A history of Ireland in 100 objects


Two coins, 1284 and 1460

The significant thing about these coins is not the objects themselves. It is the gap of almost 200 years between them. Coins are tokens of the health of the colonial Anglo-Norman economy in Ireland. That the colony produced virtually no new coins for such an extensive period is striking evidence of the series of disasters that overtook it during the 14th century.

“When sorrows come,” says Hamlet, “they come not single spies, but in battalions.” Four big battalions of sorrows beset Anglo-Norman Ireland: the Hundred Years War, the invasion of Edward Bruce from Scotland, famine and the Black Death.

The long and bloody wars of the 14th century, as the English monarchy struggled to assert its control over France, took a heavy toll on the Irish colony, used as a source of men, provisions and money for the English war machine.

In 1315 the Scottish king (of Norman stock), Robert Bruce, was at war with England and sent his brother Edward to Ireland to open a second front. Bruce was initially successful and had himself crowned King of Ireland in 1316.

But his attack on Dublin was repulsed, and he was killed in 1318. His intervention was disastrously destructive: the Irish annals described him as “the destroyer of Ireland in general”. Poor harvests in 1315 and 1317 caused widespread famine, followed by the outbreak of diseases among cattle.

Irish forces took advantage of the Bruce invasion to plunder Anglo-Norman towns, with the O’Tooles and O’Byrnes attacking the coastal towns of Wicklow, the O’Mores raiding Laois and the O’Hanlons besieging Dundalk.

Concentrated as it was in crowded and unhygienic towns, the Anglo-Norman population was much more susceptible than the rural natives to the ravages of epidemic disease. The Black Death, the combination of bubonic and pneumonic plague that decimated Europe, was preceded in Ireland by severe outbreaks of smallpox and influenza in 1327 and 1328. The plague arrived in 1348, probably through ships from Bristol and Chester, and raged for three years. The Kilkenny friar John Clyn wrote of himself “as if among the dead, waiting till death do come”.

It has been estimated that the Black Death alone killed between a quarter and a third of the population, with disproportionate mortality in the towns. Clyn put the death toll in Dublin alone at 14,000. Some medieval towns, such as Fore, in Westmeath, and New Town Leys, in Co Laois, disappeared altogether.

It has been estimated that the population of Ireland had risen, with the influx of immigrants, to a million or even one and a half million by 1300. By the 15th century it may have fallen to as few as 500,000. This decline affected the indigenous population as well as the colonisers, but the balance between them also shifted. The extent of Anglo-Norman control shrank to the areas around Dublin and east Leinster, the revenue of the Irish exchequer declined and English monarchs were forced to contemplate new invasions to re-establish what had once seemed a secure lordship of Ireland.

Thanks to Michael Kenny

Where to see them National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts History, Collins Barracks, Dublin 7, 01-6777444, museum.ie