Ireland and the great flu epidemic of 1918

flu workers John Dorney takes a look at the great killer in Ireland in 1918-19, not political violence or the Great War, but the ‘Spanish Flu’.


The year 1918 is justly remembered in Ireland for the election that led to the formation of the First Dáil, but for people at the time, an equally pressing concern was the outbreak of the ‘Spanish flu’. The epidemic is estimated to have killed 40 million people worldwide and  in six months infected some 800,000 people in Ireland and killed about 23,000[1].

To put this into context, from 1916 to 1923, about 4-5,000 people died in political violence in Ireland. The flu epidemic which raged from July 1917 to March of 1919, when it suddenly and mysteriously vanished, killed only slightly fewer Irish people than the four years of the Great War, in which an officially recorded total of 27,405 Irishmen lost their lives.[2]

In their annual report, the RIC noted the impact of the epidemic in virtually every county. In Cavan they reported, “the disease carried off a great many and affected nearly every household”.[3]

The influenza epidemic killed about 23,000 people in Ireland in 1918-1919

Sean Gibbons, a republican in County Mayo who campaigned throughout the epidemic for the December 1918 election recorded succinctly, ‘ It was the year of the Great ‘Flu that carried away, over the world, something like twenty millions of people, and carried away quite a lot of people in my own locality too.’[4]

According to Cumann na mBan activist Eillis Bean Ui Chonaill, ‘In November, 1918 the ‘flu epidemic or “Black ‘Flu”, as it was called, was rife in the city and country alike. Doctors and nurses were taxed to capacity and the death rate was very high. It was not unusual for whole families to be stricken down together’.[5]

The registrar general William Thompson suggested that no disease since the Great Famine had ‘wreaked so much havoc’.[6]


The flu arrives


Global mortality from the epidemic.
Global mortality from the epidemic.

The epidemic came in three waves, one being of a mild type of illness and the second and third being more severe. The symptoms of the first, or milder flu, were lack of energy, aching pains, rising temperature, unstable pulse, sore throat, headaches, loss of appetite, gastro-intestinal pains, immobilising a person suffering from the disease.

The symptoms of the second type were similar to the first but a patient quickly developed pulmonary complications, that is, the lungs became infected and bronchial pneumonia, or blood poisoning, set in. At times the patient turned purple, or even black – leading to the disease being widely nicknamed, ‘the black flu’.[7] Seamus Babbington, an Irish Volunteer from Carrick on Suir recalled, ‘ I got it bad and was In bed for a month and the blackest man in Africa was not blacker’.[8]

 The more virulent strain of the so-called ‘Spanish flu’ (due to an early reported outbreak in Spain, where wartime censorship was not in force), was notable in that it primarily killed healthy young adults, often, doctors reported within 24 hours of onset.


In Dublin, a notoriously unhealthy city at the time, mortality rates rose from 31.4 per thousand in first quarter of 1915, to 37.7 in the first quarter of 1919.

Dublin, a notoriously unhealthy city at the time, had high mortality rates anyway; 31.4 per thousand in first quarter of 1915, for example. The  main killers especially of children were diarrhoea, dysentery, enteritis and whooping cough.

However deaths soared  in Dublin with the arrival of the flu in July 1918. A total of 36.1 deaths per thousand were recorded in the city in last quarter of 1918, rising to 37.7 in the first quarter of 1919. At the Adelaide hospital  497 admissions with flu and 32 deaths were reported in October 1918 ‘often within 24 hours of onset’. In the city as a whole 250 deaths a  week were being recorded by November 1918

In February 1919, coinciding with a further outbreak of the flu and of ‘sceptic pneumonia’ Dublin Corporation made influenza and pneumonia ‘notifiable diseases’ –that had to be reported to the authorities.

Death came very suddenly to healthy young people. James Kavanagh a Volunteer in Dublin was visited by his brother Sean (or John, the family used both names) in May 1919. Sean was in good spirits, fooling around threatening to cut off his friend’s hair with a shears. As the afternoon progressed he complained of terrible pains in his stomach and went home to rest.

