‘Spanish Flu’ ended summer 1919, but a more virulent epidemic remained

The so-called ‘Spanish Flu’ of 1918/19 came in three phases, leading to the false hope that as each phase appeared to be on the wane, it only returned with a vengeance, creating misery and fear throughout the country.

The virus appeared to becoming weaker in the late autumn of 1918, but the great public political rallies in the lead-up to the December 14 election revived its deadly outcome throughout the island.

A meeting of the Galway Board of Guardians was distressed to receive a wire from Fr Moran, Spiddal, asking that men be sent out from the city to bury Mrs Faherty, Rosaveal, who had been dead for four days from the flu, but people were afraid to go near the body for fear of being infected. The Connacht Tribune reported that ‘when the men from the workhouse arrived at the corpse’s house the relatives declined to assist them in the interment’.

'Families are suffering'

The men returned to Galway, and it was not until the next day, seven days after Mrs Faherty’s demise, that the body was brought to Galway and buried at Bohermore. ‘Other similar instances of the terrorising effect which the epidemic has had on the country people are on record’.

The report continues that the Galway fever hospital, infirm wards, and the main body of the workhouse ‘are crammed with sufferers. Several numbers of the nursing staff have become stricken, and last week the services of two nurses from Dr Steevens’ Hospital, Dublin, had to be requisitioned.

‘In many parts of the city several families are suffering. Bad cases are stated to create an atmosphere akin to that in which typhus patients are being treated, and it is suggested that the outbreak may be a combined form of typhus and influenza. The temperature of some persons have risen as high as 104, which is abnormally high in ordinary influenza attacks’. In January of the new year, the virus flared up again from February to mid-April 1919, affecting in particular Dublin, Mayo and Donegal.

As influenza moved through towns and communities, schools, libraries, and other public buildings were closed, and court sittings postponed. There were few Government guidelines except to wear masks in public, but businesses only closed sporadically on account of staff illnesses. The doctors and nurses, who were the mainstay of the Poor Law medical system, worked round the clock paying home visits in difficult weather conditions, and in far-distanced locations. Hospitals and workhouse infirmaries struggled to cope with the numbers of patients.

Then, as extraordinary as it arrived, by early summer 1919 the ‘Spanish Flu’ came to an end as those infected either died or developed immunity.

Dr Kathleen Lynn

Worldwide, the ‘Spanish Flu’ left behind an extraordinary trail of death, coming as it did on the tail-end of World War I, where an estimated 40 million (including more than 10 million civilians ) were killed. The flu infected about one third of the planet’s population, killing an estimated 20 to 50 million (675,000 Americans ). The numbers killed by the flu in Ireland is estimated about 25,000 (many of them young adults ),* compared to, sadly, 4,000 people to date from Covid 19.

I am not forgetting that following the sensational results of the December 14 1918 election and the establishment of Dáil Éireann, which had totally turned on its head the status-quo of the Irish political world at the time, was now becoming increasingly violent. It had some interesting consequences.

The shortage of medical personnel at the height of the flu pandemic led to the release of prisoners with medical experience. Dr Kathleen Lynn, from Cong, Co Mayo, was an ardent suffragette and nationalist, who as a member of the Irish Citizen Army, was appointed chief medical officer for the Easter Rising. She was a wanted woman by the authorities and ‘on the run’ until October 31 1918 when she was arrested. She described herself as a ‘Red Cross doctor and a belligerent’. Lynn, however, was released on condition that she worked with flu victims. She immediately set up a vaccination centre and hospital at Charlemont Street, Dublin. **

Orphaned and destitute

In Dr James P Murray’s medical history of Galway*** he describes the pandemic as especially severe in North Galway, the Balinasloe area, Spiddal and on the Aran Islands. The Fever Hospital was full of cases, and deaths in that institution averaged about 10 a week. Whole families were often affected, and local papers carried tragic reports of both parents dying, leaving large families orphaned and destitute. Dr T B Costello of Tuam, reported that doctors in North Galway often had to coffin the dead themselves, as no one in the area was fit enough to do so. The nuns in Tuam received high praise for their selfless nursing of the patients in their own homes.

But one disease that did not go away, in fact was virulent throughout the generations in the west of Ireland, and was active in addition to the flu, and that was tuberculosis, often referred to as The White Scourge. Between the years 1915 - 1919 1,459 men, women and children, died of TB in the county Galway area, practically double that of any other epidemic diseases combined.

Next week: Before the era of sanatoria and the drug Streptomycin, some imaginative ways TB was being tackled.

NOTES: *Irish deaths from the Spanish Flu is an estimate, many believing it was much higher. Medical personnel were too exhausted to keep proper records.

** Frustrated by the lack of social reform and health care, Lynn eventually left politics. She devoted her medical skills to treating the poor, and was admired for her acts of kindness by the people of Dublin, and accepted for her happy lesbian relationship with Madeleine ffrench Mullen. She died September 14 1955. Crowds lined the streets to show their appreciation and respect.

*** Galway: A Medico Social History, published by Kenny’s Bookshop and Art Galleries Ltd, 1992.


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