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  • Writer's pictureHugh MacMahon

Fighting the Covid and the Plague

In my recent travels to heritage sites I was struck by the number of Irish saints who died during the plague of 664.

They include Feichin of Fore, Aileran the Wise of Clonard, Manchan of Liath (and Botar), Ultan Mac hUi Cunga of Clonard and Colman Cas and Cummine of Clonmacnoise.

The Annalists tell of a ‘great mortality’ at that time. It broke out on 1st August after a warm summer and continued into the following year. It came again with renewed violence in 667 and 668. Then it quietened before flaring up again in 683-684 when it was described as the ‘Death of Boys’. It seems children were heavily affected because they had no resistance to it.

Some historians claim the distress drove people into religion and religious houses but monasteries were probably the worst place to go. All the great scholars mentioned above were abbots of major schools. The Four Masters, in its summary of the year, added ‘There died very many ecclesiastics and laics in Ireland of this mortality besides those listed.’

Colman of Cork took his students to an island off the coast because it was believed the plague could not cross water more than the distance of nine waves. On the way they sang a verse he composed seeking protection. His verse survived.

However 664 was not by any means the first such disaster. The entry in the Annals of the Four Masters for 543 AD said, ‘An extraordinary universal plague throughout the world swept away the noblest third part of the human race.’

Finnian of Clonard, the teacher of the ‘Twelve Apostle of Ireland’, was one of them.

You would expect such catastrophes to have caused major social disruptions and trauma but that does not seem to be the case.

The leading families of Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connaught continued fighting to see who would be High King at Tara.

The hereditary medical practitioners known as Liaig used their knowledge of anatomy, physiology and cures to help victims but this did not lead to a rise or fall in their status.

Despite the good example of holy men and women living in simple cells, and the growing monastic schools, not all the people were yet Christian. Monasteries continued as usual with many, especially those operated by women, taking care of the plague victims.

In many parts of Europe, and as far away as Latin America and the Philippines, St Rocca (or Roque) is closely associated with plagues. He took care of the victims in Italy when the Black Death struck in 1347, killing up to 20 million people in Europe. Rocca himself was infected but recovered. Since then street processions of his statue are annual events.

Ireland, despite its history of plagues and saints, had no ‘plague saint’ to turn to during a Covid outbreak. The only trauma to impinge on Irish memory is the Famine, but that is more recent.


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