A most malign malady
HISTORY: The Last Irish Plague: The Great Flu Epidemic in Ireland 1918-19By Caitriona Foley Irish Academic Press, 216pp. €19.95
THE FLU PANDEMIC of 1918-9 was responsible for more deaths in a shorter period of time than the first World War was. Yet the Great Flu, unlike the war, has been omitted until recently from accounts of the period, despite their being inextricably linked. The wide-ranging movement of troops was perceived to have spread contagion, and the pandemic was seen as a moral judgment on the war and its damages.
Caitriona Foley’s comprehensive history of the ravages of the disease on individuals and families and its disruption of political, working and social lives across Ireland conjures up images of bodies transfigured, of an all- pervasive fear – and of the trauma of death and loss. In this she is fully aware of the growing “relevance of emotions in the study of the past”.
The bodies of the infected were horribly transformed as skin turned black. Numerous accounts talk of copious blood loss and victims showing signs of dementia. For many the virulence and suddenness of the symptoms suggested that this was not, as Foley puts it, the “homely disease” associated with previous influenza outbreaks but something redolent of plague.
Many families suffered multiple deaths, marriages were “dissolved” by the passing of a spouse, and the lives of many children of the flu generation were immutably changed as their parents succumbed to the “mysterious malady”. This sense of a malign, death-dealing pestilence was rendered all the more potent by one of the “extraordinary aspects of the outbreak”: the number of young adults who died.
In The Last Irish PlagueFoley achieves in no small measure her aim of telling the story of the epidemic “from the perspective of the ‘ordinary people’ ”. She does this in a nuanced, complex way, emphasising, for example, people’s fear of the virus as medical science and its professionals were rendered impotent by a contagion that brought death and trauma not seen since the Famine. The physical and mental scars of the disease were indelibly etched on families and communities even if the history of the flu was not part of the metanarrative of the 20th-century Irish experience.
And yet Foley does not resort to any crude analogy between Famine trauma and the experience of the epidemic, noting that the Famine had happened slightly too long ago to be remembered by many struggling in 1918 to find parallels that might help to explain the experience they grappled with.
This book lifts a lid on everyday life at the time and, most notably, emphasises the connective arteries of social, cultural and political life with an impressive assessment of contemporary descriptions of the epidemic’s effect on Poor Law unions, industrial schools, GAA fixtures and trade unions. The railway worker, the rent collector, the philanthropist: all appear in this layered analysis. Foley is always conscious of class and gender, and when she discusses the epidemic’s effects on the revolutionaries of the time she makes the vital point that social history cannot be divorced from political narrative.
Foley compares the epidemic in Ireland with what happened elsewhere, pointing out that we should not allow the Great Flu’s effects around the world to obscure the way the outbreak affected our country in particular. In Britain, for example, the war must have contributed to the lacklustre official response; in Ireland the issue was a health system with no central co-ordination.
The Last Irish Plagueis a scholarly yet eminently readable book that amounts to a template for how to research and write social history in Ireland.
Leeann Lane is head of Irish studies and the school of humanities at Mater Dei Institute of Education, a college of Dublin City University. She is author of Rosamond Jacob: Third Person Singular,published by UCD Press