FARMING IN THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY
In the late-16th century, William Camden (borrowing a little from the earlier writings of Mila in the 1st century and Giraldus in the 12th century) described Ireland in the following terms:
The country (according to Giraldus) is uneven, mountainous, soft, watery, woody, exposed to winds, and so boggy that you may see the water stagnating on the mountains. The air (according to Mela) is unfit for bringing corn to maturity; but so productive of vegetables, not only rank but even sweet, that if the cattle feed but a small part of the day they will fill themselves.... Hence it is that they have such an infinite quantity of cattle, it being their principal wealth; and also many flocks of sheep, which they shear twice every year, and of the coarse wool make mantles or rugs exported to foreign parts. They have also excellent horses which we call " hobbies," and which have not the same kind of movement as others, but a gentle pacing motion. Their hawks likewise are no small repute; but these, like all other animals except men and the hunting dogs, which we call greyhounds, are smaller here than in England. The excessive moisture of the air and soil occasions many to be troubled with fluxes and catarrhs, particularly strangers. To stop these they have excellent usquebaugh, much less heating and more drying than ours. The country (to quote the authority of Giraldus) is of all others the most temperate... all seasons are almost equally warm by the pleasantness and temperature of the air. Here are such quantities of bees that they are found not only in hives, but in trunks of trees and holes of the earth. It has also vines, but more for shade than fruit. For when the sun quits Leo, cool breezes ensue in this our climate, and the afternoon heats in autumn are too weak and short both here and in Britain to bring grapes to perfection. Besides this there is no snake or venomous creature. The island however swarms with wolves. In short, whether we consider the fruitfulness of the soil, or the convenience of the sea or ports, or the inhabitants, who are warlike, ingenious, comely, extremely soft-skinned, and from the tenderness of their muscles exceeding nimble, the island is in many respects so highly favoured, that Giraldus said, not without reason, " Nature beheld thus realm of Zephyr with an uncommonly favourable eye."
William Camden, Britannia (ed. R. Gough, 1789, Vol. 3, p.464).
Camden's work was first published in 1586. A few year later, the poet, Edmund Spenser (a planter in Ireland from 1580 to 1598) also testified to the fruitfulness of the land in Ireland. In language designed to attract further English and Scots settlers, he described the country as
...a most beautiful and sweet country as any is under heaven: seamed throughout with many goodly rivers, replenished with all sorts of fish, most abundantiy sprinkled with many sweet islands and goodly lakes...the soil itself most fertile, fit to yield all kind of fruit that shall be committed thereunto. And lastly, the heavens most mild and temperate, though somewhat more moist than the part towards the west.
(Edmund Spenser, View of the Present State of Ireland, written in 1596 and published posthumously.)
Despite what Mela said about corn, the evidence points to corn being widely grown in Ireland in the Middle Ages and all through the 16th Century. It was, however, vulnerable to the ravages of war. Both English and Irish soldiers burned crops to prevent the other side from living off the land and many of the native Irish took to sowing their corn "in the skirt of woods and within bogs, where strangers could not get at it" (Calendar of State Papers relating to Ireland, 1601-03, p.374). Particularly in the territory of O'Neill in Armagh (which includes Mullaghbrack), the native Irish relied not on crops during the Tudor Wars but on cattle herds (or "creaghts") to supply an army continually on the move fighting a guerilla campaign.