Spanish Influenza

Vol. 10 No. 3 - 2017

Spanish Influenza

in Lurgan and Portadown

by Patricia Marsh

Nearly a century ago, the last six months of the First World War coincided with one of the most virulent pandemics of the twentieth century. It was dubbed the ‘Flanders’ grippe’ by English soldiers, ‘Blitzkatarrh’ by the Germans and ‘The Naples Soldier’ by Spaniards, however the name it became commonly known as was the ‘Spanish Influenza’.1

I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza,
I opened the window,
And in-flu-enza.
Children’s Rhyme, 1918

It struck in three concurrent waves throughout the world and although the exact mortality figures are unknown it was responsible for the deaths of more people than the First World War.2 At least 20,000 died from influenza in Ireland and as many as 800,000 people may have been infected during the three distinct waves of the disease, which occurred in summer 1918, autumn/winter 1918 and spring 1919.3 The severity of the disease was vocalised by the Registrar-General for Ireland, Sir William Thompson in 1920 who stated: ‘Since the period of the Great Famine, with its awful attendant horrors of fever and cholera, no disease of any epidemic nature created so much havoc in any one year in Ireland as influenza’.4

Alarmist newspaper headlines

A survivor of the 1918 pandemic, Molly Deery from Lifford, Donegal recollected in 2003 that influenza: "hit very hard and the people were very fearful and frightened of it," "You see the people had no idea what caused it.” But she recalled that "It was a terrible, terrible flu though, and people were told to keep to one side of the road if someone in a house had it.'5 As these recollections show, there was a great fear and anxiety associated with influenza, which was not helped by alarmist newspaper headlines such as ‘Mysterious Maladies’ and ‘Strange malady in Spain'.6 Indeed it was Spain’s neutrality during the war that led to the misnomer Spanish Influenza. Due to the lack of wartime censorship in Spain, incidents of influenza in that country were published in the worldwide press giving the mistaken impression that the pandemic originated there.7 It is most unlikely that the pandemic started in Spain. The most popular theory is that it originated in US military training camp, Camp Funston in Kansas in March 1918 and may have spread from there to the western front with the mobilisation of the American troops.8

Not surprisingly Lurgan and Portadown were not immune to this devastating pandemic. It has been suggested that the first wave of the influenza in Ireland was principally in Belfast and other districts of the north of Ireland.9 The first incidences of influenza in Lurgan occurred during mid June 1918 and by the end of the month it was epidemic in both Lurgan and Portadown and most Lurgan districts were affected. Lurgan businesses were disrupted with hundreds of workers from the 22 factories in the town off sick and five or six influenza deaths were reported by 1 July. Local doctor, Michael Deeney J.P. contracted the ‘flu because he had been visiting and treating patients with the disease in the previous weeks. According to the Irish News of 9 July 1918 the Lurgan parish priest, Rev. P. McEvoy announced at Mass that there was a great amount of sickness in the town’ with upwards of 300 people ill with influenza some of them very serious cases.10

It was a similar story in Portadown, where the disease was rife in the town and district, one or two deaths had occurred and over 100 workers in the town’s factories were off with influenza. Local newspaper, the Portadown Express, reported that influenza had ‘been the cause of diminishing its otherwise smooth running business machinery.’ On 1 July 1918 Dr Samuel Agnew, Medical Officer of Health (MOH) for Lurgan, reported that there had been an acute outbreak of influenza during the previous fortnight which ‘prostrated vast numbers of the ‘working classes’’. He described the symptoms as: ‘intense headache, high fever and great prostration which subsided in a few days.’ He advised that influenza was infectious, conveyed from person to person in the same household but that it was not carried through the air.11

