Friar John Clyn And The Great Plague Of 1348
The late Margaret Phelan, in an article in Kilkenny History and Society published in 1990, wrote of the earliest chroniclers of Kilkenny, among whom was John Clyn, of whom she said he was “an acute observer of the passing scene, his is a precious, contemporary record of life during a thirty-three year period in Kilkenny over six hundred years ago.”
John Clyn was of an Anglo-Irish family, which most likely came to Ireland in the retinue of one of the Anglo Norman families, probably the de la Freignes, about whom he wrote in his Annals, and who would have been neighbours of his near Clinstown in the parish of Conahy. He was a Friar of the Franciscan Order and was the first Guardian of Carrickbeg in Carrick-on-Suir in 1336.
He was based in Kilkenny, in St. Francis Abbey, in 1348 when the plague was rife in the land. It had entered Ireland from the continent through the ports of Dublin and Drogheda and spread rapidly, arriving in Kilkenny in August, 1348. Much has been written about the plague, but only Clyn gives significant details.
The annals were written in Latin, and Canon Carrigan translates passages from them in his History of the Diocese of Ossory. More recently the full text of the annals was published, in Latin and in English translation, by Four Courts Press, edited by Bernadette Williams (2007).
Friar Clyn clearly worked with victims of the plague, as his descriptions are detailed and not pleasant to imagine.
‘The plague was so contagious that those touching the dead or even the sick were immediately infected and died, and the one confessing and the confessor were together led to the grave. And because of fear and horror, men scarcely ventured to discharge works of piety and mercy, namely visiting the sick and burying the dead … the pestilence gathered strength in Kilkenny during Lent, for between Christmas Day and March 6th eight Friars Preachers (Dominicans) died. There was scarcely a house in which only one died but commonly man and wife with their children and family going one way, namely crossing to death.’
The writer concluded “now I, Friar John Clyn, of the Order of Minors and convent of Kilkenny, have written in this book these noteworthy deeds that happened in my time, that (I know) by faithful eye witness or by worthy reliable report. And lest these notable records should be lost with time and recede from memory of future people (I) seeing these many evils and the whole world as it were in a bad situation, among the dead, expecting death when it should come, I have brought together in writing, just as I have truthfully heard and examined. And lest the writing should perish with the writer and the work fail together with the worker I am leaving parchment for the work to continue if, by chance, in the future a man should remain surviving, and anyone of the race of Adam should be able to escape this plague and (live) to continue this work I have commenced.”
The Annals conclude with an entry written in a different hand
‘here it seems the author died’.
So, having recorded events from the earliest times up to 1348, Friar John Clyn of Kilkenny, died, both a witness to and a victim of the great plague of 1348.