Treasuring Ireland: We’ve Been Here Before

21st April 2020
News Item

Pestilence and plague - nothing new - but memories are short. Not since the so-called ‘Spanish Flu’ (the H1N1 virus) swept around the world between 1918 and 1920 have we become so aware of an age-old curse. Until a few short weeks ago the average citizen would have found it hard to grasp the very concept of anything up to 50,000,000 people falling prey to a pandemic virus. In Ireland the death-toll a century ago was, at a minimum, about 23,000. It had arrived on our shores by May or June 1918.

A cursory trawl through the ancient Annals of Ulster makes it apparent that our ancestors were only too familiar with the sudden appearances of mass mortality. The compilers of the historic Annals were not medical people. We must therefore treat the terminology they applied at the time with some caution. Nevertheless, one can get the general idea. A number of examples will illustrate the point and portray the overall picture in Ireland down through the centuries.

In the year 545 AD the bubonic plague arrived on our shores. In 554 it was followed by an outbreak of smallpox. Unfortunately, no figures or indications of numbers are provided and the severity of these outbreaks cannot be quantified. The entry for the year 665 AD, however, is more explicit. We are informed that a ‘great mortality’ called the ‘Buide Chonaill’ swept the land. This episode has been interpreted as another outbreak of Bubonic Plague. In 667 and 668 the plague was still raging. The mortality rate must surely have been high. A ‘most severe leprosy’ called ‘Bolgach’ arrived in Ireland in 680 AD. A ‘pestilence called Bacach with dysentry’ followed in 709. It has been interpreted as possibly being Poliomyelitis, an infectious viral disease that affects the central nervous system leading to temporary, or indeed, permanent paralysis. Smallpox (Bolggach) put in another appearance in 779 and leprosy (Lepra) returned in 742. An affliction, referred to as 'the bloody flux' ('fluxu sanguinis' / 'riuth fola'), struck in 764, 773, 774, and 777. It is likely that the illness was continuous and the various incidents were not disconnected. The 774 AD reference observed that ‘many’ had died from the affliction. In 1012 AD ‘An affliction of the colic (‘teidm tregait’) was noted in relation to Armagh….and a great number died of it’.

Whilst the vast majority of the general public will be blissfully unaware of many of these ancient unwelcomed visitors to our shores, few will have failed to have heard of ‘The Black Death’ (also referred to as ‘The Black Plague’). Having travelled with devastating effects across Europe, the pestilence had reached Ireland by early August 1348. The dubious honour of greeting the lethal malaise has variously been attributed to Drogheda, Dalkey, and Howth. The plague subsequently swept rapidly across the length and breadth of the entire Island. With a striking resemblance to the current onslaught the main preventative measure was ‘self-isolation’. In 1348, however, this was not a State-determined and enforced policy. It was purely a matter of circumstances. Isolated rural communities did not, accordingly, suffer as drastically as their urban counterparts. In the large towns, however, the arrival of the Black Death was cataclysmic. The densely-packed houses and filthy streets facilitated the rapid spread of the disease. Poor standards of sanitation and hygiene did not help. Before Christmas 14,000 citizens had reportedly died in Dublin alone. Drogheda too became a ghost town. A contemporary account reported that the plague was so virulent that all it took was the touch of a contaminated person to contract the disease. Consequently, "There was hardly a house in which one only had died, but as a rule, man and wife and their children and all the family went the common way of death."

In fact, the disease was spread by bites from infected fleas or by the inhalation of the bacteria. The early symptoms were not obvious. The disease got its name from the black blotches that would appear on the skin. It is impossible to say how many people died. In England the contemporary death toll has been calculated to have been in the region of 40%. It is not unreasonable to estimate that the mortality rate in Ireland, certainly in the towns, manors, and villages, would have been comparable. To further decimate the population, the plague was to recur again at intervals, 1361 being particularly bad. Needless to say, and familiarly to us, in 1348 all commercial activity soon ground to a halt.

Seeing these many ills and how the how the whole world is as it were in an ill plight, among the dead expecting death’s coming I have set them down in writing, truthfully as I have heard them and tested them; and lest the writing should perish with the writer and the work fail with the worker, I leave parchment to carry on the work, if perchance any may survive or any of the race of Adam may be able to escape this pestilence and continue the work I have begun.

Sadly, this was the last entry in the contemporary chronicle of Friar John Clyn of St. Francis’ Friary in Kilkenny.

Covid 19 may be virulent, but it’s not in the same league as The Black Death. All things equal, shortly down the road, we’ll be able to sing along loudly with the wonderful Elaine Stritch as she sings the punchlines in a Stephen Sondheim song, slightly paraphrasing the words of the song - “We got through all of last year and we’re here”.

Mark Clinton, Council Member An Taisce, An Taisce's Monuments & Antiquities Committee

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