‘ The next day was a holiday of obligation (Corpus Christi, I think). I slipped out of the office to attend 11 o’clock Mass in Whitefriars’ St. I went down the green, turned into York St., and was crossing Aungier Street to the chapel When I saw my youngest sister, Kathleen, coming towards me. As soon as she had come within speaking distance she called out “John is dead”. ‘

I don’t know what he died of, whether from an attack of  the ‘flu or from heart failure, but we gave him a soldier’s funeral and the Standing Committee of Sinn Féin passed a resolution of sympathy, the notification to me of which I still have’.[9]

In 1918 in Dublin, 9,008 births and 9,397 deaths were recorded. There were 1,506 deaths from influenza and 1,140 deaths from flu-related pneumonia.[10]

In North Galway Fever hospitals there were an average of ten deaths a week and sad reports came in of both parents dying and leaving large families. Doctors were often the only people in a parish fit enough to bury the dead.[11]

In Limerick city the first cases of the disease appeared towards the end of June, 1918, and were of the mild type. But by the end of October a large number of people were beginning to feel the effects of the second wave.

The local authorities tried to secure more beds in the city hospitals and to recruit  more doctors, many of whom themselves went down with the flu. The Corporation of that city ordered cinemas and other public entertainments to close their doors in November 1918 until the epidemic had passed –a clear sign of the fear the disease was generating.[12]


Cures and quackery


No one had ever seen a disease quite like the 1918 influenza before and many of the purported treatments were no more than exercises in wishful thinking.

In Dublin in July 1918,  when the authorities posted notices of ‘Spanish flu’, they recommended a dubious treatment – lozenges made from formaldehyde and lactose.

In Limerick according to local historian Des Ryan, ‘Some of the remedial cures recommended in those months included: snuff, a pack of towels soaked in vinegar, soda and sugar in a glass of hot milk, a strong dose of whiskey and ginger. A carpet and window cleaning company, at 4 Lower Cecil Street, advised the use of its “Americus Disinfectant” to combat the effects of the epidemic. ‘[13]

Among the more dubious cures recommended were whiskey, brandy and throat losenges

Seamus Babbington in Tipperary relied on a bottle of whiskey.  He had contracted the flu and then attended a Sinn Fein meeting in Carrick on Suir.  He was so sick, ‘I believe I could not open my mouth’ that Dr. Murphy one of his separatist comrades, ‘ordered me out of the room and inquired if I had any close friend in a public-house who would be so kind as to give me a battle of whiskey, for due to its severe scarcity you could not obtain it in a shop then … I put the bottle to my mouth as advised and finished the whole bottle in an hour. It was the only cure then, it killed the poison … He brought another bottle next day and both bottles killed the poison before it killed me’.[14]

Similarly Sinn Fein activist Ernest Blythe, in prison in Belfast for his political work recalled that, ‘out of the two hundred men in the prison barely thirty were on their feet by early 1919… A. lot of the prisoners were pretty bad, with a great deal of bleeding from the nose. Two men went off their heads and had to be removed to a mental institution. We had, however no deaths. Part of the reason for this may have been that the prison authorities supplied brandy with the greatest liberality.’[15]

Kathleen Lynn a rare woman doctor and also a member of socialist republican group the Irish Citizen Army, called for returning soldiers from the Great War to be quarantined, their uniforms disinfected. She described the front in Flanders ‘a factory of fever’.[16]

She also, ‘ got from Dr. Crofton some vaccine which we had used successfully in a couple of ‘flu cases in the previous may. When the epidemic broke out, I got a supply of this vaccine from Dr. Corfton. In one night that we went to Liberty Hall, the whole of the Citizen Army there – over two hundred of them – were inoculated with this vaccine. Of this number of men, not one developed. ‘flu’.[17]


 Activism and the Epidemic


The victory parade for he Great War in Dublin in early 1919. Meetings such as this and republican rallies helped to spread the disease.
The victory parade for the Great War in Dublin in early 1919. Meetings such as this and republican rallies helped to spread the disease.

The outbreak of ‘Spanish flu’ in Ireland was probably brought back to Ireland by returning soldiers but the epidemic was accentuated by the intense political activism and therefore movement of people, surrounding the General Election of 1918.

In addition, being imprisoned, as several thousand republican activists were, for longer or shorter periods both in Britain and Ireland was probably the worst place to be. The republicans’ witness statements are full of mournful accounts of comrades who died of the disease in prison.

