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Climate and Society in Ireland is a collection of essays, commissioned by the Royal Irish Academy, that provides a multi-period, interdisciplinary perspective on one of the most important challenges currently facing humanity. In Chapter 13, John Sweeney (Maynooth University) argues that while throughout most of its history, Irish society was a prisoner of climate as mediated through the necessity of a harvest surplus, the relationship is now reversed: in a global context, climate is now the prisoner of people.

Sitting astride the main storm tracks of the North Atlantic, Ireland’s location has historically rendered it vulnerable to the vicissitudes of weather and climate. Throughout the nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth century, the imperative of achieving a food, fodder and fuel surplus meant agrarian Irish society was a greater hostage to climate than many other parts of Europe where the Industrial Revolution had enabled the worst effects of the Little Ice Age to be mitigated.

Closer examination of society–climate relationships has been facilitated by documentary sources and by direct observations from the nineteenth century onwards, which have provided new insights into Irish climate hazards such as storms, floods and droughts. As Ireland modernised, new concerns such as urban flooding emerged, and new ways of managing climate risks were devised. Ultimately though, as more benign climatic conditions in the mid-nineteenth century gave way to more instability and rapid warming in the twentieth and early twenty first, the need for adaptation and mitigation of climate change became evident. Improvements in global and regional climate modelling and forecasting were instrumental in assisting with this.

However, Irish society has been slow to react to climate change concerns and only through a series of catalytic extreme events has public and political attitudes shifted, induced by both ‘bottom-up’ activism and ‘top-down’ international agreements. Accordingly, Ireland is now on the threshold of taking the radical steps necessary to shed its ‘climate laggard’ status and embark on the road to a post-carbon society.

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Climate and Society in Ireland is a collection of essays, commissioned by the Royal Irish Academy, that provides a multi-period, interdisciplinary perspective on one of the most important challenges currently facing humanity. In Chapter 12, Simon Noone and Conor Murphy (both of Maynooth University) attempt to reconstruct monthly river flows for twelve Irish catchments using quality assured long-term precipitation records for the period 1850–2015.

In recent years significant progress has been made in developing long-term, quality assured records of precipitation for the island of Ireland that stretch back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These records have been used to extend understanding of past climate variability and change, and to provide further insight into extremes of floods and droughts. For such hydro-climatic extremes it is particularly beneficial to have long river flow records to examine, among other things, how meteorological extremes propagate into hydrological extremes. However, river flow records of concurrent length do not exist on the island. The commencement of river flow monitoring typically coincided with the onset of arterial drainage in the 1940s/1950s and with the occurrence of drought in the mid-1970s when local authorities became concerned about ensuring adequate supply to meet demand.

In the UK and elsewhere, researchers have used long rainfall records to reconstruct river flows for numerous catchments with the derived series being employed to assess variability and change in flow sequences and to investigate past extremes. Reconstructed flows have also been used to assess the resilience of water company drought plans, noting that severe droughts of the nineteenth century are particularly useful for testing current and future water supply systems and to provide a baseline for climate change adaptation planning. For instance, river flow reconstruction and drought analysis for the Anglian Region, United Kingdom (UK) highlighted periods of prolonged drought in 1854–60 and 1893–1907. While similar work for the Severn Trent water supply region in the UK identified several notable drought periods in the reconstructed flow series in 1887–89, 1892–97, 1921–23, 1933–35, 1975–77 and 1995–98. Each of these studies highlights the utility of long-term reconstructed river flows to water planning and to understanding variability and change in catchment hydrology.

This paper aims, firstly, to use the Island of Ireland Precipitation (IIP) network 1850–2015 to reconstruct monthly river flows for selected catchments and, secondly, to identify hydrological droughts in reconstructed flow records. The paper is organised as follows; first we describe the study catchments and detail the data used in reconstructing river flows. Next, we describe the methods, including the hydrological model employed, its calibration and verification. The drought indicators employed are also described. Following the presentation of results we provide some discussion of key insights and future research directions, before drawing conclusions.

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Climate and Society in Ireland is a collection of essays, commissioned by the Royal Irish Academy, that provides a multi-period, interdisciplinary perspective on one of the most important challenges currently facing humanity. In Chapter 11, Máire Ní Annracháin (UCD) explains the trope of comhbhá an dúlra, the idea that Nature acts in sympathy with rightful rulers, and shows how modern Gaelic poets often display a high degree of irony as they reflect on non-traditional forms of relationship between humans and the natural world.

