Finding a place to start any book is difficult. It’s like looking for that one thread to unravel a knot. Luckily, when it comes to the Black Death, there is an obvious thread for me to begin with – a man called John Clyn, who grew up only a few kilometres from my hometown, Castlecomer.
In 1348-1349 Clyn wrote a now famous account of life in Kilkenny as the Black Death advanced across Ireland. Amazingly, he continued to write even after the plague hit Kilkenny. His account (which you can hear recorded in full in the podcast version of this article) is fascinating. You can get the full version by signing up here
However, it’s not only his words that are crucial to understanding the Black Death in Ireland. In this article, I have included a biography of Clyn, as his life (c.1290-1350) gives a good insight into the chaotic world of 14th century Ireland.
John Clyn was born sometime around the year 1290 into a world unimaginably different from ours. From the moment of his birth, death was a far closer companion than anything we can comprehend. His mother’s pregnancy would have been a major ordeal, and in some cases childbirth was a trauma all too many women did not survive.
For the baby John, once he had survived the birth itself, the following years of infancy were a daunting gauntlet. Houses were chronically unhealthy by modern standards. In the absence of chimneys (these became common only well after 1300) houses were smoky at best. Sanitary conditions were atrocious – reeds were scattered across the dirt floors, in a meager effort to keep things clean, and dogs and other animals had the run of the house.
Indeed, if anything, the young John Clyn and his generation faced an increasingly difficult and dangerous world. While the Norman colony in Ireland reached its economic zenith between 1292 and 1294, it plunged into chaos almost immediately afterwards. The years 1295-1297 saw political instability, war and famine. Conditions were so stark, that the poor of Dublin were reduced to cannibalism according to the annalist in the Priory of the Holy Trinity, Dublin. This marked the beginning of a period where chronic food shortages were increasingly common so much so that the 14th century would prove to be one of the most cruel in recorded history.
Society in medieval Ireland lurched from crisis to crisis in the following decades. 1308 saw another famine wreak death and destruction on the population, while warfare between the Gaelic Irish and the Normans was endemic.
And in May 1315, the brother of King Robert the Bruce of Scotland, Edward Bruce, landed in Ulster with an army of 6,000 men. This was an extension of the Robert’s war against Edward II, king of England. Over the following three years, the Scots devastated much of Norman Ireland. In 1317, the Scots burned their way through the nearby Barrow Valley and devastated southern Co. Kilkenny.
To make matters worse, these years also saw the worst famine of the medieval period, one that may have claimed up to 10% of the population. Cannibalism was again reported in several sources.
While almost nothing is known about Clyn’s childhood, we can assume he was protected from the worst of the starvation and violence. His family, minor nobility, was based in a town that bore their name – Clinstown – situated 10 kilometres north of the fortified town of Kilkenny.
While nothing remains of any medieval structures in Clinstown today, John’s family may well have lived in a hall house like the surviving one in nearby Three Castles pictured below. By contemporary standards, these two-storey buildings with an upper-floor hall were relatively large.
It’s not clear where John himself was living during after surviving childhood. He had taken holy vows, joined the Franciscan Order and was presumably in a friary or possibly even a university abroad.
In joining the Franciscans, Clyn chose a more difficult path than if he had joined an order like the wealthy Cistercians. Cowled in their grey hooded robes, the Franciscans, more than others, focused their energies on the poor. In his work John Clyn no doubt saw the increasing deprivation arising from the crises of the 14th century.
While the specific details of John’s overall career in the Franciscan Order are obscure, by the 1330s he had risen to the position of guardian of a friary outside Carrick-on-Suir in 1336. A few years later, he appears to have moved to the larger, more prestigious house at Kilkenny. However, despite these achievements, he appears to have been a relatively unexceptional man. Indeed, had he not started keeping a chronicle around 1333, we would almost certainly never have heard of him.
Starting in the early 1330s, John began writing a history beginning with the year zero. Eventually, his chronicle reached 1333, and he seems to have entered events as they happened. Indeed, through the 1340s he continued to chronicle the intensely violent world in which he lived.
After the Scots invasion was defeated in 1318, life had failed to improve. Indeed, the 1320s saw extreme levels of violence in Kilkenny and Tipperary as the Le Poer and Fitzgerald families fought a highly destructive war that continued into the 1340s. This drawn-out conflict involved incidents of extreme brutality. In 1345, the chief royal official, Justiciar Ralph D’Ufford, killed several members of the Le Poer family in Waterford by hanging, drawing and quartering them.
This was the society that the Black Death struck in 1348. It was one ravaged by famine and war, starvation and violence. Having little understanding of medicine, one can scarcely imagine a society more ill prepared to face the rigours of plague. The subsequent death rates were staggering, reaching 50% in some areas. In Kilkenny, the plague was slow to break out, but hysteria still gripped the population.
John Clyn, then guardian in the Franciscan Abbey in Kilkenny, held his nerve and documented what was happening around him. He reported how thousands flocked to a well at St. Mullins, Co. Carlow (pictured above), only 30 kilometres east of Kilkenny. Hoping that the well, associated with St. Moling, would give them divine protection, they would soon have their faith tested severely when the plague broke out in Kilkenny.
The decades of war and famine had taken their toll, and the population was poorly placed to resist the sickness that now befell them. The Black Death broke out in Kilkenny around Christmas Day 1348. John Clyn continued to write his chronicle, which has become one of the most famous accounts of the Black Death in Europe. As he watched the town he had known since a boy decimated, he adopted an increasingly apocalyptic view.
About six months later, the plague subsided in Kilkenny. However, it had changed the town forever. (I’ll be writing about these changes in future posts.)
What eventually happened to Friar John Clyn is not certain. Sometime after July 1349, he made his last entry in his chronicle, indicating that he had at least survived the plague. But perhaps his story took a sad and unlucky turn, making him one of the first people to die a natural death after outlasting one of the worst epidemics in European history.
In the podcast version of this article you can hear the full account of what John Clyn saw in 1348 and 1349. You can get this by signing up to my email list here
William, B. (2007) The Annals of Ireland by Friar John Clyn, Four Courts Press, Dublin.
Cosgrave, A. (1987) A New History of Ireland Vol II, Oxford University Press, New York.
Parker, C. (1995) Paterfamilias and Parentela: The le Poer Lineage in Fourteenth-Century Waterford, P.R.I.A. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature, Vol. 95 C, No. 2.