The Mother Lode.
Often lost in the classes and seminars about the Great War, and in the equally endless discussion in the post-Fussell era about memory and commemoration and the western front, has been the world war itself. That no man's land gets endless attention while the other fronts struggle to get mentioned. Not only do the eastern, middle eastern, and southern fronts typically get short shrift but even less attention is paid to the disastrous African experience of 1914-1918.
In the orgy of commemoration surrounding the Great War's centenary, surely one of the eye opening events was the William Kentridge's historical pageant "The Head and the Lady." Opened at the Tate Gallery before moving on to New York in late 2018, the production brought to life the role and suffering of millions of Africans who served in colonial armies, as servants, and as combatants, and even as civilians. One million Africans were casualties in that war and at the end of the day their sacrifice and their suffering benefitted them nothing, as Woodrow Wilson and the Allies at Versailles could not even bring themselves to think about them. To make matters worse, their stories faded into history. In the words of the South African journalist and intellectual Solomon Plaatje, "Lest their behavior merit recognition, their deeds must not be recorded."
Ida Milne has tapped into an Irish historical mother lode: the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918-19. She and several others have "found" a subject that has sat there in the open begging for attention. Neglected almost completely in the historiography of modern Irish history for decades, this epidemic was an inevitable casualty as Irish historians were given over to consider the national struggle for independence and the establishment of the state, the shadow of 1916, and the only fairly recent "discovery" of the men who served in the British army during World War I. The sick, the dying, and the survivors of the flu never had a chance in the battle for historical attention. But what a topic it is, and what a fine job Milne has done to bring it into the full light of scholarly inquiry, and in the process she just might have kicked the door fully open for the future study of disease in Irish history.
The Spanish flu infected hundreds of millions of people, up to one-third of the world's population, and it killed, depending on whom one chooses to believe, anywhere from 40- to 100-million people. If the pandemic had a lower per capita mortality rate than did the Black Death of the fourteenth century, it probably killed more people, and it did so more universally in several waves of infection from the summer of 1918 through the spring of 1919. Given infection rates in western Europe and Ireland's own record of official deaths from the disease listed at just over 20,000 (a figure which is sure to be too low), Milne makes the case that it is probable that 800,000 Irish were struck with the disease, some 20% of the population. This was an event that was experienced and affected the lives of every single Irish person at that time: as universal an Irish experience as there has been since the plague and the Great Famine.
The first reports of the disease were reported in Belfast newspapers in the second week of June 1918. Within two weeks, provincial newspapers reported the appearance of a "mysterious malady" which they credited to being somehow an effect of the war. Dublin came in with several hundred cases, but medical officers noted that for most people the symptoms abated within days. The authorities everywhere noted that children were the most affected, even as we now know that in the end it was young adults who died the most. From the beginning the official response was to talk down the illness in order to prevent panic, especially amongst parents, and the government was helped by the fact that were few deaths and infection rates in that first wave. By the end of the summer, all seemed well. And then, the second wave hit just eight weeks later.
By late October, the epidemic had settled into Ireland with a vengeance. Irish newspapers were reporting distressing news of hundreds of thousands of cases in the European armies and cities, and related those to the stricken at home. Deaths started to pile up in Dublin and Howth at the same time physicians grappled with coming up with a correct diagnosis of the disease. As the disease spread throughout the country, regional and local newspapers began to move away from their concentration on national politics and news from the front in order to cover the illness. News of the deadly effects elsewhere moved to the front pages, and was filled with "conjecture and debate about what measures were to be taken and who was to blame." (30) By November, the disease had nearly completely taken over the country's attention. The making of coffins shifted into overdrive and the cemeteries were overwhelmed. Disinfection became a national obsession, and doctors were overwhelmed by the number of house visits. In order to cope with such an increase in suffering and death, the Church not only reduced fasting in religious rituals but also the number of prayers said by the clergy at the graveside.
Within weeks Unionist and nationalist papers in Kildare, the county that was to have the highest per capita mortality rates, were criticizing the failure of the government's response. Local experience of the disease drove local coverage and editorial opinion: The places that suffered the most, such as Kildare, Louth, Carlow, Kilkenny, and Wexford, saw publishers devote more column inches to the flu (51). They expressed the public's frustration with the authorities, who still counseled calm but had yet to develop a coherent response: this issue crossed political lines.
