In the middle of the 14th century, as the Bubonic Plague swept across Europe, many, including the Irish, turned to a special Saint to intercede with the Almighty to deliver them from the deadly pandemic. As the world comes to grips with COVID-19, Pat Poland traces the legends surrounding Saint Roch
On a fine Summer’s day in 1348, a tall-masted French merchant ship sailed majestically up the Irish Sea, entered either Bullock or Howth harbour in Dublin Bay – the chronicles are ambivalent – and presently tied up at the jetty.
Laden down with all manners of consumer goods, from gold and silver bling, to pottery, tar, glue and cotton, her most eagerly-awaited cargo, however, was the delectable wine with its dark fruit flavours from the Bordeaux region from whence the ship had come.
As the French sailors and Irish workers exchanged friendly banter and swung the gangplank into place, nobody took any notice of the first of several black rats scurrying past them to disappear into the undergrowth. The so-called ‘Black Death’, a devastating global pandemic that would kill twenty million people in Europe over the next five years, had arrived in Ireland.
The rats, infested with fleas carrying the deadly Yersina Pestis bacillus, who had remained out of sight behind the many jute bags in the ship’s hold, were the carriers of a pestilence that would soon ravage the island of Ireland, then at the very limits of the known world.
To the west, beyond the vastness of the signless sea lay ‘Terra Incognita’ – ‘Unknown Territory’ – making Ireland the last outpost of Europe to be infected by a disease that had begun its journey in China and arrived on the continent only eight months’ before.