Analysis: Covid-19 shows that society’s primordial fears have not been allayed

Outbreaks of the deadliest infections such as bacillary dysentery, cholera, smallpox, tuberculosis, and fever were invariably accompanied by hysteria and popular panic, writes Laurence Geary
Analysis: Covid-19 shows that society’s primordial fears have not been allayed

A row of coffins at the funeral of victims of a cholera epidemic in St Petersburg, Russia, 1908. File picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Disease epidemics have always provoked a very powerful social reaction among all social classes, but particularly among the rural and urban poor, whose tenure and prospects in the 18th and 19th century Ireland were circumscribed even at the best of times. 

Outbreaks of the deadliest infections — bacillary dysentery, cholera, smallpox, tuberculosis, and fever, a term which, prior to the 20th century, embraced typhus fever and relapsing fever, two distinct but symptomatically related bacterial infections — were invariably accompanied by hysteria and popular panic.

Long before the agency of fever was identified early in the 20th century, Irish people were empirically aware of the disease’s symptoms, consequences, and infectivity, and fear of contagion drove them to quarantine fever victims. 

The middle and upper classes domestic arrangements enabled segregation of the sick within their homes. 

The rural poor in their one-roomed cabins isolated fever-stricken family members in 'fever huts', shelters that consisted of a few stakes, covered with long sods called scraws and a small portion of straw or rushes. 

These wretched structures were hastily thrown up at the side of a road, the corner of a field, or the verge of a bog. 

Some were even more rudimentary, consisting simply of straw and furze tied together and placed at an angle to the ditch, an arrangement that could be adapted to the prevailing wind.

During a major fever epidemic between late 1816 and 1819, when as many as 1.5m people may have contracted the disease, with between 40,000 and 60,000 excess deaths, communities attempted to ward off infection in various ways. 

Some parishes and towns denied entry to strangers and occasionally posted armed enforcers at the approaches. 

Others expelled individuals who were not locally born or resident for the requisite qualifying period. 

In some Leinster counties, public notices warned against the practice of assisting or sheltering beggars and vagrants, because of their perceived role in spreading infection. In Ulster, paupers were required to wear identity badges.

The general apprehension manifested itself in other social and psychological ways. 

Ambulance attendants conveying fever patients to isolation hospitals wore ‘a peculiar dress’ and their vehicles were said to be of ‘a remarkable construction’, the oddity of design and apparel clearly prompted by fear of infection. 

Placards advertising ‘thieves’ vinegar’, a prophylactic that may have originated during the Black Death pandemic in the Middle Ages, were posted in various parts of Dublin, with the word fever graphically portrayed. 

Various nostrums were touted as preventives, including camphor, which was in great demand and sold in large quantities.

Perhaps the most striking manifestation of the popular response to disease epidemics occurred in 1832 when cholera, a bacterial disease usually spread through contaminated water, affected Ireland for the first time, part of a global pandemic that originated in India. 

This was the incident of the ‘blessed turf’, also known as ‘the sacred fire’, or simply ‘the fire’, which began on the evening of June 9, 1832, with the reputed appearance of the Virgin Mary in the Catholic Church, Charleville, Co Cork. 

According to contemporary reports, Mary distributed ash as a prophylactic against cholera among those who were present. 

Each recipient was to place a portion under the roof of their home, and to divide the remainder among four neighbours, with instructions to replicate this procedure. 

Within days, large numbers of people were subsumed in the excitement and the message spread rapidly from North Cork to other parts of the country. 

The process was a verbal one in a pre-literate society, which meant, inevitably, that there were changes in tenor and tone as the information passed from place to place at great speed, and items such as sods of burning turf, lighted straws, or stones were substituted for ash in some locations.

Laurence Geary, History Department, UCC. Photo by Tomas Tyner, UCC.
Laurence Geary, History Department, UCC. Photo by Tomas Tyner, UCC.

Fever had been a pervasive presence in Irish life for centuries, but cholera was new, mysterious, and deadly. Its symptoms were frightening — victims’ skin turned blue or purple, for example — its course was unpredictable and it killed quickly, features that combined to introduce a fresh terror to society, so intense that it sparked riots in some urban centres. 

As in other parts of Europe, there was a popular belief that the epidemic was not a natural occurrence and rumours circulated regarding agency and responsibility. 

Some people accused the government of attempting to rid the country of the poor by poisoning water and food supplies, with discoloration of corpses offered as proof. 

Others claimed that the epidemic was a contrivance of the medical profession to generate patients and income. 

A third element pinned responsibility on avaricious merchants and traders actuated by the prospect of inflated food prices.

Fear, mass panic, and hysteria were features of all serious outbreaks of fever, cholera, and other communicable diseases in early-modern and modern Ireland, a communal reaction that was largely attributable to pre-scientific medical ignorance, fear of the unknown, and the economic and social implications of infection. 

People did not know how these maladies were caused and, by extension, how to cure them, and they feared what they did not know and could not control. 

What they were very much aware of was the impact and consequences of infectious diseases, which, if they did not kill their victims, often reduced them and their families to penury and social degradation.

Economic, social, medical, and scientific advances in the second half of the 19th century and subsequently helped to suppress fever and other infectious diseases, but the fear and mass panic that invariably featured during outbreaks historically in Ireland did not pass entirely. 

The Spanish flu, tuberculosis, and polio generated their own share of popular hysteria in 20th century Ireland, and the more recent response to the HIV/Aids epidemic and currently to Covid-19 shows that society’s primordial fears have not been entirely allayed.

  • Laurence Geary, School of History, University College Cork

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