Irish literature has from earliest times been imbued with three core concepts that relate to the relationship between humans and the land. Collectively they served to affirm the sovereignty of political or other leaders. They were, first, the understanding that Ireland, or individual parts of it, could be personified as a woman, whether goddess, human, or of intermediate status; second, that Nature was a site of almost paradisiacal abundance; and third, that Nature responded to the fortunes of those who inhabit the land and in particular to the fortunes of the rightful leader. The sympathy of nature, comhbhá an dúlra, is the focus of this paper. It is somewhat akin to, but not identical with pathetic fallacy. The latter attributes human feelings to Nature or can seem to a human observer to do so, while comhbhá an dúlra represents a quasi-magical response by the natural world to important events in a leader’s life, for good or ill. Thus, Nature would rejoice and be fruitful if a leader or other important man, or a man whom one wished to construe as important, succeeded in important ways; however if he died or failed in some respect, Nature had many ways to express distress: it might scream in pain or wither, crops might fail, birds might fall silent. Its sympathy was to an extent conditional, in that it could be withheld in response to culpable failure. […]

The concept of the sympathy of Nature, where Nature is conceived as the female spouse of the rightful leader, is connected with the traditional concept of the divine right of kings. It raises obvious issues of gender inequality, which have been analysed in detail by scholars. Of more immediate relevance to this paper, it also raises more general issues of the power relations between humans and the natural world. Not all Irish scholars subscribe to the idea that the relationship was one of unremitting male dominance. Breandán Ó Buachalla for instance, argued for the existence of a partnership, on the grounds that the bestowal of sovereignty on the male leader was depicted as the gift of the goddess of the land, and she moreover was represented as proactive in responding to his life, which included her being willing to express disapproval of his misdemeanours, military defeats or other failures to live up to the obligations of his role. Thus Ó Buachalla argues against the by-now widely held feminist view that the female personification of the land and the concomitant sympathy of Nature serve as a bulwark of male power and prestige, leaving the male leader as protagonist and the female role as one of response.

Whether traditionally an expression of partnership or of a relationship of dominance and subordination, post-Revival poetry throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century takes up these and many other traditional tropes, reimagining them creatively and often ironically. Finding or imagining a fissure in the idea of Nature’s supposed sympathy with male leaders has led to radical reassessment of gender relations, both public and private. Over and above gender, it is clear that with the shift in perspective brought about by the current era of climate disruptions, new and fruitful ways of relating to Nature are discernible, or can be inferred from the radical engagement with traditional tropes that certain poets have undertaken.

Not all relevant social and political developments are of recent origin. Most obvious from the eighteenth century was the failure of the messianic kingover- the-water to fulfil his promise to Ireland; the success of democracy more widely, which undermined the belief in great leaders automatically possessing the right to rule; Freudian insight into the controlling power of the unconscious over the will; and the belief, since Darwin, that it is humans who adapt to their environment, not Nature that responds to them in a subordinate manner. More recently, the women’s movement has been remarkably instrumental in challenging the belief in a strong, dominant individual man with a God-given right to control his own mind and actions, his territory, his people and in some cases large swathes of the planet with its multitude of inhabitants. A word of warning against two interpretative extremes is warranted. First, the long tradition of comhbhá an dúlra from which contemporary poets emerged did imply a recognition of the interdependence of the land and the people, but, Ó Buachalla’s analysis notwithstanding, it is difficult to characterise it as anything other than firmly anthropocentric, to the extent that Nature responded to and reflected human action (or in certain cases reflected the glory of God or other supernatural figures, notably Fionn Mac Cumhaill). Thus it is fair to say that Irish remained largely free of the popular semi-mystical ascription to the Celtic world of an undifferentiated unity between humans and all other life forms, expressed by, for example, Bartosch as an awareness of a ‘shared creaturely situation of human and nonhuman animals’.

On the other hand, notwithstanding its anthropocentrism, Irish literature does not give widespread witness to the enthronement of the sovereign human subject within the context of ‘burgeoning enlightenment concepts of freedom and human dignity…[as Adorno] stresses how freedom and dignity for the subject are bought at a high price, namely the price of unfreedom for everything non-human, for the other, that is, for nature’. The Irish language world, at least when expressed in literature produced in Ireland, has no real tradition of the extremes of extractivist exploitation that came to characterise the industrial revolution and the conquering of the new world by empire builders. We will see later some examples of struggle between besieged humans and a harsh land, but nothing to compare with, for example, the characterisation by Theodore Roosevelt in his address to the Sorbonne University of the American taming of the new world as out and out subjugation: ‘To conquer a continent, to tame the shaggy roughness of wild nature, means grim warfare…To conquer the wilderness means to wrest victory from the same hostile forces with which mankind struggled on the immemorial infancy of our race.’

This then is the current local context for Irish-language literature: neither mistily at one with Nature nor fully dominant over it. Thus current trends in post human analysis would require a degree of modification for Irish-language literature, which retains a memory of comhbhá an dúlra, unbroken, from earliest times. The global context may be a little different. If individual leaders may have lost their sheen, they have been replaced by other forms of human dominance. The current climate emergency reinforces the doubly ironic message that Nature resists human control and, simultaneously, that the crisis is indeed a response by Nature to human actions.

