records are not comprehensive or consistent. Archbishop Fitzralph stated it had destroyed more than two-thirds of the English nation in Ireland and individual religious houses claimed death rates of over 50 per cent, figures that tally with historians’ estimates of overall mortality in Europe. The plague’s effect on demographic decline in Ireland in the later middle ages was a cumulative one. Thanks to famine and warfare, the population of the colony in Ireland had already been declining for some decades before the Black Death. The plague sealed the downward trend many epidemiologists would even argue that exogenous factors such as pestilence are, in the end, ultimately responsible for large-scale demographic downturns. But for those alive in 1348, the Black Death was an inexplicable and inescapable disease and its aftershocks were felt long after the terror it first inspired had been forgotten.

Maria Kelly is a history graduate of University College Cork.

Further reading:

M. Kelly, A History of the Black Death in Ireland (Stroud 2001).

K. Down, ‘Colonial society and economy in the high Middle Ages’ in A. Cosgrove (ed.), A New History of Ireland, ii: Medieval Ireland 1169-1534 (Oxford 1987).

Medieval Latin Manuscripts

Trinity College Library holds an exceptional collection of medieval manuscripts written in Latin, Irish, French, German, Italian, Greek, Icelandic and Middle English.

The Library&rsquos Latin manuscripts comprise around 450 separately numbered items and are especially rich in historical and theological texts. The medieval codices for which the Library is best known are the Book of Kells (MS 58, c. 800 AD) the Book of Durrow (MS 57, c. 700 AD), and the Book of Armagh (MS 52, c. 807 AD). These and other Gospel manuscripts of the period, including the so-called "Codex Usserianus Primus", (MS 55, ?5th century), the Book of Dimma and the Book of Mulling (both 8th century AD) form part of the changing exhibition in the Old Library.

Other celebrated manuscripts in the collection include:

  • MS 81: the Fagel Missal produced by the nuns of Delft in AD 1459-1460
  • MS 53: a 12th-century New Testament and Psalter from Winchcombe Abbey in England
  • MS 177: a life of St Alban written and decorated by the great 13th-century English historian and artist Matthew Paris

The Tribes of Galway

Galway is often referred to as The City of The Tribes. This is in reference to the fourteen families who dominated the political and commercial life of the city between the 13th and 18th centuries. Much of the religious silverware produced in Galway was commissioned by these prominent Galway families and donated to religious institutions. Twelve of the fourteen Galway Tribes are represented in memorial inscriptions on these ecclesiastical chalices, namely, Kirwan, D’Arcy, Bodkin, Skerrett, Lynch, Joyce, Browne, Font, French, Deane, Martin and Blake with Morris and Athy the only absentees.

Galway Hallmarks

Prior to 1784 and the establishment of the Irish Assay Mark, Galway goldsmiths had their own mark of origin. This mark is identified by an anchor. This town stamp was usually accompanied by the initials of the maker. From 1683 until 1737, four of Galway’s goldsmiths marked their ware accordingly

  • Barthelomew Fallon, 1683 – 1718
  • Richard Joyce, 1691 – 1737
  • Mark Fallon, 1714 – 1731
  • Thomas Lynch, 1720 – 1724

There seems to have been a connection between Richard Joyce and Richard Fallon. Not only did they make pieces at the same time for the same customers, but several pieces are known to have a stamping from both Joyce and Fallon. Two notable examples are The Fitzgearld-Darsy Chalice dated 1719 and silver tankard dated 1720, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

In 1784, an act was passed requiring all Irish goldsmiths to register with the Dublin Assay Office, which had been established by royal charter in 1637. Between 1874 and 1817, a total of twenty six goldsmiths from County Galway registered their names with the Dublin Goldsmiths Company.

The Concise History of Ireland

I picked up this book to read while driving the Wild Atlantic Way because it appeared a) light (it says concise right in the title) b) scholarly (Professor Duffy, Medieval History, Trinity College Dublin) c) contained plenty of maps, graphs and images (to help someone with only a passing knowledge of Irish, particularly ancient Irish, geography).

