Lack of social distancing aided second phase of ‘Spanish Flu’

Ronnie O’Gorman [email protected]

[Week II. Read Part I.] The 1918 General Election on December 14 was the most significant election in modern Irish history. Following the events of World War I, the Easter Rising, and the Conscription Crisis, the whole island was caught up in fierce debate as to its future. The result was a sweeping victory for a radical Sinn Féin, which promised to establish an independent Irish Republic. The moderate Irish Parliamentary Party, which had dominated the Irish political landscape since the 1880s, was wiped out; while in Ulster the Unionist Party took power.

Events then moved very quickly. Sinn Féin members refused to attend the British parliament at Westminster, and formed the first Dáil Éireann in Dublin. As both Sinn Féin and the Unionists had imported considerable amounts of weapons, several years earlier, and trained in public military parades, it was becoming inevitable violence would erupt.

A further significance of the 1918 election was that for the first time women, over the age of 35 years, were eligible to vote; while the franchise was extended to all men aged 21 and over.

It was a time of intense, passionate debate in the press and in particular at public rallies. Unfortunately it coincided with the second phase, and the most deadly of the three phased Spanish Flu (correctly named the Great Flu* ) which targeted strong, young, and healthy people. In 1918 22.7 percent of all deaths from the flu in Ireland were of people aged between 25 and 35; and in 1919 the figure for this age group was 18.95 per cent. This is also the age group for parents of young children, a lot of whom were orphaned. Inexplicably there was little impact on those over 65 years.

Night and day

Although the All Ireland finals were cancelled that autumn, no efforts were made to keep a social distance at the big political rallies in the lead up to December 14, which attracted enormous crowds. This may have been the result in a false-belief that the flu was on the wane, as there were reports about a drop in cases. The Connacht Tribune reported a meeting of the Oughterard Board of Guardians in November when its medical officer Dr K J O’Brien was treating 200 influenza cases. He asked for a nurse to be immediately appointed to assist him. The doctor said that the epidemic was abating in the town ‘but was spreading in the country districts’. The doctor applied for fifteen guineas for attending patients suffering from influenza residing outside this dispensary district.

‘A member remarked that although the doctor was not well himself for a week or so, he attended the people who were stricken down, and was night and day on the road.’

The board agreed to pay him the amount requested.

Nourishing food

The Connacht Tribune also reported at the time that ‘although unfortunately several more deaths have occurred as a result of the influenza plague, the disease in the Tuam district is on the wane, and the majority of sufferers are now convalescent. A sad feature is that most of the victims have been young men’.

The report warned, however, that those who escaped the ‘scourge’ so far should be advised that neglecting to treat the outbreak seriously, can end in fatality. ‘In its initial stages of development can easily be mistaken for an ordinary cold. Headache, nausea and general stiffness appear to be unmistakable symptoms, and the one sure remedy is to take to bed before the disease has reached a dangerous stage.’

Furthermore it advises its readers that open air, sanitary surroundings and warm clothing, with reasonable precautions against wetting and dampness and nourishing food are the best preventives.’

Uncompromising nationalist

A number of prominent people died in the first wave, including Mother Mary Bernard Ryan of the Convent of Mercy, who came ‘from a very distinguished family in Co Galway’, and who filled the position of head supervisor of the County Hospital with ‘marked ability’ when the nuns took over the running of the Galway hospital in 1900. Mother Ryan, whose sudden death occurred after a few hours of illness, was the second Mercy nun to have died within days of each other.

The sad demise of Philip MacDonnell, a popular Galway solicitor, who had married one month before to Nora Purcell of Cashel, is described in some detail. The couple were returning from their honeymoon, spent largely in the north of Ireland, when he was suddenly struck down.

‘He was expected to return home last Wednesday, but apparently contacted influenza earlier in the week. After two days in bed, he came to Dublin, and it was expected that he would arrive in Galway on the evening of the day of his death. His illness took an acute form, and upon entering a private hospital it was discovered that his temperature had risen to 104. Almost at the same time his wife was stricken with influenza, and had to take to the bed in the same hospital where she still remains.

Mr MacDonnell steadily developed acute pneumonia and was unconscious for some hours before his death’. His offices in Galway ‘were crowded with wedding presents which he never had the opportunity of seeing.’

In keeping with the times the reporter stated that ‘politically’, Mr MacDonnell ‘followed the family tradition, and was all through life, a sterling and uncompromising Nationalist’.

Next week: The second deadly phase of the flu pandemic

NOTES: * Spain was one of the few major European powers to remain neutral during World War I, unlike the Allied and Central Power nations where wartime censorship suppressed news of the flu to avoid affecting morale. The Spanish media was free to report its progress in all its gory detail. Since those nations under a media blackout could only read its full impact in Spanish newspapers, it was widely assumed to have originated there.

It is still not certain where flu originated. France, China and Britain have all been suggested as a potential birthplace for the virus, as well as the United States.


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