Lurgan Workhouse

The workhouse infirmary situated in the Lurgan workhouse was the main medical institution for the care of influenza sufferers in the Lurgan Union District at the time. Influenza put the union infirmary under great strain and it had not been so full for over 30 years. During this first wave it was filled to capacity with both males and females suffering from influenza. The local dispensaries were also under pressure and there were complaints from Dr Agnew, Dr Duff and Dr Rowlett about the great delay in obtaining medicine supplies for use in Lurgan, Aghalee and Portadown dispensaries respectively. Dr Rowlett was forced to turn away 40 patients from the Portadown dispensary and he threatened to close the same as he lacked the medicines to treat the large number of influenza sufferers. Because of this, the Lurgan guardians gave Dr Rowlett permission to purchase the requisite medicines while they sorted out sufficient supplies with official contractors.12 Influenza continued and many of the 63 deaths that occurred during July were attributable to the disease, with 31 'flu deaths reported in the town area since the middle of June. According to the Lurgan Mail of 10 August 1918 the number of deaths in Lurgan was absolutely astounding, considering the very brief duration of the disease, and it highlighted ‘the cumulative dangers in periods of epidemic to which populous industrial centres must always be liable.’ At the end of August, Dr Agnew reported: ‘The short but severe epidemic of influenza which caused such disastrous results during the previous months subsided as quickly as it sprang up.’13

Unfortunately this was not the end of influenza in Lurgan and Portadown. On 26 October 1918 the beginning of the second outbreak was reported in the Lurgan Mail: ‘The influenza scourge has returned to Lurgan and the epidemic seems to be an even more virulent type than on the occasion of the last visitation.’ At the beginning of November 1918 there were reports of between 500 and 600 influenza sufferers in Lurgan and that many deaths had occurred during the previous week. Dr Agnew admitted he was unaware of exactly how many people had contracted influenza as few had visited a doctor, but he was surprised to hear that there were up to 600 sufferers. It was his opinion that there were no more than 30 serious cases in Lurgan. He dismissed suggestions that this outbreak was more virulent than the previous one. In fact he thought the influenza cases were not as severe as in the June outbreak and that only a few people had developed fatal complications, but the occurrence of three deaths in one family had given rise to exaggerated rumours and reports. He was referring to the tragic deaths of three members of the Dyne family that had occurred within days of each other. Mrs Bridget Dynes of Brownlow Terrace died on Saturday 19 October 1918, aged 58, her daughter Lizzie died on Monday 21 October 1918 aged 25 and her son Arthur died on Wednesday 23 October aged 22. There were many similar tragedies throughout the country during this outbreak. During October, James McArdle, a Newry merchant, lost three of his children—Margaret, aged 20; Peter, aged 16, and James, aged 22—to influenza within a few days of each other while the remaining family members were also suffering from the disease. At Christmas 1918, five children from the Ringland family in Crossgar, Co Down died from influenza. David aged 16 died on 21 December, his sister Maggie aged 6 on 22 December, his brothers John aged 19 and James aged 3 on Christmas Day and St Stephen’s Day respectively and his sister Jenny aged 17 on 29 December.14

These deaths bear witness not only to the human devastation caused to families and communities by influenza but also to one of the global peculiarities of the pandemic. Normally influenza kills only the very young or the very old but the 1918-19 pandemic showed an unusual age distribution of deaths as it targeted young adults in particular. The Registrar-General noted in 1918 that 55.5 percent of all influenza deaths in Ireland were of people aged between 15 and 45, while in 1919 he reported that more than 58 percent of the total influenza mortality was between the ages of 20 and 65. During the 1918-19 pandemic it was those aged 25 to 35 in Ireland who suffered the highest mortality of any age group.15

Back in Lurgan, Dr Agnew’s advice to the public was: isolation of patients as far as practicable; avoid contact with influenza sufferers during the infective period and free ventilation in the sick room and elsewhere throughout the house. Although he recommended the use of quinine pills and other advertised preventives, he thought the best preventive was to keep the body in good health, avoid all unnecessary exposure to the disease and to keep clear of crowded and sick places that did not permit free ventilation.16 Then as now there was no effective treatment, cure or vaccine for influenza. Bewildered, doctors recommended and used a wide variety of treatments to no avail. So it came as no surprise that people turned to over the counter patent medicines in a desperate attempt to cure the disease, while businesses were quick to cash in on this desperation if possible. Alcohol was widely endorsed as a prophylactic, therefore, medicated wines and tonics such as Hall’s Wines claimed not only to act as a restorative for whatever ailed you but also as a restorative after influenza. Pharmacists such as G. Holmes and Sons, who had premises in Belfast, Lurgan and Portadown, promoted their businesses with their own patent medicine, ‘Anti-Flu’ described as a ‘Sure Cure for Influenza.’17

