A Letter to my Students

First of all, I miss you: those of you who never skip a lecture, those of you who always have a question, those of you who sit, silently, absorbing everything; those of you who seem to sleep through every class (do you have a long commute? Or an evening job? Or a Netflix addiction?); those of you who miss half of the lectures and then still write a great essay; those of you who invent an illness to excuse your absence (and I nod sympathetically, even though your classmates already told me that you were in Coppers until 3am the night before, because I too invented illnesses to excuse my hangover when I was 19, and that is part of life). I miss you all, and hearing your distant, overlapping voices on MS Teams, or the ping of a message incoming on Moodle, really isn’t the same.

I have been thinking a lot about the pandemics that we have studied together. Last semester, for example, when we read the accounts of the plague which raged through England, Wales and Ireland in 664. We saw how contemporary commentators believed it to be an act of God, how it was linked in their minds with the solar eclipse of the same year – the Annals of Ulster, for example, hinting in its unassuming, laconic manner, that the eclipse in May was a portent of the pandemic that would arrive in Ireland in August. We read the account of the Northumbrian monk-scholar Bede, who likewise wrote: ‘In the year of our Lord 664 there was an eclipse of the sun on 3 May about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. In the same year a sudden pestilence first depopulated the southern parts of Britain and afterwards attacked the kingdom of Northumbria, raging far and wide with cruel devastation and laying low a vast number of people. … The plague did equal destruction in Ireland’.

We read how Adomnán of Iona used the fact that Scotland was seemingly spared the pandemic to argue that this was because of its people’s devotion to St Columba. Columba’s power alone had protected the Gaelic and Pictish communities of Scotland from the devastating loss of life which afflicted its neighbours to the south and west.

Studying the plague of 664 as an exercise in comparing differing accounts of the same event, and as an attempt to inhabit the minds of seventh-century observers, has a new immediacy, and I wonder whether you call any of this to mind when you see a DUP councillor linking the COVID-19 pandemic to Northern Ireland’s abortion legislation, or simply when you read different interpretations of the same grim statistics.

The pandemic that I have most thought about in recent weeks is that of 1095-6. It compounded disaster upon disaster: plague followed famine which followed poor harvests which followed an exceptionally harsh winter, in a similar way to how the current pandemic has heaped sickness upon the disasters, displacements and uncertainties caused by manmade climate change.

In 1096, different communities across Europe responded to the pestilence in different ways, with appeals to God, to saints, to past kings, and to the distractions of ‘holy war’. The Church in Ireland attempted to impose a national response involving regular penance, fasting and donations to the Church – did the latter of these line the coffers of already well-fed bishops? Or were they redistributed to feed the starving poor, to help communities already battered by poor harvests and extreme weather? We don’t know. But when I see individuals raising money to fund state services, or homeless people in socially-distanced queues for soup kitchens, I wonder how far we really are from those earlier responses to disaster.

I don’t know when this will end. I hope we will meet again in person, so that we can continue our dialogue, our exploration of the past, our investigation of human experience. But in the meantime, I hope that you are putting your education to good use, treating newspaper reports and press conferences and internet conspiracies with the same careful and methodical approach that you study historical sources. I hope that your decision to study medieval Ireland is giving you some depth of perspective, which connects you to humanity in its broadest sense, and gives you empathy, and horizons which extend far beyond Ireland. I hope that you are safe, I hope that you are well, I hope that you remain so. I miss you.

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