Pestilence

I

I think the time has come for me to write calmly and clearly about what is happening in my midst. For a long time I've been thinking about it but I just must put it down in words now. Perhaps nobody will ever read this of course but at least I will have got if off my chest and that will be some relief at any rate.

For the last few months something mysterious and threatening has been going on. Even at this stage it is difficult to know exactly what it is. The details which prove it unfortunately do not really explain it.

In case someone really does read what I write – some contemporary reader or someone from the future – I will just give a little bit of background to the mystery.

Perhaps I should say who I am. Gilbert de Barry is my name, a descendant of the Barrys who helped in the colonization of southern Ireland in the Twelfth Century. I have distant cousins who live in Buttevant in northern Cork but my grandfather acquired a small manor in Ardmore on the border of Cork and Waterford. We have lived here ever since.

My grandfather was a hard-working member of the lower gentry and was rewarded for this by being given the manor. But my father had no interest in farming and let our manor go down. Luckily I have a very efficient older brother who looks after the estate well. It was deemed at an early stage that I was more like my father than my brother – not a man who could work well on the farm – so I have kept records of the produce that our farm holds. Although I prefer to write about other things – I still enjoy writing for its own sake and I think I have been fairly careful in my methodical details relating to the stock of what we own.

So much for introductions – let us get back to where I started.

The mystery about which I am writing began for me when I visited Cork a few weeks ago. I usually try to avoid towns whenever possible – all the noise and dirt are so awful– but I wanted to go to the local market in the town centre but I was stopped. Yes – unbelievable though it may sound – I was stopped!

A kind old knight, no doubt working for the local authorities said nobody was allowed to go into the town centre. Now if anyone really is reading my story I have to say to you that the first thing that came to my mind was that there was a war on. Why else would people be stopped entering the town?

I have to say that the native Irish are an aggressive crowd. I know that this is a simplification but I know for a fact that they are always getting involved in fights – you have only to see all the conflicts between the Desmonds, Ormonds and Thomonds in this part of the country to know that I am telling the truth.

We Normans can be pretty martial too of course but we try to make peace whenever it suits both sides. Sad to say the Irish seem to continually hurt themselves rather than make up a fight.

Fortunately living in Ardmore, war has never come to us. We Irish and Normans live in pretty good harmony here. My dear wife, Eithne is of a Celtic family and although at a domestic level she can prove herself to be a doughty warrior – she is at the same time wonderfully gentle and kind for most of the time.

But you do hear of trouble breaking out in the more urban areas of Cork. No major problems have arisen at a national level since the Bruce rebellion which broke out about thirty years ago but petty feuds do emerge occasionally.

Anyway, getting back to my story, I thought there was some local fight that was preventing me from getting into Cork. But this was not the case. The knight would not say why we were not allowed to go forward but I talked to a local priest later on that day and he said that some terrible pestilence was spreading across Cork and indeed to the best of his knowledge across all of Ireland.

Now I must admit here that I may not have understood everything he said. His native tongue was Irish and of course my native tongue is Norman French so we had to speak in Latin together. However controversial it is to say so, I don't like the Latin language. I struggled for years to learn it but I have still not made much headway. I know my own Norman French is a descendant of Latin but all those declensions! They confuse me beyond belief. Of course some things have to be written in Latin. But I much prefer writing in Norman French. It is a more flexible and modern language.

So there I was struggling away in my broken Latin and the priest talking in it quite fluently but with a strong regional accent – no wonder I am not sure exactly what he said!

But whatever else was said, I am sure the word pestilence came into the conversation. Now you may ask yourself if you are listening to my story why a word like pestilence would mystify me. Well of course we have all heard of all sorts of sicknesses and diseases. We see them and meet them every day. We all know that eventually God calls all of us to the next world and some of us live longer lives and some shorter – but to be suddenly told that there was no market in Cork because of this threat really made me frightened. Until then I had always seen illness and death at an individual level, now I realized it was something that people could catch from each other.

Despite the fact that my father had no interest in farming he was able to acquire a great library of books which were proudly kept in the hall of our manor and over the years I have read many of them. I was always especially interested in history books.

I read about the plagues in the Bible and about the plague under the Emperor Justinian. You read about these things but you never think that you will see the day that they will be on your doorstep. It all seems so far away in time and even in space. But hearing that Cork was sealed off and that outsiders were not allowed in made me feel very uneasy indeed.

