The coming of the Black Death to Dublin and the Pale of the Black Death aggravated a situation that was already desperate for the English colonists in Ireland. Throughout the first half of the fourteenth century, the native Gaelic Irish were resurgent, taking back territory that the colonists had commandeered during the century before. The period when the expansion of the Anglo-Norman colony throughout Ireland had prospered was now well in the past. After 1348, the English colony therefore felt itself doubly embattled and under strain. It is in this context that the home-grown production and the importation from abroad of the literary culture of Dublin and the Pale needs to be understood.
The cultural circumstances of this literary production and importation are rendered more complex still by Ireland’s different ethnic constituencies and the relations existing between them. These also are things that impinge on our understanding of the literary culture of Dublin and the Pale during the period under review. As with the social reversals either caused or abetted by the plague, this culture additionally needs to be understood within the lines of force running between the various ethnicities that inhabited the island, and according as to whether the (fluctuating) relations between them were cordial or hostile.
In a word, then, the circumstances of this culture were fraught. A number of high-profile initiatives were launched in the second half of the fourteenth century to support the colonial project. Some were clerical (here, most prominently, we think of Richard FitzRalph, Archbishop of Armagh), some secular (King Richard II); all similarly had implications for literary culture. In the long term, however, the objectives that these initiatives aimed for foundered. By the early fifteenth century, Dublin and the Pale had largely been left to shift for themselves.
The ‘canonical’ works of late-medieval English literature to consider here are Langland’s Piers Plowman and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with the accent falling on the circumstances of their Irish reception. But in the present context, these works assume no more importance than other, perhaps less familiar, writing, like the earliest extant morality play in English, The Pride of Life, for example, that by contrast may not have been an English import but a local product composed by an Hiberno-English author.