Famine in 8th Century Ireland

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XII

An Irish poet, who died in 742, is said to have played a clever trick on the "foreigners" of Dublin. He composed a poem for them, and then requested payment for his literary labours. The Galls, [5] who were probably Saxons, refused to meet his demand, but Rumrann said he would be content with two pinguins (pennies) from every good man, and one from each bad one. The result may be anticipated. Rumrann is described as "an adept in wisdom, chronology, and poetry;" we might perhaps add, and in knowledge of human nature. In the Book of Ballymote he is called the Virgil of Ireland. A considerable number of Saxons were now in the country; and it is said that a British king, named Constantine, who had become a monk, was at that time Abbot of Rahen, in the King's county, and that at Cell-Belaigh there were seven streets [6] of those foreigners. Gallen, in the King's county, was called Galin of the Britons, and Mayo was called Mayo of the Saxons, from the number of monasteries therein, founded by members of these nations.

The entries during the long reign of Domhnall contain little save obituaries of abbots and saints. The first year of the reign of Nial Frassagh is distinguished by a shower of silver, a shower of wheat, and a shower of honey. The Annals of Clonmacnois say that there was a most severe famine throughout the whole kingdom during the early part of his reign, so much that the king himself had very little to live upon. Then the king prayed very fervently to God, being in company with seven holy bishops; and he asked that he might die rather than see so many of his faithful subjects perishing, while he was helpless to relieve them. At the conclusion of his prayer, the "three showers" fell from heaven; and then the king and the seven bishops gave great thanks to the Lord.

But a more terrible calamity than famine was even then impending, and, if we may believe the old chroniclers, not without marvellous prognostications of its approach. In the year 767 there occurred a most fearful storm of thunder and lightning, with "terrific and horrible signs." It would appear that the storm took place while a fair was going on, which obtained the name of the "Fair of the clapping of hands." Fear and horror seized the men of Ireland, so that their religious seniors ordered them to make two fasts, together with fervent prayer, and one meal between them, to protect and save them from a pestilence, precisely at Michaelmas.[7]


[5] Galls.—Gall was a generic name for foreigners. The Danes were Finn Galls or White Foreigners, and Dubh Galls, or Black Foreigners. The former were supposed to have been the inhabitants of Norway; the latter, of Jutland. In Irish, gaill is the nom., and gall, gen.

[6] Streets.—In Armagh the buildings were formed into streets and wards, for the better preservation of monastic discipline. Armagh was divided into three parts—trian-more, the town proper; trian-Patrick, the cathedral close; and trian-Sassenagh, the home of the foreign students.

[7] Michaelmas.—Annals, p. 371. Another fearful thunderstorm is recorded in the Annals for 799. This happened on the eve of St. Patrick's Day. It is said that a thousand and ten persons were killed on the coast of Clare. The island of Fitha (now Mutton Island) was partly submerged, and divided into three parts. There was also a storm in 783—"thunder, lightning, and wind-storms"—by which the Monastery of Clonbroney was destroyed.