Weather forecasters are predicting this winter could be one of the worst in decades. However no matter how bad it gets, it could be worse – a lot worse. In this article I take a look at four of the worst medieval winters when rivers froze while famine, war and even cannibalism stalked the land as a result.
The winter of 1271 began in earnest when the Annals of Inisfallen recorded a heavy snowfall on January 6th. This weather resulted in not only a bad weather and a winter of discontent but over a decade of violent upheaval. Continuing through the winter of 1272 this weather resulted in ‘great famine in the same year so that multitudes of poor people died of cold and hunger and the rich suffered hardship’ (Annals of Inisfallen).
The impact of this weather was far reaching in Leinster in particular. In the Wicklow mountains the O’Byrne and O’Toole families who had been driven off their ancestral lands by the Norman invasion were soon faced with a dire situation. Living around the inhospitable Glen of Imaal, Glenmalure and Glendalough it appears life became intolerable.
After nearly a century of more or less peaceful co-existence with the Normans they revolted attacking and raiding Norman settlements. Even the harsh weather subvsided it had opened a Pandora’s box. The revolt in the Wicklow Mountains snowballed drawing in the McMurrough family. It only came to an end in 1282 with the assassination of Art and Muirchertach McMurrough at Arklow.
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Poor weather conditions frequently destroyed harvests leading to severe food shortages. In 1295 ‘very stormy weather this year, with wind, snow, and lightning’ producing ‘loss of life’ was reported in the Annals of Inisfallen. This was an understatement. Records in Christ church cathedral Dublin recorded that the poor in the city were eating the bodies of executed criminals to survive. This starvation resulting from bad weather was one if the factors that contributed to two years of upheaval, war and revolt known as the ‘time of disturbance’. Incidentally this is not the only time cannibalism is recorded in Irish history. Between 1315 and 1318 when one of the worst famines in European history killed 10-15% of the population cannibalism was again reported.
The Kilkenny chronicler John Clyn noted that in 1330/31 from ‘May right up to the following February it was excessively wet, full of rain and wind so that summer and autumn seemed almost to have become the winter period’.
While Clyn may well have been exaggerating the conditions, the winter was unquestionably harsh. On November 25th and December 23rd Ireland was battered by particularly bad storms, which collapsed buildings while bridges, while mills were washed away. After this lengthy and difficult winter, famine resulted from a poor harvest. Wheat reached the price of 20 shillings per crannoc, four times its normal price. This resulted in one of the most unusual chapters in Dublin’s history (later immortalised by James Joyce in Ulysses).
By the summer of 1331 Dublin was in the grip of starvation. However on June 27th 1331, a school of whales beached themselves just outside the walls of the town. The Justiciar Anthony de Lucy led the townspeople to the beach where two hundred whales were butchered for meat alleviating the crisis in the city.
The winter of 1338-39 was brutally cold with sub zero temperatures lasting from December 2nd to February 10th. After what was described by the annalist of St Mary’s Abbey in Dublin as a ‘vehement frost’ the river Liffey froze over. Indeed the townspeople of Dublin were able to hold a festival of sorts on the river. Contemporary accounts describe running jumping and football being played on the icy Liffey surface. There was even fires of wood and turf on the river where herrings were cooked!