For Tom Stoneham, Peter West and Clare Moriarty
Three hundred and thirty-six years ago today, George Berkeley was born in Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny. One year ago today, the first major Covid19 restrictions for Ireland were announced. Living in a time of Covid perhaps gives us a new appreciation of the world in which Berkeley lived. Disease was a constant danger and deaths were common particularly among the young: Berkeley’s contemporary Francis Hutcheson died of a fever in Dublin in 1746, with seven children predeceasing him. Three of Berkeley’s four children born in Cloyne where he was bishop predeceased their father.
Disease was rampant and medical infrastructure close to non-existent in the Cloyne of Berkeley’s time. This was particularly the case in the years following the winter of 1739/40, the Great Frost, an extended period of extreme cold that froze the potatoes in storage pits. Loss of that food, combined with spells of cold and dry weather in the months afterwards causing crops to fail, led to the deaths of between 13% to 20% of the Irish population. No wonder the period was called Bliain an Áir, the Year of Slaughter.