Saturday, March 8, 2014

Sudden death in Bow Bridge: The Flu Pandemic in Ireland

When I viewed the theme for today's Sepia Saturday post, I was reminded of a discovery made when I expanded my search for information about my paternal great-grandparents Patrick Geraghty and Margaret Toole Geraghty, and their children. In the course of my research, not only did I look for information about them, but I also looked at what was going on in the neighbourhood in which they lived, in their own backyard, so to speak. 'Contextualizing our ancestors' within the place and time in which they lived, may give us a more well rounded idea of what life was like for them.


In the course of searching through newspapers, I came across an In Memoriam notice which sparked my curiosity.  In truth, it was more than a spark, but rather like something akin to a fire.  The notice memorializes Elizabeth Cassidy and her son Thomas. Their deaths occurred within two days of one another, in the home of the Cassidy family, a family who were near neighbours of my paternal great-grandparents.

With a little more searching I found an obituary for one of the victims to whom the memorial notice referred. Oddly enough, the obituary is only for Thomas and mentions his mother as "the late Elizabeth Cassidy". I found it curious that there was no obituary notice published for Elizabeth, so I continued to search.

By 1919, my great-grandfather Patrick Geraghty was a 'car' proprietor (car meaning fly carriage, funeral cortege, barouche, and hansom cab.). His family and his business were both housed in the building at #6.5 Bow Bridge, in close proximity to their neighbours. Right next door, at #7, lived the family of Mr. John Cassidy, a dairyman. Just like Patrick Geraghty, John Cassidy had his family and his business in the same building.

The sudden deaths at home of two of the Geraghty family's close neighbours had my mind racing about what had happened on Bow Bridge on those two days. Was it murder that felled Elizabeth and her son Thomas Cassidy, or did they perish because of a house fire? Was there some sort of terrible accident? The answer to their end was much more shocking than any of these. Elizabeth and Thomas succumbed to the 20th century plague which was the Influenza Pandemic.

After finding these newspaper notices, along with a number of memorials published in the years following their deaths, I retrieved the civil registration death records of Elizabeth and Thomas Cassidy from the General Register Office reading room in Dublin. The records make clear the facts of the matter.

6 March 1919, Elizabeth Cassidy, aged 54 years: cause of death: Myxoedema Influenza Certified.

8 March 1919, Thomas Cassidy, aged 29 years: cause of death: Influenza Septic Pneumonia Certified.
Toward the end of the Great War of 1914-1918, with the onset of the Influenza Pandemic, relief over the end of the war changed once again to despair for many families, not only across Europe, but around the world. Commonly called the Spanish Flu, because it was thought to have had its greatest impact in Spain, it spread across the globe with alarming speed, killing as many as 50 million people worldwide. Although many in Spain died as a result of this flu, the moniker 'Spanish Flu' was likely the result of the fact that there was no newspaper censorship in Spain in the period. Without censorship, reportage about the numbers of those who succumbed to influenza was quick and thorough; therefore, initially Spain was thought to have been the country of origin [1].

Fear made face masks an accessory.
Ireland had already lost almost half of its population to famine deaths and emigration, during the period of the Great Famine of 1845-1852. The prospect of a flu pandemic must have been terrifying, although with little coverage of it in the Irish news of the day, the average citizen may not have been fully aware of the true extent of the pandemic until after all was 'said and done'.  Still in all, whispers of  a fatal illness would have spread just as quickly as a pandemic.

According to annual reports of the Registrar General for Ireland, the official death toll from influenza during this pandemic was 20,057; however, other sources say it is likely to have been closer to just over 23,000. With the population of Ireland around 4.3 million in 1918, this means that at least one in every 200 persons was felled by influenza, during a period of just over one year.

This type of influenza was remarkable for a number of reasons, not the least of which was its impact on young, otherwise healthy, individuals. Without effective treatment, it was a difficult disease to manage, and unlike previous flu outbreaks, this one brought with it sudden savage changes. An individual might seem as though he or she was recovering, only to suddenly die. While flu might at first seem like a cold, with sneezing and coughing, the onset of Spanish Flu was marked by sudden weakness and pain. Most deaths would occur on or about the tenth day of sickness, with pneumonia as the principal complication, and often the attributed cause of death. The manner of death was also quite horrific.

