This year brings several important centenaries, including the election of Countess Markievicz to the Westminster parliament.
While, for many, the focus will undoubtedly be on what 1918 meant in the context of the Irish revolution, global events had an enormous impact on the city of Dublin too. Not least, the outbreak of the so-called Spanish flu.
It caused chaos in the capital. Many Dubliners abandoned public transport and sought sanctuary anywhere they could. In total, the flu claimed more lives than the political violence of the revolutionary period.
Its effects were particularly felt in Dublin; as historian Pádraig Yeates rightly notes, the city was “singularly ill-prepared to meet the challenge. In the first decade of the twentieth century it had the highest rate of urban mortality in Europe, exceeding those of many Asian cities.”
Why is the 1918 flu epidemic known as the Spanish flu? It didn’t have its origins in Spain, and, as curious as it sounds, it was more to do with what wasn’t happening there.
With the Continent still at war, newspapers weren’t eager to report on a killer flu, perhaps fearful of the impact such stories would have on public morale. British, German and American newspapers remained hush-hush in the early stages of the crisis, while the Spanish media freely reported on it, because Spain was neutral in the First World War. This gave many the impression that Spain was hit particularly hard by the outbreak.
Certainly, the war is an integral part of this story. Overcrowded military camps were fertile grounds for infectious disease, and the First World War limped towards conclusion, and men returned home from the trenches, that brought its own risks. The movement of men across the Continent – and across continents – was largely to blame.
On the other side of the world, American children were responsible for the skipping rhyme, “I had a little bird and its name was Enza, I opened the window and in-flew-Enza.”
The war continued and ended as the flu made its way across the Continent; the historian R.B McDowell (a much-loved institution at Trinity College Dublin until his dying day) recounted for the Irish Times in 2008 how he had been struck down by the flu in Belfast in 1919, and quickly rushed to hospital: “My next clear memory was a nurse carrying me from the bed to the window to see the Union Jack flying from the house opposite and being told we had won the war.”
The flu came to Ireland in three significant waves, officially claiming 20,057 lives, though historians suggest now that the death toll may have been higher.
Ida Milne, the leading authority on the flu in an Irish context, has written that “the earliest verifiable record of its arrival in Ireland can be found in US naval archives, which document an outbreak on the USS Dixie, docking outside Queenstown (Cobh), in May 1918 … By the end of June there were reports that it had reached Ballinasloe, Tipperary, Dublin, Derry and Cork.”
The epidemic puts the Irish revolution on hold. Eilís Ní Riain, a member of Cumann na mBan recalled how, “Doctors and nurses were taxed to capacity and the death rate was very high. It was not unusual for whole families to be stricken down together. Cumann na mBan volunteered to nurse patients during this awful calamity.”
Doctor Kathleen Lynn, a member of the Irish Citizen Army who was on the run at the time, remembered that when she was finally arrested, she avoided deportation or arrest on the basis that medical professionals were so badly required: “Doctors were terribly wanted at that time. I was permitted to remain in practice if I did not leave the city of Dublin. I carried on. I would not want to leave the city of Dublin, so that it did not much matter.”
The flu wreaked havoc inside prisons too, where some republican prisoners languished for their involvement in anti-conscription activism. Some prisoners died as a result of the flu (including Irish Volunteer Dick Coleman), their funerals becoming political spectacles.
The scale of the crisis is clearly visible in the burial records of cemeteries. Newspapers reported on “cortege after cortege” making their way through the city to cemeteries like Glasnevin. Between 40 and 45 funerals took place daily in Glasnevin at the height of the crisis, with many of its victims buried in paupers’ graves.
Members of the public who were in close contact with others were most at risk, which led to the closure of libraries, schools and courts. Streets were washed with disinfectant, though this did little to alleviate the fears of many Dubliners. Still, when there is money to be made someone will make it, and contemporary newspapers clearly show businesses trying to make whatever they could from the chaos.
Particular credit is due to bicycle sellers, with one advertisement noting that, “Very few of the people who’ve had influenza are regular cyclists. Those who bicycle regularly have been less liable to attack. The clean sweet air on the road is far healthier than the stuffy atmosphere inside the tram, the bus or the train.”
The flu was a real test for the inhabitants of a city that was still reeling from the destruction of the Rising, not to mention the effects of massive wartime inflation on the pockets of Dubliners. It is curious just how forgotten the crisis became in Ireland, lost in the popular memory of a period more associated with revolt than illness.