The Galway Expess was one of the first local newspapers to notice that the increasing numbers of people succumbing, some very suddenly, to the so called Spanish ‘Flu that swept across the world in the early summer of 1918, was ‘virulently infectious’. It speculated that it first reached Ireland through Belfast, and in many cases ‘entire households have been seized,’ industries have been closed, and schools ‘although children suffer less than adults, they spread infection’, have also been closed. ‘Sudden collapses are the most striking feature, the victim being struck down almost immediately.’
The Express, always with an eye on Europe, states that it is now rife in Berlin, and is spreading on the continent. ‘As we go to press’, it concludes ominously, ‘we learn there are 50 cases in Tuam.’
The Spanish Flu first appeared in the late spring and summer of 1918. World War I was entering its final tragic stages, when in a short period of little more than a year, the pandemic of unprecedented ferocity (now known as the H1N1 influenza virus ), infected one billion people around the globe, and may have killed as many as one hundred million people.
It appears to have taken everyone by surprise. There were few medical remedies in a world where health services were already struggling with war-related shortages of personnel, and hospital beds. Between 1918 and the early months of 1919, twenty-thousand and fifty-seven people died from the virus in Ireland, with at least a further three thousand three hundred deaths caused by related illnesses, notably pneumonia, attributed to the epidemic.
It came in three waves. The first wave hit Ireland, initially as an unexplained illness, in the early summer of 1918. The second wave, from mid-October to December, was the most virulent of the three; the final third wave, from mid-February to mid- April, was almost as severe. What was particularly cruel was that after each phase people thought it was all over, only to see it return with a vengeance.
A correspondent in the Connacht Tribune (June 22 1918 ) takes up the Belfast report as to the origins of the first wave which he described as ‘a mysterious malady’ which ‘has prostrated over forty soldiers, and twenty civilians’ in addition to two shop assistants who collapsed behind their counters. ‘In some cases whole families are stricken down, and one doctor while driving his motorcar was attacked with the malady, and is now confined to bed. Doctors are baffled as to the nature of the illness.’
Quoting his Belfast source who proclaimed that while writing his dispatch, he was speaking to a young man, who ten minutes later, became suddenly ill, and was removed to hospital.
The Tribune wisely advised its readers that while ‘ many people will wonder whether the weather or the war’ was responsible for this malady; and ‘while indulging in speculation it would be well that they should take precautions by adjusting their clothes to the vagaries of the weather, by keeping their windows open, and living as much as possible in the open air.’
By July, just three weeks from the last report, the Spansh Flu had been indentified for all the malevolence that we now know it had. The same journalist (Connacht Tribune July 13 1918 ) stated that week, ‘the outbreak has assumed such alarming proportions, resulting in so much inconvenience and dislocation of public business, and ended fatally in numerous instances, that we may be pardoned for looking further afield than the explanation of the weather vagaries for its true cause.’
But people were slow to accept that it was a flu, especially as it began in summer, and not during the cold winter months when flu is prevalent. At first people thought it was a plague.
Our correspondent suggests that the disease came from China ‘where years ago people were killed like flies’ and the ‘resources available were inadequate to stop it spreading’. Similar diseases, he suggested, ‘came out of southern Russia and spread rapidly over a great part of Europe not unlike the present epidemic.’
But he also opined a more morbid cause, citing that the war conditions on the Continent have been responsible for the present outbreak. He points out that the slaughter during the recent campaigns ‘was upon a scale unprecedented in human history, and that no matter what the resources at the disposal of the belligerents were, it was inevitable that corpses should remain overground longer than was desirable, and that infection should result. Nature always brings her Nemesis.’
‘If reports speak truly the Germans, who were the prime cause of the war, are in the grip of the malady that war conditions appear to have brought about.’
Whatever the cause, however, he warns that ‘this country has by no means escaped, and the death-rate in the palnciple cities for the past week reached an extraordinary high figure.’
‘Precautions are still necessary for the malady has by no means run its course. Bed and quinine appear to be the two great safeguards.’
Next week: The second phase causes major disruption to commercial life.
Additional information gleaned from History Ireland, volume 17 (Mar/Apr 2009 ) ‘Greatest killer of the twentieth century’. Also thanks to Aisling Mitchell, senior library assistant, Galway Co Libraries.