Having endured almost a year of Covid restrictions, Robert Hume looks at the
effect the Spanish Flu had on the towns of West Cork, more than a century ago
‘THE “flu” is with us again,’ declared the Cork County Eagle on November 2nd 1918. ‘Almost everybody is getting it. It resembles seasickness, inasmuch as that at first the sufferer is afraid he is going to die, but after a while he begins to fear he isn’t.’
An epidemic even deadlier than Covid-19, the Spanish Flu could not have arrived in Ireland at a worse time. The Great War meant many local doctors were at the front, and there was no national health service.
The illness came to be nicknamed the ‘Spanish Lady’ because it was first recorded in Spain. Offended Spaniards dubbed it the ‘Naples soldier’. For British and Irish troops, it was ‘Flanders grippe’.
Where it originated, nobody knew. Some said a military camp in Kansas, others northern France.
Some blamed battlefield fumes, others a German biological weapon. One recent study suggests it came from chickens and ducks in China (sound familiar?), and was transported by labourers to the Western Front.
Troops sailing home when the War ended took the flu into Dublin and Cork. The first recorded outbreak was on USS Dixie off Cobh in May 1918.
From the ports, the disease swept across Ireland in three waves: mild in spring 1918; lethal in autumn 1918; and moderate in early 1919. Some 800,000 people became infected, and about 23,000 died.
West Cork escaped the first outbreak but by autumn 1918 The Cork Examiner recorded it spreading at an ‘alarming’ rate. In Clonakilty and district ‘scarcely a household’ did not have at least one person in bed with flu, and doctors and chemists were having a ‘busy time’.
In Carrigaline, no letters were delivered ‘owing to the local postman being confined to his room with the disease’.
The ‘mysterious malady’ baffled doctors, and the Superintendent of Public Health, 90-year-old Sir Charles Cameron, was thought to lack the energy necessary to deal with the task.
Unlike Covid-19, which is especially dangerous for the elderly, Spanish Flu mainly affected people aged 25-35, those still ‘in vigour’, as the Examiner put it.
On November 9th 1918, the Eagle confirmed that West Cork was now ‘under its lash’ and named eleven deaths – a ‘terrible list’ that included ‘Young Mr Stout’ from Lick, aged 19, and Miss Connell from Church Cross, ‘a hearty young vigorous woman previous to her illness’.
Calls came for returning soldiers to be quarantined and their uniforms burned. Householders were encouraged to disinfect floors, and flush toilets with carbolic. In the ‘new normal’, streets were routinely sprayed, trams and railway carriages scrubbed, while notices pinned to lamp posts requested social distancing by warning against gatherings.
Cinemas and theatres closed. Sports fixtures, with other ‘super-spreader’ events such as markets, fairs and dances, were postponed.
Many local boards of health recommended school closures.
The boys’ National School and Infant School at Clonakilty shut their doors, as did schools in Cobh. But other headteachers refused to comply, believing the disease was ‘virulent but not dangerous’.
Much advice, such as avoiding ‘overcrowding in dwellings’, and eating ‘good food’ was impractical. One doctor even recommended lozenges containing formaldehyde.
A government official asked people ‘to clean their teeth regularly’, and another to chew onions. The News of the World suggested eating ‘plenty of porridge’.
Local advice was equally dubious. The Eagle warned against the dangers of drinking out of a ‘wet glass’. When going for a walk, ‘don’t choose a draughty road’; and if you think you’ve caught it, visit a dentist: ‘He will quickly make you think of something else.’
Lack of scientific knowledge and clear government advice left the door open for unscrupulous businesses to exploit people’s fears by selling snuff, mouthwash and magical pink pills to ‘repulse attacks’.
By Christmas 1918 it was becoming clear that the second wave had passed its worst, with hardly any new cases being reported. In Kinsale it had ‘spent itself’ completely.
In early spring the Spanish Lady made her return, albeit briefly, and on March 15th 1919 the Eagle could look forward to ‘an early disappearance of the dread malady’. Two days later, ‘large crowds’ attended the St Patrick’s Day races in Drimoleague. Life in West Cork was starting to get back to normal.