© Ulster Historical Park

The Black Death in Ireland

Already contemporaries noted how the Black Death hit the Anglo-Norman settlers in Ireland much harder than the Gaelic People. New research offers an explanation

Black Death In England, Ireland and ScotlandIn 2001, the Historian Maria Kelly published a history on the ravages of the Black Death in Ireland. In this book, she noted – as did the contemporaries – the uneven distribution of the havoc, which the horrible pestilence caused. While the plague did hit Ulster, the deaths seemed few and far between. Why was the Black Death less virulent in the Gaelic northeast than in the rural areas down south?

Using Medieval Ireland as a case-study, Raymond Ruhaak in a new articles suggests how the varied response in different regions and at different times was caused by factors such as vulnerability and more or less resilience linked to distinct socio-economic local conditions and the overall sustainability of the ecology in the different regions or areas.

Anglo-Norman and Gaelic Ireland in the 14th century has generally been considered as less affected by the plague caused by Yersinia Pestis. If so, Ruhaak asks, what was the reason for this? In this careful study, he argues that as the pathogen has not changed significantly since the 14th century, we need local and historical explanations for the presumed virulence at different times and places in the 14th century as opposed to the 20th. This leads to a careful study of the events as they unfolded in the 14th century Ireland. Not least, the shifts in the landscape as seen through pollen-diagrams.

The study begins with the contemporary postulate that the English colonists suffered much more severely than either the Irish or the Scots (the Gaelic). How come this difference, the 14th-century commentators asked?

Part of the difference had to do with the difference between English and Gaelic Law and traditions. While the former focused on individual ownership of private properties and trade-based economies, the latter focused on the commonality of the Clan. This state of affairs was characteristic of the northeast of Ireland with its trees and shrubberies, as opposed to the Irish midlands increasingly marked by clearances, deforestation and cash-cropping. During the resurrections against the Anglo-Norman colonists in the late 13th and 14th centuries, however, these Northeastern ways of crop cultivation and reforestation expanded into the Midlands, while the Anglo-Norman agricultural patterns of exploitation retracted to the south.

One of the differences between the two agrarian systems is found in the handling of animals. While the more traditional system involves an extensive semi-nomadic production of meat and dairy products and a certain element of transhumance, the Anglo-Norman system depends relatively much more on the traction of cattle and the protein production from corn-fed pigs, poultry etc. Ruhaak writes that the closeness between humans and animals provides optimal opportunities for the spread of a zoonotic disease as plague. More precisely, though, he argues that any mono-cultural agricultural system will provide less biodiversity followed by less competition, thus providing better for the hosts of any zoonotic disease to prosper. Contributing to this would be the wider availability of grain for such hosts (not mentioned by Ruhaak in this article). Finally, a mono-cultural system of agriculture will, in the long run, create an unsustainable system causing famines and perhaps even people hunting for rodents (“bushmeat”) with the increased risk of handling infected animals. At the other end of the spectrum, the Gaelic clan-based societies would provide a de-centralised redistribution of needed resources, and ales depleted rural economy. “Therefore this system is better positioned to adapt to ecological changes that affect resources needed by the Clan”, writes Ruhaak as a conclusion.

Ruhaak’s research is a welcome contribution to the monotone debate on the impact of Yersinia Pestis in the 14th century. Arguably, though, it does not provide for a comparative explanation of the way in which other similar regions or countries came to suffer. For instance, the case of Norway, with its similar “clan-based” society (based on the right to odal) and its comparable agrarian system represents a conundrum. Arguably, Norway was one of the hardest-hit regions in Europe. How come, the events unfolded differently in Ireland and Norway? Indeed, was this even the case?

The article by Ruhaak is a presentation of the results of his research dissertation: The development of Vulnerability and Resiliency to the plague: from the ‘Big Bang’ of Yersinia Pestis, Black Death and the Continued Geographic Expansion of the Zoonotic Outbreaks to the Present. Thesis: University of Liverpool, 2019.


Towards an Alternative Black death Narrative for Ireland: Ecological and Socio-Economic Divides on the Medieval European frontier.
By Raymond Ruhaak
In: The Journal of the North Atlantic (2019), Vol 39, pp. 1-16




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