The Public Role of Personal Commemoration. Remarks on the Decade of Centenaries, the Great Flu and the scourge of TB. By Sylvia Turner

On January 7th this year, we raised a glass to commemorate what would have been my mother’s 100th birthday. Born in Kilcoursey Lodge,  Clara, she had always said that she was born on a special day, being the day, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in the Dáil. Her explanation to me as a child was that ‘it split Ireland in two and caused a lot of trouble’.

This example of  family commemoration running  parallel to the national one, relates to one of the aims on The Decade of Centenaries Programme  to ‘focus on the everyday experience of ordinary people living in extraordinary times, as well as on the leaders and key actors in these events’

The Decade of Centenaries Programme has led to a great variety of commemorative events and   literature, both at a national and local level. The Decade has been commemorated by Offaly History through a  variety of media, no longer limited to monuments and the written word,  as technology has enabled visual and auditory means to be retained through the use of videos and podcasts.

However, it seems that one aspect of this Decade has been overlooked to some extent. As national events were sweeping the Decade such as the Home Rule movement, World War 1, the 1916 Rising, The War of Independence and the Civil War, Ireland was amidst a poverty and health emergency.

The 1911 census identified that Dublin had the worst housing conditions of any city in the United Kingdom. Tenements in inner-city Dublin were, overcrowded, disease-ridden and malnourishment was prevalent. Conditions in the rural areas could be equally as bad for many. Data from the census included the number of occupants, rooms, windows and building materials, showing those who lived in damp, poorly ventilated and overcrowded accommodation

This example of a Household and Building Return example from Ballinagar, Offaly, shows a blacksmith living in a household of eight people. He lived with his brother, a widowed sister and his nephews and nieces in a house with just two rooms which had windows but was built of perishable materials. Such conditions were ripe for spreading infectious disease.

Household and Building Return example from Ballinagar, Offaly, 1911

Statistics from the 48th Annual Report of the Registrar General for Ireland, 1911,  found that the population mid-year was 4,374584. Deaths from tuberculosis (TB) were just over 9,500 which would represent approximately 1% of the population. TB was the most common cause of death out of 22 categories and the highest cause of epidemic death. It is likely that this was an underestimate of deaths from TB as the disease was stigmatised by being associated with poverty, leading relatives to try to avoid TB being recorded on death certificates.

TB  had been known for over 9000 years, but it was not until 140 years ago on  March 24th 1882 that Dr Robert Koch announced the discovery of  the bacteria that causes TB. A century later, March 24th was designated World TB Day. A search for events to mark the day in Ireland and other countries produced sparse results. Commemoration of those who died of TB would seem to be left to the surviving descendants of victims, if indeed they have any. However, commemoration of significant disease events  has an important national role in public health so lessons can be learnt. Just as now, infectious disease affects the poor disproportionately. This was well-known in 1911 as evidenced by reports in the Press such as this extract from The Midland Tribune on 19th August 1911, yet it seems to be a lesson still to be learnt.

Memorial to the Victims of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, Auckland, New Zealand (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1918_Influenza_epidemic_burial_site.jpg)

Against this backdrop of poverty and disease,  the 1918 influenza pandemic arrived in Ireland from Europe as soldiers returned from fighting in World War 1. It killed approximately 20% of the population.  Lack  of commemoration worldwide was noted by the medical historian, Mark Honigsbaum,  reflecting that the sheer scale of death was hard to envisage and hard for human contemplation. (Wellcome Collection 25 October 2018) . He identified  a rare example of commemoration in a cemetery in New Zealand.

The Midland Tribune on 19th August 1911

However, with the centenary of the 1918 Influenza pandemic swiftly followed by the current  pandemic, there has been a range of commemorative work such as the publication of Ida Milne’s book ‘Stacking the Coffins’ (2018) and thereception commemorating The Great Flu Epidemic of 1918-1919 hosted by President Higgins in May 2019. In his address, the President noted that ‘Despite the fact that it claimed many more lives than the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War combined, the Great Flu is rarely incorporated into the narrative of 20th-century Ireland.

When the Irish Folklore Commission was set up in  1935, the decade 1912-1923 was still in recent memory.  The concern that  Irish Folklore would be lost led to stories being recorded on an Ediphone device and transcribed  and children collected accounts of previous events from their relatives and recorded them in writing. However, maybe as  the focus was folklore, the events between 1912-1923 did not receive much mention and reference is only made incidentally.

As the  Decade of Centenaries is becoming outside living memory, maybe now is the time to capture the experience of families who had suffered so much on account of disease through similar oral history accounts. An example of such  work is that of  Susan Kelly,  Stigma and silence: oral histories of tuberculosis, published by the Oral History Society (Vol 39, No 1, Spring 2011). Although the time frame is more recent(1926-1962) and relates to children who suffered TB in Northern Ireland, the thirty-three interviews give a good sense of their suffering. The stigma surrounding TB is evident to the extent that interviewees had remained silent until interviewed.

Just as we were slow to learn the lessons of the 1918 influenza pandemic through little commemorative activity, it would seem that the same public health issue is emerging with TB. In October 2021, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has reversed years of global progress in tackling TB for the first time in over a decade. Resources have been reallocated to the Covid 19 response and people have struggled to find treatment due to lockdowns.

At the time my grandmother gave birth to my mother, her youngest daughter, she had lost both her father and the majority of her 12 siblings to TB, most dying in their teens and early twenties. Their existence is only recorded in Church and Civil registration documents, there being no money for headstones. As a mark of respect to our ancestors and all those people who suffered a similar fate, a memorial has been erected to them in Geashill churchyard where they are buried.

Memorial Stone to the Evans Family, St Mary’s Churchyard, Geashill, Offaly

Sylvia Turner January 2022

Our thanks to Sylvia Turner for blog no. 350. A nice one as we have now reached over 360,000 since we started quietly in 2016. If you have a history story to tell email us, info@offalyhistory.com