Later Medieval Ireland spans the period 1150-1550, which is defined effectively by two ecclesiastical processes – the church reform movement of the mid-12th century and the Reformation in the mid-16th century. It is the period during which the Normans invaded and partly colonized Ireland resulting in their being two separate cultures on the island, each with its own separate language, laws, social system and agricultural practices out of which a hybrid Anglo-Irish culture developed during the Late Middle Ages. Following the Norman invasion the existing Hiberno-Norse towns underwent a period of redevelopment while new English lords established new towns in the countryside, which they tenanted with settlers brought in from Britain and elsewhere. The towns served as markets for agricultural produce as well as centres for manufacturing and commerce. Extensive urban excavations conducted over recent decades has produced a wealth of artefactual evidence about life in the towns and a broader view of the period is made possible by finds excavated on a number of rural castles and ecclesiastical sites.
Although new forms and styles were developed, much of the manufacturing activities of the towns mirror those of the Viking period. The collection contains examples of tools of various types used by different craftsmen. Carpentry tools include axes, adzes, chisels, gouges and hammers. An oak chest from Cornaveagh, Co. Roscommon was found containing carpentry tools, but some of the tools appear to have been used for stone-working. The production of wooden vessels of various types, such as churns, platters, kegs and methers was, as previously, an important activity. However wealthy people could afford cast copper-alloy vessels such as skillets, ewers and cauldrons. Some large copper-alloy basins that are also represented in the collection may have been associated with the brewing of beer.
Small personal ornaments such as pins, brooches and buckles were produced by fine metalworkers, working mainly in copper-alloy, while the making of a range of iron tools, brackets, hinges, locks, keys, horseshoes and fittings continued to be the preserve of the blacksmith. Items such as spindle whorls and loom weights attest to the production of textiles while leather workers were involved in the production of shoes, sheaths and articles of clothing, all of which are represented in the collection.
Workers in bone and antler produced a range of objects including combs, pins and gaming pieces.
Agriculture was an activity of primary importance, however there were different emphases in the areas under English and Irish control. The English introduced a new agricultural economy in which crops were grown for cash sale in the market towns. This led to an increase in the area under tillage. Plough socks and coulters in the collections show that tillage depended in part on ploughing, however the survival of spades and shovels indicate that much cultivation was undertaking by hand. Sickles to harvest grain and quern stones to convert grain into flour are also present in the collections. In the Irish lordships where wealth and status were dependant on the possession of cattle, the agricultural economy was more pastoral in its nature and the survival of wooden churns indicate that butter-making was an important activity.
One important new development of the period was the development in Ireland of a significant pottery industry, which catered for the needs of all classes. Archaeological excavations have brought into the collection large amounts of Irish-made pottery, as well as pottery imported from England, France and other parts of the continent. The new ceramic-making skills were also used in the production of roof tiles and floor tiles for the homes of wealthy aristocrats and ecclesiastical foundations.
Later Medieval Ireland was a period of endemic warfare and the collection contains around 400 examples of the weaponry of the period. The largest single category is arrowheads of various types but there are also swords, axes, maces and daggers. There is single surviving helmet of the period, from Clashnamuck, Co. Laois and a few fragmentary examples of chainmail. There are also a number of late medieval cannon and swivel guns, including items recovered from Spanish Armada wrecks at Streedagh, Co. Sligo. The collection also contains objects associated with equestrian activities that were predominantly military in character, including spurs, stirrups, cheek pieces and harness mounts.
Fundamental changes in the organisational structure of the church and the introduction of new monastic orders were features of the Middle Ages in Ireland. Many practices of the older church tradition survived, however, especially in areas outside English control, and this is strongly reflected in the important collection of shrines and reliquaries held by the museum, including the book shrines of the Breac Maodhóg, Domhnach Airgid, Cathach, Miosach and the Stowe Missal, the bell shrines of St Senan’s Bell and the Corp Naomh, the shrine of St Patrick’s Tooth and the Mias Tighearnáin. The suppression of the monasteries during the reformation and warfare of the seventeenth century led to the destruction of many church treasures, however among important rare survivals are wooden statues from Fethard, Co. Tipperary and Askeaton, Co. Limerick, a bronze processional cross from Ballylongford, Co. Limerick and a magnificent 15th century embroidered cope from Waterford.
The art of the medieval masons and stone carvers are represented in the collection which contains architectural fragments, mainly from churches and tombs. Included are parts of window and door mouldings, capitals, corbels and stone heads. The collection also contains some fonts and twelve sheela-na-gigs. An inscribed oak beam from a late 16th century house in Drogheda, Co. Louth is unique. The collection also contains hats and garments that were preserved in bogs, a number of examples of which appear to be of late medieval date.