1918 turned out to be a year that changed many lives around the world and certainly had a dramatic impact on the residents of Newry and the surrounding area writes Claudine Coyle.
The author of ‘The 1918 Spanish Flu in Newry and Surrounding Areas’ Claudine Coyle explained that as the First World War entered its final stages, a pandemic emerged that would spread across the world at a remarkable speed, and it is estimated that it infected up to a million people globally.
She said: “The first wave of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic arrived on Irish shores in May 1918 and for the next 12 months a total of three waves would cross the island of Ireland. The largest impact on mortality rate came with the second wave from October to December 1918. Newry and the surrounding areas were not to escape the devastating impact that this virus would unleash.
“The first media announcement that the Spanish Flu had arrived in Newry came on 19th October 1918 reporting “Influenza has made its appearance in Newry, and already quite a number of cases are under medical treatment.”
“Local authorities in Newry were quick to respond to the announcement of the arrival of the pandemic. Two days after the announcements it was reported that all schools in Newry had been closed by the authorities to attempt to curtail the spread of the pandemic. Several days later many civil and police cases at the local courthouse had to be adjourned as several solicitors and police witnesses had become indisposed due to the virus.”
And similar to the current coronavirus outbreak, recommendations to avoid the prevailing pandemic were printed in the local press with suggestions of:
- avoidance of crowds where people were coughing and sneezing; avoidance of travelling on trains and tramway cars;
- avoiding getting chilled, wet or fatigued;
- keeping the mouth closed and frequently to disinfect the nostrils;
- and a stark warning that half of the people that succumb to the pandemic owed their fate to the lack of practicing the preventative measures to avoid catching the virus.
Claudine added: “It was reported that in the poorer parts of Newry the scourge was particularly severe. Lack of sanitation in the homes, overcrowding in homes and workplaces, the inability to afford medical assistance and the necessity to attend work in order to obtain an income for the family all increased the risk of spread and mortality rates due to the influenza.
“The pandemic, just like the one that we are currently dealing with, showed no prejudice. It affected all sections of the community and particularly caused a high mortality rate of males between the ages of 21-30 years old.
“The rate of infection within those particularly who worked in the many mills in the town and the surrounding locations was exceptionally high. The conditions in the mills were perfect for the spread of the pandemic.
“Large numbers of people were cramped in to a room, which often had small windows placed up high on the walls preventing a flow of fresh air and which only diffused a minimal amount of light to enter, long working hours together in the rooms with only a half hour lunch break during these long hours all increased the chances that if one worker contracted the influenza virus that by the end of the day many of their work colleagues had also contracted the virus.
“The local Newry Urban Council responded to the increasing spread of the virus with preventative measures such as clearing out all the surface water grating and gully traps in the streets of the town and filling them with carbolic solution.
“The streets where possible were also sprayed with a similar solution and these measures continued throughout the period that the pandemic ravaged through the area.
“Charitable acts increased in response to the pandemic. In the Domestic Department of the Newry Technical School beef tea, mutton broth and other food supplies were made for the relief of cases of distress in many homes.
“The St. Vincent de Paul Society were provided with a substantial amount of money to ease the distress through measures which they deemed most important to the people. Free milk was provided to nursing mothers even though there was a great shortage of milk with each household being restricted to one pint per day which was totally inadequate to meet the needs of large families at that time.
“The discontinuation of wakes was recommended by the Chief Medical Officer for Newry, but unfortunately neither the Newry Urban Council or the Chief Medical Officer of the town had the power to enforce the halt of wakes at homes. Quickly the local people realised themselves that wakes were not a good idea when they witnessed first hand how people that attended a wake house became ill with the virus.
“By the end of November 1918, the schools in the district were still closed. The Town Hall and the Minor Town Hall had been closed and were to remain so until it was deemed safe that people could freely congregate without risk of spreading the infection. Both of the picture palaces in the town were closed and disinfected ready to reopen when the pandemic abated.”
By the beginning of December that year the number of cases of Spanish Influenza began to abate in the area. Normality began to return to the homes, businesses and streets gradually as the days went on even though the pandemic still continued to claim lives, albeit at a much lower rate.
Claudine added that: “Although the pandemic of the Spanish Influenza of 1918 and Covid-19 that we face currently are different viruses, the response and preventative measures of one hundred years difference remain the same:
“Stay at home, avoid mixing with people, clean your hands and face and keep your distance from one another. All very basic instructions which every one can follow regardless of your wealth, creed or age.“
“Thankfully, medicine has greatly improved over the past 100 years as we now can develop vaccines, and hospital care is second to none. People are now living and working in much improved conditions, and we are more aware of the current pandemic through public communication such as TV and the media on the implications of how coronavirus can spread.
The 1918 Spanish Flu in Newry and Surrounding Areas by Claudine Coyle is available at several outlets in the town, but these may be closed due to the current lockdown.
(Down News is reporting responsibly and has not included mortality figures in this article as this may alarm some people given the heightened volume of news surrounding coronavirus.)
To get a copy, check out the Newry outlets at Veritas, Savages and Fiveways and the Vivo shop in The Square in Bessbrook. It can be ordered online via PayPal – just send Claudine Coyle a PM on ‘Grave Ramblings‘ on Facebook to arrange payment.