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Climate and Society in Ireland is a collection of essays, commissioned by the Royal Irish Academy, that provides a multi-period, interdisciplinary perspective on one of the most important challenges currently facing humanity. In Chapter 10, Lucy Collins (UCD) explores the changing representation of weather in poetry written in Ireland between 1600 and 1820 and examines the relationship between literary convention and political and intellectual transformation in these texts.

‘Civilization inevitably runs to its end with a blindfold over its eyes’ wrote Eugène Huzar in 1855, before going on the predict that in ‘one or two hundred years’ the emissions from the world’s railways and steamships, factories and workshops would ‘disturb the harmony of the world’. This prescient awareness of the influence of human action on the wellbeing of the world is testament to the significant evolution of responses to the human relationship with atmospheric events over the preceding centuries. The need to recognise climate change as not only a scientific, but also a cultural, phenomenon means there is much to be discovered from the representation of weather before the systematic development of scientific learning. The changing representation of weather in English-language verse of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries attests to the impact of the growth in natural philosophy and the early development of science, while the evolving use of natural imagery enriches the way poets investigate and express political dynamics. For poets, Ireland has for centuries constituted a space of detailed observation as well as for elaborate metaphorical meaning. This essay explores what these texts reveal about the evolving relationship between humans and their environment, and how the language of poetry shapes this understanding.

From its inception in the 1990s ecocriticism as a discipline has been concerned with the capacity of literary texts to foster environmental awareness. Foundational texts in British ecocriticism focused on Romantic poetry as a means to explore human consciousness of the natural world and acknowledge the shared vulnerability of all living things. The social and political implications of this analysis were soon evident and shaped the first ecocritical engagements with early modern texts, which challenged previous assumptions of their anthropocentric character. While one would be mistaken, as Todd Borlik has argued, to expect these writings to represent ‘fully formulated theories of biotic egalitarianism’, they nonetheless exhibit a complex awareness of the relationship between human and non-human life. Early work in the discipline returned to canonical texts, reading Shakespeare and Milton through an ecocritical lens and paying particular attention to the political and theological implications of climate imagery. Recent ecological readings of the early modern period have opened the work of less well-known writers to scrutiny, revealing how overlooked texts shed light on everyday experiences of natural phenomena, and inform the relationship between literature and other modes of writing. In this way environmental debates have paved the way for a more inclusive literary canon and a greater depth of political engagement by critics.

In Ireland between the Tudor conquests and the Romantic period, representations of the natural world were shaped, firstly, by the dynamics of the Gaelic Irish, Old English and New English communities, and, secondly, when this triangular nexus was reduced in the seventeenth century to a more straightforward binary rivalry, to that of the Protestant and Catholic interests. The variable relationships this fostered between different linguistic, religious and intellectual traditions is evident in the evolving understanding of climate events and their impact on individual human experience. Nature could no longer be construed as stable and comforting, as ‘a consoling cycle of growth, decay and renewal’. Increased understanding of the links between meteorology and physiology in the early modern period has underlined human embeddedness in the material world and this, in turn, has indicated the challenges to direct representation of extreme weather events. These challenges sometimes resulted in stylistic experimentation, but in other cases yielded a reluctance to engage directly with the extremity of experience. Poetry from mid-seventeenth-century Ireland not only drew on English literary conventions when depicting the natural world but also reflected the particular anxieties provoked by war and its attendant social and political upheaval. A century later, extreme weather was not always described as frightening; storms or floods could serve to intensify the sense that Ireland was a wild and untamed place, and to provide for the reader a frisson of excitement. During the Romantic period, roughly from the 1790s to the 1850s, poetry combined close connection to the landscape with forms of ethical or emotional reflection. It increasingly engaged with the world of empire, and explored relations between Ireland and Britain directly, as well as meditating on larger questions concerning human hierarchy and social order.

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Climate and Society in Ireland is a collection of essays, commissioned by the Royal Irish Academy, that provides a multi-period, interdisciplinary perspective on one of the most important challenges currently facing humanity. In Chapter 9, James Kelly (DCU) maps the climate and weather experience of the population of Ireland during the later phases of the Little Ice Age (LIA).

