The 1918-19 influenza pandemic killed an estimated fifty million people worldwide. Known as the “Spanish Flu,” it infected at least one in five of the world’s population. Few families in the world were left untouched by the pandemic (my Aunt Mary died of the flu in Cincinnati in 1918 at the age of 17). No other pandemic in history has claimed as many lives as the Spanish Flu, not even the Black Death in the 14th century.
It was called the “Spanish Flu” because its outbreak was first publicly reported in Spain, but that is not where it began. Some believe it began in China, but, the most accepted theory is that it began in America, spreading from birds to pigs, then humans.
American soldiers appeared to be the first infected, and they carried the disease to Europe when they arrived for World War I. The flu soon spread, killing three times as many people as the Great War.
In Ireland, 800,000 people were infected with the flu and over 23,000 died. Dr Ida Milne, Irish Research Council, has written, “We think that a lot more people died because people were dying so fast that doctors just didn’t have time to certify the deaths. They were much more concerned with treating the living than filling out pieces of paper for death certificates.”
The 1918 epidemic in Ireland killed twice as many people as were killed in the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War, combined. The Irish referred to the flu as the “Black Flu” because at times the patients turned purple, or even black.
The flu epidemic hit Ireland is several waves. Donegal was very badly affected throughout the entire influenza period. The use of Lough Swilly as a naval base during the war, and the treatment of sick British soldiers and sailors in local hospitals, played a role in making Donegal an influenza hotspot. The infection gradually spread across the country.
The flu struck young adults between 20 and 30 years old the hardest. The disease progressed quickly through their systems. Those who were fine and healthy at breakfast could be dead by late afternoon. Within hours of feeling the first symptoms of fatigue, fever and headache, some victims would rapidly develop pneumonia and start turning blue, signaling a shortage of oxygen. They would then struggle for air until they suffocated to death.
For the individual Irish family the results of the flu were often devastating. Many families were decimated, incapable of doing anything except struggling to live. They often failed in that struggle in a dramatic way, presenting a pathetic scene to would-be rescuers who broke down doors to find entire families either dead or beyond help, sometimes all dying in the one bed.
Irish hospitals were overwhelmed by the ill and dying. Nurses and doctors worked to the breaking point, many of them succumbing to the highly contagious disease. There was little the doctors could do, as there were no treatments for the flu, and no antibiotics to treat the pneumonia.
Viruses were unknown, so doctors uselessly treated the flu as a bacterial infection, rather than a viral infection. Doctors threw everything at it: quinine to treat the fever, opium to promote sleep, large quantities of whiskey to relieve the symptoms. It was even suggested that eating onions would prevent the flu – it probably kept people away from you, but it did nothing to prevent the disease.
Dublin’s Mater Hospital converted almost all its wards to handle influenza patients. So did the Adelaide, and the Dublin Union Hospital, where witnesses said coffins were stacked up 18-high in the mortuary.
St. Mary’s Hospital in Castlebar, County Mayo, reported the following: “Since the date of the last report, the ravages of the disease extended in an alarming manner. At one period there were, out of a total staff of seventy-eight, only twelve persons on duty.”
In the street, medical masks became the fashion of the day, as Irish citizens were encouraged to always wear them. Shops and public transportation would often refuse service to customers not wearing masks.
Dr. Kathleen Lynn
Doctor Kathleen Lynn of the Irish Citizen Army had been under arrest and was due to be deported to England for her republican activities. She was released in 1918 at the request of Dublin’s Lord Mayor to help fight the flu epidemic with the understanding that she would not leave Dublin.
Dr. Lynn wrote in her diary about her efforts to convert a derelict Dublin building into a hospital: “The women of the Citizen Army, of one accord on a Sunday, came to that derelict house and cleaned it up. They were mostly republicans that helped. Countess Markievicz helped and Countess Plunkett brought bedding. We got things from friends around. It was a very scratch affair.”
On the evening of Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, Dr. Lynn’s hospital was attacked by pro-British crowds. Dr. Lynn wrote: “We suddenly realized that a hostile mob was attacking the building. There were many Volunteers in the building at the time, including Harry Boland and Simon Donnelly, who took over command. They immediately started to barricade the front door and windows with chairs and other furniture. Shots rang out, mingled with vile language and shouts of “God save the King!” A state of terror reigned over the whole neighborhood until a late hour when the crowds dispersed.”
Community kitchens were set up in Naas, Dundalk and other areas, bringing soups and stews to those too ill to cook for themselves. Many of these kitchens were established by the Irish republican women’s organization Cumann na mBan (coo-men nah man), whose members also volunteered as nurses and aides in the hospitals without compensation.
In Castlebar, the flu struck the town severely in November 1918. All the schools and shops were shut and didn’t reopen until March of the following year. All sporting events and public meetings were cancelled. The townsfolk were advised to stay indoors if possible to avoid spreading the flu.
Rumors abounded as to the epidemic’s origin, with allegations that the banks were spreading germ laden currency, and that the illness had something to do with the wartime shortage of alcohol. People were also wary of returning soldiers from the war, mistakenly believing that poison gas had something to do with the flu.
It is odd that today, even considering the latest pandemic, that the history of the 1918 flu pandemic is largely forgotten – an event that killed fifty million worldwide. One Irish survivor explained why little is remembered, “People did not want to talk about it because it was so awful, and they dreaded the thought it might come back again.”
To read more about the Irish flu epidemic, read the book Stacking the Coffins – Influenza, War and Revolution in Ireland 1918-1919 by Dr. Ida Milne (Manchester University Press, 2018).
*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at FCoolavin@aol.com.