Dirty Old Towns: environmental impacts of medieval Irish towns
Paper by Margaret Murphy, (St. Patrick’s College, Carlow)
Given at Study of Irish Historic Settlement, Climate, Environment, Settlement and Society: changing historic patterns in Ireland conference, held at All Hallows College, Dublin on February 25, 2012
Abstract: Medieval towns had a number of beneficial effects on the rural regions which surrounded them. They provided markets for agrarian produce, supplied manufactured and imported goods to rural consumers and offered opportunities for employment, education and leisure. Towns also had a number of negative impacts on their hinterlands and this paper will consider some of these in reference to medieval Irish towns. Although small by European standards medieval towns in Ireland produced waste in the form of human sewage and effluent from urban-based industries such as tanning. This was usually disposed of in the surrounding countryside or put into rivers. The paper will examine some of the strategies adopted by towns for improving the urban environment and ask whether this was done at the expense of the adjacent countryside. Urban demands for certain products, especially for timber and fuel, resulted in the reduction of these resources in their surrounding areas with obvious consequences for settlement and land-use. The paper will consider the evidence for resource depletion in the medieval period as well as identifying resource management strategies which developed in response to urban demand.