Climate, weather and social change in seventeenth-century Ireland

20 October 2021

In today's blog on Climate and Society in Ireland, Raymond Gillespie focuses on how local societies reacted to the changing weather patterns and adapted to them.

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.

To continue reading, purchase Climate and Society in Ireland.

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