Bovril rations increased

Oxo and Bovril, probably best known today for gravy were popular beef teas of the day. Oxo declared that it ‘fortifies the system against influenza infection,18 while Bovril claimed that it had ‘Body-building powers that were 10 to 20 times the taken amount.’ Bovril was so highly sought after that during December 1918 a series of advertisements apologised for shortages of the product during the influenza outbreak.19 Bovril was considered a very important form of nourishment during the epidemic. So much so that during November 1918 the Belfast Guardians increased the nurses’ Bovril rations by one quarter of an ounce per day to boost their diet to help them cope with their increased workload.20 Belfast tobacco firm, Gallahers recommended High Toast Snuff ‘To prevent influenza or colds in the head’.21 This claim may not be as far-fetched as it seems, as one of the popular recommendations to avoid influenza was ‘Make yourself sneeze night and morning.’ However, despite this multitude of so-called cures the only practical aid that could be given to an influenza patient was to nurse them while they were ill. Also because of the way influenza incapacitated many members in a household, public aid with food, fuel and nursing during the influenza outbreaks was a practical way in which to aid recovery.

Back in Lurgan and Portadown the cinemas were considered a source of danger. Those in Lurgan were well disinfected periodically and in Portadown, Dr Rowlett recommended that the council close the children’s matinee performance held every Saturday. The Portadown council made enquiries to the Local Government Board in Ireland (LGBI) regarding the compulsory closure of cinemas in order to stop the spread of the disease. There was no confirmation as to what the LGBI’s decision was, but it was likely that the Portadown cinemas were not forced to close as compulsory closure of these institutions was not approved in any part of the United Kingdom.22 All Lurgan and Portadown schools were closed as a preventative measure against influenza during early November 1918 and those in Portadown were not opened until 6 January 1919. The Portadown town council also recommended the thorough disinfection of factories and places of amusement where crowds of people congregated and that the public should observe strict cleanliness and thoroughly ventilate their dwellings.23

Flu spreads to rural areas

Although influenza had abated in Lurgan town by 23 November 1918 it had spread into the rural districts of Moira, Maralin, Aghalee, Waringstown and many districts in the Armagh side adjoining the town. Medical personnel were particularly vulnerable and during November 1918 eight nurses working in the Lurgan workhouse infirmary contracted influenza with the tragic death occurring of Nurse Louisa Curran. Illness among the nurses caused staff shortages so three young probationary nurses were employed to help out in the infirmary. Unfortunately one of these girls, Miss Kathleen McStravick, contracted influenza and subsequently died from the complication, pneumonia. The Master and the porter of Lurgan workhouse both contracted influenza, as well as the caretaker of the Lurgan Number 1 Dispensary and Dr Duff, the Aghalee Dispensary doctor. Businesses found it difficult to continue trading as a large number of local shop assistants were suffering from influenza, as were 38 employees in a Lurgan factory. The disease continued throughout November and despite 12 deaths during December 1918 there was a very marked reduction in the number of cases in the latter half of the month.24

Although the ‘flu had declined by the end of December 1918, unfortunately that was not the end of it in the district. A third wave of the disease occurred in Lurgan in the spring of 1919 when a number of influenza cases occurred during a severe outbreak of catarrhal colds. According to Dr Agnew it appeared to affect those who escaped the first and second wave and although there had been fatal pneumonia complications in six cases, it was not as infectious as the previous two outbreaks in 1918. The Lurgan Mail of 1 March 1919 reported that there had been much uneasiness in many households due to the increased prevalence of influenza. Although the symptoms were the same as those of the previous outbreaks, pneumonia was a common complication. Local doctors were under pressure and doing their best to keep infected persons isolated, however there had been three influenza deaths in Edward Street and a girl named Lavery from Kilmaine Street had also died. Again the nurses in the workhouse infirmary were in a vulnerable position. Four contracted the disease but all thankfully recovered.25

It was probably a good time for the criminal fraternity in Lurgan as four or five police constables, District-Inspector Ryan and Head Constable Callaghan from the Church Place Police Barracks had contracted influenza but fortunately they all recovered. Influenza spread to the country districts and there were several cases in Soldierstown and Aghalee, however the Montaighs district was the most severely affected by the disease. During the last week in February 1919, two adults, a brother and sister named McStravick from Derrytagh South died from influenza and were interred in Derrytrasna graveyard, and another brother and sister named Callaghan in the Ballynary district also died from the disease. The Derrymacash National School was closed due to the prevalence of influenza, and here, as elsewhere, many of the residents who had not contracted the disease were suffering from bad colds.26

