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A pandemic of the past

Second Reading

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

The current coronavirus pandemic has recalled memories of the flu that raged throughout the world in 1918 and 1919. It infected 1 billion people and may have killed 100 million.
It is interesting to look back on the hardships suffered when Spanish flu hit, but do remember as you read on that this was more than 100 years ago. Since then, medicine and science has advanced beyond recognition, and our understanding of the role of hygiene and its importance is light years from where it was back then.    
Spanish Flu first appeared in the late spring and early summer of 1918. It returned, in its most virulent phase, in the autumn of 1918 and re-appeared in the spring of 1919.
Firstly, it was mis-named. As Spain was neutral in World War I, its media freely reported the contagion, and so it became known as ‘the Spanish Flu’. Countries involved in the conflict banned news of its spread lest it demoralise the war effort. Recent research indicates that the virus first appeared amongst US military personnel and may have spread through the networks of worldwide military mobilisation.
Called the ‘the largest outbreak of an infectious disease known to medical science’, the flu’s reach touched every continent.
Indian rivers were choked with dead bodies. The trains in the Punjab had to be cleaned regularly of dead and dying passengers. In New York, steam shovels were used to dig trenches big enough to bury the deceased. Outbreaks of the virus in Africa reputedly caused people to die of fright. In Newfoundland dogs were seen prowling through corpses.
In Ireland, over 20,000 people died from contracting the virus. It far exceeded the numbers killed in the War of Independence and the Civil War. The Registrar-General, Sir William Thompson stated that ‘since the period of the Great Famine with its awful attendant horrors of fever and cholera, no disease of an epidemic nature created so much havoc in any one year in Ireland as influenza in 1918’. There were few families who did not lose a relative. Among the victims was one of my granduncles.
A contemporary observer, who travelled throughout the country, saw ‘funerals everywhere’ grave diggers ‘could not work hard enough’ to ‘keep up with the flow of coffins’ with the bodies left ‘to wait on the unopened sward’.
What a Doctor Costello witnessed in Galway occurred, with varying degrees of intensity, 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 found a man lying dead across a bed. There was no light or anything in the house. You have no conception about 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 of the entire population prostrate’.
According to The Cork Examiner, in November 1918, “In Macroom the past fortnight has been one of all pervading gloom. In numerous cases the families of afflicted have had to mourn the loss, not only one of their members, but of two and more. At night that 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 in Ballycroy, where they had over a thousand cases of influenza and the nurse found it 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 breadwinners and destitution confronts them’.
The epidemic placed enormous pressure on the emergency services. There is some evidence that social solidarity sometimes broke down. In Bedadangan in Galway, ‘where a death occurred in a family of four affected, the neighbours declined to assist in the interment of the remains’. The brother of a 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 relative 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 workhouse, infirmary and hospital. They were often called in the dead hours of night to attend to poor creatures and prepare them for eternity’. In Westport they provided spiritual assistance and ‘where necessary material help and consolation to all those stricken down’.