THE BIG ‘FLU 2020 // 1918 – Colum Cronin / Michael Galvin

Greetings readers. I’m writing here on Friday 3rd April 2020. Even just one month ago, who could have believed that today our nation would be almost completely shut down for an indefinite period of time. Only workers deemed to be essential to the running of the country are in employment. Workers in the health service are considered to be the elite of society. Whether you’re a millionaire of a pauper, now there is relatively little difference between you! Both of you will receive the same standard of medical treatment, should you require it. Money cannot buy you safe passage through this disease. All those aged over 70 years are confined to their homes. Every citizen is advised to stay at home except for essential business and all hotels, pubs & restaurants are closed. Only businesses and services considered to be essential are left open. All our churches are shut down and many of our clergy are confined to their homes. All sport fixtures are cancelled practically the world over. TV sports channels are running replays of all sorts and diehard football fans are suffering from serious withdrawal symptoms. Betting offices are closed, but online betting continues, but what are they betting on? Seemingly there is a steep rise in casino and virtual racing betting.

If one was dropped into todays world here in West Cork without knowledge what has unfolded over the past month, you might ask, what catastrophe has occurred to cause such extreme change? Has there been an alien invasion or what? But no, the reason for this is invisible to the naked eye, but absolutely deadly. It is a virus, which originated in China and which now threatens to kill 100’s of thousands of people & cripple the world’s economy. Life has changed utterly for everybody in a whole lot of ways. Many would suggest that we had ‘lost the run of ourselves’ and this is God’s / Mother Nature’s way to slow us down and re-evaluate our values and priorities. Given this enforced, prolonged period of time to reflect, is perhaps an opportunity to take an in-depth look at ourselves, get to know one another at a deeper level, appreciate our families, our homes and our home area more. On the other hand, being cooped up together will not suit many who are accustomed to fast moving lifestyles and this may very well give rise to mental health issues for some.

The positives? Mother Nature is the clear winner here. All road, air and water traffic and much of industry has ceased, with consequent cessation of emissions from fossil fuels into the atmosphere and suddenly our air is becoming pure and clean, as it should be! Our ozone layer is regenerating and rebuilding itself as we speak. Our rivers, lakes and oceans are no longer being poisoned and even weeks ago fish returned into the usually polluted canals of Venice.

Communications technology has come into its own, enabling many to keep in contact with their friends and communities while isolated and confined to their homes. Social media applications such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and the likes are utilised by countless new users. Apps such as ‘Zoom’ have proven to be invaluable in enabling groups of people, communities and congregations to participate in live virtual meetings/webinars/courses/ceremonies etc. from their own homes. Through the use of IT technology, many are enabled to work from their homes. It is probable that many of these will continue this into the future, thereby saving on travel costs, wear and tear and pollution. Locally, our parish priests have embraced IT and they now live stream their Sunday masses to their congregations. As an aside, many others connect in from all over the world. Last Sunday’s mass in Enniskeane was seen by over 2.5k. The Lord works in mysterious ways!

Some new buzzwords/phrases relating to the Coronavirus/ COVID-19 include: ‘Wash your hands’ ‘Stay at home’ ‘Cocooning’ ‘Self-isolating’ ‘Social distancing’ ‘Physical distancing’ ‘Flattening the curve’ ‘Herd immunity approach’ (not for us!)


St Patrick’s Day 2018, saw our heritage society Coppeen Archaeological, Historical & Cultural Society (CAHCS) commemorate the 1918 ‘Big ‘Flu’ in our float at the Coppeen parade. Little did we think that a similar pandemic lay ahead of us. This is the poster we created for the occasion:


In 2007, a local group of us like-minded people produced a history of Coppeen National School entitled ‘A Scéal of Two Schools’ In this book is an article entitled ‘The Big ‘Flu’ written by Michael M. Galvin. I now take the liberty to reproduce this excellent account of the 1918 pandemic in the following space. Enjoy!


THE BIG FLU, 1918-19


Without doubt, the most traumatic national calamity since the Great Famine (1845 – 1852), or the potato crisis of 1879, was what became known as “The Big Flu” that erupted globally in May 1918.  The pandemic comprised three distinctive waves, lingering till May 1919. Globally it killed between 80 and 100 million people and in Ireland, 20,000 at the very least.

This influenza pandemic was internationally known as the “Spanish Flu” since it was first diagnosed in Madrid.  Its existence was known elsewhere too but unlike neutral Spain, the belligerent powers did not wish it to be known since public pressure might force them to pull troops from the Front; thus very likely changing the whole course of the history of the Great War.  The calamity was further compounded by the tragedy of the Great War (1914-1918) and not least political turmoil in Ireland following the 1916 Rising.

Pivotal political events during the twelve months or so of the epidemic included the conscription crisis and the December 1918 general election which gave Sinn Fein an overwhelming mandate for self government.