On 28 February 1919, the Portadown Express reported that there were a large number of influenza cases in Portadown and a few deaths had occurred. By 14 March 1919, according to the same newspaper, there were still a number of cases in the town, which were of a milder nature than those of the previous wave. Nevertheless, Portadown schools were closed during March 1919 as a precautionary measure against the disease. The Lurgan Mail reported on 22 March 1919 that there were still cases in Lurgan and that within the last few days, a girl in Arthur Street died from pneumonia, following influenza.

The disease was widespread in the country districts around Lurgan, particularly Aghalee and Aghagallon and was accompanied by the usual complications of pneumonia and severe bronchitis. Sergeant Beatty and Constable Sullivan from Derryadd RIC, had been sick for some weeks with influenza but were both progressing favourably. However, it was the local doctor’s opinion that the epidemic was rapidly dying out.27 Influenza finally disappeared from the Lurgan and Portadown district by the end of April 1919 and Dr Agnew announced in his May 1919 report: ‘I am glad to say that the influenza epidemic is now completely over in this district and I hope that it will be long before there is any return of influenza or other serious infectious disease in an epidemic form.’28

Third highest death rate

Although the severity of the epidemic was occasionally played down by Dr Agnew, during 1918, the Lurgan Union district had the third highest death rate from influenza in Ulster. There were 224 influenza deaths recorded in the Lurgan Union district in 1918 and in 1919 there were 114. The death rate was approximately 4.18 per 1,000 of population for 1918 and 2.13 per 1,000 of population for 1919.29 These mortality figures show the severity of the disease in the Lurgan area. Like other towns throughout Ireland, influenza sufferers in Lurgan and Portadown depended on the poor law system as their main port of call for medical help. Unfortunately institutions such as the workhouse infirmary were overstretched due to the number of patients, as well as sickness among the nursing staff. Dispensaries were short of medicines for patients and dispensary doctors were also off due to illness.

Some towns such as Cookstown, Newry and Clones opened up public subscription lists, set up soup kitchens, provided volunteer nurses and made provision to feed not only the local poor, but those unable to look after themselves or their families, with nourishing food. There was no evidence that similar provisions were made in either Lurgan or Portadown. During this period, life was much more tenuous and Lurgan, like many other towns in Ireland was rife with epidemic disease. Life expectancy in Ulster was only 52 years of age, and although influenza claimed many lives throughout Ireland, so too did other diseases such as Tuberculosis.30 In fact, the influenza outbreak in summer 1918 was the third epidemic that had occurred so far in Lurgan that year. There had been a measles epidemic at the beginning of the year which had resulted in one death, followed in May 1918 by whooping cough which caused the deaths of 16 children.31 Epidemic diseases were taken as part of everyday life and death and it appears that people just got on as best they could under the circumstances.

