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

Published in Features, Issue 4 (Winter 2001), Medieval History (pre-1500), Volume 9

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.

Rapid spread

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).

T.B. Barry, The Archaeology of Medieval Ireland (London 1987).

A. Gwynn, ‘The Black Death in Ireland’ in Studies 24 (1935).


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