Thursday, November 30, 2000

Flu Epidemic 1919 - Late Noel Finn

The flu knocked me for six over the Christmas break but mercifully modern medical science came to my rescue allowing me to enjoy the festivities. How different it was when the flu epidemic struck Ireland in 1918 while the First World War was still raging. I was reminded of this while going through back issues of the Irish Independent for the last years of the Great War where daily accounts were given of the fatalities resulting from the flu. Entire families were wiped out and soldiers who had miraculously survived the War succumbed to the dreadful disease for which there was then no known cure. The daily newspapers referred to the flu epidemic which first started in Belfast, as a plague, and cautioned its readers to take the following precautions.
“Don’t use public telephones. If fairly young and strong ride outside rather than inside trams. Don’t get wet feet - if you do, walk home, if possible, to avoid packed conveyances. Wear warm loose woollen clothing. Drink hot milk or lemonade when going to bed.”

Such was the state of medical knowledge just over eighty years ago. Another report which caught my eye was in the Irish Independent of Tuesday, 3rd December 1918.
“The first cases that Dr. T.J. Browne, Medical Inspector to the Local Government Board met outside Belfast were in Athy about the end of July when workmen who had gone there from Belfast were stricken with the disease which the doctors thought was typhus fever.”

Athy suffered great loss of life during the flu epidemic of 1918 and the flu vaccine which was even then being tested came too late to save many people. Indeed Dr. Brown, the Local Government Board Medical Inspector made a point of declaring that “the vaccine treatment was as yet more or less in the experimental stage and it was hardly proper for the Local Government Board to recommend it.”

In November 1918 the local Urban District Council asked the Board of Guardians who had charge of the local Poorhouse to engage more nurses to attend to the sick poor during the influenza epidemic. At the same time the Councillors extended thanks on behalf of the townspeople to Miss M. Murphy, Emily Square and Miss Brigid 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.” It would appear that the two good ladies were instrumental in forming a “Committee of Ladies to the Sufferers from the Influenza Epidemic in the town” whose members visited the poor people and provided them with food and drink. Amongst those who died in Athy at that time was Thomas Keating, a native of Kilcarroll, Kilrush in Co. Clare who was employed as a Customs Officer in the town. I am uncertain as to why customs officials were based in Athy but whatever it was, it indicated a level of commercial activity to which we have not been accustomed for some time. What about the workmen who came from Belfast to Athy in 1918? I surmise but perhaps incorrectly that they were engaged in the building of the Wolfhill Railway Line.

Another man whose links with Athy are unclear was John Roache, a Private in the 1st Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Some years ago a medal won by Private J. Roache for the D. Company Hockey League in 1911 was found in the back garden of a house in Pairc Bhride. John Roache won the medal while his Battalion was stationed in India where it had gone in January 1910. The Dublin Fusiliers remained there until they were brought back to bolster the British Expeditionary Force in France during World War I. The Battalion arrived back in Plymouth Harbour just four days before Christmas 1914. John Roache, Regimental Number 9070 was killed in action in France on 1st March, 1917. The Irish War Memorial records state that he was born in Dublin and I cannot find any connection with Athy to explain why his hockey medal was found in a local back garden some years ago. Can anyone help to throw some light on Private John Roache and his connections, if any, with Athy?

Just before Christmas I attended the funeral in Naas of Noel Finn, a retired local Government official who was the first of many superiors I worked under during the first half of my working life. I was a scrawny red-haired brass-necked youngster fresh out of school when I presented myself in January 1961 at the County Council offices located in what was the former Fever Hospital in Naas. I can still recall that first day when I was brought into the County Secretary’s general office and given a few welcoming words by the then County Secretary Johnny Mullaney before starting my first task. It was, would you believe, to repair to the boiler house and there to rummage through a few sacks of envelopes in a vain search for a postal order which was apparently missing from a letter. I can’t recall if I managed to find the elusive postal order but I certainly earned my keep that day.

Thereafter I was assigned to the Health Section which was under the control of Noel Finn, the youngest staff officer in the Council at a time when staff officerships were seldom in the offering. Indeed the total compliment of staff officers in the County Council at that time was three, Jimmy Tully and John Miley being the other two.

Noel Finn was a superb public official, a man blessed with intelligence allied with energy and enthusiasm which he brought whole-heartedly to bear on his job. He was kind and considerate to his staff and well I remember the way in which he sought to pass on his knowledge and experience to me as the youngest member of his team. In those days medical cards (we remember them as blue cards - why I don’t know) were a very important part of family support at a time when many earned incomes as well as welfare benefits bordered, more than they do now, on the poverty line. Noel had to recommend to the County Manager whether Medical Card Applications should be granted or refused and although the final decision was the County Managers, the Staff Officers recommendation was invariably followed. Noel went through each of the Applications with a thoroughness and a fairness which impressed me as I stood alongside his desk while he explained to me in each case the basis of his recommendations. This was his way of training a young clerical officer who even then had little hope of aspiring to the rank of Staff Officer.

Later on when Pat Herity and myself took ourselves off each night to attend night classes in Earlsfort Terrace, Noel was on most nights a fellow passenger in the Volkswagen Beetle which shuttled us between Naas and Dublin. Noel was then stepping out with his future wife Nancy. After I left the Local Government service I met Noel at various meetings over the years and always saw in him the same energy and enthusiasm I first noticed all those years ago. He was a superb Local Government official, who recognised the importance of public service in the life of local communities and who always sought to use his experience and knowledge for the benefit of the people he served. May he rest in peace.

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