Saturday 15 June 2019

Forgotten by history, how flu became a deadly plague

One hundred years on, the truth is emerging over the epidemic that swept Ireland, killing thousands, writes Alan O'Keeffe

This year marks the centenary of the arrival of ‘Spanish Flu’ that killed more than 20,000 people in Ireland and more than 50 million worldwide in under 10 months. Stock photo: Getty
This year marks the centenary of the arrival of ‘Spanish Flu’ that killed more than 20,000 people in Ireland and more than 50 million worldwide in under 10 months. Stock photo: Getty

Alan O'Keeffe

Only now is the full story finally emerging of a deadly 'plague' that killed tens of thousands of people in Ireland in 1918.

This year marks the centenary of the arrival of 'Spanish Flu' that killed more than 20,000 people in Ireland and more than 50 million worldwide in under 10 months.

More than 800,000 people in Ireland became seriously ill as fear swept through the nation.

'The Big Flu' killed far more people than The Great War of 1914-18. The deadly virus gathered strength among the miserable masses of soldiers living and dying at close quarters during the war.

The virus made its way along the routes home from the battlefields. In many a hometown, families died. And it took a particularly devastating toll on young adults.

The epidemics swept through the land in three waves between June 1918 and April 1919. Yet, the story of this ultimate 'serial killer' remained largely hidden from history.

In one Dublin mortuary, coffins were stacked high. At Glasnevin Cemetery, funerals queued up outside the gates with 40 burials a day.

Irish academic Ida Milne first became aware of this massive killer when she was working as a librarian for the Sunday Independent, Irish Independent and Evening Herald a number of years ago.

She was asked by one of Independent Newspapers' highly-respected editors, the late Paul Drury, to find information in old editions of the newspapers about the sinking of the mailboat RMS Leinster by a German submarine off the Irish coast in October 1918.

"More than 500 people were killed in the sinking. But I also discovered these same newspapers were full of stories about 500 being killed every single week in Ireland by a flu epidemic," she said.

Later, when she become an academic, she began to research the epidemic more fully. Her new book Stacking The Coffins: Influenza, War and Revolution in Ireland 1918-19 will be published later this month.

"It's amazing so little information was available in books or academic papers about this huge event. But Irish newspapers were brilliant sources for what happened," she said.

She also found people whose families suffered painful losses in the epidemic.

Dr Milne discovered it struck communities everywhere, including her native Ballymorgan in Co Wexford.

She believes far more than 20,000 died in Ireland.

"Doctors were too busy treating the living rather than having the time to be certifying the dead," she said.

"People who dealt with the public were the ones most likely to die. It claimed the lives of doctors, nurses, priests, ambulance workers, postmen, bank clerks and shop workers," she said.

The poor died in droves. The over-crowded tenements of Dublin, where one-third of the city's population lived, were hit hard. Entire families were found dead, sometimes all dying in the one bed.

The epidemic was sometimes known as The Black Flu because some bodies turned black. Patients, their families, and their doctors became "very scared" when they noticed their skin turning purple as they became sicker.

In the small community of Ferbane, Co Offaly, the Claffey family ran a hardware and undertaker business. Seamus Claffey recalled that his father spoke of being very busy during the epidemic.

"There was a simple rule. If you got the flu you went to bed - and if you did not, you died," he recalled.

"Whole families died," he said, stating that the undertaker had to deal with several funerals every day at the height of the epidemic.

Mr Claffey told the story of a man from Pullagh, Co Offaly, who was one of a group of 36 Irish soldiers who were demobilised after the war and who headed home to Ireland through England. But 19 of them died of flu on their way through England, he said.

Doctors wrongly believed the epidemic was caused by a bacterial infection. It was only in the 1930s that scientists recognised that it was a virus.

At the Dublin Union Hospital, now St James's Hospital, witnesses said coffins were stacked 18 high in the mortuary. Nearly every ward in the Mater was converted into a flu ward. Desperate doctors tried all kinds of strange remedies, including gargling with a mixture containing the wood preservative creosote.

A young doctor, DW Macnamara noticed how some older doctors gave patients "heroic quantities" of whiskey. He wrote of this, years later, stating: "At least its customers had a merry spin to paradise."

He considered the practice of injecting patients with a camphor and olive oil solution as "the very nadir of therapeutic baloney".

He stated the most striking thing about flu patients was "the terrible prostration and toxaemia, and the revolting 'grogginess' that persisted for weeks, and sometimes even months in those lucky enough to recover. Somehow, I was never satisfied that the illness was influenza. To me it was something much more terrible….for it truly was a plague, a Black Death."

Parents were mostly pre-occupied with keeping their children safe. Many made them wear scarves impregnated with eucalyptus. Bovril and Oxo were considered to be fortifying and there was huge demand for these products.

Some communities were hit particularly hard. In Naas, all the employees of the local gas company came down with flu, causing gas supplies to be cut off. This meant there was no power in the town for lighting or cooking which compounded the problems of flu hit families. In Naas, and in towns such as Athy, Dundalk and Clonmel, community kitchens were set up to bring cooked food to families too weak to feed themselves.

Co Donegal suffered badly from the flu. Royal Navy ships anchored in Lough Swilly sent sick sailors and soldiers to hospitals on land for treatment, which spread the flu among the civilian population.

But Co Cork did not fair as badly. Dr Milne noted that the US Navy had a fleet anchored in Cobh, but the Americans kept their flu patients onboard ship for treatment which may have helped contain it.

All over Ireland, schools were closed, cinemas curtailed and the courts suspended in many areas. Wakes for flu victims were discouraged. Carts were deployed to spray the streets with disinfectants.

The children of the wealthy were not spared. At Clongowes Wood boarding school in Kildare, around 220 fell ill. Three boys died and a wall plaque at the school bears their names.

Dr Milne continues her work researching the social history of infectious diseases as a visiting research fellow at Queen's University, Belfast.She says war and disease have often gone hand in hand.

"The epidemic remained largely a hidden story in Irish history. It devastated families, taking parents and children, and often depriving families of their breadwinners in very tough times. It impacted on survivors for generations."

Sunday Independent

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