Frank Drohan for example , a Tipperary man in gaol in Gloucester, recalled sadly the sudden death of one Pierce McCann; ‘McCann was amongst the five [flu patients] who were not considered so bad. His death seemed to be so unaccountable that we thought there might be an inquest or something to ascertain what exactly the cause of death was, but I learned afterwards that it was due to a chill’.[18]

Kevin O’Shiel, campaigning for Sinn Fein in Eniskillen for the 1918 election incongruously thought that the flu struck down his supporters with partiality;

‘Another circumstance that was of enormous help to the Unionists was that the terrible and deadly post-war “black flu” was raging furiously throughout the constituency at the time, and falling with incredible partiality on the Catholic element, the Protestant element being uncannily immune. The explanation I got for that phenomenal state of affairs was that the Catholics were, as they were bound to be, far better church-goers than their religious and political antagonists, and hence the dire disease spread much more rapidly and more easily through their ranks’.[19]

Republican women in Cumann na mBan and the Citizen Army opened emergency hospitals during the epidemic.

But the effects of the plague could work in all kinds of unpredictable ways. Seamus Babbington recalled that pro-British elements in Tipperary, such as servicemen and their families, ‘the ‘separation women and their children’, were especially hard hit. When the War in Europe ended in victory for Britain,  they attacked republicans, ‘any pro-SF man, family or house stood danger of immediate attack perhaps serious damage’ .

They were sobered though, according to Babbington, by the effects of the flu epidemic. ‘Destruction and loss of life [of republicans] would have taken place all over but for that terrible European scourge following on the heels of the end of the War; the Black ‘flu. Though millions of lives were lost in the 4 years of  war … Whole families were stricken down and many lost three or four’.[20]

This highlights the fact that the separatists in 1918 found their most determined street-fighting opponents among the supporters of the rival Irish Parliamentary Party to be those who had family in the British Army and depended on British government aid. Generally these were the poorest class in the cities and towns and whom republicans  tended dismissively to refer as ‘separation women’ (who got the Separation Allowance money) or ‘the rabble’.  Naturally this was the social group hardest hit by the disease. In Waterford Vincent White, a doctor and Sinn Fein activist recalled;

‘After my first Parliamentary election bid, my next important recollection of 1918 is that it was the year in which occurred the epidemic of the “Great ‘Flu”. I was the sole dispensary doctor in Waterford City at the time, and night and day I had to be on my feet answering  what seemed an endless line of calls.’

‘Hushed now were the political jibes which had been flung at me as I went into houses in lanes and alley-ways seeking to bring succour to the many victims of that terrible malady which was raging throughout Europe and was leaving behind it a grim tale of many deaths. I had scarcely finished my battle against the ‘flu, when I was called again to move into another battle zone: to stand as the Sinn Féin candidate in the Parliamentary General Election in December of that year’.

‘The setting of the stage was more or less the same as it had been in the by-election -the same candidates and the meetings, canvassing, etc., all taking on the same pattern as before. I was often amused to see wives of ex-soldiers, to whom I had ministered during the ‘flu epidemic, with their lungs now so fully restored that they were able to yell after me as I passed: “To hell with White! Up Redmond every time”! It was, as I say, amusing, but it was also somewhat ironic.’[21]

Combating the flu

More constructively, some republican activists, especially the women of Cumann na mBan set up emergency hospitals to care for the victims of the epidemic.  Aine Ceannt in Dublin remembered, ‘About this time also, Ireland was visited by an epidemic of flu, and Cumann na mBan members helped to nurse the sick, gratis, as nurses were impossible, to obtain’.[22]

According to another activist in Dublin Eilis Bean Ui Chonaill, ‘Cumann na mBan volunteered to nurse patients during this awful calamity. At least the members who were qualified in home-nursing were asked to help and, responded magnificently to the call. There were two depots opened, one at No. 25 Parnell Square where we met on the north side of the city and one at No. 6 Harcourt Street. There was a notice put in the press announcing and setting out the hours at which members would be available … We visited the patients at their homes in response to messages received at tie depots.[23]

Kathleen Lynn the doctor and Citizen Army member was wanted by the police but; ‘ At the ‘flu epidemic, as doctors were so very badly wanted, I just decided that I would go home, and I did. I was arrested immediately and brought to [Police Detective HQ at] Oriel House. I was told that I would be deported. Miss French Mullen, the Lord Mayor and everybody kicked up an awful “shine”. Doctors were terribly wanted at that time. I was permitted to remain in practice if I did not leave the city of Dublin’.

