The Spanish Influenza pandemic or Spanish flu was one of the devastating pandemics in human history. It resulted in an estimated 25 million death worldwide. It is said to have originated at a US army camp in Kansas in early March 1918 and spread to the front line of World War I with the infected soldiers. The first wave and strain of influenza was mild. However, the second wave came as the flu, and then transformed into pneumonia, which led to death. On being brought into Ireland it killed about 23,000 people in 1918. In particular, the deaths in Dublin were high – 250 deaths a week were recorded by November 1918. Local authorities across the country tried to secure more beds in hospitals and to recruit more doctors, many of whom were infected by the influenza.
Up to October 1918 Cork had been almost immune from the serious influenza epidemic that has levied such a toll in other Irish cities. Reports in the Cork Examiner on 23 October 1918 detailed that influenza had only appeared in Cork in a few isolated cases. The Medical Officer of Health at a meeting of the Public Health Committee, said a few cases had come under his observation. It had broken out in some rural districts. In the Carrigaline district no letters were being delivered owing to the local postman being confined to his sickbed.
The Lord Mayor of Cork, Thomas Butterfield, through the medium of the local press, advised people not to congregate together, and entertainments of all kinds were to be avoided. Those infected with the influenza were advised not to mix with others. The introduction of the epidemic into the schools and public institutions was to be prevented. Public meetings could not be held. The Medical Office of Cork Corporation remarked that the age of an infected person was an important factor. The mortality amongst the elder people was much higher than amongst the adults, and children took the disease in a mild form.
By the 29 October 1918 a very many fresh cases of influenza were reported in Cork and one death at least had been recorded. In the way of taking preventative measures some of the city schools had already closed down, and school inspectors noted a marked falling off in attendance. On visiting the homes of absent pupils, it was found by these inspectors that numbers of children were confined to bed.
As a precautionary measure University College, Cork, closed and remained completely closed for a fortnight. A Retreat, to be opened at the Honan Chapel for female students was postponed. Farranferris College closed at short notice as did the Carnegie Library (under the watchful eye of City Librarian James Wilkinson).
Up to the third week of October 1918, dispensary doctors in Cork City did not have to deal with very many cases at their dispensaries, not more than 35. In the poorer and vulnerable parts of the city the disease had not gained any major grip. One medical practitioner, commenting on this fact regarded it as unusual in the face of past experiences. He was of the opinion, however, that previous sufferers from the influenza were not immune from further attacks. The strain of influenza was very contagious. One media report highlighted that of a family of six, they were all stricken within a few short hours from the time that the first symptom appeared in one of their children.
The number of interments at the principal Cork burial grounds was about double the number daily interred in normal time. The number of requests made to Cork City hospitals from many parts of Ireland and Great Britain for nurses to cope with the epidemic in other centres was altogether in excess of the number that could be relieved for such duties.
A letter published in the Cork Examiner on 29 October 1918 revealed the heartfelt plea of a citizen to take the spread of the influenza epidemic seriously:
“Dear Sir, The death toll from the influenza epidemic throughout the country is rising steadily, and in Dublin alone the number of burials in Glasnevin Cemetery during the past week was 120 higher than the average normal weekly number- Cork, so far, seems to be escaping lightly, but we must not shut our eyes to the fact that the number of cases is increasing daily. I have medical authority for stating that prevention is better than cure, and reluctance to take steps to prevent the spread of the disease is criminal. Schools, of all kinds and places of entertainment. should be closed at once, without a day’s delay. If this is not done the disease will spread, and we shall be faced with a serious situation. The life of the most humble citizen is dear to me and as a father of a large family, I claim the right to demand that everything essential be done now. The students of the University College, Dublin, are undergoing preventive treatment by inoculation, and I would strongly suggest that our local medical gentlemen obtain supplies of the influenza vaccine, so that any citizen who wishes may be inoculated. Of course, those in a position to pay a reasonable fee for this should be prepared to do so. The laboratories of our University College could be utilised for the preparation of the culture-Faithfully yours, CITIZEN”.
Kieran’s new book, Cork in Fifty Buildings (2018, Amberley Publishing) is now available in Cork bookshops.
967a. Harpur’s Lane c.1900 (now Half Moon Street) from Harpur’s Weekly newspaper (source: National Library, Dublin)
967b. Picture of new James Wilkinson mural on Anglesea Street; He was the first City Librarian of Cork Carnegie on Anglesea Street from 1905-1920; the work was funded by Cllr Kieran McCarthy and designed and painted by Kevin O’Brien and Alan Hurley (picture: Kieran McCarthy)
Talks and Walks with Kieran, October 2018, (all free, average duration: 2 hours)
Saturday, 13 October, The Friar’s Walk, meet at Red Abbey tower, Mary Street, off Douglas Street, 11am
Sunday 14 October, The Lough & its Curiosities; meet at green area at northern end of The Lough, entrance of Lough Road to The Lough; 2pm (note time change)
Thursday, 18 October,Cork: A Hundred Years Ago, A sit down talk exploring old pictures and postcards, in association with Cork Age Friendly City, Firkin Crane, Shandon, 11am
Saturday 20 October, Our Lady’s Hospital; meet at the gates of Atkins Hall, former Our Lady’s Hospital, Lee Road, 11am