From the Archives: The Spanish Flu Pandemic, 1918 - 1919

The Spanish Flu pandemic struck Ireland between Spring 1918 and Spring 1919, claiming approx 23,000 lives and infecting 800,000 people here in just over 12 months.  Worldwide, it’s believed that over 50 million people succumbed to the virus.  The pandemic came at a time of already massive upheaval, coinciding as it did with the end of the First World War.  For a long time, it was very much considered an understudied event in our history as it was largely eclipsed in the collective memory by major military and political events.  As with the current coronavirus pandemic, no community, place or aspect of life in our country was left unaffected by this devastating virus.  With the recent centenary of the Spanish Flu, the events of that period have been revisited, and it has also been given particular attention in recent times due to its parallels with the current crisis.

Dr Ida Milne has spent over 15 years studying the social, economic, medical and political history of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic in Ireland, and she describes it is a ‘gripping story, of a society silenced as the disease passed through towns and townlands, with commerce, court cases and normal life disrupted, events cancelled, and community soup kitchens set up to feed the ill. Of families suffering terrible losses, of orphaned children and ongoing physical, economic and emotional damage.’  (RTÉ Brainstorm)

First hand accounts of the impact of the Spanish flu on Irish society were recorded by the Irish Folklore Commission in the late 1930s.  The Commission worked with the Department of Education and the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation to encourage children from 5,000 schools across Ireland to collect folklore from their own areas.  The guidebook circulated to schools for the project contained fifty five essay topics including local cures, local place names, the care of our farm animals and strange animals - the latter asking ‘is there a story told in your district of a serpent or large animal which lives in a certain lake or river there?’  Pupils were also asked if there was a local tradition of a ‘fairy horse or cow which came into a farmer’s possession and remained for a certain time?’  Under ‘Local Happenings’ children were asked of any plagues or epidemics which visited the district and to give ‘accounts of their causes, course and harm done.’

The collection gives us a unique insight into life in Ireland during the Spanish Flu pandemic and offers many parallels between events of that time and the current coronavirus pandemic.  Schools were closed, dances and concerts were banned, public meetings were cancelled and wakes were no longer held.  A village in Sligo had apparently had no cases of the Spanish flu until after St Patrick’s Night in 1919 when a concert was held in the village hall and the ‘next day every single person who was at the concert was down with the 'Flu, and the organisers were blamed.’

Home remedies are often mentioned, with whiskey believed to have been particularly beneficial.  In one area, it was claimed that ‘the confirmed drunkards’ recovered from the virus, but the teetotallers unfortunately did not.  Other home remedies included filling the house with sheep - this was believed to be a particularly effective method of disinfectant in cases of scarlet fever; the sheep’s breath was meant to kill the germs.

Not surprisingly, holy wells and local saints also featured in local responses to the pandemic.  One well in Co Leitrim was said to ‘cure any sickness in man or beast,’ whilst a well in Co Wexford could cure measles.  People visited this well during the flu epidemic and it was claimed that no one in the area died of the illness.  The parish of Kilkeevan in Co Roscommon was said to have been protected from the disease by St Kevin who ‘came to the River Suck and spread out his mantle and prophesised that any dangerous infectious disease would not have any effect on this district.’

As in the current crisis, it is the personal stories which resonate so much with people.  In commemorating the Spanish Flu pandemic, The National Museum of Ireland's programme ‘The Enemy Within’ placed the public at the forefront of Spanish Flu research and remembrance.  Read some of the stories from around Ireland here:

https://www.ouririshheritage.org/content/category/archive/topics/the-enemy-within

Irish Folklore and Tradition’ or ‘Béaloideas Éireann,’ the guidebook produced by the Irish Folklore Commission, are both available online - click on the links above to access the texts.

RTÉ Brainstorm features a number of pieces on the Spanish Flu and also the history of plagues and pandemics in Ireland (see links below).  RTÉ Brainstorm is a platform for the academic and research community to contribute to public debate, reflect on what’s happening in the world around us and communicate fresh thinking on a broad range of issues.