The inside cover states: "A specialist in medieval Irish history, he gives the earlier period its due treatment" Truer words were never spoken. It takes I picked up this book to read while driving the Wild Atlantic Way because it appeared a) light (it says concise right in the title) b) scholarly (Professor Duffy, Medieval History, Trinity College Dublin) c) contained plenty of maps, graphs and images (to help someone with only a passing knowledge of Irish, particularly ancient Irish, geography).

The inside cover states: "A specialist in medieval Irish history, he gives the earlier period its due treatment" Truer words were never spoken. It takes fifty pages to get to the Vikings and a hundred to get to English plantations. Unfortunately, too much ink is spilt on the etymology of names and regions. The Irish monks/missionaries are quickly passed over and the discussion of the Viking arrivals is limited to the founding of a few towns.

Irish history should be exceedingly entertaining reading. However, this book has large sections drier than a mormon funeral. Honestly, the six pages dedicated to the chronology of events at the end of the book were more stimulating than large sections. Professor Duffy attempts balance and scholarship but unfortunately is too successful and drains much of the colour from the history.

The book is also written in 2000 and not updated so it finishes with the Good Friday Accord, making the book rather dated. 2 stars for the writing, +1 for the excellent maps, graphs and images. . more

Sean Duffy, an Irish historian, is true to the word in his title, a "concise" history of Ireland. The book is an over sized one, 240 pages of text and illustrations which summarizes Ireland&aposs history from pre-historic times to 2000, at the end of the 90&aposs when Ireland&aposs economy was booming and it was known as the "Celtic Tiger".
But prosperity was the rare exception for this island country throughout most of its history, at least for most of its inhabitants. It&aposs always been a case of the "have Sean Duffy, an Irish historian, is true to the word in his title, a "concise" history of Ireland. The book is an over sized one, 240 pages of text and illustrations which summarizes Ireland's history from pre-historic times to 2000, at the end of the 90's when Ireland's economy was booming and it was known as the "Celtic Tiger".
But prosperity was the rare exception for this island country throughout most of its history, at least for most of its inhabitants. It's always been a case of the "have-nots" trying to take land, Ireland's main resource from its beginnings, from the "haves".
The Viking raiders began the plundering of the island at the end of the 8th century. Gradually, some of them became integrated into the Irish population, but these "haves" were over a period of centuries embroiled in battles, usually losing ones, with more "raiders", in later times associated with the British kings who doled out grants of Irish lands to their favorites, or launched military campaigns (Oliver Cromwell's was the most famous)to seize land.
Over centuries it was always a question of whether the "haves" were going to fight for power or whether they would try to accommodate themselves to the new "invaders" (who ironically didn't see themselves as that - Ireland was considedred a part of Britain).
Bloody insurrections marked the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century as the battle shifted from gaining more legislative power within the British electoral system to an outright declaration of Ireland independence. The tragedy of Ireland in the 20th century was the result of the separation of the six counties of northern Ireland from the rest of the country, and the allegiance of its mostly Protestant inhabitants to Britain. What was ignored were the rights of a large Catholic minority (Catholicism, oddly, became hopelessly politicized and was a mark of Irish identity). This time bomb of, again, "have-nots" exploded din the l960's and killed thousands before a tentative power-sharing agreement was reached at the end of the 90's.
Ireland's future? Who knows? At some point, I'd guess that there will be a reunification. Economically, it has benefited enormously from being a part of the European Uion and from its tax incentives which have lured foreign corporations into the country. But these may be temporary fixes for what has always been a small agricultural-based, usually poor, country.

Catalogues and Bibliography

Catalogues for individual collections are available in the reading room of the Manuscripts and Archives Research Library.

Many of the manuscripts discussed can be viewed digitally on Irish Script on Screen and Corpus of Electronic Texts.

