Five hundred and thirty years before the death and devastation caused in 1847 by An Gorta Mor (The Great Hunger), Ireland suffered an equally horrific event that begun in 1315 and was the first in a series of large-scale disasters that devastated Europe in the 14th century. A continent-wide famine began with heavy rains in the spring of 1315 causing crop failures all across Europe which didn’t recover until late in 1322. The crisis brought extreme levels of crime, disease, millions of deaths and even cannibalism. The disaster had major consequences for the Church, state and European society as a whole. In 1317, Ireland was seriously affected by the famine with a shortage of food and provisions. People had to revert to being hunters and gatherers and began to collect seaweed, wild roots, hazelnuts, acorns, plants, grasses, and tree bark in the forests.
By the early 14th century, Ireland had not had a High King since Ruaidri Ua Conchobair (Rory O'Connor) who had been deposed by his son in 1186. The country was divided between the Gaelic dynasties that had survived the earlier Norman invasions and the Hiberno-Norman Lords of Ireland. In 1258 some of the Gaelic aristocrats elected Brian Ua Néill High King; unfortunately, he was defeated by the Normans at the Battle of Downpatrick in 1260. In 1306, a Scottish chieftain named Robert Bruce plotted to overthrow the Normans and regain Scottish independence. With the aid of several Scottish lords and their many associated clans, Robert Bruce defeated them at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314 and soon after, was crowned king of Scotland.
In the province of Ulster, Ireland, two powerful clans, the O'Neills and O'Donnells, were heartened by this victory in Scotland and sent emissaries to speak to Robert Bruce in hopes of enlisting his aid in defeating the Normans that remained in Ireland. A deal was struck in which the king’s brother, Edward Bruce would be crowned Ard Ri (high king) of Ireland, in return for their assistance.
In 1315 Robert Bruce, King of Scots, sent his younger brother Edward Bruce to invade Ireland. Bruce's main mission in invading Ireland was to create a second front in the ongoing war against Norman England, draining her of much needed men, materials and finance by creating havoc on the island, as well as depriving her of the Irish tax revenues contributing to the war effort. This became critical when King Robert's control of the Isle of Man was lost to Norman-backed Scots in January 1315, thereby threatening the south and southwest of Scotland and also reopening up a potential source of aid to England from the Hiberno-Normans and Gaelic Irish. Later that year a large, disciplined army led by Edward Bruce, landed at Larne in Ulster, just north of Belfast, County Antrim. They marched south to the royal kingdom of Meath, and after a bloody battle, defeated the Norman forces. In May 1316 Edward was crowned king of Ireland and later that year his brother Robert Bruce arrived in Ireland with his considerable forces. The brothers, with their combined armies, marched on the Normans of Limerick, Tipperary and Kilkenny, routed them and destroyed their property. Robert returned to Scotland leaving Edward to complete the removal of the remaining Normans. For a glorious moment in Ireland’s tortured history, it seemed likely that the Normans would be driven out of Ireland once and for all.
At first, the Irish-Scottish alliance seemed unstoppable, as it won battle after battle and gained control of most of Ireland in less than a year and was on the verge of driving the Anglo-Norman settlers out of Ireland altogether. Sadly, it was not to be. Because of the famine and the lack of food for his troops, many of whom were already weakened by pneumonia and influenza, Edward Bruce’s military campaign was severely hampered during this time and slowed their advance. In October 1318, Edward marched north to County Louth where he engaged a large Norman army. North of the town of Dundalk, at the battle of Faughart, County Louth, Edward’s army was defeated, and he died from his wounds some time later.
This event marked a clear end to an unprecedented period of population growth that had started around 1050. Although some believe growth had already been slowing down for a few decades, the famine was undoubtedly a clear end of high population growth. The Great Famine would later have consequences for future events in the fourteenth century, such as the Black Death, when an already weakened population would be struck again.
© John A. Brennan 2018. All Rights Reserved.