In 1918, the world faced an epidemic worse than the Black Death. The disease could not have arrived in Ireland at a worse time. The war meant that many doctors were at the front and there was no national health service. How well did the country cope? Robert Hume investigates
The Cork Examiner reported the story of two young men from Grattan Street – aged 17 and 21 – next-door neighbours and former schoolmates, who had been struck down with influenza on the same day. When their illness worsened, they were taken to hospital together. On 20 July 1918, at the very same time, 7.30 a.m., they both died. The sickness often took hold with startling speed: John Kavanagh from Dublin was in good spirits one day, “threatening to cut off his friend’s hair with shears”, but dead by eleven o’clock next morning.
Royal Cork Yacht Club member, Patrick Doherty, succumbed in only five hours. Timothy Hegarty, a young man from Curragh Road, Cork, suddenly died on his way to the chemist on 15 July. In Belfast a dancer dropped dead on stage.
The illness was nicknamed the “Spanish lady” because it was first recorded in Spain. Offended Spaniards dubbed it the “Naples soldier”, and the Japanese called it “American influenza”.
“Blitzkatarrh” was the name the German army used; while for British and Irish troops it was “Flanders grippe”. Where it came from nobody knew. Some said a military camp in Kansas, or Étaples, northern France; others blamed mustard gas and battlefield fumes, or a German biological weapon. One recent study suggests it originated from chickens and ducks in China, and was transported by labourers to the Western Front.
Sore throat, headache, fever and black skin proved telltale signs. Seamus Babbington from Carrick-on-Suir recalled: “I got it bad and was in bed for a month, and the blackest man in Africa was not blacker”.
Troops sailing home took the flu into Dublin and Cork. The first recorded outbreak was on USS Dixie off Cobh in May.
From the ports the disease swept across Ireland in three waves: mild in spring 1918; lethal in autumn 1918; and moderate in early 1919.
The Freeman’s Journal described its arrival in military terms as “the advance guard of an invasion of disease”, against which health authorities would have to direct their “barrage”. In October 1918 The Cork Examiner recorded it spreading at an “alarming” rate: “Scarcely a household” in Clonakilty did not have at least one person in bed with flu. At Carrigaline no letters were delivered “owing to the local postman being confined to his room with the disease”. Many policemen were laid up in Tipperary; and all over Ireland the number of prison warders off sick was thought to make escapes more likely. Doctors were “on foot night and day”, reported the Tipperary Star, but were baffled how to cope with the “mysterious malady”.
A shortage of gravediggers in Dublin meant coffins being stacked 18-high in the Union Hospital mortuary. In Fálcarrach, Donegal, the priest took a corpse to the graveyard in a wheelbarrow because relatives were too weak to help.
The top scientists of the day considered the disease was carried by bacteria and was no more deadly than the Russian Flu of 1889-92. Consequently the authorities did not make it “notifiable” until the third outbreak in spring 1919. Only in 1933 was it identified as a virus (H1N1A).
Today, flu is especially dangerous for the very young and the elderly, but the Spanish Flu mainly affected those aged 25-35, still “in vigour”, as The Cork Examiner put it.
Public authorities must “reorganize their services at once”, be “mentally alert” and “physically active”, declared The Freeman’s Journal on 8 November. But it acknowledged that 90 year-old Sir Charles Cameron, Superintendent of Public Health, lacked “the energy and physical powers necessary to deal with the task”. Dublin GP, Kathleen Lynn, called for returning soldiers to be quarantined, as in Australia, and their uniforms fumigated to avoid infecting family and friends.
“The inside of the nose should be washed with soap and water”, recommended the Limerick Leader.
Dublin householders were encouraged to wash their floors with Americus disinfectant, and flush the toilet with carbolic. Streets were sprayed with Jeyes fluid, and trams and railway carriages scrubbed, though authorities stopped short of “generously” spraying passengers with disinfectant, as happened in Spain. Nor was handshaking or kissing outlawed, as in Arizona and Richmond, Virginia.
Meetings of large groups of people risked spreading the disease; therefore markets, fairs and election rallies were called off.
Many local boards of health recommended that schools be closed. But headteachers were slow to comply since the disease was described as “virulent but not dangerous”.
Theatres were shut in Cork City, and the Lunatic Asylum banned all visitors – except to the dying.
Limerick City ordered cinemas to close their doors; dances were cancelled in Fermoy, Co. Cork for several weeks; and the GAA final between Tipperary and Wexford was postponed.
Much of the advice offered, such as the “avoidance of overcrowding in dwellings” and “good food” was either impractical or spurious.
A Dublin doctor rather worryingly recommended lozenges containing formaldehyde; while his archbishop called people to “earnest prayer”, to deliver them from danger. Better that churches had closed, as in Canada, France and Switzerland.
One government official asked people “to clean their teeth regularly”, another to chew onions; while the News of the World suggested readers “eat plenty of porridge”.
As a young girl, Molly Deery from Lifford, Donegal, recalls being told “to keep to the side of the road if someone in a house had it”.
Lack of scientific knowledge and clear government advice left the door open for unscrupulous companies to exploit people’s fears.
Gallaher’s maintained that a pinch of their High Toast snuff would “prevent influenza”. Another expensive product, Genaspirin, maintained that it “thoroughly repulses influenza attacks”; while a mouthwash promised: “you cannot catch influenza if you use MILTON”. Thompson’s Influenza Specific claimed to “act like magic”; and Dr Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People promised “a miraculous cure”.
Although nothing compared to the Great Famine, Spanish Flu in Ireland was responsible for many more deaths than the Easter Rising, War of Independence and Civil War combined. For those spared, writes Dr Caitriona Foley (The Last Irish Plague, 2011), recovery was a “long and frustrating process… some never regained full strength or vitality”.