Friday, 20 December 2013

Fruit trees in medieval Ireland: the College Gardens at Youghal, Co. Cork

Information sign at the College Gardens
I recently spent a lovely afternoon looking at the medieval sights of Youghal, a town on the south coast of Ireland. I was particularly interested in visiting the Youghal College Gardens. According to the Archaeological Survey of Ireland (SMR number CO-067-029006-), Youghal College was founded in 1464 by the Earl of Desmond, and the College consisted of a warden, eight ordained teaching fellows and eight lay brothers. The College was almost demolished during the Desmond rebellion, and it subsequently came into the possession of Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork, who re-built the College in c. 1605 as his private residence.

16th century Pacata Hibernia map of Youghal
A very attractive and useful sign at the College Gardens provides further information about their history. According to the information provided, the Gardens can be clearly identified on the earliest maps of Youghal. The Pacata Hibernia map of Youghal (c. 1590) shows the lower gardens as a series of geometric beds surrounded by paths. In 1616, more than 100 apple trees, prunes (plums) and quinces were imported from Bristol to be grown in the College Gardens, the beginning of the walled orchard found in the Gardens today.

Fruit remains are often found when archaeological deposits from Irish medieval excavations are analysed by archaeobotanists. I previously wrote in this blog about the reasons for preservation and variety of remains. Many of these fruits are assumed to represent locally grown produce, including raspberry, strawberry, blackberry, bramble, apple, plum, cherry, sloe and elder. Exotic fruits (probably imported) have also been recorded, including fig and grape. These exotic fruits would probably have originated in France or Spain and may have been introduced to Ireland with wines or other goods such as cork wood.

It is interesting that although fruits such as apples were already being grown in medieval Ireland, some varieties continued to be imported, according to the record from Youghal College Gardens. This provides a useful reminder that just because a plant food can be grown locally, we should not automatically assume that it was. Exchange and trade of food products were important activities in medieval Ireland. Perhaps the apple trees at Youghal College Gardens were imported because the varieties were tastier, or sweeter, or had a more pleasing shape than those available in Ireland. Scientific techniques, including isotopic analyses, can provide new insights into the geographic movement of many types of plant-food products; further application of such techniques in Ireland would be a very worthwhile avenue of research.


  1. Thank you for this information. I was looking for confirmation that strawberries existed in Ireland in 1400. It sounds like you have found evidence that they did exist, perhaps as wild strawberries?

  2. Hi Antonia,

    Thank you for your interest. Wild strawberries (Fragaria vesca) are native to Ireland, so they would have been available during both the prehistoric and historic periods.

    One of the earliest historical references to wild strawberries can be found in Fergus Kelly’s book, Early Irish farming, which states that early medieval legal texts (7th and 8th centuries AD) classify wild strawberries as sweet fruits that would have been gathered.

    Archaeological remains of wild strawberries have been found from a wide variety of excavations, including 12th century deposits in Cork city (South Main Street) and early medieval deposits in Co. Antrim (Deer Park Farms).

    Cultivated garden strawberries (Fragaria x ananassa were are a much later introduction to Ireland, appearing around the 17th to 18th centuries AD.