Dr Michael O’Connor’s magisterial ‘Anatomy of a County Gaol’ has already been deservedly referenced in these pages by my colleague, Áine Ryan, but there is one sub element to the main narrative which, given the times we live in, merits a second reading. And as with many
of the stories which form a backdrop to the book, Dr O’Connor marries his skill as a wordsmith with the academic discipline of the historian to remind us that the present pandemic is not the first we have been forced to confront.
The great cholera outbreak of just two centuries ago, as recounted in the book, bears an eerie resemblance, albeit on a lesser scale, to what we are experiencing today. The hallmark of the Covid-19 scourge, not least in our inability to monitor and control its scattered outbreaks, is an uncanny replica of cholera’s progress through the ranks of rich and poor, but also of the tension between the demands of commerce on the one hand, and those of community health on the other.
Cholera entered the west through the port of Galway in May of 1832; within two months, the number of deaths in the city had reached 452. Like an invading army, it would soon be on the march northwards through the province; Tuam and Ballinrobe, which saw 50 cholera deaths in a month, fell victim, and then the disease reached Castlebar.
The Mayo Constitution newspaper advised that the disease could be contained by ‘early attention to regularity and cleanliness among the lower orders, and this enforced where resistance may be offered’, but its rival, The Telegraph, argued that the early deaths were not attributable to cholera, accusing the Constitution of scaremongering and of terrifying people unnecessarily.
However, as the number of deaths began to rise, the sense of alarm in Castlebar became palpable. A cholera hospital was set up in what was the Old Bridewell, where Spencer Park now stands. The authorities dispatched specialist doctors from Dublin. The whole 83rd Regiment of Foot, billeted at the Military Barracks, were evacuated to camp in Ballynew, until such time as the epidemic had eased.
In July of 1832, the county lost its most respected medical practitioner when Dr William Hamilton, physician to the Old Gaol, died from cholera. He had spent 40 years in Castlebar where he had his medical practice in Castle Street, and had been a firm advocate of projects to ensure cleanliness and sanitation for the town long before the onset of cholera.
And then (shades of the current stand off between economic and health priorities) came the closure of shops and markets and retail activity. The courts, the lifeblood of town business, came to a close.
The Assizes, which would normally attract free spending gentry and judges and court officials, were scrapped. A meeting held in Belcarra to apply for a postponement of the Castlebar Assizes was berated by the Telegraph as ‘a hole and corner meeting aimed at destroying the commercial interests of the town’.
For three years, cholera raged in Castlebar, the town suffering the highest infection rate and which counted the lowly and the privileged equally among its victims.
Intriguingly, Dr O’Connor’s chapter on the cholera outbreak opens with a British newspaper quote: “During the terrible outbreak of the disease, all the rooks vanished from the rookery of the Marquess of Sligo at the first approach of the plague. But though mysteriously warned of danger, the birds were not quick enough to escape entirely, since great numbers were subsequently found lying dead on the shore near Erris. On the decline of the malady, the survivors returned to their old quarters.”