On the 28th-31st October (2019), the Thomond Archaeological and Historical Society sponsored a conference on the Black Book of Limerick and the evidence which it provides for the population and the urban history of early Limerick. The conference also received funding from the Irish research council and their assistance is here gratefully acknowledged.

The conference was held at multiple venues on King’s Island:

St Munchins Protestant Church, associated with the figure who is said in twelfth-century O’Brien genealogies to have been given episcopal authority over the island .

King John’s Castle – the first phase of which was completed in 1212

Curraghgour Boat Club – close to the manmade medieval harbour of Limerick city

Absolute Hotel: on the site of the medieval Franciscan friary built in Limerick before 1267

St Mary’s Cathedral – named as the cathedral of Bishop Gille of Limerick and papal legate in the only surviving account of the synod of Rathbreasail in 1111

Istabraq Hall, within the modern Limerick City and Council offices and facing the Curraghgour weir which was in existence by 1201

The dates of the conference were chosen to coincide with the dates of the international fair established by King John in 1204. The fair ran for a week from the vigil of St Martin and the merchants who attended it were given rights to travel freely through the entire Angevin empire. If it is difficult to imagine that many ships were travelling the seas so late in the season, it is clear from the traditional dates of fairs in county of Limerick (Old Pallasgreen, Ballybrood) as well as elsewhere, that such a date facilitated a commerce in domestic animals, including incalf-heifers, cattle, horses and fatted pigs.

A recent publication by Limerickman, Dr Billy Mag Fhloinn, entitled Blood Rite: the feast of St Martin in Ireland (Helsinki 2016) identifies the feast of St Martin with the traditional Irish festivities of Samhain which was a known period for the festive community assemblies known in Irish as an Óenach. Many things happened at these óenaig including horse racing, celebration of marriages and the holding of courts of justice but they were also the period when animal renders from the summer season were transferred from the farms to local kings and when foreign merchants would come to town to trade. In specifying these dates for the Limerick fair, therefore, King John was, in all likelihood, building on pre-existing traditions in the city during the period in which O’Brien kings and independent Ostmen fought to exert independent authority within the city.

The context for the conference

Limerick’s two most famous medieval sites are located at either end of Nicholas Street on King’s Island. One is St Mary’s Cathedral, first associated with Bishop Gille or Gilbert who was bishop of Limerick between roughly 1106 and 1140 AD. (He is given both names in our sources and the circumstances of his career make it likely that he was multi-lingual and could have been known by both depending on the context.) This man was the leading churchman in the reign of the high-king of Ireland, Muirchertach Ua Briain, at the beginning of the twelfth century and he appears to have overseen the creation of a diocesan structure for the whole of Ireland at the synod of Rathbreasail in AD 1111. In the records of that synod, the only cathedral to be mentioned is that of Limerick where it is described as the church of St Mary.

St Mary’s Cathedral

There are letters which survive written between Gille and one of Europe’s leading theologians, Anselm of Canterbury. The latter had been born in the mountains of north Italy, just south of the St Bernard pass through the Alps but he lived most of his life in what is now France before becoming a leader of the monastic community of Bec, in Normandy, between 1063 and 1093. In the latter year, despite his reluctance, King William Rufus forced the episcopal staff into Anselm’s hand and made him head of the English church. In his letter to Gille (which has been dated to c. 1107), Anselm refers to the fact that he had got to know Gille at Rouen (just to the north of Bec) and, congratulating him on his recent elevation to the bishopric, he tells him to attract his king and the other bishops in Ireland to lead a moral life and uproot vice “by persuasion and by showing the joys which are prepared for the good.” Gille, for his part, congratulates Anselm on his recent success in persuading the English court to adopt proper election and consecration of abbots and bishops and sends as a present “twenty-five small pearls, some of the best and some of less value”.

At the other end of Nicholas Street and on rather lower ground than that occupied by the Cathedral, is King John’s Castle. King John, known to millions as the evil Prince John from the tales of Robin Hood, ordered its creation before AD 1212, less than six years after he had ordered a castle to be built at Dublin. It seems likely they were both built for the same reason: to establish his authority on both east and west coasts of Ireland, create a focus for armed men under royal control and protect the treasure which his administrators were collecting from his Irish colony and turn it into minted coins.

These two impressive Limerick monuments, St Mary’s Cathedral and King John’s Castle are very well known and have been the subject of much study and indeed archaeological excavation over the years. What is considerably less well known is the treasure known as the Black Book of Limerick, a manuscript put together under the patronage of Bishop Stephen de Val (or Wall as this surname is known today) in the second half of the fourteenth century. This manuscript represents a collection of the important papers then held by St Mary’s Cathedral and includes records of its land-holdings and arrangements for the cathedral’s governance.

Many of the documents in the Black Book date to the very earliest days of the Norman overlordship of Limerick – indeed, the earliest is a charter by the last O’Brien to rule in Limerick before the Norman arrival, Domnall Mór Ua Briain, who died in 1194. Studying them, one gets a strong sense of the international flavour of the city and the cosmopolitan nature of its population. In its crowded streets jostled not just King John’s royal servants but also those of his friends, newly endowed with wide swathes of Munster land (always provided they could conquer them.) Also to be found were the Welsh, Flemish and English men at arms and the mounted archers who were to do the actual conquering as well as local retainers of the O’Brien kings of Thomond and the Cistercian monks and Dominican friars whom they patronised.

The bishop of Limerick in the first years of the thirteenth century was Donatus Ua Briain but despite his family background, he proved a loyal ally of King John and was probably following the fashions of England when he established the cathedral chapter as recorded in the Black Book.T he men whom he made cathedral canons, however, were not Normans but from long- established church families of the Gaelic mid-West. The first administrator of the Norman town had the Norse name Siward and may also have been a leading member of the older Ostman population of the city. Other Scandinavians resident in Limerick may have been more recent arrivals: we know of one called by the Irish word Danar or Dane and another known as Petrus de Norway. There were mixed marriages of Irishmen with Norman women as well as the converse. There were itinerant lawyers representing royal justice, there were returned Crusaders, newly back from the Middle East and there were merchants in hides and other goods, who chose to live out the winter season in the shelter of the port.

Merchant routes to medieval Iceland

In Limerick, therefore, we have remarkable evidence with which to explore a frontier city on the borders between two very different cultures and on the edge of the known world. The Atlantic route-ways beyond the estuary were not unknown to its inhabitants: we have references to Icelandic merchants visiting Limerick and to people brought as slaves from over the great sea – a possible reference to the slave markets of Muslim Cordoba – as well as extensive evidence for a trade in French wine to judge by the pottery found at the castle. The men and women who traveled those seas were adventurers who risked their lives to come to make their living in the distant but rich lands in the west of Ireland, celebrated in writings of the time for its fertile pastures, its plentiful fish and its lack of snakes. These men and women deserve to be better known as the ancestors of modern Limerick and it is in their honour that the Thomond Society has agreed to sponsor a medieval history fair.

Following the success of the conference in 2019, further conferences on the same theme are being planned.

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