‘Plague, galar-breac, the flux and fever raged and many people died’ - the ‘Journal’ examines millennia of pandemics in Derry

In 1600 Henry Docwra sailed up the Foyle.He tore down the monastery, cathedral and ecclesiastical buildings in Derry and built houses for his men from the rubble.

He soon discovered he had more to contend with than the resistance of Red Hugh O’Donnell and ‘The Great’ Hugh O’Neill. His army was beset by illness.

“The English were a long time prevented, by fear and dread, from going outside the fortifications, except to a short distance; and a great number of them were on the watch every night, that they might not be attacked unawares; so that they were seized with distemper and disease, on account of the narrowness of the place in which they were, and the heat of the summer season. Great numbers of them died of this sickness.”

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Over the millenia plague, galar-breac (small-pox), bloody flux (dysentery), fever, slaghdán (rhinovirus and influenza) and all manner of diseases have been facts of life. SARS-CoV-2 has been the most devastating pandemic since the Spanish ‘flu of 1918 and may seem an aberration. but the annals are littered with references to outbreaks that have swept the country with lethal consequences over the centuries.

In 664 plague arrived in Ireland and it was in the plain between the River Finn and Lough Swilly within siGHT of Grianán Ailigh were it first took hold, according to the annals.In 664 plague arrived in Ireland and it was in the plain between the River Finn and Lough Swilly within siGHT of Grianán Ailigh were it first took hold, according to the annals.
In 664 plague arrived in Ireland and it was in the plain between the River Finn and Lough Swilly within siGHT of Grianán Ailigh were it first took hold, according to the annals.

The account of Docwra’s difficulties are taken from the Annals of the Four Masters, compiled by the Ó Cléirigh scribes in Donegal in the 1600s.

The same authors recount how two years after Docwra desecrated Derry one of his adversaries Red Hugh, may have succumbed to disease while in Spain trying to procure arms from Philip III.

“The misfortune, ill fate, wretchedness, and curse attending the island of Heremon, and the Irish of fair Banba in general, would have it, that O’Donnell should take the disease of his death and the sickness of his dissolution; and, after lying seventeen days on the bed, he died, on September 10, in the house which the King of Spain himself had at that town (Simancas),” is how the Annals of the Four Masters record his death.

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Red Hugh may not have died of illness though. George Carew, President of Munster, claimed in a letter to the Lord Deputy Mountjoy, that he may have been poisoned by James Blake, an English agent - another plague then and thereafter.

These incidents date from the late medieval and early modern period when Europe was routinely ravaged by ‘great plagues.’

No less than 3 million died in pandemics in the 1600s. The pseudo-historical record of disease in the north west goes back a thousands years before then.

The ‘Four Masters’ noted the outbreak of the Plague of Justinian which is believed to have been caused by the same bacteria - Yersinia pestis - that was later the vector of the ‘Black Death.’

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This wiped out up to 50 million - half the world’s population - from 541.

Henry Docwra tore down the monastery, cathedral and ecclesiasticalHenry Docwra tore down the monastery, cathedral and ecclesiastical
Henry Docwra tore down the monastery, cathedral and ecclesiastical

They record how in 543 AD there was ‘an extraordinary universal plague through the world, which swept away the noblest third part of the human race.’

The Annals of Ulster, compiled by Cathal Óg Mac Maghnusa on Ballymacmanus on Lough Erne in the 1400s, refer in their entry for 545 to “the first mortality called bléfed, in which Mo-Bí Clárainech died.”

Not for another 100 years are we given an indication of major oubreaks in the Derry area. It is not known if these were related to the Justinian Plague though it is thought that disease came back in a number of waves of gradually reducing virulence over several centuries. It is certainly a candidate illness.

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The Annals of Ulster record how a ‘plague’ reached Ireland in 664 and that it was in the plain between the River Finn and Lough Swilly that it first hit.

“In Mag Itha of Fotharta the plague first raged in Ireland. From the death of Patrick 203 years, and from the first mortality 112 years,” they state.

By 667 the plague was still in Ireland and by 668 it was ‘the great plague i.e. the buide Chonaill’ referring to the ‘yellowness of Conall’, which historian Ann Dooley identified with the Plague of Justinian in her study ‘Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541–750.’

The lack of sanitation and medication available made outbreaks deadly. Animal husbandry would have facilitated the spread of disease. Consider how easily viruses and illnesses can be passed from animals - bats (coronavirus, ebola), birds (flu), pigs (whooping cough, flu) and cows (measles, tuberculosis and dysentry) - to humans.

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In the eighth century the Annals of Ulster record ‘a bloody flux in Ireland’ that claimed the life of ‘Dub Innrecht son of Cathal, king of Connacht’ in 768 and 769 was a particularly terrible year when the country suffered ‘an earthquake and famine; and a leprous disease attacked many.’ In 777 there was a note of ‘the bloody flux; also many other diseases—almost a mortality. A great murrain of cows’ and in 778 ‘the bloody flux; the great murrain of cows.’

This likely refers to outbreaks of dysentry caused by the escherichia coli (E. coli) bacterium in cattle waste. Smallpox, or galar breac, was another horrific disease reported regularly.

In the ninth century a series of diseases ripped through Ireland, perhaps combinations of the bubonic plague, the pox and dysentry.

Red Hugh O’Donnell may have died of fever in Simancas in 1602.Red Hugh O’Donnell may have died of fever in Simancas in 1602.
Red Hugh O’Donnell may have died of fever in Simancas in 1602.