On 21 July 1787, readers of Saunders’ News Letter were informed that ‘farms’ on the ‘banks’ of ‘all the country rivers’ had suffered ‘great damage’ due to flooding caused by ‘the late rains’. It was one of a sequence of reports recounting the effects of the heavy ‘rains’ experienced in the summer of 1787.What distinguished this report from others was not the specificity of its focus but the fact that it was accompanied by a positive reflection on the island’s climate:

Ireland, happily…does not experience those hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes, which terrify the minds of the inhabitants in other countries. Dangerous lightning is seldom seen among us, though the neighbouring countries, and even the nearest, Great Britain, furnishes frequent instances of the mischiefs done by that elementary fire. France, one of the finest and most fruitful kingdoms, has been visited by such storms of hail, thunder and lightning, as have blasted the hopes of the year, while happier Ireland has escaped like calamities.

The ability to make such comparisons and to acknowledge that ‘great and manifest alterations have taken place in the climate of most countries’ over time was one of the outcomes of the increased interest in weather reporting that was a feature of the eighteenth century. It was integral to the data collection pursued by John Rutty, the physician, whose ‘chronological history of the weather’ is the fullest Irish statement of the proposition that ‘the weather has a powerful immediate influence…in the propagation, increase and abatement of diseases’. Indeed, Rutty’s contention that the population of Ireland was less susceptible to plague because ‘the air…[was] peculiarly wholesome and healthful’ and less prone to fever because of ‘the coolness and temperateness of our summers’ provided the foundation for his conclusion that ‘the healthiness of our climate in general appears from the rarity of any notable depopulating epidemics’. Other observers were more cautious but increased meteorological curiosity, the most material evidential legacy of which is the weather diary, attests to the appreciating interest in identifying weather patterns. The number of individuals who maintained weather diaries, whether for the purposes of facilitating inquiry or, as has also been suggested, as an exercise in ‘self-discipline’, was modest. But their existence is testament to the increased recognition of the impact of climate and weather on life and the desire to penetrate its secrets.

Because ‘agrarian systems are directly dependent on climate’, it is appropriate at the outset to observe that the system of food production in Ireland and France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries ‘was not resistant to climatic shocks’. As Axel Michaelova and Louis Cullen have pointed out, since both ‘short term climate shocks and long-term climate change’ have ‘a higher probability of extreme events’, ‘most periods of serious crisis were accompanied by harvest problems’. This was an inevitable consequence of the fact that, by comparison with England where ‘agriculture was quite diversified’, the ‘structure’ of food production in Ireland and France was not. As a result, the impact of ‘climate extremes’, especially when they occurred in ‘clusters’ was more consequential than ‘an isolated climate extreme’, which might not cause ‘long-term economic damage’. A negative outcome was certainly a possibility during the Little Ice Age (LIA), assuming one accepts (and not all do) that the 1–2°C decrease that defines this climatic era merit this appellation. What is not in dispute is that the temperature oscillated between the onset of the LIA in the fourteenth century and its conclusion in the mid nineteenth, and that the eighteenth century, which is the focus of this paper, spans a number of its later phases. These are, first, the later years of the Late Maunder Minimum (‘the coldest phase of the “Little Ice Age”’) spanning the final quarter of the seventeenth century and the early decades of the eighteenth (c.1675–c.1720). Second, a warmer phase, peaking in the 1730s but which also includes a cooler, less stable period spanning most of the rest of the century; and, third, the ensuing cold phase—the Dalton Minimum—spanning the final years of the eighteenth century and most of the first three decades of the nineteenth century. Though crucial features of each of these phases remain opaque, they provide a framework for this attempt to map the climatic experience of the population of Ireland between c. 1690 and 1830. Moreover, when set beside the calendar of crisis events—famines and subsistence crises particularly—they support the findings of historical climatologists that volcanic forcing exerted such influence on weather patterns during this period that it deserves a prominent place in the history of Irish climate.

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Climate and Society in Ireland is a collection of essays, commissioned by the Royal Irish Academy, that provides a multi-period, interdisciplinary perspective on one of the most important challenges currently facing humanity. In Chapter 8, Raymond Gillespie (Maynooth University) uses the harvest crisis of 1673 as a case study to chart the response in the regions of Ireland to a deterioration of weather and stresses the need for local study of reaction to climatic change rather than global approaches.

