Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland
curated-collections-iconCurated Collection

Merchants and Mariners in Medieval Ireland

Curated by Dr Daryl Hendley Rooney in partnership with Timothy O'Neill

About this Collection

This collection of index cards was researched, written and compiled by historian and calligrapher Timothy O’Neill. The source material contained within this collection provided the basis for O’Neill’s insightful monograph, Merchants and Mariners in Medieval Ireland (1987), which explored Irish medieval trade, shedding new light on the island’s rich maritime and mercantile history over the period A.D. 1300–1500.

The collection is conveniently organised by place (VRTI MM/1) and theme (VRTI MM/2) and in chronological order. The research catalogue of index cards related to place covers Irish locations, such as Waterford, Dundalk, Dublin and Cork, as well as oversea locations, including Chester, Bristol and Brittany, while thematic index cards address a range of themes and commodities from piracy and fishing to wine and fur. Through this collection of index cards, students and scholars alike are afforded access to documentary material transcribed from mostly printed primary sources such as chancery letters (see CIRCLE 2.0)†, rolls, wills and deeds. In addition, key secondary sources are referenced, which will provide additional avenues for further research.

Since ancient times, Ireland’s inhabitants have engaged with trade not only as a means of sustenance and survival but also to expose themselves to new opportunities, ideas and people. Writing in Agricola, the first-century Roman writer Tacitus noted that there was an awareness of travel routes to Irish harbours due to the foreign merchants who traded there.1 Over one thousand years later, the twelfth-century English historian William of Malmesbury recalled the flourishing trade between Ireland and Bristol, positing the rhetorical question, ‘For what would Ireland be worth if goods were not brought to her from England?’2 While Malmesbury’s view does not speak of the reciprocity of commercial activities in the Irish Sea region, it does speak to the one-sided view that has dominated the historiography of Irish overseas trade. 

Image by Michel Summer

Illustration by Timothy O’Neill

Indeed, we know far more about what was imported from medieval England and further afield than we do about what was exported from Ireland. The root cause of this historiographic unbalance lies with scholars’ engagement with the extant source material. In Merchants and Mariners in Medieval Ireland, Tim O’Neill heeded the optimistic views of H.G. Richardson and G.O. Sayles who wrote in 1961 ‘that despite the disaster of 1922, there are few European countries that can command such a wealth of historical sources, as Ireland’.3 O’Neill’s economic history of late medieval Ireland adroitly pulls together evidence from record sources such as the patent, close, justiciary and memoranda rolls as well as Gaelic annal entries, registers of wills, port books and customs accounts and more.

Utilising a variety of source material from Ireland and abroad, O’Neill argues that the general pattern of trade between 1300 and 1500 in medieval Ireland shows that imports and exports were generally managed by wealthy merchant families in the ports. The prosperity of these merchants depended on their relationship with the local Irish and Anglo-Irish traders and producers. Commodities such as animal hides, wool, fish, flax, meat and building materials came from outside town walls, while townspeople offered luxury goods such as wine, salt, iron and fine cloth to hinterland dwellers and overseas markets. As O’Neill demonstrates, this interdependence of producers and merchants transcended politics and the law, ‘demonstrating that although politically there were two nations in later medieval Ireland, economically there was only one’.

Illustration by Timothy O’Neill

Merchants and Mariners in Medieval Ireland opens a window into the lives of the “ordinary” people – townsfolk, sailors and traders – involved in enterprising activities. Moreover, environmental factors are examined for their effects on merchant trade as well as settlement in medieval Ireland. Timothy O’Neill’s contribution to the economic history of medieval Ireland is deeply human, and paints a vivid picture of the richness and dynamism of contemporary life. 


1 Tacitus, Agricola. Germania. Dialogue on orator, ed. Jeffrey Henderson, trans. M. Hutton and rev. R.M. Ogilvie, E.H. Warmington and Michael Winterbottom (Loeb Classical Library 35, Cambridge, MA, 1914), pp 70–1.

2 William of Malmesbury, William of Malmesbury: Gesta regum Anglorum; the history of the English kings, ed. and trans. R.A.B. Mynors, completed by R.M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom (2 vols, Oxford, 1998–1999), vol. i, pp 738–9.

3 H.G. Richardson and G.O. Sayles, ‘Irish Revenue, 1278–1384’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature 62 (1961–1963), p. 99.

4 Timothy O’Neill, Merchants and Mariners in Medieval Ireland (Dublin, 1987), p. 130.

5 Ibid. p. 130.

6 Ibid. p. 130.

† See CIRCLE 2.0 Gold Seam, Patent Rolls, and Justiciary Rolls.

About Timothy O’Neill

Timothy O’Neill, born in Limerick in 1947, is a historian and one of Ireland’s most distinguished calligraphers. He studied history of art in University College, Dublin, under Françoise Henry and later took a master’s degree in medieval history under the supervision of Howard B. Clarke.

His historical studies include Merchants and Mariners in Medieval Ireland (Irish Academic Press, 1987), ‘A fifteenth-century entrepreneur: Germyn Lynch’, published in Settlement and Society in Medieval Ireland (Boethius Press, 1988), and, with Wendy Childs, ‘Overseas Trade’, a chapter in A New History of Ireland, Volume II (Oxford University Press, 1987).

O’Neill has written extensively on Irish scribes and their practices, most notably in The Irish Hand: Scribes and Their Manuscripts from the Earliest Times (Cork University Press, 2014). The Irish Art of Calligraphy, a step by step guide is due to be published by the Royal Irish Academy in 2024.

Illustration by Timothy O’Neill

Some of his best-known artworks include the Cardinal Ó Fiaich Memorial Gospel Book in Maynooth, the British Airways Celtic-style tailfin design ‘Colum’ (1997), and reconstructed pages from the eight-century Faddanmore Psalter in the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin. He designed two stamps commemorating the Plantation of Ulster for An Post in 2009. A limited-edition artist book Imagining History featuring heliogravures by Swiss photographer Alexander Troeller and debossed calligraphy was created in 2024.

Timothy O’Neill continues to publish and lecture on calligraphy and manuscripts in Ireland and abroad.

Collection Name: Merchants and Mariners in Medieval Ireland

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