Tomorrow will see thousands converge on Dublin for a national demonstration against the Water Tax – the latest austerity measure imposed by the Irish government. This demonstration has come on the back of a growing wave of protests in recent weeks across Dublin which has seen direct action taken by residents across the city to stop the implementation of water meters. Such protests are by no means new to Dublin, indeed protest and direct action are as old as the city itself. When we look at five protests from medieval Ireland modern demonstrations are if anything somewhat tame in comparison!
#1 Water Protests of 1224 & 1244.
Water has long been a controversial topic in Dublin. In 1224 it was fishing rights along the river Liffey that caused tensions in the town when the Order of the Knights Hospitaller at Kilmainham ‘made a pond in this water’ which obstructed the movement of fish along the Liffey. On that occasion the town appealed directly to King Henry III who instructed any blockages or obstructions on the river to be removed.
Unsurprisingly attempts to introduce a water tax twenty years later in 1244 appear to have caused anger in Dublin. That year the kings representative (the Justiciar) Maurice FitzGerald instructed
“the Sheriff of Dublin, without delay, by twelve free and lawful men of his county, to make inquisition….as to whence water can he best and most conveniently taken from its course and conducted to the King’s city of Dublin, for the benefit of the city, and at the cost of the citizens, who have undertaken to pay the amount.”
It would seem medieval Dubliners were as reticent as their modern counterparts to pay as the authorities expected resistance.
“Any who oppose are to be suppressed by force and to be attached to appear before the Justiciar at the next Assizes. Those who resist are to be arrested and held till further mandate. “
#2 Peasants strike of 1299
The final years of the 13th century in Ireland were tumultuous to say the least. Between 1295 and 1297 Ireland endured famine and was devastated by a war between the Burke and FitzGerald families. However in 1299 circumstances changed for the better. A peace of sorts was agreed while the weather improved dramatically resulting in a bountiful harvest.
Having endured years of war and starvation the peasantry now found themselves in an unusually powerful position. With the great harvest the demand for their labour increased and within a few months they were on strike demanding better payment. By May a parliament (then made up largely of landowning nobles) heard
“that servants, ploughmen, carters, threshers, and other their servants refuse to serve about the services for which they were accustomed to serve, on account of the fertility of the present year”.
Harsh penalties were introduced by the parliament. No more was heard of this strike so we can assume it did not end well.
#3 Murder of Soldiers in the Coombe 1304
Of the many hardships inflicted on medieval Dubliners, one of the greatest inconveniences was the constant movement of troops. This was particularly the case from 1296 onwards when king Edward I was at war with the Scots. This saw troops frequently on the move heading to ports along the Eastern seaboard of Ireland waiting for ships to carry them for Scotland. These unruly troops caused chaos wherever they went, however in 1305 medieval Dubliners ran out of patience.
When an army under Maurice de Carreu camped in the Coombe a few hundred metres from the walls of medieval Dublin, a number of prominent citizens of the town taught the disruptive army a lesson when they attacked the army camp and killed several soldiers!
#4 Dealing with profiteers.
Through the late 13th century the weather in Ireland became increasingly wet. This severely impacted crop yields and the resulting shortages produced several famines. In 1310 as Dublin was entering a third year of dire shortages the town’s bakers couldn’t resist profiteering on the misery of the starving population.
After a few years of poor harvest, flour had become increasingly valuable and town’s bakers began increase their profits by mixing the flour with cheaper ingredients producing inferior quality bread. However they were caught. The irate population did not appeal to the King for justice, instead the matter was resolved on the spot. The annals of St Mary’s Abbey recalled how the bakers of the town suffered ‘a new kind of torment which had never been before’. They were strapped to the tails of horses and hauled along the hurdles – the wooden meshes that lined the streets.
#5 Militancy against the nobility
Through the early 14th century tensions between the nobility and the populations of medieval towns increased. The merchant dominated towns were increasingly weary of the lawless activity of brigand nobles who were robbing their goods and damaging trade.
The towns were also a challenge to the power of nobles. In the 14th century some towns offered freedom to serfs. For example in Dublin this law offered protection to serfs who had left their lords
“Villeins [serfs] who, by permission of the Mayor and commonalty, remain in the city of Dublin for a year and a day, are thereby freed of all claims from their former lords.”
Amid these tensions and despite the power of the nobility medieval Dubliners frequently stood up to the Lords. When the city faced siege in February 1317 the population lead by the mayor seized Richard Burke, the Earl of Ulster the most powerful noble in Ireland then staying in Dublin. Distrust had reached the point that Dubliners believed Burke might betray the city to an approaching Scottish Army.
In process of seizing Burke the mob of Dubliners killed seven of the Earl’s retinue and partially burned St Mary’s Abbey where he was staying. After his capture he was imprisoned in Dublin castle for several months. Even after Burke was released by order of the king in May 1317 tensions rumbled on. Even as late as 1319 nobles and their retinues were ordered to stay away from Dublin by royal order in fear of the violence that would break out in the city between the population of the town and the nobles.