A century ago an influenza pandemic ravaged a world already reeling from four years of Great War, killing tens of millions in every corner of the globe. Our island was not immune: even conservative estimates come to over 20,000 deaths in Ireland, with perhaps 800,000 or more infected. Yet the 1918 flu has not been the subject of a major Irish historical study: overshadowed by the drama of war and revolution – and clouded in a silence of fear among its survivors – it has remained what Ida Milne deems “a curious lacuna in Irish history”. Her new history of the outbreak, assembled from official records, medical accounts, newspapers and oral history interviews, reveals both the “Spanish” flu’s human cost and how it turned up the heat on the “simmering pot” of Irish society.
The disease's origins likely lay in the blood-soaked war zone of western Europe. The first reports of its arrival in Ireland were in early June, with the Belfast Newsletter reporting "an epidemic in Belfast – no cause for alarm". But within a few weeks the "mysterious scourge" was spreading. It seemed to defy medical knowledge and treatment, with much more severe symptoms than typical influenza, and people soon began to die. This newspaper reported "cortege after cortege" streaming through central Dublin, as the roads to Glasnevin became "a practically unbroken succession of funeral processions".
What alarmed people most was how the flu killed not just the vulnerable young and old, but those in their physical prime: indeed Milne calculates that the highest death toll was among adults aged 25-34. Provincial newspapers were full of stories like that of Joe Ross, Louth footballer and “cycling crack”, who died despite assessments that there was “no finer specimen of physical fitness” in Ireland.
Level of infection
Leinster towns were particularly badly hit in the autumn's second wave. "Scarcely a family in the city has escaped", reported the Kilkenny People, while Naas was "crippled" by the level of infection. Local authorities began to disinfect public buildings, and towns like Enniscorthy were filled with "the reek of eucalyptus", a measure Dr DW MacNamara of the Mater hospital deemed as effective as "a beetle trying to stop a steamroller". The official response seemed totally inadequate: even the pro-establishment Kildare Observer condemned "the Government's attitude of almost supineness".
The uncontrollable pandemic spread a “fear which gripped people like a vice”. As dubious advertisements targeted a frightened public, MacNamara dismissed most of the cures on offer as “therapeutic balony”. Indeed he judged whiskey or brandy “in heroic doses” to be the most worthwhile treatment, as at least “its customers had a merry spin to Paradise”. Dublin Lord Mayor Laurence O’Neill negotiated the release of Dr Kathleen Lynn from prison to help battle the outbreak, but she too was pessimistic: “the flu rages”, she noted with frustration in her diary during the third wave in spring of 1919; “I can do little.”
Sir Charles Cameron, head of public health for Dublin Corporation for over half a century – a role in which he had significantly improved the lives of the city’s poor – provided “sensible, calming advice” while working tirelessly to combat the outbreak. Nurses worked day and night, while many doctors tried everything to understand the disease: nurse Dorothy Stopford Price dragged corpses up from the Royal College of Surgeons’ mortuary late at night for Prof William Boxwell to do “surreptitious postmortems”. Lynn and others experimented with various vaccines, but with little success.
Spread of virus
Vaccines held promise because it was among crowds that the virus spread, and Ireland was a nation that gathered: demonstrations, election rallies, Armistice celebrations and sporting events all fanned the flames of the flu. Those who came into contact with large numbers of people in their work, from postmen to priests, were most at risk. In hospitals and asylums, staff and residents alike had little defence. Many schools eventually had to be closed: “day by day, our ranks grow thinner” mourned the school journal after two students died at Clongowes College.
Ireland's most high-profile prisoners were at risk too. Arthur Griffith led protests at Gloucester jail to demand palliative whiskey for his ailing comrades; the prisoners were delighted to liberate a bottle previously confiscated from Seán McEntee. The famously fit Griffith got sick himself, and against all advice fought the flu "on his feet" (perhaps contributing, Milne suggests, to his early death in 1922). Without a prison doctor when the flu hit Usk jail, Irish prisoners there had to nurse each other, but Richard Coleman – a veteran of Easter 1916 and the 1917 hunger strike that killed Thomas Ashe – died in December 1918. Sinn Féin wasted no time in politicising his "murder", adding Coleman to a list of national martyrs from Boru to Connolly on a front-page advertisement in the Irish Independent.
Milne’s thorough research shows the flu “affected everything”, including politics. Through the government’s failures, “the authority of the administration was undermined”, while Britain’s need to recruit or conscript “human fodder for the hungry belly of war” was an inescapable backdrop: after all, “the factory of fever”, an angry Lynn told a Sinn Féin ardfheis, had been “in Flanders”. The flu “seemed to fester every sore in Irish society”.
Even after the outbreak waned, its scars lingered. “I don’t think we were the same again for a long time,” survivor Tommy Christian told Milne. “It made a bigger impression on me than any other incident since,” recalled Trinity College historian RB McDowell, who nearly died in 1919. Kathleen McMenamin from Donegal explained the silence that followed the disease: “people did not want to talk about it because it was so awful, and they dreaded the thought it might come back again”.
Despite such fears – and periodic scares – a flu pandemic on such scale has not reoccurred, a result of the changes that 1918-1919 provoked in global healthcare. The Irish part of the disease’s global history has long been overlooked, as have the experiences of the families and communities it afflicted. By telling their stories, Milne’s thorough book makes an important contribution to our social and medical history.
Dr Christopher Kissane is a historian with the Royal Historical Society in London, and author of Food, Religion and Communities in Early Modern Europe (Bloomsbury, 2018)