In the first six months of 1918, war dominated the news agenda, focusing on the major battles in Belgium and France and the final push by the Allies for victory. In Ireland the news agenda was the domestic impositions of war, inflation, Irish soldiers who had lost their lives, and the tensions of conscription to provide man power for the Army. Which was being resisted by the Nationalist groups around the country who were holding mass meetings.
In early Summer of 1918, came the largest infectious disease event in modern world history. Newspaper coverage of the time has enabled identification of three waves of the disease, early summer and autumn of 1918, and in the early spring of 1919. One can trace its pathway as it moved from the ports- the points of entry- to the cities, towns and villages, through the pages of the regional newspapers. Leinster bore the brunt and worse wave of the disease particularly, Counties Wexford, Wicklow, Louth, Dublin, Kildare and Kilkenny.
By June 10th the Belfast Newsletter reported an unusual outbreak of illness in Belfast, mostly among soldiers and female factory workers. The reporter described symptoms that were influenza like. The epidemic continued to develop in east Ulster for the Irish Independent June 20th reported “the Mysterious scourge is spreading”. A virulently infectious disease resembling influenza in its symptoms has spread rapidly through Belfast city. The provincial newspapers were by then echoing the alarm at the outbreak of the disease.
As the war continued with news of the intense struggle on the Western front, the newspapers also tracked the influenza’s progress. The Irish Independent on Monday June 24th reported the epidemic was first reported from Spain where the King and one third of his subjects were infected and in various parts of England and Ireland. By the next day newspapers reported the influenza plague had reached Dublin, where 200 cases were noted. Early July the newspapers were reporting the spread of the disease in Dublin City and suburbs as alarming. Deaths from the flu were now been reported from Belfast, Derry, Cork and Lurgan. In London scores of Chemists had sold out of medicines. One Medical correspondent cited the cause of the epidemic as been the very mild February may have removed the barrage of cold which keeps the bacillus in Asia and allowed the epidemic to spread all over Europe. It was active on the Continent for some time before it appeared in the United Kingdom and Ireland. When news was first heard from Spain more than 6 million Spaniards were down with influenza. From the middle of July the threat from the first influenza wave of 1918 receded.
The second wave – October 1918
The Evening Herald reported on Oct. 8thof Dublin schools been closed, at Dublin port several of the harbour staff and those working shore side were ill. On the following day the paper was filled with the news that 180,000 new cases of the flu in the German Army, and 100,000 cases in Budapest alone. Outbreaks had happened in major cities Lucerne, Geneva, Zurich, Lausanne,St Gall. The Irish Independent reported that influenza was rife in Dublin city and other places. Fourteen deaths were recorded the same week. In the third week of October the City ambulances were busy removing citizens to the hospitals. The Sisters of Charity transformed their school in Little Bray into a hospital for children suffering from the influenza. In the Dublin Metropolitan Police 114 members were under medical care, mostly with influenza, three had died. Between Oct 1st and 21st 490 burials took place in Glasnevin Cemetery compared to 243 for the same period in 1917. Catholic Church authorities considered the outbreak so severe that the Arch Bishop asked the people not to weaken themselves by fasting for the Vigil of All Saints on Oct 31st. He issued instructions that the number of prayers at funeral Masses be reduced. The corpse should not be brought into the Church if the risk of infection was considered too great. There was practically an unbroken procession of funerals to Glasnevin,231 during the last week of October. The Cemeteries employees could not cope with the vast numbers and bodies were stored over night in the vaults. It was recorded the staff had 232 separate burials and 82 in the area reserved for paupers. Even though cinemas and places of entertainment were disinfected there was a marked drop in attendances. Business people complained of a trade paralysis, a leading grocer remarked that the great bulk of his customers were sending in written orders. Business premises were being liberally sprinkled with antiseptic fluids. Druggists reported having such big orders that stocks ran out. The reporting of the second wave of the epidemic in Leinster followed a similar path as Dublin, the schools, cinemas and other public buildings were closed. Court sittings were adjourned, Public libraries were closed, books being returned to the Libraries were kept separate.
The second wave: Kildare
The County with its strong rail and canal links to the capital was affected almost the same time as Dublin and Wicklow. The county suffered the worst death toll per head of population during 1918.All three Naas doctors were confined to bed as a result of contracting the disease, week ending 26th Oct. The local paper reported “scarcely a family in Naas was not afflicted “
The second wave: Louth
By the 23rd Oct almost 1000 cases of influenza were reported in Dundalk, one in ten of the population. Again as elsewhere doctors were worked off their feet, two doctors became ill early in the week, the other doctors were attending hundreds of cases daily. To prevent the spread of the disease, on the doctors’ advice, schools, picture houses and other public buildings were closed for three weeks. By Nov. 2nd the number of influenza cases in Dundalk had risen to 2,000 Thirty deaths were recorded mostly previously healthy young people. The local paper, the Democrat reported a communal kitchen had been set up providing soup, beef tea, Irish stew and barley water for people to collect and bring to sick friends. The doctors were happy to report the epidemic was declining in Dundalk by Nov. 9th the number of ill people down from 2,000 to between 300/400.
