By the late 13th century medieval Dublin had reached its zenith. Having benefited from over a century of trade, it was unquestionably the primary settlement in Ireland. While not the biggest walled town – it was surpassed by Drogheda and New Ross – its sprawling suburbs made it the most populous settlement with ten to fifteen thousand people living along the banks of the Liffey. Although it was the centre of Norman colonial administration, containing the exchequer buildings, it was not the busiest port, as judging from customs receipts, by the late 13th century this honour fell to New Ross.
While economically the wider Anglo-Norman colony reached its zenith between 1292-4, when the exchequer was returning around £9,000 per year, colonial society was already in decline. While Dublin was protected by the Vale of Dublin to its south and medieval county of Kildare to its west, and the Lordships of Meath and Trim to the north, in the far south west the Gaelic Irish were beginning to reconquer Norman territory.
Famine also began taking its toll as Ireland suffered serious food shortages in 1295, and again in 1308. These crises obviously had an economic impact reflected in the fall in exchequer receipts from the previous year by 1306-07 to £58931 – a fall of over 33% since the early 1290s. Worse was to come. As we shall see, from 1315 – 18 the worst famine in medieval history swept across north-western Europe; an apocalyptic event which coincided with the equally catastrophic Bruce invasion of Ireland.
By 1308 Dublin itself was directly feeling the pinch. The Vale of Dublin no longer provided protection to the city on its southern flank. Indeed scarcely one hundred metres from the city walls at the exchequer buildings on the corner of George’s Street and Exchequer Street, valuables had to be taken inside the city each night for fear of Gaelic attack2. While external tensions in wider society placed massive military, economic, and social pressures on the city, to the extent that it would threaten medieval Dublin’s very existence, within the city itself the population was far from unified.