In 1919, the progression of this influenza was described in graphic detail in a medical journal article. Persons suffering 'typical' cases of flu during the pandemic would cough up quantities of blood-stained expectorant or sometimes thick dark blood alone. With the progression of the disease, the lungs of patients would fill with blood, their faces and fingers would become bloated and blue, and their tongues would become dry and brown. In fatal cases, active delirium would come on, with myxoedemic madness — psychosis and hallucinations — sometimes resulting. As a patient's body temperature rapidly fell the whole surface of his/her body would turn blue. Patients literally drowned in their own blood. It must have been an awful sight to behold.

Of course, one can only imagine what the reaction of the Geraghty family might have been at the deaths of their neighbours, but it is easy to think the sudden nature and manner of these deaths might have been met with shock, and some level of fear. I find myself wondering to what extent these deaths affected the Geraghty family. Although all of the Geraghty children survived to adulthood, was anyone in the family ill with the flu at this time? Did the Geraghty family assist or ignore their near neighbours? Did Mr. Geraghty's car proprietorship provide the funeral cortege which took Elizabeth and Thomas Cassidy 'by road' to the New Cemetery, Naas, County Kildare for interment?

As an addendum to this story, it is interesting to note oddities in the memorial notices published in the years following the deaths of Elizabeth and Thomas. While the year of death is correct in the 1920 first anniversary memorial, in a 1922 notice only Elizabeth's death is memorialized, and her year of death is incorrectly noted as 1920 instead of 1919. In 1923, there were two memorials placed in The Freeman's Journal, one in March which gives the correct dates of the deaths as 6 March 1919 and 8 March 1919 respectively, and one in May which again acknowledges only Elizabeth's death and gives her date of death as 6 May 1920. In a 1924 notice in The Irish Independent newspaper, the year of death given for both Elizabeth and Thomas is 1918. Perhaps the errors in those notices were accidental or perhaps whoever placed those inaccurate notices wanted to forever erase any connection between the flu pandemic and the deaths of Elizabeth and Thomas Cassidy.

References and Note:

Civil registration records:
Cassidy, Elizabeth. Jan-Mar 1919, volume 2, page 763. GRO Research Room, Dublin, Ireland.
Cassidy, Thomas. Jan-Mar 1919, volume 2, page 763. GRO Research Room, Dublin, Ireland.

1918 Annual Report of the Registrar General For Ireland, released in 1919.
Annual report of the Local Government Board for Ireland for year ended 31 March 1919, 1920.
Canadian Medical Association Journal. 1919 May, Volume 9, number 5, pp. 421–426.
The Freeman's Journal Newspaper via the Irish Newspaper Archives, March 1919-1924.
Irish Independent Newspaper via the Irish Newspaper Archives, March 1919-1924.

Foley, Catriona. The Last Irish Plague: The Great Flu Epidemic in Ireland 1918-19, Irish Academic Press, 2011.
Taubenberger Jeffrey K., Morens, D.M. 1918 influenza: The Mother of all Pandemics. CDC Emerg. Infect. Dis. [serial on the Internet]. January, 2006. http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/12/1/05-0979_article.htm
Thompson, William J. ‘Mortality from influenza in Ireland’ Dublin Journal of Medical Sciences 4th Series #1, 1920, pp. 174
-77.

Image source: http://www.pinterest.com/source/carolathhabsburg.tumblr.com/

Note: [1] Current scholarship supports the theory that the point of origin for the Spanish Flu was most likely China. See this link for a brief synopsis of the work of Dr. Mark Humphries of Memorial University, Newfoundland.

[This post originally appeared in January of 2013]
©irisheyesjg2014.

26 comments:

  1. Some excellent research and information. I can't say that I have thought about researching neighbours. Very Interesting. Thank you.

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    1. Thanks for your comments Sharon; they are much appreciated. I always find it interesting to snoop around the neighbourhood a bit.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  2. Another interesting post. It must have been a very scary time with the war and all. love the pic of the women.

