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Pandemic in Ireland One Hundred Years Ago Through the Lens of the Church of Ireland Gazette

Pandemic in Ireland One Hundred Years Ago Through the Lens of the Church of Ireland Gazette

By Dr Ida Milne

In the early summer of 1918, the editorials of the Church of Ireland Gazette appeared far more concerned with matters political and military than religious. The hot debate in the 28 June 1918 edition, for example, was a speech during the week by Viceroy Sir John French, where he made it clear that while the British Prime Minister Lloyd George was abandoning Home Rule, conscription would press ahead if there were not 50,000 recruits to the hard-pressed army by October. The leader writer tied his colours to the mast:

We are not - we imagine after his recent gyrations on Irish policy few Irishmen are among the whole hearted admirers of Mr Lloyd George

In the background, behind the machinations of politics and the lumbering war, a darker force was beginning to emerge: the biggest killing influenza pandemic in the modern world.

Elsewhere in the newspaper medical realities were beginning to dawn. In the same edition the wisdom of having laymen on standby to take services was commented upon, given the 'suddenness with which the illness' could seize clergymen, placing them in 'an awkward predicament.'

On 12 July 1918, one columnist made the following stark observation:

Belfast has paid a heavy toll in the recent influenza epidemic. In the Registrar General's return for the seven days ending 19th ult. no less than 341 deaths are recovered. In other words, the death rate reached the abnormal rate of 45.2 per thousand living

One of the great puzzles about the historiography of the 1918 pandemic is that there was so little written about it, until Alfred Crosby's America's Forgotten Pandemic (1976) stimulated the interest of other historians in how the flu had panned out in their regions. How did this phenomenon, which killed upwards of 50 million people, and probably infected one third of the world's population, elude the gaze of historians for so long? What Gazette views as important news at the time some reasons why - and also adds to the puzzle. Typically, the first textual pages of each edition in 1918 and 1919 (the opening pages were as usual devoted to advertising) are dominated by intensely detailed news of the Great War, and of the Irish and British political situation. The flu story must have seemed less important, in an environment where death from infectious disease was omnipresent: thousands in Ireland died each year from pneumonia and tuberculosis, and hundreds from measles, scarlet fever, and whooping cough. Disease was part of the quotidian, not news, unless events became more dramatic. More generally, there is little discussion of societal problems like tenement housing or the conditions of the poor in the issues during the influenza pandemic.

The first clusters of Irish cases emerged in May 1918, even as the Irish administration were rounding up prominent anti-conscription campaigners under trumped-up charges of conspiracy - the so-called 'German plot' - and interning them in English and Welsh prisons.

The Gazette's writers at the time had a highly political focus, and covered this story extensively, but not the influenza epidemic, which gets little more than a passing mention between May 1918 and April 1919, a period that covers the three waves of the pandemic in Ireland. The pandemic is recorded, but as an accepted background story - almost as though so obvious there was no need to write about it - and when wirters did, it was often only in the diocesan notes, when a cleric became ill and someone had to stand in at services or church meetings.

Yet, the impact is clear enough. It threatened the life of the Primate of All Ireland, Archbishop John Crozier seen in the accompanying contemporary photograph, then from 65 years old; this detail is mentioned in passing in the Armagh notes when he is absent from a diocesan meeting.

The edition of 15 November 1918 tells the sad story of the deaths of Revd Arthur and Sylvia Oulton and their infant first-born child from influenza in Dublin. Oulton had recently taken up an appointment at York Minster.

On 5 March 1919 the Revd F. Moriarty, from the parish of Edenderry in Derry diocese died in his rectory as did the Revd F. S. Samuels at the other end of the country in the Wexford rectory, recorded in the 19 November 1918 edition. Typical of the notes' coverage of the 'present epidemic' is a brief mention of the return to work of Belfast's Knockbreda parish rector, the Revd Louis Crooks, in late March 1919, after a bad bout of influenza. Back in Wexford, in November 1918, the rector of Kiltennel, the Revd W. McClelland Kerr, held an afternoon service in Gorey when the Gorey rector, the Revd W.H.T Gahan was ill, while in Enniscorthy when Canon Lyster was laid up, the Revd G. Birmingham of Clonmore filled in. Another common theme is the reduced numbers at services and at meetings of societies.

