Thursday, May 24, 2007

The great influenza epidemic of 1918

As the end of the First World War approached, a previously unknown form of influenza swept through Europe and America. The first reports of what would become the greatest threat to health, even greater than the cholera outbreak of 1832, appeared in the Leinster Leader of 6 July 1918: “A great many persons in County Kildare are suffering from an influenza which appears to be raging in many parts of the country”. Another report noted the outbreak of fever at Umeras, Monasterevin, following which six persons were brought to Athy Fever Hospital, where two of them later died. On 2 November, both the Nationalistand Leinster Leader reported: “Athy is pretty largely in the grip of an influenza epidemic. In most houses, several family members are ill. Some businesses are closed, as are all the local schools. So far few deaths in Athy, but the large numbers affected have taxed local doctors and nurses to the utmost.”

Athy Urban District Council asked the Board of Guardians who had charge of Athy Workhouse and were responsible for providing the limited health services then available to the general public “to engage more nurses to attend the sick poor during the influenza epidemic which is now raging through Athy.” At its meeting on 4 November, the urban council passed a vote of thanks to Miss M Murphy of Emily Square and Miss Darby of Leinster Street “for their unselfish attention bestowed without hope of monetary reward and irrespective of class or creed on our afflicted townspeople during the present terrible epidemic”.

Miss Murphy was sister of PJ Murphy, a butcher who had served as a member of the urban council from 1900 and whose brother, Monsignor William Murphy, had been Rector of the Irish College in Rome at the time of his death in 1905. Miss Darby was Brigid Darby, a national school teacher who was elected a member of Athy Urban District Council in 1928 and remained on the council for the following 14 years. She has the distinction of being the first female to stand as a candidate in a general election for the Kildare constituency.

The two ladies organised a group of volunteers to visit the poor of the town and to provide them with food and drink during the influenza epidemic. The group was called the ‘Committee of Ladies to the Sufferers from the Influenza Epidemic in the Town’.

The urban council directed one of its employees as sanitary sub-officer for the town to disinfect, fumigate and limewash houses where influenza patients were to be found. He was also charged with the removal of manure heaps from the alleys and laneways of the town, which were believed to be contributing to the growing influenza problem.

Without having recourse to the death registration records for the period, it is not possible to quantify in exact terms the numbers who died in Athy during the epidemic of 1918. Certainly, the situation became so serious that the urban district council was moved to issue a warning to the townspeople as to the undesirability of holding wakes, which the council regarded as “highly dangerous and liable to spread the disease”. The victims of the epidemic, warned the council, “should be coffined immediately and interned with the least possible delay.” Within the first week of November, the number of deaths arising from the influenza epidemic caused delay in securing coffins and hearses. “In some cases, remains were brought to the cemetery by friends” reported the Nationalist on 9 November.

The first significant number of burials in St Michael’s Cemetery on the same day occurred on 30 October 1918. On the next day, seven coffins were brought to the local cemetery. On 2 November, three funerals took place and everyday thereafter until 28 November there were multiple burials in St Michael’s Cemetery.

Between 30 October and 28 November 1918, 57 internments took place in St Michael’s Cemetery, which was the principal cemetery for the town. Burials may also have taken place during this period in St Mary’s, Ardreigh Cemetery, St John’s or in Geraldine Cemetery. However, I have not been able to access the records for these cemeteries.

Looking through the names of those who died, I was struck by the number of young children who succumbed to the dreaded influenza. Three families suffered multiple losses, the greatest loss falling to the Blanchfield family of Leinster Street. On 9 November, four-year-old Andrew Blanchfield died, to be followed two days later by his brothers George, aged seven years, and Edward, aged three years. They were the children of John and Catherine Blanchfield.

John died aged 49 years, less than four years after his three children, while his widow Catherine lived on into her 96th year before passing away in 1970. On John Blanchfield’s tombstone in St Michael’s Cemetery there is inscribed after the details of his early death on 28 June 1922 the words, “also his five children who died young”.

Another family to suffer the deaths of young children during the influenza epidemic of 1918 were the Eston family of Meeting Lane. Patrick Eston was the father of Mary, aged one, and Ellen, aged three, both of whom died on 13 November 1918. Unfortunately, I don’t have any further details to hand of the Eston family who suffered so tragically during the flu epidemic.

The May family of Leinster Street lost two children during the epidemic. Eileen May, just five months old, died on 16 November, while her sister Sarah, known as Sally, aged one, died on 7 December. They were the children of Sarah May, who lived until 1949, and James or Jim May who had died in a tragic accident earlier in 1918. Jim was a carpenter who, when working on the Christian Brothers School in St John’s Lane, fell from a ladder and died from the injuries he sustained in that fall. He was a member of the local Sinn Féin Club and the press reports of his funeral indicated that the Sinn Féin club members attended his funeral in great numbers, while the Leinster Street band played the Dead March. Jim had been a member of the very first Athy Gaelic Football Club team to win a Kildare county championship. The Athy team won the junior final played in Kilcullen on 14 September 1909 under the captaincy of ‘Jack’ Lawler.

The winners medals were not presented until 1927, when a medal presentation ceremony was held in the urban district council offices in the town hall. Jim’s son Tom received his late father’s medal on that occasion. Another family whom I knew well in Offaly Street lost a five-year-old child during the flu epidemic.

He died on 10 November 1918 and tragedy would befall the same family again during the health crisis of the 1940s and ’50s when the White Death or Tuberculosis was rampant throughout Ireland.

The current health services in this country have been the subject of much criticism in recent years, what with patients on trolleys, MRSA in hospitals and waiting lists for admission to hospital for elective surgery. The huge unexpected increase in the Irish population which followed decades of mass emigration, coupled with the longevity enjoyed by so many today, has put a huge strain on our medical services. However, view-ed against the tragic events of post-World War 1 Ireland , when the flu epidemic resulted in more deaths in a few months than had occurred during the four years of the Great War, we have to acknowledge the great strides which have been taken in the provision of health services in this country and elsewhere.

The tragic loss of life during the flu epidemic of the latter part of 1918 now seems so far removed from 21st century Ireland. Yet today we still live among neighbours whose brothers and sisters, uncles or aunts died so tragically and so young 85 years.

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