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 6th 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 2nd November the Nationalist and 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 4th 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 P.J. 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 it’s employees as sanitary sub-officer for the town to disinfect, fumigate and lime wash 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 were 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 and Leinster Times on 9th November.
The first significant number of burials in St. Michael’s Cemetery on the same day occurred on 30th October 1918. On the next day seven coffins were brought to the local cemetery. On 2nd November three funerals took place and everyday thereafter until 28th November there were multiple burials in St. Michael’s Cemetery. Between 30th October and 28th 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 9th November 4½ year old Andrew Blanchfield died, to be followed two days later by his brothers George, aged 7 years and Edward, aged 3 years. They were the children of John and Catherine Blanchfield. John died aged 49 years, less than 4 years after his 3 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 28th 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 1½ years and Ellen, aged 3 years, both of whom died on 13th 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 5 months old, died on 16th November, while her sister Sarah, known as Sally, aged 1½ years died on 7th 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 Fein Club and the press reports of his funeral indicated that the Sinn Fein 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 14th 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 10th November 1918 and tragedy would befall the same family again during the health crisis of the 1940’s and ‘50’s 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, viewed 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 amongst neighbours whose brothers and sisters, uncles or aunts died so tragically and so young 85 years ago.