There was ‘great distress and severe illnesses’ in 814, for example, and ‘great terror in all Ireland, i.e. from a warning of plague given by Iellán’s son of Mumu’ in 826.

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‘Great plague and famine’ and the ‘bloody flux’ are mentioned as having occurred from the 10th century to the 13th century.

The Spanish ‘flu of 1918: ‘The malady has spread to Derry, enormous numbers are laid up’This period marked the peak of viking activity and the ‘Four Masters’ report that in 949 there was ‘great lues and bloody flux among the foreigners of Ath-cliath.’

The number of entries profilerates from the 1300s which coincides with the ‘Black Death’ that killed millions from 1347.

This was the second time Yersinia pestis decimated humanity. Ireland was not immune though Derry and other Gaelic strongholds outside the Pale were less affected than Anglo-Norman areas.

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Mac Maghnusa records that in 1346 ‘the great plague of the general disease that was throughout Ireland prevailed in Magh-Luirg this year, so that great destruction of people was inflicted therein. Matthew, son of Cathal Ua Ruairc, died thereof; in 1366 ‘Aedh O’Birn died of the same plague;’ in 1371 ‘Amlaim Mac Senaigh, accomplished emperor of melody, died of the plague in Tuaim-da-ghualann;’ and in 1370 ‘Mac William de Burgh, namely, Edmond the Scotsman, head of courage and prowess of the Foreigners and emperor of benevolence, died of the glandular disease in his own house, after gaining victory from the demon.’

The Ó Cléirigh records are even more detailed with no less than thirteen mentions of disease in the 1300s.

In 1328 ‘a disease, called Slaedán [Slaghdán - the cold or ‘flu] raged universally throughout Ireland, which afflicted, for three or four days successively, every person who took it. It was second in pain only to the agony of death;’ in 1349 ‘a great plague raged in Ireland, and more especially in Moylurg, by which great numbers were carried off. Matthew, the son of Cathal O’Rourke. died of this plague;’ in 1383 ‘a great and virulent plague raged universally throughout Ireland;’ in 1383 ‘Art Magennis, Lord of Iveagh in Ulster, sole prop of the hospitality of Ireland in his time, died of the plague at Trim, where he had been detained in prison by the English;’ in 1384 ‘Rory, the son of Turlough O’Conor, King of Connaught, died of the plague on the night of St. Catherine’s festival, after reigning sixteen years and three months as king of all Connaught’; and in 1399.3 ‘Cu-Uladh (i.e. Cu-Uladh Roe), son of Niall More, who was son of Hugh O’Neill, died of the plague.’

These are but a few of the many entries for a pestilential 100 years. Diseases continued to afflict Ireland in the 1400s and 1500s, a period during which a smallpox epidemic in Europe claimed many lives.

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Casualties included Edmund Mortimer who died in 1425. The ‘Four Masters’ record his death thus: “The Earl of March, the King of England’s Deputy in Ireland, died of the plague, about the festival of St. Bridget.” Others were Domnall Brecc, a Scottish chieftain sometimes allied with the Cenél Conaill whose base was in the wider Derry and Donegal area.

“1488 Brian, son of Aedh the Tawny, son of Brian Ua Neill the Freckled, died of the small pox in the Spring of this year. Mary, daughter of Domnall Mac Domnaill the Freckled, namely, wife of Conn, son of Aedh Ua Neill the Tawny, died of the same disease,” says AFM.

Back in those days open borders could be as much a problem when it comes to contagion as they are now. In 1478 a ‘great plague was brought by a ship into the harbour of Assaroe’ on the River Erne at its mouth in Donegal.

“This plague spread through Fermanagh, Tirconnell, and the province in general. Mac Ward (Godfrey) of Tirconnell died of it, and great injury was done by it through all the province.”

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Equal concern was given to how the illness affected various age groups. In 1492 an ‘unusual plague’ was reported of ‘twenty-four hours duration; and any one who survived it beyond that period recovered. It did not attack infants or little children,’ the same source tells us.

By 1575 an Ireland that was becoming more urban in some centres was struck again.

“A loathsome disease and a dreadful malady arose from this heat, namely, the plague. This malady raged virulently among the Irish and English in Dublin, in Naas of Leinster, Ardee, Mullingar, and Athboy.”

Not long before Henry Dowcra’s men were laid low an entry by Ó Cléirigh for 1536 neatly encapsulates the age.

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“Many diseases and maladies raged in this year, namely, a general plague, galar-breac, the flux, and fever, of which many died.”

The later annals were written in the 1600s and thus the story of how the Great Plagues of the 1600s and 1700s and the cholera, yellow fever and Russian ‘flu pandemics of the 1800s affected Derry are for another time.

More is known about the Spanish ‘flu that killed 20,000 people in Ireland over three lethal waves from May 1918.

At that time, like during some of the outbreaks above, Derry was dealing with multiple illnesses on top of H1N1 influenza, including typhus and scarlet fever.

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Much the same as we now look back to 1918 as a reference point today, Cardinal Michael Logue in a report in the ‘Journal’ from October 1918 was also looking back for meaning when he “expressed the hope that humanity might be spared the great physical evils that in the Middle Ages usually followed in the train of devastating wars.”

Fortunately, advances in medicine have left us much better equipped to fight these illnesses than our forebears would have been.

Greater levels of urbanisation led to more lethal outbreaks of diseaseGreater levels of urbanisation led to more lethal outbreaks of disease
Greater levels of urbanisation led to more lethal outbreaks of disease
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