Most historians attempting to weld an incoherent mass of evidence into some semblance of an argument, or even a story, have been attracted by two strategies. The first is to survey the problematic landscape from above in the hope of detecting a regular pattern of events and exceptions that might well provide the basis for a synthesis. The second is to isolate the local and the specific in the hope that a detailed and local microhistory will provide clues to the more perplexing general topography of the past. Historians of the seventeenth century are no exception to this generalisation. Since 1959 a magisterial overview of seventeenth-century Europe has been available, complete with an organising principle for understanding that world, in the form of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s ‘The general crisis of the seventeenth century’. Trevor-Roper’s case for a general crisis has been elaborated and refined by a succession of scholars but most successfully by Geoffrey Parker. In a number of works Parker has not only developed Trevor-Roper’s argument but also substantially improved on it, not least by arguing for an underlying agent that drew together the variables making for a crisis which by themselves had more limited explanatory potential (such as economics or politics). The agent he identified was the ‘little ice age’, a collective name for the shifts that took place in the world’s climate from the late fifteenth century, and in particular the Maunder Minimum from roughly the 1640s to the 1720s which saw lower average summer temperatures than previously in the northern hemisphere. This, Parker persuasively argued, intensified the pressure on resources that a growing population in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries had created. As climate deteriorated, marginal land became less productive (sometimes being abandoned) and so food supplies for a growing population became problematic: ‘climate-induced dearth’. The crisis was concentrated in three zones: marginal farming lands, cities and ‘macro regions’ (regional economies). Each of these zones displayed their own vulnerabilities but they were all characterised by hardship produced by disruption. Reductions in food supply meant that a weakened population became more vulnerable to disease and other forms of demographic crisis. Not all suffered equally with women and the ‘have nots’ being the most vulnerable, though life on the battlefield was still more dangerous. Migration (both voluntary and involuntary) rose as did suicide, epidemic diseases such as smallpox or plague gained ground, and the live birth rate fell through a rise in the marriage age or by infanticide. In this already weakened state the population was subjected to growing fiscal demands from an increasingly militarised and centralised state as warfare became more and more expensive and local rights came under threat from emerging centralised states. The result was war, population dislocation, plague and famine followed by a dramatic contraction in world population. Climate itself was not the sole cause of this, it ‘required the misguided policies pursued by religious and political leaders to turn the crisis caused by sudden climate change into catastrophe’. Thus local and minor problems were exacerbated into major crises that fed off each other and ensured that war was the characteristic feature of the seventeenth-century world. Indeed it is Parker’s contention that ‘the 1640s saw more rebellions and revolutions than any comparable period in world history’.3 It was climate that provided the unifying and organising principle of the crisis and ensured that it would be global, from China and Japan in the east to France and England in the west.

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Climate and Society in Ireland is a collection of essays, commissioned by the Royal Irish Academy, that provides a multi-period, interdisciplinary perspective on one of the most important challenges currently facing humanity. In Chapter 7, Bruce Campbell (Queen’s University Belfast) and Francis Ludlow (Trinity College Dublin) consider the effects that climate had on the lives and livelihoods of ordinary people in late medieval Ireland.

Ireland ‘more than any other [country] suffers from storms of wind and rain’: thus wrote Gerald of Wales in his History and topography of Ireland, based upon firsthand observations from his two extended Irish visits in 1183 and 1185. It constitutes what is probably the first reasonably detailed extant account of Ireland’s climate. As a Welshman he does not appear to have been unduly perturbed by these now well-known characteristics of the Irish weather, rather, he comments favourably on the generally temperate nature of the climate and absence of extremes of either summer heat or winter cold. He was struck by the fact that the grass remained green throughout the winter, so that haymaking and the winter housing of livestock were not practised, and noted that snow was seldom seen and rarely lasted long. In his experience, thunder and lightning were equally rare, partly because ‘you will scarcely see even in summer three consecutive days of really fine weather’. Hence his stress upon the windiness of the Irish weather (‘a north-west wind, along with the west wind to its south, prevails here, and is more frequent and violent than any other’) combined with its cloudiness and ‘plentiful supply of rain’. These natural attributes meant that the island was ‘richer in pastures than in crops, and in grass than in grain’, with obvious influences on the agrarian economy and the composition of diets. He also considered the air ‘so healthy’ that ‘you will not find many sick men, except those that are actually at the point of death’. On his testimony, fevers, apart from the ague, were comparative strangers to Ireland, whose insularity partially shielded it from the germs which circulated more readily on the continent.

These observations about the Irish weather at the end of the twelfth century accord with what palaeoclimatic reconstructions are revealing about the distinctive climatic conditions prevailing at that time when the atmospheric circulation patterns characteristic of the Medieval Climate Anomaly (formerly the Medieval Warm Period) were firmly in the ascendant. For Ireland that meant a dominant Atlantic airstream, especially in the winter when a characteristically steep pressure gradient between the Azores and Iceland ensured that the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) was typically strongly positive. When the NAO was in positive mode Irish winters were usually mild, windy and wet, while incursions of cold, dry Arctic or continental air masses were kept at bay. One recent reconstruction suggests that these conditions prevailed in four out of five years during the second half of the twelfth century and were the established norm from 1183 to 1200, at the time when Gerald of Wales was in Ireland. The comparative stability of the NAO at this time is consistent with the unusually settled state of the weather during this benign climatic interlude and which not even a notable northern hemisphere volcanic eruption in c.1182 was able to disturb. At this time Atlantic storms were to be expected but not, as Gerald says, extremes of cold, heat or drought. In these respects, the findings of climate science broadly corroborate his qualitative account.