Yet there are stoic examples of carrying on too, as evidenced by the efforts of the choir in the Connor parish of Ballycastle, County Antrim. Whilst reduced in number they sang on in spite of the illness, as recorded on 10 January 1919.

The pandemic had one very direct hit on the publication: a delay in the production due to illness of the printing staff, and the death of an 'expert operator'. The edition of 13 December 1918 - issued on the eve of the pivotal General Election, carries an explanation and apology to subscriber for the previous week's delay.

During today's COVID-19 pandemic, all church services have been cancelled with numbers attending funerals drastically reduced on the advice of governments in both jurisdictions. In 1918-19, the Local Government Board for Ireland responsible for the health services throughout the island, gave no such advice. From the Gazette, there seems to have been little or no discussion in the Church of Ireland of cancelling or adapting church services to curtail contagion, or advice on the best way to conduct funerals. During the peak of the second epidemic, the Archbishops asked that a Collect for Unity be used in churches on 3 November 1918, with no mention that thousands, particularly in Ulster and Leinster, are ill.

By contrast, the same weekend the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin William Walsh was advising his people that they should not weaken themselves by observing fast for the Vigil of the Feast of All Saints on 31 October, instructing that prayers should be reduced to limit the time open to contagion in church, and even suggesting that bodies of four dead should not be brought inside the church. There is no evidence, at least in the Gazette or newspapers, that the Church of Ireland was as proactive.

Some of the Gazette's articles have instructive pointers to wider societal impacts of the pandemic, and to how it underlines failings of an already inefficient health system. This debate appears to have commenced in the column entitled "Public Health" published on 22 November 1918.

In the edition of 2 May 1919, as a writer discusses the impact of wartime inflation on church and charity finances, it is observed:

The epidemic of influenza which has carried off so many breadwinners, has entailed a great strain upon the resources of our Orphan Societies

An unusual feature of the 1918-19 pandemic was that it seemed to target young previoulsy healthy adults, particularly those aged 25-35, who were more likely to be the parents of young children, who also died at higher rates from this influenza than other age groups. Children under the age of five were then a very vulnerable sector of Irish society - typically they accounted for one fifth of the deaths on the island any year in the 1910's.

Poverty and slum conditions, where contagious diseases like measels spread like wildfire, were largely responsible for this statistic, so shocking to our modern eyes. Wealth, until the poor were moved into better housing, could be measured not in gold, but in one household thing: a water tap. An oral history interviewee who grew up in the tenements of Summerhill, Dublin told me:

We were rich: we had a tap and running water

While today's crisis undoubtedly threatens us all, at least most - except the homeless - now have that wealth. Both pandemics underline the significance of clean water to public health, while the current crisis raises doubts about the sense of taxing such an essential component of health.

Returning to the pages of the Gazette, churches and church-funded organisations played a role in social care not provided by the state. On 6 June 1919, for example, in the context of appealing for funds for the Dublin-based charity of the Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers Society, the rector of the inner-city parish of St Thomas, the Revd E.G. Burland, praised its help to him in saving the lives of many family breadwinners.


In 1918-19, most Irish people had personal experiences of infectious disease, and death from infectious disease touched most families, sometimes often, with the poorer sectors of society in bad housing worst affected. In the interim period, thanks largely to better living conditions, water and sanitation, vaccination and antibiotics, the numbers dying on the island each year have more than halved, from over 70,000 per annum to over 30,000. The current COVID-19 crisis is a timely reminder that we should not take public health measures for granted.

Written and read by lay and clerical members of the Church of Ireland and others, the Church of Ireland Gazette (published since 1856) provides the longest-running public commentary on Church of Ireland affairs, and as such recognised as a valuable primary source for understanding the complexities and nuance of Church of Ireland and indeed wider Protestant identity, as well as the Church's contribution to political and cultural life throughout the island.

The RCB Library is undertaking a sustained project to digitize the paper, and all editions up to and including 1949 are currently available and freely searchable online here.

Dr Ida Milne is a historian of disease, European history lecturer at Carlow College, and a visiting research fellow at the School of History and Humanities, Trinity College Dublin.