In February 1317 Dubliners were suffering from the effects of the worst famine of the Middle Ages. To make matters worse a Scots army led by Edward Bruce, brother of the king of Scotland, had invaded Ireland in 1315. Over the following three years he and his army traipsed up and down the Norman colony of Ireland burning towns, villages and fields as they went.
As the second year of war and famine dragged on through 1316, Dublin had managed to evade attack. However this all changed in early 1317.
Robert the Bruce, the King of Scotland arrived in Ireland with fresh troops to aid this brother. Seeking to land a decisive blow he marched on Dublin in February. Arriving north of the city on 23rd February, he made camp in Castleknock close to the city. Inside Dublin fear gripped the population. There was no major Anglo-Norman army that could reach the city in time.
Such desperate times called for desperate measures. A decision was taken to burn the suburbs to the west of Dublin around Thomas Street. This would deny the Scots any cover as they attacked the city the following day. However during that fateful night of the 23rd of February, the fire along Thomas Street spiraled out of control. In the conflagration that followed most of the suburbs outside the walls of Dublin were burned to the ground. St Patrick’s Cathedral was also damaged while the Exchequer building situated outside the eastern Dame Gate was gutted in this fire.
Ultimately Dublin did not fall, the Scots abandoned attempts to attack the city when they saw the tenacity of its defenders. However the fires started by the townspeople resulted in as much as 75 per cent of the city’s buildings being destroyed.[i] After the Scots were defeated in 1318, King Edward II reduced Dublin’s taxation from £133 to around £33 to reflect the city’s losses during the war.
The full story of this fire and the aftermath is covered in my upcoming book “1348: A Medieval Apocalypse – War, Famine and the Black Death in 14th century Ireland.”
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[i] Clarke, H.B. Urbs et suburbium: beyond the walls of medieval Dublin in Manning, C. (ed.) Dublin and beyond the Pale: studies in honour of Patrick Healy (Dublin, 1998) p.47.