Yet the climate would not remain so temperate, nor had it always been so, as Gerald, a learned man, could have discovered for himself by consulting the Gaelic Irish Annals (hereafter Annals) which, by the late-twelfth century, already spanned more than 600 years. Within living memory, in 1156, these recorded that Ireland had endured ‘great snow and intense frost…so that the lakes and rivers of Ireland were frozen over’ and ‘most of the birds of Ireland perished’ (Annals of the Four Masters). Lightning strikes (either because they damaged ecclesiastical buildings or were interpreted as acts of God) were regularly reported in the Annals, as in 1135 when the Chronicon Scotorum reported: ‘Lighting took the roof from the tower of Clonmacnoise and made a hole in the tower of Roscrea’. A few years earlier, in 1129, the Annals of Inisfallen noted a hot summer and drought so severe that ‘the waters of Ireland dried up, and there was a great mortality of beasts and cattle’. And the previous century, in 1095, ‘a great sickness’ was widely reported ‘that killed many people, [lasting] from the first of August until the following May Day—i.e. the year of the mortality’ (Annals of Ulster). Evidently, Ireland was less immune to epidemics than Gerald supposed and once the Black Death arrived in 1348 plague mortality would weigh heavily upon Ireland’s then-shrinking population.

In fact, as the Annals make clear, natural hazards—both physical and biological—posed a recurrent threat to Irish society throughout the late-medieval centuries, as the Irish climate was itself subject to change. Thus, in 1050, at the climax of the Oort Solar Minimum when very different patterns of atmospheric circulation prevailed, ‘Much inclement weather happened in the land of Ireland, which carried away corn, milk, fruit, and fish, from the people, so that there grew up dishonesty among all, that no protection was extended to church or fortress, gossipred or mutual oath, until the clergy and laity of Munster assembled, with their chieftains, under Donnchadh, son of Brian, i.e. the son of the King of Ireland, at Cill-Dalua [Killaloe], where they enacted a law and a restraint upon every injustice, from small to great’ (Annals of the Four Masters). While this account has a clear subtext in the fraught politics of the high kingship of the period,12 it also bears out the self-evident point that this economically under-developed society was heavily dependent for its subsistence upon the annual harvests of grain, grass, fruit and nuts, milk, meat, wool and hides. When production fell short poverty almost invariably increased and famine not unusually resulted. Scarcity, in turn, might prompt the needy to resort to crime and the powerful to violence. Such circumstances were the breeding ground of disease, as in 1189 when the Annals of Inisfallen noted ‘Great warfare and sickness and much bad weather this year’. The weather was not, of course, the sole cause of violence and plague, rather it was the catalyst that often triggered and magnified them and to a degree shaped their courses. As yet there has been little systematic investigation of these interactions, which often weighed more heavily upon the poor than the privileged, partly because they have been eclipsed by the traditionally dominant historiographic grand themes of Church reform, the emergence of a high kingship, English invasion, conquest and colonisation, and the Gaelic revival. Relevant palaeoclimatic information has also been wanting. That has now changed and it is at last possible to place Gerald of Wales’s description and the many environmental observations of the annalists in a proper scientific context.

Recent advances in palaeoclimatology have equipped historians with an array of high-resolution datasets constructed from a variety of natural and historical archives and now frequently spanning the entirety of the medieval period. These datasets have continued to clarify the geographical and temporal character of the often profound changes in climate that occurred over the course of the late-medieval centuries as temperatures and atmospheric circulation patterns transitioned from the relative warmth and stability of the Medieval Climate Anomaly to the cooler and more unsettled conditions of the Little Ice Age, with the critical tipping point from one global climate regime to the other occurring during the first half of the fourteenth century. At the same time, a conjuncture of demographic, economic, commercial, political, military, religious and epidemiological developments was variously placing societies from Iceland to China under increasing stress. Climate change thus emerges as an additional grand theme of late-medieval history and one of overarching global significance. What ecological, epidemiological and societal relevance it may have had for late-medieval Ireland remains to be established.

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Climate and Society in Ireland is a collection of essays, commissioned by the Royal Irish Academy, that provides a multi-period, interdisciplinary perspective on one of the most important challenges currently facing humanity. In Chapter 6, Lisa Coyle McClung and Gill Plunkett (both from Queen’s University Belfast) evaluate whether climate change may have played a role in altering the socio-economic or political framework in final prehistoric and early medieval Ireland.

