11 Aug 2022

The great Flue Epidemic - and its effects on Kilkenny

The Great ‘Flu pandemic 1918-1919 swept the world in the dying days of the Great War. It far surpassed anything previously experienced. In England and Wales over 200,000 people died and in Ireland over 20,000 people died. It was the last Irish plague. The origin of the ‘flu was traced to Spain, hence it was known as the Spanish ‘flu. Critical factors in the spread of the disease were the movement of troops and the railways.

The Great ‘Flu pandemic 1918-1919 swept the world in the dying days of the Great War. It far surpassed anything previously experienced. In England and Wales over 200,000 people died and in Ireland over 20,000 people died. It was the last Irish plague. The origin of the ‘flu was traced to Spain, hence it was known as the Spanish ‘flu. Critical factors in the spread of the disease were the movement of troops and the railways.

The pandemic struck in three waves. The first phase began in Spring 1918 and lasted until July. Few people died. The second phase began early in September 1918 and lasted until the middle of November. There was a big increase in fatalities and the third phase began early in Spring 1919. The number dying was less than the second phase but greater than the number during the first phase.

The ‘flu presented with special characteristics. Young adults suffered most, especially in the age group 25-35. The ‘flu had a severe impact on health, victims suffering from symptoms such as coughing up blood, nose bleeds, and discolouration of the skin. It also impacted severely on internal organs causing major damage to kidneys, lungs and the colon. Even the very strongest adults were not immune. The chief complication was bronchopneumonia from which there was no recovery. The number of young men suffering outnumbered young women. The aged and young children were least affected. Pregnant women were vulnerable. Flu was prevalent in workhouses, industrial schools and prisons.

Priests were common victims as a result of ‘sick calls’. Social standing was no barrier to the ‘flu. Survivors were often unable to work. School attendance was badly hit. Dances, matches and other social events were cancelled. Normal life was generally affected. Even wakes, normal at that time, could not take place. There was even reluctance on the part of survivors to talk about their experience of the ‘flu. It left a burden of grief and disorder in its wake.

By early summer 1918 the ‘flu was widespread over Europe, especially amongst soldiers and others who were at the front during the fighting. It had reached Belfast by early June 1918, coming from the military barracks. It spread to the entire city. Soon after it was reported from Ballinasloe, Co.Galway coming from soldiers stationed at Garbally barracks. It quickly spread to Dublin and Cork again spreading from the military barracks in each city. Many rural parts were not affected due to the lack of a railway system and the consequent lack of movement of soldiers to these areas. Clonmel was the most severely hit of the provincial centres, with business practically paralysed. The Infirmary in Clonmel workhouse was congested with 120 ‘flu cases. An extra carpenter was employed to make coffins.

Second Phase

The first phase ended in July but by early September the second phase began and this lasted well into November. The ‘flu in its second phase was far more potent and aggressive. Also it was much more penetrating in its reach and more damaging in its effects. It was more contagious and touched most counties quickly. ‘Flu passed between neighbours and families. The second wave coincided with the months leading up to the 1918 election. Many of the Irish Volunteers involved in the election campaign suffered from the ‘flu. Many of those arrested, the ‘internees’, suffered from ‘flu.

Kilkenny had not suffered during the first phase and was unprepared when the second phase began. The Kilkenny People of November 2nd 1918 reported:

The influenza epidemic made its appearance in Kilkenny about 10 days ago. At first it confined itself to the younger people but after a few days it claimed old as well as young as its victims. The death rate in Kilkenny is increasing daily. There is scarcely a family in the city that has not been touched by this disease. All the schools as well as the cinema and theatre have been closed. Several business premises have been shut for over a week. All the streets of the city have been washed with carbolic acid. The County Infirmary and Workhouse Infirmary are packedd

Kilkenny People reports devasatating effects

One week later, The Kilkenny People of November 9th, described Kilkenny city as passing through an ordeal unparalleled in its severity and devastating in its effects. Thomas Treacy, a Sinn Fein volunteer, said that in Kilkenny the daily funerals of young and old were numerous. Kilkenny city registered the third highest proportion of ‘flu deaths of any town in Ireland in 1918. Almost one in four deaths were due to ‘flu. It was devastated by the second wave. Little attempt was made to launch a co-ordinated community based aid effort as had been done elsewhere. The Kilkenny People demanded that action be taken.

The Kilkenny People of November 2nd published the names of people who had died from the ‘flu. These included Master Philip Clohosey age 14 from John Street, Kathleen Manning, age 24, eldest daughter of Thomas Manning, High Street, Mrs Cornelius Sherin of High Street, Philip Hogan, St.John’s Cottage, rate collector and auctioneer, Mrs.P.Lynch, John Street, Thomas King, Butts Green, George Cullen, chief warder Kilkenny Prison, and his son age 8, William Timmins, Dublin Road, Chrissie Brophy, Jail Street, Patrick Hehir, mechanic, and M. Carrigan, Clara. These were some of the names mentioned.

The following week further deaths were reported. Among these were Mrs. Pembroke, Upper Patrick St., Mrs.P.J.Morrissey, Dean St., wife of the Borough treasurer, Bridie Saunders, Callan, Denis Brennan, age 24, Vicar St., and James Pollard, age 23, Green St. Callan. The same issue of the paper reported that the ‘flu epidemic caused some deaths in Rathdowney and several families in Windgap were stricken with the influenza.

The Kilkenny People of November 16th reported that several further deaths had taken place. The following deaths were mentioned – Mary Ratigan, Waterford Rd., Thomas Thornton, Ballycallan, Bridget Egan, Higginstown, Patrick Hickey, High St., butcher, John Kenny, Warrington, John Shea, Warrington, Thomas Peters, blacksmith, Foulkstown, Mrs. Sutcliffe, and others. The paper also stated that the epidemic was abating in severity but it is not at an end. The following week the paper reported that Thomastown continued to be free from the ‘flu epidemic but it was very prevalent in Graiguenamanagh where many deaths have taken place. In Graiguenamanagh the entire police force in the town were sufferers and the barracks had been closed.

Third phase

In early spring 1919 the third phase began. The mortality rate was lower than that of the second phase, but greater than that of the first phase. On January 21 st 1919 the Dail held its inaugural session. On the same day the Soloheadbeg ambush took place. These events marked the beginning of the War of Independence. It was at this time that the third phase of the ‘flu epidemic began. Pierce McCann, a volunteer leader in the War of Independence, who was interned in Gloucester prison, died from ‘flu in spring 1919. He was M.P. for Tipperary East. Kilkenny was little affected by the third phase. Possibly some immunity had been built up in the community. Places that had not been affected during the first two phases, such as parts of the west of Ireland suffered during the third phase.

The ‘flu was far-reaching in its effects. Very many families all over Ireland had suffered. In some cases both parents had died leaving many orphans with no means to support them. A low priority in Irish public life had been given to the medical needs of the poor. Public health had been neglected. Major changes followed as a result of the widespread suffering of the people. Dispensaries were set up all over the country.

Sources - The main source of information is the book “The Last Irish Plague” by Caitriona Foley, published by Irish Academic Press in 2011. The other important source was the Kilkenny People newspaper and dates have been included for the issues used.

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