The Influenza Epidemic of 1918 in Wicklow Town and District

The recent flu epidemic will have revived memories of the dreadful epidemic of 1918. The first reported case of influenza in 1918 occurred at Fort Riley, Kansas, when a cook called Albert Gitchell complained of head and muscle aches and a sore throat. The flu spread worldwide like wildfire and killed twenty-two million people at least, twice the number who died in the Great War then grinding to a halt. Troop movements probably contributed a lot to its rapid spread. Eight million people died in Spain and, although some twelve million died in India, it was soon dubbed the ‘Spanish Flu’. Those who got the flu usually recovered in a week or two, but those who developed pneumonia almost invariably died. Antibiotics were then unknown. Some thirty people died in the Wicklow area within a month. Only one person in this locality, a young girl, was said to have recovered from pneumonia.

The ‘Wicklow People’ of 6th July 1918, under the headline ‘The New Influenza,’ reported the advent of the flu to Ireland. There had been deaths in Derry and seven hundred people were said to be ill in Dublin. Proximity to the capital meant that it must soon reach Wicklow. The local public health authority was then the Rathdrum Poor Law Guardians. At their fortnightly meeting on 25th August they heard from Mr. Alexander Byrne of Milltown, the Relieving Officer, that he had the flu and they gave him a week’s leave of absence. Mr. Byrne, as we shall see, eventually died. His work brought him into frequent contact with victims and he could scarcely avoid contagion. Dr. Canton of Wicklow also wrote to the Guardians to say that he too had the flu.

By Saturday 19th October the ‘Wicklow People’ and ‘The Wicklow Newsletter’ were both reporting “numerous cases of flu in Rathnew”, and it was said to be spreading rapidly. Saint Patrick’s Boys’ National School closed on 22nd October because of the disease. (It had been closed in November-December 1917 because of a scarlatina epidemic.)

Doctor McCormack, the Wicklow dispensary Medical Officer, wired the Poor Law Guradians at their meeting of 28th Oct. as follows

“Epidemic spreading alarming rate. no time write details. Canton appointed Wednesday last. ten guineas weekly. please confirm. more help urgently required.”

Relieving Officer Byrne had made the appointment of Doctor Canton in anticipation of the Guardians’ approval which was readily granted. Mr. Byrne wrote that he himself was ill for the third time — he had had a second relapse in September — and in fact he died on 1st Nov.

As well as Doctors McCormack and Canton, a Doctor Lyndon was also active among the flu victims. Rathnew was luckier than Wicklow in that it had a very dedicated Jubilee Nurse of whom Doctor McCormack reported to the Poor Law Guardians on 11th November:

“Nurse Hayden was unsparing and untiring in her service to those afflicted. Her great devotion to duty must have saved many lives. I could not speak too highly of the great service she has rendered and still continues to do.”

Although the Guardians were not her employer they were so impressed that they resolved that “Nurse Hayden be notified that this Board will consider her action favourably when the epidemic ceases”.

The local pharmacists were reported to be very busy also. Mr. Michael Butler, F.A.O.I., has in his possession his late father’s (Michael J. Butler) Prescription Books. Among the medicines used by flu victims were hippo wine, an expectorant used in the relief of flu symptoms; aromatic spirits of ammonia; tincture of cinchonae, containing quinine, and ammoniated tincture of quinine, both used as an antidote to colds; tincture of opium and tincture of squills, both used for suppressing coughs. Some doctors also painted patients’ throats with a feather dipped in iodine

There were three public hospitals to which patients might be admitted — the former “Union” hospital in Rathdrum and the County Infirmary and Fever Hospital in Wicklow town. Rathdrum was soon full and couldn’t accept Wicklow town sufferers. There was a long-standing row between the County Council and the County Infirmary. The latter was run by a twenty-six member board of whom twelve were appointed by the County Council. A patient could obtain admission to the Infirmary through Board members. As early as 1912 the local Charles S. Parnell branch of the Irish National Foresters complained to the County Council that there was discrimination in the admission of patients. The basis of the alleged discrimination isn’t spelled out. As the County Council provided two-thirds (E500) of the Infirmary’s annual funding it applied to its master, the Local Government Board, for the power to nominate two-thirds of the Board members. The Local Government Board couldn’t, or wouldn’t, grant such authority to the Council and in August 1918 the Council withdrew its funding from the Infirmary. (“There’s nothing new under the sun”!) When the flu arrived on the scene, therefore, the Infirmary couldn’t afford to accept flu patients! Public opinion and grave necessity finally forced a meeting of the Proposals and Finance Committee of the County Council, held on 29th Oct., to re-commence its funding of the Infirmary. Flu victims were admitted forthwith.

