Irish history: A rural community survived a millennium of plagues and famines

Analysis of pollen stored in peat at Slieveanorra in the Antrim Hills reveals the resilience of a rural community in the face of environmental change


April 27, 2022

The boggy uplands of Northern Ireland were once forested and farmed

Helen Essell, CC-BY 4.0

A rural Irish community has survived a succession of climate change and other threats over the past 1,000 years, a study of pollen stored in peat has found. The discovery suggests that societies can endure despite environmental changes, if they are flexible enough to adapt their way of life.

The Irish have experienced many upheavals over the past millennium. These include the European Famine of 1315-17, the Black Death of 1348-49, and the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-52. There have also been climatic changes, including the transition from the relatively warm medieval climate anomaly to the slightly cooler Little Ice Age.

To find out more about how people dealt with these events, Gill Plunkett and Graeme Swindles of Queen’s University Belfast in the UK studied an archaeological site called Slieveanorra in the Hills of Antrim, which is now part of North Ireland. It is an upland bog, surrounded on three sides by ridges.

“If you go up today, it’s deserted,” Plunkett says, but there are abandoned houses and signs of farming.

Plunkett and Swindles studied pollen from a peat core in Slieveanorra to find out what plants have grown there over the past 1,000 years. They found evidence of human interference everywhere, such as fewer trees than expected, more pasture plants and grain crops.

The team also saw pollen from plants in the cannabis family, which includes hemp. “I think we probably produced hemp and flax as well,” Plunkett says, possibly for the textile industry.

The small community has gone through multiple crises. The famine and plague of the 1300s were associated with increased land use, suggesting that any reduction in population was temporary. The only time the site may have been abandoned was during a wet period in the mid-1400s, for a generation or two, but after that agriculture resumed and even increased.

It was not until the early 1900s that farming ceased. Plunkett thinks it was because people saw better opportunities elsewhere, rather than the area becoming uninhabitable.

It is unclear why the community of Slieveanorra was so resilient, but Plunkett says one reason may be that there were no landlords or landlords, at least until the late 1800s. This meant that the people who lived there were free to change their way of life, for example by hunting more when the crops were growing badly – instead of having to send a certain amount of grain to a feudal lord.

Journal reference: PLoS OneDOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0266680

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