On 11 June 1832 Humphrey O’Sullivan, a schoolteacher living in Callan, County Kilkenny, made the following entry in his diary:
The lower classes of the Irish are a credulous people. Some practical joker sent a fool out with a small piece of charred stick, or some other bit of kindling, which had been extinguished in Easter-water, or holy water, and told him to divide it into four parts, and give it to four persons in four houses, telling them that the cholera would kill them unless each one of them did the same thing. By this means 16 persons, and 64, and 256, and 1,024, and 4,096 etc., etc., got this fire, until the entire country was a laughing stock for protestants.
O’Sullivan did not exaggerate. The events which he described were part of a remarkable popular panic which in the space of six days swept across the greater part of Ireland, from County Wexford in the south-east to County Donegal in the north-west, and from County Cork to the outskirts of Dublin city. It was an episode regarded by some contemporary observers with amused condescension, by others with deep alarm. For the modern historian it offers a brief but vivid insight into the mental world of a section of the catholic population in pre-Famine Ireland, and an opportunity to document in detail features of that mental world which are rarely reflected in conventional historical records.