The influenza pandemic flared up in different parts of the globe, faded out, flared up again, with no great discernable pattern though mass human movement caused by the Great War was certainly an important vector for the contagion. Noticeable at an early stage were its telltale symptoms, its apparent virulence (cold changeable weather conditions most favourable to its progress) and its pernicious impact ironically enough amongst the young and healthy.

With the outbreak of the epidemic many public facilities including schools, colleges and Cork University itself were closed.  While there is no documentary evidence of Coppeen National School being closed there is reference to it being disinfected.  There were fairly concise reports of the flu’s impact in Macroom, Bandon, Dunmanway, Clonakilty, Bantry, Skibbereen and their vast hinterlands. (schools, cinemas, business firms and the like affected to varying degrees.)  There is every reason to believe that Coppeen National School catchment area was equivalently affected.

By and large the flu did not kill except the more powerful strains and most likely if accompanied by septic pneumonia.  Twenty-five times more virulent than ordinary flu with some three or four days duration the influenza bacillus attacked the respiratory digestive and nervous systems and manifested itself in: coughing, headache, backache, fatigue, high fever, sore throat, racing heart, loss of appetite, lung congestion, paralysis, cerebral encephalitis, lock jaw, severe thirst, pleurisy, pneumonia, face turning brown, blood discharge, gasping, lungs drowning from red fluid.  Prior to death and post mortem the skin turned black due to stagnating blood, hence the term “Black Death”.

Suggested curative fortification and preventative agents against the malady included smoking (Primrose cigarettes – all the better that they were Irish made!) chewing tobacco, whisky, nourishing hot food, open air exercise, Bovril, disinfecting, lime washing, isolation of the infected, immunisation (vaccine developed in Cork University) red pepper in boiled milk, quinine, castor oil, morphine, asprin, hot baths, throat gargling, dental care, gauze masks, linseed, iodine solution rubbed on chest; not naming all.  Add to these a whole legion of chemist’s products including Scotts Emulsion, Cherry Lung Tonic, Nostroline, Chlorodyne, Carbolic Acid Solution, again to name but a few.

Many believed the epidemic to be the wrath of God provoked by the greed of the Great War.  (soldiers believed the Blessed Virgin appeared in the sky at the terrible battle of Mons); the onset of Communism (Russian Revolution 1917 – Fatima apparition) atmospheric poisoning caused by gas fumes and rotting flesh in the trenches as well as constant troop movements.  Many more believed that the epidemic most severe against the youth was an indication that the whole social structure was at the point of collapse, indeed that the world itself was about to end.

The first wave of the pandemic hit in May and raged mercilessly till late July.  By June Cork city was severely affected; schools closed, high street businesses short of staff, dozens of soldiers in Victoria Barracks ill, and the three main hospitals full.

At Enniskeane Mass, Sunday 12 June, Fr. William O’Connell recited prayers that “this dreadful malady might pass” while Castletownkinneigh, Coppeen and Newcestown schools were lime washed and disinfected. There is no documentary evidence that these schools were closed for any time though such was quite common during the crisis.

The epidemic peaked in July with many collapsing, even dropping dead in the streets of Cork “dying by the score daily” while the dispensaries and hospitals were full all over.  Oddly enough the flu at its peak hit hardest in the midlands i.e. Thurles in particular despite its inland non port status.  August experienced a lull in the epidemic and the end of the first wave; the main topics being an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Britain, potato blight and skin rash thought to have been brought from the trenches on soldier’s clothes, and caused by substandard bread i.e. War Bread.

The second wave of the epidemic hit in early September though this was not universally uniform but varied in intensity from one place to the next.  Peaking through October and highly contagious, three quarters of Clonakilty’s population were affected with all schools closed.  Skibbereen was less affected though in this district too, all schools were closed.  The epidemic hit Macroom in November, three out of five families afflicted, all schools closed and a relief fund set up for the sick-poor.  At the same time Crookstown took a severe hit with one family of six almost completely wiped out by the disease.  The local postman in the village succumbed to the virus and Mossgrove National Harrier Club at a specially convened meeting passed a vote of condolence to his family.  On 18th November , Fr. William  O’Connell,  P.P. Enniskeane recited prayers at Castletown Mass that “God Almighty might spare us this dreadful scourge”, a clear indication that the influenza epidemic was lurking or already in the district. The flu struck Bandon also and the celebrations of Armistice Day 11th November (when fighting stopped on all fronts and the Great War formally ended) was no help as the contagion spread more swiftly wherever crowds congregated; Dr. J. Shorten, Murragh warning of this little understood danger.  Late November the flu was still very prevalent in Cork with Darrara Agricultural College Clonakilty, closed for two weeks.

In Bantry, the flu killed ten children in a twelve child family with many staying away from funerals and wakes fearing affliction. By late November, Dr. W. Whelpy, Bandon, Fr.William O’Connell, P.P. Enniskeane and four RIC Bandon were ill with flu.