  1. Pete Davies, Catching cold: 1918's forgotten tragedy and the scientific hunt for the virus that caused it (London, 1999), p. 58.
  2. Howard Phillips and David Killingray, ‘Introduction’ in Howard Phillips and David Killingray (eds.) Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918-1919: new perspectives (London, 2003), pp 3-4.
  3. Annual report of the Local Government Board for Ireland for year ended 31 March 1919, [Cmd 1432], H. C. 1920, xxi, 1, p. xxxvii.
  4. William J. Thompson, ‘Mortality from influenza in Ireland’ Dublin Journal of Medical Sciences 4th Series 1 (1920), p. 174
  5. The People, 11 May 2003
  6. The Irish Times, 31 May 1918, The Ulster Herald, 1 Jun 1918
  7. Davies, Catching Cold, p. 59;
  8. John M. Barry, The great influenza: The epic story of the deadliest plague in history (New York, 2004), pp. 92-3.
  9. Annual report of the Local Government Board for Ireland for year ended 31 March 1919, p. xxxvii.
  10. P.R.O.N.I., Report of the Medical Officer of Health for Lurgan, 1Jul. 1918, Irish Times, 1 Jul. 1918; Armagh Guardian, 5 Jul. 1918 and 28 Jun. 1918; Belfast News-Letter, 2 Jul. 1918, Lurgan Mail, 29 Jun. 1918, Irish News, 1 Jul. 1918 and 9 Jul. 1918.
  11. P.R.O.N.I., Report of the Medical Officer of Health for Lurgan, 1 Jul. 1918; Irish News, 5 Jul. 1918; Portadown Express, 5 Jul. 1918, Lurgan Mail, 6 Jul. 1918.
  12. Belfast News-Letter, 20 Jul. 1918, Armagh Guardian, 26 Jul. 1918.
  13. P.R.O.N.I., Report of the Medical Officer of Health for Lurgan, 5 Aug. 1918 and 31 Aug. 1918; Lurgan Mail, 10 Aug. 1918.
  14. P.R.O.N.I., Report of the Medical Officer of Health for Lurgan, 1 Nov. 1918, Lurgan Mail, 26 Oct. 1918 and 9 Nov. 1918, Irish Independent, 28 Oct 1918 and 4 Nov 1918; Irish News, 4 Nov 1918, Belfast News-Letter, 26 Oct 1918 and 28 Oct 1918, Newry Reporter, 29 Oct 1918, County Down Spectator, 2 Nov 1918, Ulster Guardian, 4 Jan 1919.
  15. Thompson, ‘Mortality from influenza in Ireland’, p. 183, Mortality figures calculated from Registrar-General (Ireland) annual reports for 1918 and 1919.
  16. P.R.O.N.I., Report of the Medical Officer of Health for Lurgan, 1 Nov. 1918.
  17. Irish Independent, 3 July 1918, Lurgan Mail, 21 Dec. 1918, Portadown Express, 6 Dec. 1918
  18. Belfast News-Letter, 1 Nov 1918 and 5 Nov. 1918; Irish Independent, 2, 6, 20, 29 Nov. 1918.
  19. Irish Independent, 4, 13, 23 Dec. 1918.
  20. P.R.O.N.I., Belfast Board of Guardians meeting, 19 Nov. 1918.
  21. Belfast News-Letter, 25 Jun 1918 and Belfast Telegraph, 30 Nov 1918.
  22. P.R.O.N.I., Monthly meeting of Portadown Borough Council, 4 Nov. 1918 and 2 Dec.1918; Belfast Corporation, Minutes of the Public Health Committee, 3 Dec 1918; and Annual report of the Local Government Board for Ireland for year ended 31 March 1919, p. xxxviii; Lurgan Mail, 9 Nov. 1918.
  23. P.R.O.N.I., Lurgan Medical Officer of Health Report, 1 Nov. 1918; Lurgan Mail, 9 Nov. 1918; Irish News, 8 Nov. 1918, and 11 Nov. 1918, Portadown Express, 1 Nov. 1918 and 6 Dec. 1918; Portadown News, 2 Nov. 1918.
  24. P.R.O.N.I., Minutes of Lurgan Board of Guardian Meeting, 21 Nov. 1918 and 5 Dec. 1918; Belfast News-Letter, 23 Nov. 1918 and 7 Dec. 1918; Irish News, 11 Nov. 1918 and 23 Nov. 1918; Lurgan Mail, 23 Nov. 1918 and 30 Nov. 1918.
  25. P.R.O.N.I., Report of the Medical Officer of Health for Lurgan, 1 Mar 1919 and Lurgan Mail, 1 Mar. 1919
  26. Ulster Guardian, 1 Mar. 1919 and Lurgan Mail, 1 Mar. 1919 and 8 Mar. 1919.
  27. Portadown Express, 28 Feb 1919 and 14 Mar 1919, Lurgan Mail, 22 Mar. 1919.
  28. P.R.O.N.I., Report of the Medical Officer of Health for Lurgan, 1 May 1919
  29. Patricia Marsh, ‘The effect of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic on Ulster’ (PhD dissertation, Queen’s University Belfast, 2010), pp 108-113.
  30. Henrietta Campbell, ‘Public health – a bond between a government and its people’ The Ulster Medical Journal, 72:1(May 2003),p. 5
  31. Lurgan Mail, 11 Jan. 1919.