T.K. Abbott and E.J. Gwynn, Catalogue of Irish Manuscripts in the Library of Trinity College Dublin (Dublin: Hodges, Figgis & Co, 1921)

E. Bhreathnach and B. Cunningham (eds), Writing Irish History: The Four Masters and their World (Dublin: Wordwell, 2007)

G. Mac Niocaill, "The Irish-language manuscripts" in: Treasures of the Library, Trinity College Dublin (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy for Trinity College Library, 1986), pp. 57-66

W. O&rsquoSullivan, "The Irish Manuscripts in Case H in Trinity College Dublin" Celtica XI (1976), pp. 229-250

R.I. Best, Osborn Bergin, M.A. O'Brien and Anne O'Sullivan (eds), The Book of Leinster, formerly Lebar na Núachongbála. 6 vols. (Dublin: DIAS, 1954-83. Diplomatic edition)

S. Mac Airt and G. Mac Niocail (eds), The Annals of Ulster (to AD 1131) (Dublin: DIAS, 1983)

The real history of how the English invaded Ireland

You may think you know the story of how the English invaded Ireland, but this excerpt from Garvan Grant’s “True(ish) History of Ireland” sheds light on some of the more subtle nuances of this dark chapter in Irish history.

An English Solution to an Irish Problem

And so began eight centuries of fun, games, and oppression. From the twelfth century on, the English did everything in their power to make the Irish more ‘English’, including teaching them tiddlywinks, making them eat Yorkshire pudding and, when all else failed, taking their lives. The Irish are a famously stubborn lot, however, and very little worked. Often, the Irish would just turn around to their conquerors and say: ‘Yip, that’s grand, we’re all English now, so you fellas can head off home and we’ll look after things here for you.’

The English usually replied: ‘How jolly decent of you! Back home, they told us you were savages, but you chaps are actually quite good sports!’

And the Irish would reply: ‘Not a bother, me lord sir! See youse later.’

Then, as soon as the English were gone, they would just carry on being all Irish, having fun and staying up late telling stories about how they managed to dupe the English.

However, the English soon realized that their policy of absenteeism was becoming a joke. They knew that the best way to defeat the cunning Irish was to suppress the entire country, which would have cost a fortune … or they could just build a big wall around the greater Dublin area and put signs on it saying, ‘Beyond this wall is Britain. No Irish, no savages, no dogs!’ They decided on the less painful latter option and called the walled area The Pale. These days The Pale is protected by the fast and dangerous M50 ring road instead of a big wall, though most people who live outside it have little or no desire to enter.

More Irish than the Irish Themselves

Ironically, the Norman and English policy of trying to make the Irish less Irish backfired, and by the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a lot of the former oppressors had become more Irish than the Irish themselves. First among these were the Fitzgeralds, the Earls of Kildare, who looked Irish, ate chips a lot and wore Celtic football shirts. They were descended from a man called Norman Fitzgerald, who, as his name suggests, was more Norman than most Normans. He had been a big pal of Strongbow’s back in the day, but his descendants were now plotting a way to be independent of the English crown.

That particular crown was being worn by Henry VIII at the time and the Fitzgeralds decided it would be best to butter him up and pretend they were ruling Ireland in his name. The other option would have been a massive war, which would have definitely got in the way of traditional leisure pursuits such as coursing, cursing and just hanging out. This arrangement also suited Henry VIII, as he had a lot of domestic issues to deal with. Well, six to be exact.

Horrid Henry Divorces the Church

Henry’s home life also rather famously caused a row with the Church, which wasn’t keen on people divorcing their wives, let alone beheading them. This meant that a split with Rome was inevitable. Naturally, Henry decided to become head of his very own Church and dissolved all the monasteries in England and Ireland. This led Garrett Óg Fitzgerald to quip: ‘As long as “Pope Henry the Wife-Murderer” doesn’t dissolve the pubs, we shouldn’t have a problem.’

Unfortunately, someone told Henry about this particular gag, which led him to crush the Fitzgeralds and force his rule on all Irish clans. He did this using the ‘Surrender and Regrant’ policy, which meant that if you surrendered to him, he wouldn’t kill you and you could keep your land, which was doubly nice of him. The Irish chieftains agreed, but only because it didn’t really affect them either way.

