Whoever went to my millrace, From every disease it will heal him; It will be communion, it will be sacrifice To everyone who shall drink it. It were well for me , then, said he, To drink my fill of the water of the Barrow, and through it be well, may my Lord to consecrate it and hallow my millrace; May there be cleansing and consecration And communion and sacrifice To everyone who may drink it and go from it. - Life and Birth of St Moling (10th century)
Throughout the medieval period many people made pilgrimage in times of crisis such as personal illness, outbreaks of disease and natural disasters like drought. The Black Death was one of the biggest crisis to be faced by people during the fourteenth century in Ireland.
John Clyn’s account of the Black Death
The Annals of Ireland, written between 1333-1349 by John Clyn, a Franciscan friar of Kilkenny, contains a chilling first hand account of the Black Death as it raged through Ireland.
The text also records a very rare account of pilgrimage to the ecclesiastical site of St Mullins whose ruins are now at the centre of a picturesque village of the same name in Co. Carlow.
In the year in 1348 John Clyn recorded great numbers of pilgrims arriving at St Mullins. The pilgrims were drawn here because of St Moling’s reputation for healing and miracles. They hoped that by praying to the saint in the presence of his relics they might be protected from the plague.
For medieval pilgrims, the narrative of the millrace at Tigh Moling was more than its association with St Moling, the saint’s millrace is equated with the ‘locus of Christ’s baptism’, and identified as a ‘branch of the river Jordan’.
Prayers during a pandemic
This year, and chiefly in the months of September and October, great numbers of bishops and prelates, ecclesiastical and religious, peers and others, and in general people of both sexes, flocked together by troops to the pilgrimage and wading of the water at Tigh Moling [St Mullins] so that many thousands might be seen there together for many days; some came out of devotion, but the greater part for fear of the pestilence which raged at that time with great violence….” ( Williams 2007, 246).
The pilgrims made their prayers at St Moling’s holy well and millrace located just outside the main monastic enclosure. The twelfth Latin Life of St Moling, recalls how the saint single handed dug the mill race over seven years and then consecrated ‘…by walking through it against the flood…’. The pilgrims hoped that by washing or ‘wading’ in the waters of the millrace and the holy well they would be protected from the plague. We do not know how the pilgrims fared in the coming months, how many died or survived.
Death arrives in Ireland
The plague spread rapidly after its arrival to Ireland. In June of 1349 Clyn wrote that the pestilence was so contagious that those who ‘touched the dead or the sick were immediately affected themselves and died’. Shortly after writing the description below Clyn contracted the disease and died.
Many died of boils, abscesses and pustules which erupted on the legs and in the armpits. Others died in frenzy, brought on by an affliction of the head, or vomiting blood. This amazing year was outside the usual order of things, exceptional in quite contradictory ways – abundantly fertile and yet at the same time sickly and deadly… It was very rare for just one person to die in a house, usually, husband, wife, children and servants all went the same way, the way of death… (Williams 2007, 250).
St Moling’s holy well along with the medieval millrace can still be seen in the modern landscape at St Mullins. St Moling’s holy well is still a focus of modern pilgrimage on a Sunday in July, known as Pattern Day.
A pattern day is a day when people come together to perform pilgrimage at a holy well or saints grave, usually on the saints feast day. This is a tradition that can be traced back to early medieval times. Nineteenth century accounts suggest there were originally two main pilgrimage days at St Mullins – the 17th of June (feast day of St Moling) and the 25th of July (feast day of St James). Today the pattern takes place on the last Sunday before the 25th of July and prayers take place at the well and in the graveyard.