The same persons who formed the Board of the County Infirmary also formed the Board of the Fever Hospital. The Local Government Board, fore-runner of our Department of the Environment, sent a medical inspector, Doctor T. J. Browne, to Wicklow to look into the hospital situation. He told the meeting of 29th October that he was amazed when he visited the Fever Hospital that morning to find no flu victims there. The Proposals and Finance Committee then directed the Board of the Fever Hospital to accept flu patients and promised financial assistance. The Secretary of the Board replied somewhat haughtily that the Councillors had no authority to so direct his Board! There had been no flu victims in the Fever Hospital, he said, because none had applied for admission. However, four patients had applied on the afternoon of 29th, the evening of the meeting. These had been accepted and more would be admitted as space and facilities permitted.

A private ten-bed hospital was also available. The local St. John V.A.D. (Voluntary Alignment Division), whose Commandant was Mrs. Leslie-Ellis of Magheramore, had fitted out an “Emergency Hospital” (for soldiers presumably) at No. 4 Wentworth Place. “The Wicklow Newsletter” of 2nd Nov. reported that the Commandant had wired headquarters for permission to open her facility to flu victims “as there seemed to be nowhere else for the patients to go”. Permission was granted and within two hours the first patients were admitted. Doctors McCormack and Canton were in attendance. Sister Webster was night nurse and the day-staff included, apart from the Commandant, the Misses A. Crofton, G. Cuffe, C. V. Bradshaw, A. McCarroll, J. Leslie-Ellis (Quartermaster and Secretary), and the Misses McNie and J. Halpin (cooks) — all voluntary workers.

Proposals to equip the Vocational School on the Mall as a hospital were turned down as impractical.

However, the hospitals couldn’t cope with the number seeking entry and a meeting of the Urban District Council on 5th November resolved:

“That the Local Goverment Board be asked under Section 155 Public Health Act to authorise the Council to expend a sum not exceeding £50 to provide nursing and necessary assistance to the poor in their own homes, now prostrate with influenza in the Township, the hospitals being taxed beyond their capacity and the epidemic still raging. . .”

Many people in the town were said to be destitute and lack of nourishment left them a prey to infection. On 23rd October there was a poorly-attended meeting in the Town Hall to establish a fund to provide milk for the destitute poor. One merchant, obviously of anti-Sinn Féin politics, wrote apologising for his absence as nearly half his staff were down sick. While he promised a contribution, he also pointed out that funds collected for the Anti-Conscription Campaign were no longer needed for the purpose for which they were collected and should be used to buy food for the poor. His letter was regarded as “cynical” by a political opponent who was at the meeting. As the merchant’s business had been subjected to boycotting some time previously, his cynicism, if so it was intended, is understandable.

The Poor Law Guardians at their meeting of 11th November received the following from Mr. Henry J. McPhail of the Wicklow Relief Fund Committee:

“I enclose list of poor people to whom milk was distributed free. The amount of milk given out free was 73 gal. 1 qrt. I also enclose a little statement showing how our funds stand up to 9th November. . . . The amount of subscriptions received by the Committee was £66-7s-2d, made up as follows: Distributed in 5/- orders, £ 8-1 s-8d; Milk purchased, £14 (140 gals.); Delivery of milk, £2-5s-6d. The balance to credit of the Fund was £32-8s-4d. . Forty-eight persons received free milk. . . .”

The Guardians were so impressed that they decided “That £50 be given by this Board to the Committee, subject to the approval of the Local Government Board.”

There can be little doubt that poor housing conditions, allied to mal-nourishment, left many prey to the flu. The Medical Officer’s Return to the Local Government Board in July 1918 stated that “A large number of houses in Wicklow are unfit for human habitation.” One of the flu victims was Patrick Doyle, Sanitary Officer to the U.D.C., whose function was to report regularly on housing. His successor, Bartholomew O’Toole, reported as follows to a meeting of the U.D.C. on 7th January 1919: On my inspection of the Township I find a large number of premises with neither drains, ashpits or closets, and in a good many cases the drains are choked up, with the result that the yards are in a very bad state. Also, there are several premises with accumulation of manure, etc. . .” One would be pardoned for concluding that Mr. O’Toole’s predecessor contracted his fatal illness in the execution of his duties.

Because of the War there was also a shortage of coal which meant that people were cold. The ledger of the De La Salle Brothers, then living and teaching in the Marine, records a number of payments for fire-wood during 1918. This would have supplemented the coal they purchased from Mr. Joseph D’Arcey, coal merchant. In October the Local Government Board circulated public bodies asking them to conserve coal supplies.

