A pandemic wiped out an entire generation of children in a Cork suburb, primarily because local 'witch doctors' and 'naysayers' persuaded parents not to inoculate their offspring against a deadly plague.
As some resist getting a Covid-19 vaccine for themselves or their children, historical research has shown how a whole generation of youngsters was wiped out in the Glanmire area over 200 years ago, by smallpox.
The children of today may hear their grandparents recalling when polio was rampant in Cork in the mid 1950s and their great-grandparents would have witnessed, or remembered, the Spanish Flu.
John Gilroy, a former senator who is currently studying folklore and archaeology at UCC, has uncovered a shocking account of how 'witch-doctors' and naysayers' destroyed a plan to vaccinate children against a massive smallpox outbreak in Glanmire.
He tells the story of James Alexander, mayor of New Ross during the 1798 Rebellion, who was rewarded for his loyalty with a job in the Department of Weights and Measures in Cork.
His job required him to go around the pubs to check they were selling the correct measures of spirits and part of his round involved visiting the pubs in Glanmire.
In 1814, he published an account of his travels around Glanmire, describing the places and the people he met.
Gilroy came across a book, published by Alexander, which was written in stilted and formal Georgian English, interspersed with prayers and moral tales and deciphered it into modern English.
In March 1809, the local doctor, de la Cour, decided to vaccinate the children of Glanmire against smallpox.
At the time, the disease was devastating communities, with three people in 10 who contracted it dying. The doctor asked the 'officious' Alexander to help in the vaccination programme.
“On the appointed day a large crowd assembled. The doctor was preparing to start when he was confronted by the local 'doctress'. As well as practising folk medicine, this woman was employed in one of the many local mills. The doctress was what we would call the local folk doctor or wise-woman – a well-known figure in Irish folklore,” Mr Gilroy said.
The woman treated all sorts of illnesses – animal as well as human – with herbs and potions.
On seeing what de la Cour was about to do, she challenged him:
Gilroy said she caused such a panic among assembled mothers that all but two left without having their children vaccinated.
After Alexander and the doctor said they would continue another day, the woman brought “two fellow quacks” to stop it.
The wives of two soldiers had brought their children to Alexander's when the 'doctress' arrived. They persuaded one of the mothers not to go ahead, maintaining "nature should be allowed to take its course".
Seeing Alexander was about to administer the vaccine, she now suggested it might be better if he heated the needle to make it easier. Alexander thought this was an ingenious suggestion but realised too late it destroyed the vaccine.
He met the mother who had refused the vaccine a few weeks later when her children aged nine and 10 had died from smallpox.
"Bitter irony was at play as Alexander tells us that the smallpox carried off the only daughter of the chief doctress," he said.
“The traditional cure for smallpox, as advocated by the folk doctor, was as unpleasant as it was worthless. It was thought that the blood of a person named ‘Cahill’ would cure the disease as efficiently as any vaccine. If there were no Cahills available, Alexander tells of seeing 'the distracted mother of a poor child, in the street carrying a basin of cat’s blood to besmear the face of the little patient'.
"But neither cat nor Cahill could save the children of Glanmire – a generation of children was lost,” Mr Gilroy added.