The second wave: Kilkenny
The Kilkenny People offered the following advice to its readers in mid October. “Eat regular meals to keep the body in peak condition. If you get home late or wet take a glass of hot lemonade. Inhale Eucalyptus several times a day. Go to bed immediately, if you get the flu”. The following week the influenza had become the main story for the newspaper. The banner head line read. “THE FLU IN KILKENNY –MANY SUFFERERS “ The mysterious epidemic is once more rampant around the city, it has spread to an alarmingly extent during the past week and has caused numerous deaths. There are many instances of people collapsing in the street. The county and work house infirmaries are crowded with people suffering from the disease. The Christian Brothers School in James’ St was compelled to close, likewise the De la Salle schools closed. On the Wednesday all schools closed on the recommendation of the Mayor and the Corporation. By Nov. 2nd, the paper described the epidemic as abnormal and the high death rate as alarming. Streets were sprayed with disinfectant, the Mayor John Slater requested that milk and coal be provided to impoverished families and influenza sufferers. The Kilkenny People went into a lot of detail about the dead, just to mention a small number, Philip Clohosey the thirteen year old son of Alderman Clohosey of John St., Thomas King, who ran a bakery and grocery on the Butts Green. George Cullen the chief warder at the Prison. William Timmins of Nore Terrace. Chrissie Brophy an assistant in Brennans and O’Briens on High Street. This short list shows the most vulnerable to the disease were those working close to the public.
A Third Wave
Towards the end of January 1919, newspapers had a cautious tone of optimism that things were improving. But optimism was misplaced, for in mid February the Spanish flu re emerged in almost as aggressive a form as that in the Autumn which had wreaked such havoc. In Dublin the public Libraries were closed from 1st March. At the Children’s Courts the attendance was so low that the constables responsible for serving the summonses explained that almost in every house they visited there were one or more of the family suffering from influenza .It was reported from the Transport Workers Union that claims for benefit had increased from the norm of 43 per week to 85 in the past week. The authorities reported the dispensaries were overcrowded and called for churches, cinemas, theatres, schools be closed. The Glasnevin Cemetery staff was paid double time to work Sundays to cope with the number of burials.
Outside of Dublin the disease continued to spread. The Belfast authorities claimed the epidemic did not seem as virulent as in the autumn. Most of the primary schools were closed and preventative measures were put in place in the Secondary schools. Doctors and Nurses were working day and night to attend to cases. The tramcars, picture houses and places of entertainment were disinfected. In County Cork there was a wide spread outbreak and several deaths were reported in Skibereen. In Athlone so many corpses were to be buried there was a shortage of hearses, and coffins had to be brought to the graveyard on outside cars and motorcars. The situation was described as being particularly grim in Kilkenny city, Wexford town, New Ross, Athy, Naas, Dundalk in the Spring of 1919. Work house infirmaries also known as Union hospitals were reported to be full, extra nursing staff were taken on, particularly for the night shifts. Keeping the ill warm also required extra supplies of coal and someone to stoke the fires. Keeping medicines in stock was also a difficulty.
The influenza impacted severely on prison warders and their families. Shortages of staff through illness or to attend the funerals of family members who had succumbed t o the disease. Several warders were granted leave to look after their families when their wives became ill. Warders were constantly being moved from prison to prison to replace ill staff. Governor Munro of Mountjoy Prison on Oct 22nd 1918 received a wire from Kilkenny Prison requesting a replacement for Chief Warder George Cullen who was off duty with influenza. Munro mentioned fourteen of his officers were off through illness, Warder Dillane was duly sent to Kilkenny. He reported two days later that the prison doctor had attended to Chief Warder Cullen at his home, Prison Terrace (later known as The Prison Cottages) and three of his children, Ella, Jack and Alfred who were by then in bed, suffering from influenza. Another son George had pneumonia, Mrs Cullen and another son Charles were convalescent. On Oct. 26th Warder Dillane forwarded to Munro a further report that Cullen’s two sons George and Charles were convalescing while Alfred and Ellla were still suffering from influenza. George his third was seriously ill with pneumonia. The Chief Warder George Cullen died from pneumonia on 28th Oct. His son George died shortly afterwards. James Dillane the replacement warder sent to Kilkenny lost his thirty year old wife Mary Therese to pneumonia on 23rd March 1919.
Where did the flu come from
This flu did not follow the usual pattern of originating in Asia and was at first widely believed to have come from Spain. Since there was no censorship on the news in neutral Spain, the press freely reported on the illness of King Alfonso X111, his Prime Minister, Cabinet members and several thousand citizens of Madrid in May 1918. It is now known that the influenza had already passed through army camps in the United States in March 1918.Historians and scientists continue to search data for the origin. Some favour the theory that the influenza began in an army camp in Kansas in the U.S.A. in the Spring 1918. It was then carried back to Europe on board ships, its spread helped by the overcrowding on the troop ships.
Counting the Dead:
How many died? Is usually the first question asked about the pandemic. It is estimated that Ireland alone lost at least 23,000 people. It probably infected a further 800,000, or one fifth of the population. On the European mainland the estimate is 3 million people lost their lives. While an estimate of 675,000 victims is given for the U.S.A. The death toll worldwide is estimated at between 20 and 50 million people. Most authorities now agree it killed at least 40 million people.
The most important fact about the Spanish Flu is that it killed millions upon millions of people in a year. Nothing else – no infection, no famine, no war, has ever killed so many in such a short period.
- Ida Milne: Stacking the Coffins, 2018
- Google 2020