The ‘Wicklow People’ of 26th October reported some 700 cases of flu in the Wicklow Dispensary area and estimated that this would rise to 1000 cases. Doctor McCormack was “on duty night and day”, ably assisted by Doctor Canton. On 9th November the former wrote to the Poor Law Guardians:

“I wish to report that the epidemic has abated somewhat in Wicklow and Rathnew, but fresh cases are still cropping up, particularly in the rural district. In these latter cases much time is spent in visiting patients living in rather inaccessible places. The type of disease now prevalent is much more virulent than at the outbreak and the percentage of cases succumbing to pneumonia is very high. For this reason I requested Mr. Butler, the acting Relieving Officer, to requisition the services of another Doctor on Monday last, but he was unable to procure one. I cannot pretend that the patients receive that attention all of us would wish, but the best help possible was given under the abnormal circumstances. Lack of nursing aid, both skilled and unskilled, handicapped us very much. Trained nurses were, of course, impossible to get from the outset, whilst the large number of the community that were stricken down and also the fear of contagion prevented us from obtaining help of any kind. . . . We are still faced with many serious pulmonary cases which have to be treated at their homes as all the Hospitals are filled to overflowing and, consequently, I recommend that Doctor Canton’s services be retained.”

The Guardians retained the Doctor’s services until 25th November.

The “Wicklow People” of 16th November announced that the War had ended and the flu was “abating somewhat in Wicklow and Rathnew”. The edition of 23rd November opined that “the disease has evidently run its course” as proof of which it cited only six cases in the County Infirmary where there had been twenty-four the previous week. Attention was beginning to focus on “The Coming Election”, which was to result in the establishment of Dáil Éireann.

On 14th November acting Relieving Officer Butler wrote to the Poor Law Guardians that he:

“had appointed Doctor McKenna to do duty in Wicklow Dispensary District from that date until the meeting of the Board, Doctor McCormack being unable to continue duty. . .”

When the Board met on 25th Novemberthey had before them a letter from the good Doctor stating that he had found it necessary to get Doctor McKenna to assist Doctor Canton and, with the Board’s permission, he would like to retain the services of the former, as he feared he would be unable to resume duty for another week at-least. His request was granted.

Saint Patrick’s Boys’ National School reopened on 2nd December but had to close again after two days. Obviously the flu was still lingering about. The Urban District Council at their meeting of 3rd December, obviously believing that they had seen the last of the flu, voted sums of 22-10s. each to Thomas Fox and David Tyndall as “Remuneration for carrying patients to hospital”. Henry J. McPhail, Town Clerk, was voted £5 as “Remuneration for work performed in connection with outbreak of influenza”.

Saint Patrick’s Boys’ National School reopened once again on 4th January 1919 when the De La Salle Brothers were introduced there for the first time. The school had to close again from 20th February to 17th March because of “Epidemic of Influenza” as the new Principal, Brother Conrad, wrote across the Roll Book. The Brothers’ House history records that “In February and March another epidemic of influenza caused the schools to be closed. Brother Gregory, Brother Conrad and Brother Leo were very ill for some time. Brother Dominic and Brother Fidelis were sent to help in the National School.” The Brothers’ ledger records a payment on 27th March of the then hefty sum of £5-19s-8d for medicine.

Three deaths occurred in this area during the new outbreak of flu. The “Wicklow People” of 8th March reported that the disease was especially in rural areas and there were some serious cases in the town. It also contained the advertisement: “Influenza — Pour Bottle Cousins’ Lemonade into Saucepan and Warm. A Perfect Lemon Drink”.

Many people believed in whiskey as a cure for the flu and it’s on record that it became a scarce commodity in some parts of the country such was the demand for it! The ‘People’ of 23rd March ran an advertisement claiming that “the terrible influenza scourge has now been defeated” and advised the use of bitro-phosphate tablets to off-set the after-effects of the illness. These could be purchased in 5 grm. tablets at 2/6 per flask, a sufficient dosage for a fortnight. Chemists then manufactured their own tablets.

Market Square, Wicklow 1910. The Wicklow Hotel on right of picture (flower boxes on window sills) was the home of Eithne Francis Byrne, one of the flu victims.

Those who died

(This list has been culled from local newspapers and may be incomplete.)

