With over half the world in lockdown, these are strange and strained days for many people, but you only have to jump back 100 years to realise that we’ve been here before.
Only back in 1918, it was, for most people, far, far worse, as the Spanish Flu spread out around the globe, killing an estimated 50 million people along the way.
Or maybe it was just 17 million? The fact that no one truly knows reflects just how sideswiped the world was during this deadly epidemic.
In the second of three parts charting how Greystones, Bray, Wicklow and the rest of the county fared during the Spanish Flu, local historian Rosemary Raughter finds that whilst Greystones seem to be largely spared, our neighbours endured some gruesome deaths…
Just three months after the ‘summer scourge’ of June/July 1918 had petered out, the ‘dreaded Spanish influenza’ made its return to Bray in a considerably more malignant form than its predecessor.
Within a week, the Union Hospital at Loughlinstown was reported full, and the three doctors employed by the Rathdown Board of Guardians were seeing 600 cases between them. Little Bray was particularly badly affected, and with nursing assistance at a premium, the Sisters of Mercy fitted up their school at Ravenswell as a hospital for ‘upwards of 30’ patients.
The death toll mounted inexorably throughout October; on Sunday 20 October alone, there were ten funerals in the town. The death of many breadwinners left families destitute, and there were several cases of multiple deaths in one family. They included brothers Patrick and Henry Barry, both carpenters, of Augustine Villas, dead within a few days of one another, and the four children of Alexander Brien of Vale View Cottage in Little Bray, all dead in a single week of double pneumonia.
Another noteworthy case, which links this tragedy with another of the period, was that of Mary Archer of Strand Road, wife of John Archer, an employee of the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company, and mother of six children. She was already ill on October 10th, when word came of the sinking of the RMS Leinster just outside Dublin Bay. Fearing that her husband was among the victims, she hurried to Kingstown, where she learned to her relief that he was not part of the crew on that particular voyage. But the effort brought on a relapse, and she died on 5 November.
Among the many other local deaths to attract attention was that of Sister Mary Theresa Leonard of the Sisters of Charity at Ravenswell. Having assisted in the establishment of the hospital there, she herself fell ill, and died of pneumonia at St Vincent’s Hospital on November 10th.
Given its proximity to Bray and the road and rail links between them, it might have been expected that Greystones and its surrounding area would share some of Bray’s misfortune. However, while a report in mid-November claimed that the district ‘has not escaped the ravages of the epidemic any more than its neighbours in other parts of the county’, Greystones and Delgany do in fact appear to have been relatively unscathed, if the absence of accounts of flu deaths in the local newspapers is to be believed.
On November 16th, the Wicklow Newsletter announced ‘with much regret’ the deaths of Mrs Holmes, Miss E Kelly and Private R Johnston of the Royal Flying Corps. On further investigation, however, it emerges that neither Mary Ann Holmes (of Delgany) nor Elizabeth Kelly (of Templecarrig) are officially recorded as dying of influenza or a related disease. The last of these three cases, Private Johnston, did die of influenza, but not in Ireland. Having worked for thirteen years as chauffeur to Dr Jameson of Greystones, he had signed up with the Royal Flying Corps just five weeks previously, and contracted pneumonia while in training in England. His body was returned to Greystones, and he received a military funeral in Delgany on the following day.
On the other hand, it must be remembered that most deaths never found their way into the newspapers, and Greystones did undoubtedly witness its own share of influenza fatalities. The page of the death registration record on which Miss Kelly’s demise is listed, for example, shows three such deaths in the area: Susan Jane Evans of Greystones on October 13th, Bridget Gorman of Blacklion on October 24th and six-month old Mary Doran of Redford on the 28th of October 1918. A further trawl of the civil records would undoubtedly uncover more such examples.
By late October, the epidemic had made its way to other parts of the county. Deaths are recorded in Newtownmountkennedy and Rathnew, although the latter was at least fortunate in having ‘the devoted and untiring’ services of Nurse Mary Hayden. ‘A few more like her in each district’, the Wicklow Newsletter of November 16th declared, ‘would have made the task of the medical men less difficult … and saved, very probably, numerous lives.’
In Wicklow, there were reported to be about 1,000 cases, with two or more deaths occurring each day. Here, as elsewhere, the doctors found themselves overwhelmed with work, and although the County Infirmary, the Fever and VAD Hospitals were all in use, accommodation was still not available for all those needing care.
The extension of the disease to areas such as Roundwood and Barnaderrig presented the doctors with further difficulties in terms of travel and lack of nurses, while at Rathdrum Union Hospital, where seventy-nine cases of influenza were reported to have been admitted, some of the nurses and attendants and a number of the existing patients also contracted the disease. Eight patients had already died, and the hospital was greatly overcrowded.
Further down the coast, Arklow initially seemed to be escaping relatively lightly: indeed, there was a theory, fuelled surely more by hope than expectation, that the town would escape the worst effects of the malady ‘by reason of the sulphur fumes from [Kynoch’s] factory, which would cleanse the air of the microbes that cause the sickness.’ Nevertheless, by the beginning of November, the infection had taken hold with almost one thousand cases. Three weeks after its appearance in the town, ‘at least half a dozen deaths’ were reported, with whole families laid low. In one family, it was recorded, ‘the parents and ten children were ill, and two infants succumbed to the disease within the week’. Avoca was also reported to have suffered badly, with entire families infected and a ‘particularly severe’ death toll, which included, as elsewhere, a disproportionate number of young people.
In the west and south of the county, the epidemic was ‘raging seriously’ in Carnew, and the outbreak in Tinahely was one of ‘extraordinary severity’. There were also deaths in Baltinglass, as well as in Kiltegan, and Hacketstown was particularly badly hit, with twenty deaths occurring during the first two weeks of November, ten of which were of children under five, eight between seventeen and thirty, and the remaining two over seventy.
While fresh cases were still occurring in Bray in mid-November, there were signs that the epidemic was beginning to abate there. Similar reports came from Wicklow, Arklow and Rathdrum, and even in hard-hit Hacketstown the disease was said to be ‘well in hand’. Deaths, however, continued into December: among the young lives cut short were those of Gretta Cullen (14), Ballyedmond, described as ‘remarkable for her industry and aptitude at school’, and Michael and Andrew Byrne, the 15- and 11-year old sons of Michael Byrne of Aughrim, who died on December 8th and 9th respectively, both of double pneumonia.
Increasingly however, such reports were sidelined by celebration of the Armistice which brought to an end four years of war and by discussion of the forthcoming general election, while in Arklow concern focussed on the dire implications for employment of the probable closure of the Kynoch explosive factory there. Schools began to re-open across the county, and social events, many of which had been postponed or cancelled, resumed: on Friday 22 November, for example, ‘the seating accommodation of Arcadia, Bray, was taxed to its fullest capacity’ for ‘a splendidly-organised National concert’, at which performers included Mrs Sean Connolly, widow of the first insurgent to die in the Easter Rising, and featuring ‘a short patriotic address’, espousing ‘the cause of Ireland’s freedom.’
Black November was over, a new era and a new state was taking shape out of the ruins of the past, but the epidemic, as events would show, still had a final card to play.
You can read the first part of Rosemary Raughter’s local history during the Spanish Flu here, and explore her take on some of our faded landmarks and buildings here.
Sources: Wicklow People and Wicklow Newsletter, October – December 1918, accessed here. Irish Genealogy website here. Stacking The Coffin: Influenza, War And Revolution In Ireland 1918-19 by Ida Milne (University Press 2018).
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