After vainly attempting to enter the town I returned home and I have never returned to Cork since then. Life here has continued to go on normally more or less. We have a moderate share of livestock. Cows continue to get milked, sheep are sheared, pigs are cooked, horses are used for travel but there is a pending sense of fear that is getting steadily heavier. If you live on a farm you have a rather confined life at all times but you know in order for your farm to do well you must sell your produce some time and now we are just waiting for this – this pestilence to pass.

There is an unnerving tension which we all feel here. Now I have always tried to find the cause of anything that I've experienced. So I ask myself - what is causing this tension? I don't think it's because my life has changed so much. Anyone who lives on a farm knows that life stays more or less the same all year round. I admit that I miss my trips to the market not just because selling our livestock makes our farm more prosperous but also I like the hustle-and-bustle of urban life. In Cork you may meet in one day - a native Irishman, a man from the Pale, a real Englishman from across the water and one of ourselves, the Normans, in one street. And even better, you might talk to one or other of them at the local inn after you do your work. Funny how beer or wine break down all language barriers!

So, definitely my life has become more isolated and that is disturbing. But more worrying than that is the fact that church services are being reduced. Now I never thought of myself as being very pious but now I see that religion means more to me than I would like to admit.

Every Sunday I went to St Declan's Church which is a couple of miles from our manor. Our local priest was native Irish but he said the mass well in Latin though I could not understand the sermon fully as he said it in Irish. By the way I do have a smattering of Irish. Being married to Eithne for so many years of course meant that I had to learn something. She always talks to her relations in that language and I try my best to do the same. But again like Latin I find it a hard language to master. At least Latin is closer to Norman French. Those Irish words - wherever did they get them from?

Anyway, the fate of our local priest made me see how startlingly near the pestilence was to us. A couple of weeks ago we were told he had died in Cork. Another priest from Youghal took his place last week and he told us that from now onwards there would be no regular celebration of Holy Mass. He told the congregation that the Archbishop of Cork had said it was too dangerous to have people together in church. It was inviting the pestilence to strike again. That did make me shiver. I can tell you. Until now I had not heard of the death of anyone I was acquainted with.

But still I wondered if our priest would keep his word. I had heard that our neighbouring island had been placed under interdict over 100 years ago but that was a very different sort of thing. The king had angered the Pope and the Pope had retaliated by stopping all sacraments being administered. Here in Ireland there had never been anything like this. I just wondered if there was some exaggeration here. But I did not have to wait long to see what would happen. When I walked to the church last Sunday it was locked up. St Declan's does not have a very large congregation at the best of times so now with no access to the place of worship, there was nobody there to tell me when it would reopen.

As I said earlier, I never see myself as being holy but I do like to attend the sacraments. I would be very nervous if I was sick and no priest was there to give me extreme unction. I have talked to Eithne about it and we both agree that if there is still no service next Sunday we will try to get it in another church. I discussed it also with my brother Roger. He was not unduly worried. As he works so hard on the farm he probably thinks that the church service simply stopped him from doing more labour there. I can't understand that brother of mine. We have a few serfs and still he insists on doing so much manual work himself. And according to scripture, Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest- but not for Roger.

So no more church services for the foreseeable future. But this is not the only thing that has caused me so much concern. Although I am not great at Irish, I hear our serfs talking together in that language and I know enough to catch that something is definitely very wrong, in Cork, in Ireland and perhaps throughout the world.

Although typical of their class and perhaps even their origin they are no doubt prone to exaggeration but they have talked about people who have suddenly died in the street, people who have been found with disgusting lumps under their arms or on their groins. They have spoken of others coughing up blood - I will not go on. We live in an age when people love to dwell on sickness and death. Anything for a cheap sensation. But I still think there must be something in what they are saying.

Besides this mumbling of the serfs I have not heard any specific details. I am coming to the stage where I think I must find out for myself. I cannot rely on the information of our farm workers. Waiting and wondering is worse than finding out the truth. However black the truth is, at least you know where you are when you have it. I intend to go to Cork this week to find out exactly how things are. The deficit of information just makes you think the worst. No kind old knight - nor young knight for that matter - will stop me. I must find out what is going on.