A flu that stopped the world

If you think the flu going around at the moment, is bad, the biggest killer flu the world had ever known happened 100 years ago. Nuala Wolfe looks at how it affected everything from GAA finals to the politics of the day.

Tomorrow, 100 years ago, the All-Ireland senior hurling final between Limerick and Wexford was played in Croke Park. Just as they are now; Limerick became the All Ireland champions.

On February 16, 1919, the football final was played between Wexford and Tipperary where Wexford achieved their iconic four in a row. Tipperary’s top player, Davy Tobin was too ill to play that day. In fact Wexford mightn’t have won at all if the Kildare favourites; hadn’t been eliminated earlier in the Championship when young players were struck down by an initial ‘mystery illness.’

By New Year, 1919, Croke Park had been shut for months along with schools and other public buildings as Ireland struggled to contain the 1918-1919 global flu pandemic which killed 50 million (some academics now say 100 million) worldwide and an incredible 20,000 within Ireland.

The flu — often called Spanish flu, because the Spanish King was infected and his illness was reported widely as Spain was neutral and not subject to wartime censorship — came in three waves. In the first Ulster and Dublin were hit hardest but by the second wave, Cork and Munster were feeling the effects.

“This was no ordinary flu, it arrived out of season (May 1918) and became the biggest killer flu the world has ever known,” says Dr Ida Milne, author of Stacking the Coffins, Influenza, War and Revolution in Ireland 1918-1919. During this period the flu’s main victims were young, healthy adults whereas school-going children and the elderly seemed to have some protection or immunity. Newspapers of the day were full of articles of famous sportsmen who were ill or dying.

In this 1918 photograph, influenza victims crowd into an emergency hospital in Kansas.

Death from the virus could be horrific. As the lungs broke down, bodies turned purple and black, which early on made people think the disease was a plague. Initially Skibbereen Union, Adrigole and Rossmacowan parishes experienced outbreaks and in July 1918 the ‘plague’ was reported, ‘to be virulent in Cork.’

“Journalists were writing that after great wars comes great disease; undoubtedly the movement of troops during the World War I played a part. In Ireland the flu spreads out from barracks and along train lines.” (Casualties of war were transported to Dublin first via hospital ships and then by rail to Belfast or Cork).

“The earliest outbreak was in Howth which had ferries, Dun Laoghaire was also affected. An estimated 800,000 Irish people caught this flu and doctors paid 100,000 extra home visits during this time, Kildare had more deaths than any other county,” says Ms Milne.

Dr Ida Milne says the flu was often spread by returning soldiers.

In one week in November 1918, 562 people died in Dublin from pneumonia or chest infections/other causes. The Dublin tenements were particularly badly hit. “People who recovered from flu were told not to go back to work too soon as they risked pneumonia, but many went back anyhow because they had to, and they did die,” says Ms Milne.

In 1918-1919, Ireland was still under British rule and had important naval ports. Cork was subject to martial law which may have lessened the spread of infection. The US naval base also had hospital ship facilities in Cork and sick troops were treated on board, which may have minimised infection to civilians. Conversely, in Ulster, the Grand Fleet was stationed in Lough Swilly and navy and army personnel were treated in local hospitals which seems to have contributed to the spread of infection into the general Donegal population.

During the outbreak flu was also used as propaganda by Sinn Féin. Convicted prisoners in Cork were to be transferred to Belfast Jail when flu broke out in Belfast. One hundred and eleven prisoners were affected. Allegations that men were locked in cells with only dry bread and tea and no medical care were published in several newspapers.

When Richard Coleman died at Lusk days before the 1918 election, Sinn Féin call him, ‘a martyr’ and it’s likely his death affected the result. There’s also evidence some people didn’t vote at all in 1918 for fear of contracting the virus.

Flu sufferers were also given, ‘copious amounts of alcohol’ and those who’d contact with the afflicted often drank or gargled with whiskey before entering a house, ‘as protection.’ “In the North alcohol was frowned upon so sufferers were given strychnine injections instead,” says Ms Milne.

If there was one ‘benefit’ to the pandemic it’s that it probably shortened the First World War. The first troops to get sick were French and English; the Germans were fighting the Russians on the Eastern Front until Russia pulled out of battle.

The Allies had mostly recovered when German soldiers, who’d no immunity, switched to the Western Front and fell ill. US President, Woodrow Wilson also caught flu and was, ‘said to be raving’ while negotiating the Treaty of Versailles.

However, the mystery of the exact origin of the virulent 1918 flu virus called H1N1 continues today. A recent theory that it started in Kansas, America is not accepted by all researchers as there’s debate the virus manifested earlier on but was mislabelled as, ‘purulent bronchitis.’

According to the World Health Organisation, “another pandemic caused by a new influenza virus is a certainty, but we don’t know when it’ll happen, what virus strain it’ll be or how severe the disease will be.”

Hopefully, when it does happen though, our modern world will be better able to cope.

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