As the first week of December dawned the second wave of the influenza epidemic passed and it was now hoped the plague-flu would disappear altogether.  Though the welcome wane continued into Christmas 1918, there were pockets of resistance i.e. Aghabullogue, Dunmanway and Bandon.  On 15th December, Fr. Jeremiah Coholan, P.P. Bandon organised a coal fund for the sick-poor while Edward Harte merchant offered to deliver free of charge 230 bags of wood blocks to the needy.

Similar efforts were made to aid the sick-poor (also with tuberculosis) in the Enniskeane and Dunmanway districts.

Aggravating the crisis was the scarcity of coal and its high price due to the war effort.  This resulted in increased turf cutting wherever this was indeed possible.  On 20th December, Kilmichael Farmers Association requested the agent of the Cooldaniel and Droumcara estates, permission to cut turf in Annahala Bog. In December also two sisters in Mamucky died together of the flu and were buried in Kilmichael cemetery. Such did the flu epidemic infiltrate popular culture that the following school yard skipping rhyme was quite common:

I had a little bird,                                                                                                                                                             Its’ name was Enza,                                                                                                                                                                               I opened up the window,                                                                                                                                                And influenza.

Incidentally, the term influenza was derived from the Italian for influence or “coming from” since the ancient folk belief here (and universal) was that the stars had a bearing or influence on the human condition.  Thus the Italians believed a malignant star was the principal source of the flu virus, or put another way the flu arose from the influence of such a star.

Parallel distractions during late 1918 were the relatively abundant harvest (though the flax harvest was difficult); the ending of the Great War (Armistice Day 11th November) the Sinn Fein general election victory and the anti-conscription fund raising campaigns.

One such election meeting arranged for Ballineen on 6th December, was cancelled due to the dangers of the contagious pathogen. The most momentous event of January 1919 was the meeting of the First Dail in the Mansion House and the declaration of a republic; but also the return of the dreaded flu to begin the third and last phase of the influenza epidemic.(incidentally, Sinn Fein leader Arthur Griffith, U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, French president Georges Clemenceau and poet William Butler Yeats were affected by a mild strain of  flu).  Cork took a hit in late January though this time around the flu was of a milder strain in most places.  Once again, the usual restrictions and precautions were put in place and many schools were again closed.

During two weeks ending 1st March 1919, Cork North Fever Hospital admitted 106 cases while Cork Corporation ambulance transported 114 patients to all city hospitals in just three weeks, again ending 1st March.  Skibbereen and Clonakilty were hit also in March.  Clonakilty recorded twelve deaths in one week and six children ill in Lough Ine N.S. Skibbereen.

Three died during the week ending 8th March in Dunmanway town all buried in Fanlobblus cemetery while once more Fr. William O’Connell, P.P. Enniskeane recited prayers in Castletownkenneigh church.

Notwithstanding; by late March the third wave was now in steady and permanent decline, such that for the last week of the month there were no serious admissions to the three main Cork hospitals.

Bucking this trend though and characteristic of the disease, the flu struck Iveleary severely in late March; a mother and daughter dying within one week in Ballingeary while a prominent young member of the Inchigeela Volunteers fell fatal victim and buried in Inchigeela cemetery with full military honours.  Complaints were loud that no nurse was assigned to this large area unlike others.

By mid April with rising temperatures and late spring the influenza epidemic had virtually disappeared in Cork.  Yet in Thurles which the epidemic had most severely tormented throughout; brother and sister twins aged twenty-five years died together of concomitant septic pneumonia on 19 April.  This was an aberration though, so that by May exactly twelve months after it erupted, the dreaded flu had finally disappeared.

Michael M Galvin.



Just a couple of nights ago I ‘phoned my hugely valued friend Mary Morgan, nee Murphy, who lives in Cork. Mary was born in Slieveowen, just over 98 years ago. She reminded me that both her parents fell victims of the Big ‘Flu of 1918, but fortunately, they survived it, just barely. A family of O’Callaghans lived in Kehily’s in Knockane, Kilmichael. Two sisters from there walked to Coppeen regularly, but they avoided walking directly past Murphy’s house, going across fields to avoid dreaded ‘flu source. The disease raged during 1918 & eased off in early 1919. By March, everybody relaxed & assumed that the virus had died off completely. It was decided to have a house dance (quite common in those days) in Lordans (later Lynchs) cottage near Terelton. A large gathering attended, including both of these O’Callaghan sisters. Afterwards, to the horror of all, it became apparent that somebody in attendance had the virus and many were infected as a result, including one of the O’Callaghan sisters. This girl became seriously ill and tragically, she died. She is buried in Castletown cemetery, on the right hand side as you enter the churchyard. I referred to our records on Castletown burials and I found the following details on gravestone 2.G.3.

‘In loving memory of Mary O’Callaghan Knockane, who died April 2nd 1919 aged 27 years RIP. Johanna Kehily died 26th Feb 1962. Patrick Kehily died 25th Feb 1967. Remembered by their loving sons Fr Denis, Jackie and family RIP. Kindly kneel and pray’

 (Fr Denis ministered in Kilmurray parish)

Colum Cronin, 2020.


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