The Virgin Queen: A Mostly Lovely Girl

When Elizabeth I ascended to the English throne in 1558, she took a more lenient attitude towards Ireland, because ‘the trendy young queen is desperate to find a husband, get married and settle down’. (Note: this rather sexist comment appeared in an editorial in the December 1558 edition of Hello! magazine and is not a historical fact.) She even let the people of Ireland carry on being Catholic, speak their own language and live, which was dead nice of her.

In return, all she wanted from the various chieftains who had divided the country up between them was ‘unconditional loyalty’, the swearing of an odd oath and bucket-loads of cash. This suited everyone – until some of the Irish fellas got greedy and started scrapping with their neighbors over bits of land. This led to Elizabeth showing her not so lovely side and coming down quite hard on the Irish.

Eventually, in 1607, four years after Elizabeth’s death, a bunch of Irish earls decided enough was enough. They were going to go to Europe and bring back a fierce army that would defeat the English and end the conquest of Ireland forever and ever. Unfortunately, as the weather and the food were so lovely on the continent, they stayed there and never came back. This was known as The Cowardly Flight of the Earls, though the earls later shortened it to the much more catchy ‘Flight of the Earls’.

If You Can’t Beat Them, Make Them Join You

Tired of fighting, the English then decided the best way to ‘civilize’ the Irish was to send some nice English, Scottish and Welsh people to live on their lands, so the Irish could see just how brilliant being British was. These ‘Plantations’ might have worked too, except that a lot of the planters weren’t very brilliant – or very nice. They hadn’t signed up for it because they loved the Irish and wanted to make them better people they came because they were given free land with free peasants (or ‘slaves’) to work on it. It was lovely in theory, but probably not a recipe for success on the ground.

Please Tell Me That’s Not Cromwell

Until the seventeenth century war in Ireland had been mainly about unimportant things such as land, money, and power, but after the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, it became more about good, old-fashioned religion. How God felt about this change was anyone’s guess.

In 1649, when the latest war in England ended and Charles I lost his head and couldn’t find it anywhere, the English sent over a lovely chap by the name of Oliver Cromwell. He was only in Ireland for nine months but managed to get in more violence than many other English people had done in decades.

His theory of how to win a war – and it has yet to be proved wrong – was to kill everybody. He and his army – they were originally going to call it the New ‘Slaughter Everybody’ Army but eventually decided on the much catchier New Model Army – basically attacked anyone they met who wasn’t one of their soldiers.

Many English people look on Cromwell as a great hero and a military genius Irish people, on the other hand, lean more towards the genocidal nutcase description. However he was viewed, he certainly made his mark on Ireland. The Act of Settlement of 1652 basically meant that if you were Irish, Catholic or just in the way, you could be slaughtered and have your land confiscated. The only other option was … actually, in typical Cromwellian fashion, there wasn’t any other option.

Oliver’s Army

The Irish are a generous people and are never keen to criticize anybody, even if that person’s sole aim is to wipe them off the face of the planet. They were even quite nice about Oliver Cromwell. The following is a selection of quotes from various members of the Sweeney clan who knew and loved the real Oliver Cromwell:

• Ah, sure, he wasn’t the worst by any means. Yes, he slaughtered all of us, including me, my wife and the kids, but who wouldn’t have done the same in his situation? Just doing his job.

• Religious type, as far as I remember. Big into all the God stuff. And golf. Yeah, God, golf and killing Irish people: those were his things!

• Good-looking chap and could really hold a tune. Also a sharp dresser. But apart from that, a bit of a bastard.

• Complete bitch and I really doubt he was a virgin! Or is that Queen Elizabeth I’m thinking of? Now she was a piece of work, not that I ever met her. Cute nose, though! Or was that Cleopatra?

• A gentleman through and through. You really couldn’t have met a nicer chap. And a professional, a consummate professional. If you wanted Irish Catholics taken care of, he was your only man.

The True(ish) History of Ireland by Garvan Grant with illustrations by Gerard Crowley, published by Mercier Press.

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