Random Ramblings from a Republican
Monday, March 22, 2004
Fourteenth Century Ireland

Part Two

A Gaelic resurgence was in full swing, as the most significant gain for the native Irish chiefs was not necessarily territory, but liberty. In Leinster the chieftains had freedom of action as the royal government inadequately filled the gap left by the former lords of Leinster, a role later filled by the increasing power of the earls of Ormond and Kildare. In Connacht and Desmond the O'Connor and McCarthy chiefs were partially halted by the power of the Burkes and the earls of Desmond. In Thomond and Ulster this liberty was almost absolute.

There were many reasons for the decline of English royal power in Ireland in the fourteenth century. They included the impact of the Bruce invasion and the Black Death. English monarchs tended to drain the colony's resources in their campaigns against the Scots and north Welsh, and in the Hundred Years War in France. The Wars of the Roses gave kings few opportunities to recover lost ground in Ireland. To make matters worse, descendants of Norman conquerors had gone native, adopting Irish speech and customs, and abandoned their bonds with the Crown to become warlords. Only the ports and the territory around Dublin remained loyal to the Crown.

A steady deterioration of the weather across the northern hemisphere, brought a series of bad harvests in its wake. The Bruce invasion had corresponded with the Great European Famine of 1315-18, and the annals for the fourteenth century contain many references to bad seasons and cattle plagues.

The English colonists, who depended more heavily on corn than the Gaelic Irish, suffered most and, in addition, were scourged by a succession of plagues in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Black Death first appeared in Howth during the summer of 1348, and though in the following year the Annals of Connacht record "a great plague in all Ireland this year", it seems certain that the colonists in the Irish Lordship were hit hardest. The congested streets of Dublin, Drogheda, Kilkenny and other English-held towns accommodated populations of black rats, hosts of fleas carrying the dreaded bacillus. Six further outbreaks of the Black Death before the fourteenth century probably reduced the population of the English occupying colonials by 40 or 50 percent.

The government in Dublin Castle put up fortifications, dug trenches, appointed guards to hold the bridges and assigned watchmen to light warning fires when danger threatened. The area around Dublin extended from Dundalk, inland to Naas, and south to Bray. This area became known as the Pale. Apart from Carrickfergus castle, the province of Ulster was beyond the Pale.

Richard II, on the throne since 1377, was the first reigning monarch of England to visit Ireland since King John, and the only one to come to the island more than once until Queen Victoria did so. He responded to the desperate appeal of his loyal colonists, who declared that they were 'not able to find or think of other remedy except the coming of the king, our lord, in his own person'.

Landing at Waterford in October 1394 with the greatest army Ireland had yet seen, and after a hard winter campaigning, Richard brought the Leinster Irish to heel. Only too awake to the fact that the English were holding his grandsons hostage, Niall Mor O'Neill was amongst the eighty chieftains who were made to submit.

Richard sailed away in 1395, leaving Roger de Mortimer as royal governor. De Mortimer lacked the acumen necessary and foolishly made war on Niall Mor. Art MacMurrough Kavanagh declared himself King of Leinster and rebelled, with de Mortimer dying in a skirmish. Richard came to Ireland again in 1399, this time without the careful preparation of the 1394-95 campaign. It was a devastating expedition for the invading force and while he was in Ireland, at home his cousin Henry Bolingbroke rose in revolt. Richard returned to England to fight for his throne but instead lost his kingdom and his head. 
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Ta ar la anois.

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