There is a frequent, if often implicit, tendency to assume that cultural transitions of past societies were environmentally-driven and that climatic deteriorations, through their detrimental effects on the environment and subsistence economy, were the main agents of cultural decline. This environmentally-deterministic theory is often considered over and above other more intrinsic factors such as socio-political or economic turmoil. Climate does assert an important influence on the success and productivity levels of farming economies, but the relationship between climate and culture is not straightforward. Various complex influences—including social structure, technology and resources—will determine whether a community is sufficiently resilient to adapt and flourish at times of climate change or if it will collapse into crisis. Even when the occurrence of past climate changes can be substantiated, establishing a temporal correlation— much less a causal link—between climate and cultural change is fraught with difficulties, given the chronological uncertainties that frequently beset both the archaeological and palaeoclimate records.

Typically, environmentally deterministic models of past cultural change have focused on the impact climate change exerted on the subsistence base. Such a premise lends itself to testing through an examination of the palynological record. Landscape manipulation has long been associated with the subsistence economies of past populations and the pollen record can highlight key transitions in agricultural management. Simply put, the pollen record provides insight into the nature and intensity of farming in the past, though interpretation of the data can be complex. Ideally, pollen and palaeoclimate reconstructions from the same sedimentary sequence enable the relative timing of past climate and landuse changes to be identified unequivocally. Few such studies have yet been undertaken, however, perhaps partly due to a lack of interdisciplinary engagement.

The end of the prehistoric era (the Developed to Late Iron Age) and the dawn of the historic (early medieval) period in Ireland feature several culturally distinct developments within the archaeological record, including ‘periods of much building’, changes in settlement types and patterns, and changes in economic practices. Perhaps not surprisingly, these changes have been attributed by some to climate fluctuations that at times benefitted, and at times undermined, social development. This chapter explores the likelihood of environmentally- driven cultural change in Ireland during the Developed to Late Iron Age and early medieval period by (i) reviewing archaeological evidence for cultural developments during these times that have been attributed to climate variability; (ii) evaluating palaeoclimate records from Ireland to identify potential climate events and transitions; and (iii) examining pollen records to identify if cultural or palaeoclimate changes coincided with variations in subsistence economy.

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Climate and Society in Ireland is a collection of essays, commissioned by the Royal Irish Academy, that provides a multi-period, interdisciplinary perspective on one of the most important challenges currently facing humanity. In Chapter 5, Benjamin Gearey (University College Cork), Katharina Becker (University College Cork), Rosie Everett (University College Cork) and Seren Griffiths (University of Central Lancashire) consider the ‘2.8 ka BP’, an apparent climatic deterioration implied by palaeoclimatic proxy records from across northwest Europe, and broadly coeval with the Bronze to Iron Age transition in Ireland.

The ‘upheaval’ of Late Bronze Age societies around the eighth century BC has been linked to climate change across northwest Europe, which has in turn been associated with the impact of a decline in solar output dated to 850–550 BC. Evidence for climatic deterioration in later prehistory was first advanced during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and peat deposits in particular have long provided an important ‘archive’ of climate change. In Ireland, this period has been much discussed, as the archaeological record of the Late Bronze Age to Iron Age transition has also presented an interpretive challenge. The apparent ‘absence’ of an early Iron Age in the archaeological record raised the possibility of a long, drawn out Bronze Age or a gap in human activity in the form of an Iron Age ‘Dark Age’. Climate change has featured prominently in these debates. The evidence for climatic deterioration and archaeological indications of cultural ‘decline’ have often been causally linked, but the ‘climatic impact’ narrative has also been the subject of considerable debate, for various reasons, in particular as many scholars are wary of linking cultural to environmental changes in a manner regarded as ‘environmentally deterministic’.

In this paper we consider these cultural and climatic changes in Ireland in the period long known as ‘the sub-Boreal to sub-Atlantic’ transition, or more recently the ‘2.8 ka Event’. Previous archaeological interpretations of this cultural transition are briefly reviewed, with both environmental and social factors previously invoked as possible drivers of change. This is followed by a consideration of palaeohydrological records from peatlands, in particular bog surface wetness records (BSW), used to identify periods of Holocene climate change, including a cold/wet shift that occurred at c. 750 BC (2.8 ka) and may have had a national signature. Whilst such BSW records provide evidence of relative shifts from wet/cold to warm/dry conditions, quantitative indices of temperature and precipitation cannot be derived from these data and a recent palaeotemperature record does not appear to show especially abrupt changes. The role of ‘bog burst’ events (catastrophic hydrological failures of the physical integrity of peatland) in driving changes in certain Irish BSW records is outlined. Such ‘bog bursts’ can confound the extraction of regional climatic meaning but provide important contextual evidence for human activity and the associated peatland archaeological record, illustrating the importance of understanding ‘non-linear’ responses of bogs to hydrological shifts. A selective review of palynological records demonstrates spatial and chronological variations in vegetation change and human impact across the Late Bronze Age to Iron Age, with possible declines in human activity in some records, although implications for changes in prehistoric human populations are unclear. The paper concludes with a consideration of the importance of robust chronologies for integrating archaeological, palaeoenvironmental and palaeoclimatological data to investigate potential links between climate and cultural change. The importance of different analytical, spatial, and chronological scales to investigate the complex and recursive nature of human activity and climatic change is highlighted.

