Re: Journal he calls it but History...
Chapter V: A plague on both your Houses:
The Black Death, the War of the Roses and the rise of Kildare.
Timeline: 1348 - 1512
As already related, the power of the English Crown did not establish itself much beyond a few small kingdoms – the counties of Waterford, Wexford and Dublin basically – and anywhere inside that small region controlled by the King was denoted the Pale, or often the English Pale. This word seems to have come from an old word for fortress or stronghold, though there are some differing accounts of its origins. However we can probably best think of it as the equivalent of the Green Area in Iraq, an area wherein the occupying force was located, and which was considered his stronghold. Outside the Pale, the Irish lords ruled, and from this state of affairs comes an old Irish phrase, still occasionally in use today: “beyond the Pale” has come to mean anything that is beyond the bounds of normality or anything that is hard to believe: “You got the promotion instead of me? Ah, that's a bit beyond the Pale now!” and so on. It is often used colloquially to refer to any area outside Dublin as being “outside the Pale”.
As the Norman settlers were left increasingly isolated, the king turning his attention to more important matters such as wars with France, and later, within his own power structure, the Pale slowly shrunk, until by the mid-fifteenth century it comprised a relatively small area which took in Dublin, Louth, Meath and Kildare, and indeed, not all of those counties (see map above), and was shrinking fast. Even within the Pale, while the lords and landowners may have been English and mostly acted as such, the common folk were all Irish, speaking the Irish language and reverting to Irish customs, in spite of the Statues of Kilkenny, which really, nobody obeyed anyway. The fortification and concentration of Dublin and other Norman towns ironically left them more exposed to the great sickness which would soon reach sticky black fingers down from Europe to touch every part of Ireland.
Although it's not strictly part of the history of Ireland specifically, the Black Death did significantly impact the island, as it did just about everywhere else, and is a part of the tapestry of the history of Ireland, if only a relatively small thread. Nonetheless, to understand fully its implications for Ireland I think it's necessary to turn the microscope on that small thread and examine it more closely in respect to the rest of the world.
Believed to have originated in China in the fourteenth century, the Black Death, also called the Plague, the Black Plague, the Great Plague and, later, Bubonic Plague, swept across Europe and successfully wiped out what is reckoned to be around forty percent of its population. That's approximately seventy to two hundred million people, over a period of seven years, more than all the deaths in the two world wars of the twentieth century combined. Lack of medical knowledge, as well as poor hygiene practices and the total lack of, or understanding of quarantines, led to the disease having free rein across the world, and by the time it had finished its first attack it had infiltrated and wrought massive death tolls in virtually every country, from Asia and Africa to the Middle East and from Russia to all of Europe, including of course Ireland. Later, in the nineteenth century, a resurgence of the Plague would reach Australia and even at the beginning of the twentieth century it would surface in the USA.
Carried by fleas infesting black rats, which came over on ships from China or along the main trade route, the Silk Road, the Plague spread to Europe and nobody had any idea what it was, where it came from, much less how to combat it. What was certain was that it was almost one hundred percent contagious, and once one member of a family was infected, the rest of the family would likely follow. Houses were often boarded up and marked with a red “X” in an extremely crude form of quarantine, though this did not stop the spread of the disease, as the fleas simply hopped through cracks in walls and floorboards and through windows in search of new hosts. Theories abounded (all wrong), from alignment of the planets to bad water, to the famous “miasma” theory, where it was held that the Plague was airborne, carried on a dark evil wind, and that in order to avoid being infected you should avoid the “bad air” outside and remain indoors. Naturally, this only helped to incubate the disease more quickly and led to more deaths.
Many believed the Black Death to be a curse from God, and who could blame them? If you've read my review of Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal in The Couch Potato, or seen the movie, you'll agree that it must have seemed to the people of the time that the world was coming to an end. Nobody could stand against this Plague, and kings and popes were cut down as easily as commoners. Poor suffered with rich, and no amount of barring your door or isolating yourself could stay the dark hand of death, nor could it be bargained with. As we always do in times of crisis, people looked around for scapegoats, culprits, someone to blame, and as would be the case throughout most of recorded history, the Jews became a target, accused of poisoning wells, and lepers and gypsies were also attacked. But perhaps the saddest of all these incorrect accusations was the blame levelled on cats.
Specifically, witches. Cats were seen as the familiars, or companion demons, of witches, and had been since the early Dark Ages. Any cat therefore was seen as an agent of the devil, and thousands were burned on pyres in an effort to expel the devil and lift the curse. The irony being, of course, had the cats been left to their natural devices they would in all likelihood have killed the rats who were carrying the fleas. Of course, the fleas if they survived would then just transfer to the cats, so maybe that would not have been such a solution. But because nobody back then even understood how diseases could be transmitted from one person to another, the lack of knowledge worked against them. If knowledge is power, then it probably follows that in most cases, ignorance is weakness and impotence, and the world at large was completely impotent in the face of this inexplicable horror.
Imagine the terror: seemingly all of a sudden, out of nowhere you start to hear of people dying in far-off cities, and then nearer ones. Then outbreaks are reported in your own country. With little in the way of communication there would of course be a dearth of news, but travellers would bring the tales of the death they had seen, and armies and ambassadors, priests and pedlars, sailors and adventurers would all carry news of this great blight advancing across Europe. And then the dread when one of your neighbours died, and the Black Death was suddenly in your town, your village, your city. Or even your castle. And there was no stopping it. Medical science offered no solution, no hope. The word “quack” to describe a doctor has come about from the practice medical men had of wearing long, conical masks over their faces stuffed with flowers and herbs to ward off the disease, a very crude form of facemask. But all they could do was bring comfort to the patient; there was no way they could save them. They simply did not even know where to start.
The Black Death arrived in Ireland (no I haven't forgotten what I'm writing about) in 1348, two years after it had reached its peak in Europe and five years since it had begun its deadly trip from Central Asia, and was a disaster for the Normans. Already reeling from rebellions, civil wars and the recent European famine, and bereft of any support from the Crown, as the king was busy fighting the French in the Hundred Years's War, the Normans (now beginning to be called Anglo-Irish) found that their fortified cities and towns, while superior for defence and protection, were the kind of breeding ground for the Plague than the more scattered, rural habitations of the native Irish, and as a consequence the Black Death took a heavier toll on the Normans than the Irish.
With their enemy weakened, and no reinforcement looking possible from across the water, the Irish chieftains moved. The first real challenger was Art McMurrough Kavanagh, a descendant of Diarmuid MacMurchada (remember him?) and also, like his ancestor, heir to the throne of Leinster, which he assumed in 1370. For the next forty years he harrassed the Normans, even advancing on Dublin, though he did not take it. In 1394, able to take a break from the Hundred Years' War, King Richard II paid a personal visit to Ireland at the head of an army which has been variously reported as being between five and ten thousand strong. Even at the lower end of the scale of estimates, this still makes it the largest armed force to land on Irish soil in the medieval period. Needless to say, the king quickly quelled all revolt against his authority and all the Irish chieftains swore fealty to him, only to renounce it once he had been recalled to England. He returned five years later but was unable to stay, as he had to return to meet the challenge of the man who would go on to kill him and take his crown, Henry Bolingbroke, who would become King Henry IV.