In the end, the state never seemed to grasp what was happening or why. This was exacerbated by the failure of Irish physicians to agree on the proper standards of diagnosis and the aetiology of the disease. Well into the second wave, there were prominent doctors who still refused to admit that what was before them was the flu. Some honestly believed that the flu could not kill people and that deaths associated with the flu were probably a result of pneumonia or something else. As the virus was not discovered until 1933, this was perhaps inevitable, but the ongoing debate hurt the ability of the authorities to respond in any effective way. Inevitably some people let politics get in the way of understanding. In April 1919, the Sinn Fein director of public health offered up a miasmic theory for the disease, blaming it on the pollution of the air caused by Britain's world war (119).
Left to their own devices, people sought protections and remedies beyond the woeful counsels and nostrums of public health officials and the medical professionals. Poultices were popular, as were some recommended home compounds. There were reports in Dublin of people covering their mouths with handkerchiefs soaked in eucalyptus oil. In Offaly, a flour mill enthusiastically provided its workers and their families with large quantities of Bovril. And it has to be true that many a person relied on the medicine recommended in 1981 to this reviewer by an old woman in Louisburg. She had lived through the Spanish flu, had seen neighbors pass away, and her solution was clear: hot Powers and water was the "only thing that could kill that bug."
Milne gives us glimpses into how various institutions handled the crisis, from the medical services to prisons, and on to borstals, schools, and mental hospitals. Her work in this area suggests there is a lot left to uncover by historians. What she does give us suggests that they all failed to do much, however good their intentions. In some sense, this was inevitable given the intensity of the epidemic over a relatively short period of time, as well as the state of medical science at the time, but it also reveals a collective lack of imagination and inertia on a grand scale. That institutional failure said much about the shortcomings of British governing as well as the prevailing capitalist culture where monetary issues sat at the forefront of policy making decisions, a point that Sinn Fein had little success selling in the end.
Milne does a fine job demonstrating how this disaster was and is remembered still by its ever dwindling number of survivors. She has a chapter which uses interviews to bring the experience of the flu to life, interviews which confirm just how difficult this was, and the lasting costs to those who survived. Those interviews reveal that in the end people survived or died within a community, and it was neighbors and family who, far more than physicians and the state, tackled the illness head on and provided whatever care and solace that mattered in the end--the deeds of those who lived through it are brought out into the open at last. Nevertheless, it seems that there is still some room left to explore the lasting effects of this illness upon Irish society and culture.
The book makes the point that the Spanish flu ended up occupying a strange place in modern history. Coming upon the final days of the great cataclysm amidst the oddly romantic hopes about the war to end all wars, a pandemic which sickened millions was bound to be problematic on more than one level. It compounded the suffering of that war and in a way made itself in the war's aftermath into something to be largely forgotten. One cannot help if it became a source of embarrassment next to the amputees and the shell-shocked. In the end, it plunged into a blank space in historical memory and for decades it could not compete for the attention paid to that war, even while it was responsible for the deaths of many more millions. In this sense the forgotten story of the Irish was part of a larger void in historical scholarship.
What are we to conclude from this? Once again we see that Ireland had a truly unique experience of what was a world event without parallel in modern history. The political condition of Ireland at this critical time was certainly not conducive to the development of a state-wide response. Furthermore, the increasing conflict over national independence made any response inherently problematic. The true miasma was not in the air drifting from the trenches; it was a miasma rooted in the rotting nature of the Irish political state. It rendered that colonial state incapable of providing what was needed in a moment of existential crisis. Epidemics demand a collective and pointed response, and the historic course of them is forever laden with political and social meaning that begs for historical analysis. How this has escaped historians for so long is a troubling mystery but at last, like those forgotten Africans of the Great War, someone is paying attention. Irish history has not done well with the history of disease in Ireland, but the importance of illness in shaping Irish society, culture, and politics, now demands that it gets more attention. Ida Milne's trailblazing book is a window into one of the greatest trials of modern Irish history. It is a model for others to follow.
BY SEAN FARRELL MORAN
STACKING THE COFFINS-. INFLUENZA, WAR, AND REVOLUTION IN IRELAND, 1918-19. MANCHESTER UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2018.
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|Title Annotation:||Stacking the Coffins: Influenza, War and Revolution in Ireland, 1918-19|
|Author:||Moran, Sean Farrell|
|Publication:||Irish Literary Supplement|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2019|
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