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Climate and Society in Ireland is a collection of essays, commissioned by the Royal Irish Academy, that provides a multi-period, interdisciplinary perspective on one of the most important challenges currently facing humanity. In Chapter 4, Gill Plunkett (Queen’s University Belfast), David M. Brown (Queen’s University Belfast) and Graeme T. Swindles (Carleton University, Ottawa) examine ways in which we can identify the past occurrence of droughts and evaluate whether the droughts may have triggered economic responses or population collapses.

Ireland is not a location known for its droughts. Rather, its frequent rainfall is internationally infamous, and a common source of conversation and consternation across the island. Yet the atypical hot, dry summer of 2018 (lasting from June to August), while lauded by many inhabitants, brought unexpected hardship to farmers, as grass growth declined and led to a shortage of fodder, and crops risked failing due to a lack of irrigation. There were health consequences too, as larger than usual numbers of individuals presented to hospitals with severe cases of sunburn, and in at least one instance, a child was admitted with a rare skin disease that may have been aggravated by the unusual heat. All this transpired just months after the ‘Beast from the East’ saw an anticyclonic arctic airmass bring exceptional cold and heavy snow that caused considerable societal and economic disruption.

While the extreme summer of 2018 may be symptomatic of the climate crisis that currently confronts us, droughts have featured in the Irish climate in the past. Instrumental climate records are of course a relatively recent innovation; for Ireland, the longest-running continuous sequence of weather data—from Armagh Observatory—was established a little over two centuries ago, within which time the climate has emerged from the Little Ice Age and post-Industrial warming began. For an understanding of longer-term natural climate behaviour, one must turn to historical and palaeoenvironmental proxy records. An entry in the Annals of Ulster for the year AD 749 tells of ‘Snow of unusual depth so that nearly all the cattle of the whole of Ireland perished, and the world afterwards was parched by unusual drought’, extremes that are rather reminiscent of the spring and summer of 2018. The consequences of droughts for farmers can also be gleaned from earlier chronicles: for example, the Annals of Ulster records for the year AD 773 an ‘Unaccustomed drought and heat of the sun so that nearly all bread [grain] failed. Abundance of oak-mast afterwards’. These references serve as salutary reminders of the detrimental societal impacts even one dry season can trigger. What then if such conditions persisted over many years as ‘drought phases’? Palaeoenvironmental data suggest that they did.

One of the upsides of Ireland’s pervasive wet climate is that it has resulted in ample bogs whose distinctive qualities have allowed them to capture records of past environmental change as they formed and accumulated peat through the millennia. Specifically, the inhibition of biological decay has ensured the partial preservation of plant and animal remains that once lived on the bogs, communities of which were strongly influenced by the degree of bog surface wetness. In peatlands that are independent of the water table (raised and blanket bogs), bog surface wetness is at least in part governed by climate: the drier and/or warmer the conditions, the drier the bog surface, while the colder and/or wetter the condition, the higher the water level at the bog surface. While the degree of wetness is therefore a product of both temperature and precipitation, it is thought that summer effective precipitation is the leading variable reflected in palaeohydrology records. Examining changes in biotic communities preserved within the peat, linked as they are to bog surface wetness, can therefore yield indirect (proxy) records of past climate variability. During drier phases, the peat itself will undergo a greater degree of decomposition (humification), so humification levels too are an index of past conditions. Subfossilised remains of bog oaks and pines also give insights into changing hydrological conditions through the dates of their establishment and die-off. Successful germination and establishment of such trees on bog surfaces will only occur during periods of lower water tables.

Using a multi-proxy approach on peat sequences extending back to the Early Bronze Age (2500 BC), Swindles, Blundell and Roe identified three periods of potentially extended drought dating respectively to 1150–800 BC, 320 BC–AD 150 and AD 250–470, in addition to an extended period of drought in the post-Industrial era. The climate signal in the upper levels of the bogs is, however, confounded by direct human impacts on bog hydrology, such as peatland drainage. A subsequent study entailing a wider selection of sites upheld the identification of these intervals as drier phases, although Plunkett saw the first of these events as two distinct dry events, separated by a wet shift. These findings imply that extended drought phases did indeed transpire in the past.

Here we examine three time-intervals for which there has been posited evidence for droughts phases during Irish prehistory, and for which we can avail of precisely-dated data from bog oaks and pines to evaluate the evidence for and timing of these events. We consider the impacts these changes might have had on human populations, specifically from an economic perspective, and examine whether environmentally-driven interpretations stand up to critical analysis.

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