Fr Kevin Hegarty
The Great Flu pandemic of 1918/1919 killed 50 million people. The death rate even eclipsed the horrific carnage of the First World War. In Ireland more died from the virulent virus than the combined numbers of the Easer Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War.
Yet little is known of the pandemic. Until relatively recently historians concentrated mainly on political and military matters.
In the case of Ireland the lacuna has now been filled by a study by Caitriona Foley, ‘The Last Irish Plague’, which has just been published. The book is the product of her Ph.d thesis. Her university supervisors aptly state that she has brought that terrifying experience to life with ‘scholarly precision and poetic grace’.
Called ‘the largest outbreak of an infectious disease known to medical science’, the flu’s reach was worldwide. Indian rivers were choked with dead bodies. The trains in the Punjab had to be cleared regularly of dead and dying passengers. In New York steam shovels were used to dig trenches big enough to bury deceased flu victims. Outbreaks of the virus in Africa reputedly caused people to die of fright. In Newfoundland dogs were seen prowling through corpses.
In Ireland there were few who did not lose a relative. A contemporary observer, who travelled throughout the country, saw ‘funerals everywhere‘. Gravediggers ‘could not work hard enough to keep up with the flow of coffins’ with bodies left ‘to wait on the unopened sward’.
What a Dr Costello witnessed in Galway was replicated, with varying degrees of severity, throughout the country: ”I went into one house at half past three in the morning and found a woman lying dead on the kitchen floor. Two children were staggering about hardly able to stand, and two more children were dead. By the aid of my electric headlight I made my way into the room and there I found a man lying dead across a bed. There was no light or anything in the house. You have no conception how bad things were.”
The ‘Wicklow People’ reported that “the people of this district will long remember the events of the past fortnight. Schools closed, mails undelivered, doctors ill, death a frequent visitor, more than half the entire population of the town prostrate.”
In Macroom, according to ‘The Cork Examiner’ in November 1918, “the past fortnight has been one of all pervading gloom ... in numerous cases the families of the afflicted have had to mourn the loss, not only of one of their members, but of two and more. At night the main thoroughfares of the town were completely deserted, people shunned the streets and remained indoors ... every fresh crop of fatal cases added to the nervousness and dread of the people.”
At a meeting of the Westport Board of Guardians, there was reference ‘to the necessity for a doctor at Ballycroy, where they had over a thousand cases of influenza and the nurse found it very hard to attend them all’. The parish priest of Newport stated that the situation was equally acute there. According to ‘The Mayo News’ in December 1918 “there were many families, particularly among the poorer classes who had suffered considerably as a result of the epidemic, and in a few instances have been deprived of their bread-winners and destitution confronts them.”
The virus in Ireland came in three waves between June 1918 and late Spring 1919. When it eventually petered out, 20,000 had died and over 800,000 had been infected.
The epidemic placed enormous pressure on the emergency services. There is some evidence that social solidarity sometimes broke down. In Bealadangan in Galway ‘where a death occurred in a family of four affected, the neighbours declined to assist in the internment of the remains’. The brother of an flu victim in Donegal refused to assist in the coffining of the body, “saying that he had a family and was afraid to take the disease home.” ‘The Mayo News’ claimed that a relatives of a victim was refused service in a local shop.
However, many doctors, nurses, religious and priests responded heroically. Among them was Dr Smith of Ballyhaunis who attended 800 cases. Fr Colleran organised a special committee on Achill to combat the epidemic. At a meeting of the Castlebar Board of Guardians, it was noted that ‘since the epidemic broke out ... the Castlebar priests paid as many as a dozen visits a day to the workhouse infirmary and hospital, they were often called at the dead hours of the night to attend to poor creatures and prepare them for eternity’. In Westport they provided spiritual, and, ‘where necessary, material help and consolation to all those stricken down’.
Dr Foley has written a fine study of a traumatic nine months. It should be of interest to every student of Irish social history.