istory has a habit of repeating itself, and the fact that the world was brought to its knees just over a century ago by another pandemic certainly proves it.
Lasting from January 1918 to December 1920, and infecting 500 million people, the Spanish flu was unusually deadly.
The number of dead it left behind ranges from 17 million to 50 million, and even, by some estimates, 100 million. Because World War 1 was still raging for the first half of 1918, early reports of the Spanish flu were censored, so as to maintain morale. It was only in neutral Spain that newspapers were free to report on the pandemic, and thus giving this particular influenza its name. The Spanish flu’s true point of origin has never been firmly established.
So, what the world is going through right now with Covid-19 is not entirely new. Just how Ireland survived during those difficult years, and, in particular, how Wicklow made it through, is something local historian Rosemary Raughter has been exploring over the past few weeks.
Charting here just the first phase of three, Rosemary will continue her search through the local archives next week. For now, sit back and try not to relapse…
The current Covid-19 epidemic has revived interest here in the influenza pandemic which ravaged Ireland just a century ago. Arriving in a relatively mild form in June 1918, it disappeared in July, only to revive with much greater ferocity a few months later, in October.
Again, from December 1918 there was a lull, before the illness re-emerged once more in February and March 1919. In all, it has been estimated that 800,000 people in Ireland suffered from the disease, with a ‘conservative’ death toll of 20,000.
Wicklow, together with four other Leinster counties – Kildare, Dublin, Wexford and Carlow – was one of the areas most severely affected, with a death rate of 3-4 per 1,000, and a total death toll for Leinster of just over 6,000. Factors contributing to this included proximity to ports and strong social and transport links with centres of high population such as Dublin.
These figures are taken from Ida Milne’s study, Stacking The Coffins (Manchester University Press, 2018), the definitive work on the incidence and impact of that particular pandemic in Ireland. For anyone wanting to know more about the 1918/19 crisis, or interested in tracing the parallels and the differences between experiences now and then, Stacking The Coffins is essential reading – and all background information here has been taken from that source.
What I was curious about, specifically, however, was the course of the disease in Wicklow as reflected in local newspapers, The Wicklow People and The Wicklow Newsletter, for the two months June to August 1918 – that is, the weeks during which the first, relatively mild phase of the epidemic made itself felt to an unsuspecting population.
The first intimations in Ireland of what was to become the epidemic came in early June, when an influenza-like illness was reported in Belfast, but with the caveat that there was ‘no cause for alarm’. Within about a week, initial complacency had sharpened to concern, with accounts of a ‘mysterious scourge’ spreading throughout Belfast. By June 25th, it had reached Dublin and north Wicklow, with the manager of Glencree Industrial School at Enniskerry inserting a notice in The Irish Independent banning visitors until further notice because of the outbreak.
It took a little longer for the provincial press to react: the earliest reference I could find in the Wicklow papers to the ‘new influenza’, as it was described, was in The Wicklow People of 6 July 1918. Under the headline ‘All Ireland In Its g=Grip’, the paper reported that the epidemic was now ‘raging’ in Britain, while in Ireland ‘few places are now free’ of what it described as ‘the summer scourge.’ There were said to be 700 cases in Dublin, in Derry there had been ‘numbers of deaths’ with business premises closed, and in Cork, people were described falling ‘prostrate in the street’ from the mysterious malady. No mention was yet made of the incidence of disease in Wicklow.
However, the following week’s Wicklow Newsletter did report a few cases in Arklow, while noting that the town in general ‘sails along quite unconcernedly and very little affected by the sickness.’ Not everywhere had escaped so lightly, however: ‘places like Bray that boast of their advanced sanitation’ had been ‘stricken’, and Rathdrum had suffered ‘a good deal’, although the disease now appeared to be on the wane.
Arklow’s confidence, however, was shortly to be dented by its first fatality. The dead man, P J O’Donnell, was a member of the staff of Kynoch’s munitions factory, and the funeral was a very large one with many Kynoch workers taking part in the procession. At the same time, a number of cases ‘mostly of a mild kind’, were reported from Wicklow town, and on July 5th, an outbreak of flu at Kilquade led to the closure of schools there.
Some areas of the county seem to have been much more seriously affected than others. The epidemic was reported to have been ‘extremely severe’ in Bray, and in mid-July was said to be ‘raging’ in the Hacketstown district: ‘half the population of Tullow’ was reportedly infected, including the doctor and chemist, ‘so that those who are ill may look after themselves.’ Blessington also appears to have been badly hit, with almost all of the local GAA players infected, and two of the most prominent, Edward FitzSimons and Bertie Hanlon, among the dead. In Greystones and Delgany, on the other hand, the impact seems to have been muted, with news from the area during these weeks focussing on the usual children’s treats, house sales, war casualties, and awards, and flower shows, rather than on the epidemic raging elsewhere.
The deaths of the Blessington GAA players are a reminder of the disproportionate impact of the 1918/19 epidemic on young adults. Other young Wicklow people noted of dying of flu during these months included Patrick Usher of Main Street, Bray, aged 25, and May Dooly of Blessington, aged 18, who died on August 10th of pneumonia following influenza. News reports also reveal the burden on health personnel: in early July, Dr Eccles of Delgany was reported unfit for duty due to an acute attack of influenza, and was still unable to work in mid-August, while Miss Bolger, an infirmary nurse, sought sick leave from the Shillelagh Guardians in early August, because ‘she had been rather seriously knocked up with influenza’. Her request was granted, albeit rather ungraciously, with one member of the board grumbling that he supposed ‘we can’t get over granting it.’
By late July, in Wicklow as in the country at large, the epidemic appeared to be on the wane. In the hard-hit Hacketstown area, it was reported that most sufferers were ‘on the convalescent list, and no new cases have been reported during the past week.’ Life, as reflected in the pages of the local press, returned to normal – or as near normal as could be expected with the war slowly grinding to its conclusion and separatist nationalism on the rise. But, as events over the coming autumn were to show, the ‘summer scourge’ of June and July was little more than a rehearsal.
By autumn 1918, a second and infinitely more virulent phase of the pandemic was making its presence felt in Ireland, with Wicklow this time very much in the front line…
Cue scary music. We’ll have a follow-up report next week on how Wicklow fared during the fall and rise again of the Spanish flu…
Now, go explore some more local history with Rosemary here.
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