  • A child called Flood, New Street, was the first victim.
  • Joseph Dowling, New Street, aged 23 years.
  • Patrick Doyle, Town Sergeant (Mace Bearer) and Sanitary Officer to the U.D.C. He had been Mace Bearer for eight years and his father held the same post for 35 years before him. Died 19th October. He was a widower and left three children.
  • Mrs. Conway, Kilmantin Hill, sister of Patrick Doyle. Died 22nd October. Her newly-born infant had died on the 20th.
  • Miss Catherine Doyle, Dispensary Lane, who was related to the Con-ways.
  • Constable Laurence Corcoran, R.I.C., who died at his home in Bath Street. He was buried in his native County Mayo where Ns wife also succumbed to the flu a fortnight afterwards. Seven other R.I.C. victims recovered their health.
  • Patrick Flood, New Street, father of the first victim. Mrs. Killalee, South Quays.
  • Mr. B. Maguire, a Donegal man, a student pharmacist employed by Mr. M. J. Butler.
  • Mrs. Duffy, Rathnew.
  • Mrs. Newsome, Rathnew.
  • Mrs. Canavan, Rathnew. Her husband was a soldier in Italy when she died.
  • Brother Paulinus Shiels, native of Mountnorris, Co. Armagh; aged 21 years; died 27th Oct.
  • Brother John Kearney, Headmaster of Saint Joseph’s Secondary School, then housed in the Marine; died 29th October, native of Ballyporeen, aged 41.

“Both tutors”, reported the ‘Wicklow Newsletter’, “endeared themselves to their pupils, and in a special manner Brother John had won popularity, and took an active part in the progress of the town, particularly in Gaelic League circles. . . . The sad event cast a gloom over the town. . . “

The Brothers remember with gratitude the late Mrs. Dunne (née Cuffe) who nursed their dying confreres, as also the late Messrs. Eddie Kavanagh, Paddy Brennan, Jack Barlow and Jim Nichols, who took turns in watching by their sick beds. The third member of the small community, Brother Albert Walsh, recovered.

  • Mr. Alexander Byrne, Milltown, the Relieving Officer for the area, died 1st November.
  • Privates Peacock and Ellis of the Royal Sussex Regiment, then stationed in the town. Both died in the Infirmary on 4th Nov. and were interred in England.
  • Ethne Frances Byrne, aged 7 months, The Wicklow Hotel.
  • Mrs. Keddy, the Murrough, whose husband worked in the Wicklow Manure Works. She left seven young children.
  • Mrs. Hall (née Manley), Barndarrig, died at her mother-in-law’s residence, Ballinabarney.
  • William Dunne, butcher, Kilmantin Hill, Wicklow. He left three young children. He died in the V.A.D. Hospital.
  • George James Symes, Hawkstown; aged 17 years. John Stringer, Castle Street.
  • William Moody, Summerhill, who had lately joined the British Army. He died in a training barracks in Essex soon after his arrival there.
  • James de Courcey, Jnr, aged 28, the U.D.C. waterworks overseer. He left a widow and one child. His father succeeded him as waterworks overseer.
  • William Olahan, Fitzwilliam Row, whose son-in-law, Patrick Flood, and grandchild had predeceased him. Early in 1918 he had retired as postman of the Wicklow, Killoughter and Ashford route after forty-four years service. He had been awarded the King’s Medal for long and meritorious service.
  • James Sinnott who had fought in the Boer War. He became Drill Instructor to the Wicklow Volunteers on their formation. He died in the V.A.D. Hospital.
  • James O’Brien, Market Square.
  • A child called Ronan.
  • Mrs. Nolan.

Three persons died in 1919:

  • Dora Stephens, the Murrough, died 25th‘ February, 1919.
  • A boy called Kavanagh, Rathnew.
  • James Hamilton, Ashford, gardener at Ballycurry; died 4th April.

Solas na bhFlaitheas dóibh.


Mr. Joe Hayes, County Librarian, and Miss Joan Kavanagh, Wicklow Heritage, for making the minutes of the Rathdrum Poor Law Guardians available to me.

Mr. Michael Butler, F.A.O.I., for access to his father’s Prescription Book.

Mrs. Rita McAuley, Principal, St. Patrick’s School, for giving me access to the Roll Book of 1918-19.

The De La Salle Brothers for use of archive material.


Did you know that according to Borough Council records you could purchase a good horse for less than £2 in 1725.

Recorded in the Minutes of the Council is the fact that:-

“James McCabe soldier in Capt. Balfour’s Company of Colonel Newton’s Regiment sold this day (April 5th 1725) to James Lions of Barron Bawn, one little bay horse with a switch tale and a star on his forehead, eight years old for one pound and thirteen shillings (£1.65)”.

How much was Shergar worth ?? It must be inflation!!

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