She and several other republican women founded a hospital for infants under a year at a derelict building at 37 Charlemont Street in central Dublin but;

‘Before we had time to convert it into a children’s hospital, the ‘flu epidemic had broken out. The women of the Citizen Army, of one accord on a Sunday, came to that derelict house and cleaned it up. The pigeons had got into one of the top rooms which bad been a dormitory and it was filthy dirty. The women cleaned it and made it presentable as far as possible. They were mostly Republicans that helped. Countess Markievicz helped and Countess Plunkett brought bedding. We got things from friends around. It was a very scratch affair. We admitted patients suffering from ‘flu. At that time I had got from Dr. Crofton some vaccine which we had used successfully in a couple of ‘flu cases in the previous May …Then we used this vaccine in the hospital in Charlemont Street. Not one patient that was admitted to the hospital died.’

‘When the epidemic was over, we closed the hospital for the time being. It was formally opened as St. Ultan’s Infants’ Hospital on Ascension Thursday, 1919. We had £70 in the bank, and there were two infants in the hospital.-12- A man who was on the committee with us remarked: “If you were men, I would say you were lunatics, but because you are women you might succeed”. After that, of course, I went on with all the Sinn Féin activities and everything else like that. We ran the hospital as well.’[24]

Even the charitiable activism of the republican women did not entirely defuse the political enmities of late 1918, however. Eillis Bean Ui Chonail, ‘reported for duty at No. 6 Harcourt Street on the evening of 11th November, Armistice night, the end of the War. ‘ We suddenly realised’, she later recalled, ‘that a hostile mob were attacking the building.

‘There were many Volunteers in the building at the time including Harry Boland and Simon Donnelly who took over command. They immediately started to barricade the front a door and windows with chairs and other furniture. Soon we found ourselves hauling chairs, etc., and stacking them up against the windows and helping the Volunteers generally. Shots rang out, mingled with vile language and shouts of “God save the King!” A state of terror reigned over the whole neighbourhood until a late hour when the crowds dispersed’.[25]

As far as its political impact was concerned,the most telling intervention of the flu was the death of imprisoned republican activist Richard Coleman, from the disease, at Usk Prison in Wales on 9 December, 1918, just five days before the General Election of December 14.

He was not the only prisoner to die from the flu but the timing of his death made a brief cause celebre. Sinn Féin’ alleged that he had not received the proper medical care and gave him a martyr’s funeral procession through the streets of Dublin. Frank Gallagher, assistant in Sinn Féin’s publicity department, thought that it turned the tide of public opinion by influencing undecided voters to vote Sinn Féin.

The influenza epidemic in Ireland, like many of the most virulent diseases, was not, biologically speaking, the most efficient – it killed too many of its hosts too quickly for it to reproduce itself effectively. By the summer of 1919 it had burned itself out, leaving no more trace its coming than thousands of freshly filled graves.

 See also Epidemics in Ireland – A Short History.


 [1] Ida Milne, Is History Repeating? The Spanish flu of 1918

[2] Thomas Bartlett, Keith Jeffrey, A Military History of Ireland, p 394

[3] RIC Yearly Report, 1918

[4] Sean Gibbon WS Bureau of Military History (BMH)

[5] Eillis Bean Ui CHonaill BMH

[6] Diarmuid Ferriter The Transformation of Ireland  1900-2000 p185-186

[7] Des Ryan  -The Great Influenza Epidemic 1918-19 Old Limerick Journal Winter 1996

[8] Seamus Babbington WS BMH

[9] James Kavanagh, WS BMH

[10] Padraig Yeates A City in Wartime p270-273

[11] Diarmuid Ferriter The Transformation of Ireland  1900-2000 p185-186

[12] Des Ryan, The Great Influenza Epidemic 1918-1919, Old Limerick Journal Winter 1996,4106,en.pdf

[13] Ryan The Great Influenza Epidemic

[14] Babbington BMH

[15] Ernest Blythe WS BMH

[16] Yeates, p272

[17] Katherine Lynn, WS BMH

[18] Frank Drohan BMH

[19] Kevin O’Shiel BMH

[20] Seamus Babbington BMH

[21] Vincent White BMH

[22] Aine Ceannt BMH

[23] Eillis Bean Ui CHonaill BMH

[24] Kathleen Lynn BMH

[25] Bean Ui Chonaill, BMH

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