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    1. Thanks for your comments Charlotte. It must have been a scary time indeed, made more so by a lack of information.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  3. Very interesting post. Researching genealogy is always a rewarding task. Scary time indeed!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comments 'anyjazz'. Family History/Genealogy is indeed a rewarding task.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  4. All I can say is - thank heaven for flu vaccines now-a-days as people are still dying from flu epidemics!

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    1. Amen La Nightingail! If only everyone had access to flu vaccines. Some day...

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  5. I knew that a lot of people died in that flu epidemic, but I never knew the graphic details about how they died.

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    1. The way in which people died in the pandemic was indeed horrific. My mother told me that when she was little child in the 1940s, her grand-aunt Alice (1861-1952) used to tell stories about the time of the pandemic. Alice believed the manner in which the people died during the pandemic was a sign of one of the plagues mentioned in the Book of Revelations in the Bible, and she used to tell the children they had to behave because the end of the world was coming. Certainly not a very cheery thought.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  6. That is an amazing photo of the ladies walking, as the lady on our left in the lighter clothes, clearly you can see the fear in your eyes!

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    1. I was really struck by the look in her eyes too Karen. It must have been a very frightening time, made more so by the lack of information and understanding about what they were facing, and how they might protect themselves from it.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  7. Grim facts about the flu epidemic, and a wonderful photograph of the women in their masks. We just have to hope that scientists succeed in discovering new vaccines to keep the resistant bacteria and bugs at bay, so that this kind of world-wide horror doesn't strike again.

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    1. Very grim facts, indeed. Initially I worried over including the photo of the women, but I think it drives home the feelings of fear at the time. Hopefully, as you say, scientists will be able to create vaccines to keep resistant bugs and bacteria at bay. Sometimes I do wonder...

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  8. The photo of thw two young women with face masks reminds me of the shots one sees of people in urban China wearing masks for the smog.

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    1. Yes, Brett, it reminds me of the same. Thankfully we've not such smog here, but I do often see cyclists wearing them when riding in the city centre.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  9. Jennifer, very interesting post. The photo is great! I dinna realize that they wore masks as prevention in WWI era. I know that in the little town in which I live, masks are often seen during cold and flu season. Not sure how I feel about that -- guess each to their own.

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    1. Thanks Joan. I really like the photo too. As I said to Brett I often see people with masks on bicycles, avoiding vehicle exhaust. A few years ago when SARS was on the forefront, you would see many people wearing them, especially at the city centre. I guess it made them feel safer.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  10. There were a lot of Australian soldiers who survived four years of WWI only to be struck down and die from influenza before they could get home. The poor families waiting and having word that their boy was coming home, only to hear the news of his death to flu.

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    1. Such a terrible thing to think about isn't it Jackie? I can't imagine facing the loss of a child who had made it through the war, but then was felled by the flu. You have to wonder how the family members were able to endure.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  11. Thank you. A very interesting post. I watched a programme recently about the flu epidemic and it truly was frightening. People think of it as something that affects frail and elderly people but the reality was that one got the fit and healthy!

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    1. Thank you Lovely. The fact that this pandemic struck the young is one of the remarkable things about it. A friend of mind who is biologist has said he thinks the change in morbidity patterns with this pandemic is one of the things which has some scientists believing it was an early form of germ warfare. Now, there's a cheery thought.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  12. A very good pickup on the plague element of this weekend's Sepia theme. Your description of the Great Influenza and the deaths was a reminder about the challenges of researching families over the years of this terrible global tragedy. I don't know think any country escaped the affects.

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    1. Thanks Mike. Research for this time period can be a challenge, given that fear and beliefs — religious and otherwise — changed some family stories down through time.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  13. That was most interesting, particularly the photo of ladies with face masks. Face masks are in great use at the moment in Morwell in the Latrobe Valley of Victoria as on February 9th a grass fire got out of control and got into the open cut coal mine.. Four weeks later it has just become officially under control but the smoke over the town from the burning coal has been causing lots of health problems. So some time in the future Sepians might use photos of the people of Morwell in their face masks.

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    1. Thanks 'boundforoz'. Hope all works out well for those in Morwell! Very unpleasant. It's interesting to consider how future Sepians might use such photos.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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Cheers, Jennifer

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