Over the course of 52 months, the First World War killed around 16 million people. In twelve months, the 1918/1919 influenza pandemic killed at least 50 million, and possibly twice that number. It was the greatest medical holocaust in history, destroying more lives in 24 weeks than AIDS in 24 years, and more in a year than the Black Death killed in a century.
Why does it not loom larger in our historical awareness? One reason is official suppression of its scale. Although the earliest known outbreaks were among US troops in Kansas and near Étaples on the Western Front, wartime censorship blocked reports of the pandemic in the countries at war. Because Spain was neutral, the pandemic’s effects could be freely reported. As populations sickened and died, they heard more about the effects in Spain than in their own countries. Hence “Spanish Flu”.
In Ireland, it came in three waves. The first recorded outbreak was on the troop carrier the USS Dixie off Cobh in May. That early wave was relatively mild – those who survived acquired immunity to the two later waves. The most lethal of these came in November 1918, just as the War ended, and a last, less deadly wave arrived in spring 1919.
What does any of this have to do with genealogy? One of the great successes of recent genealogy in Ireland has been to recover, family by family, the suppressed histories of the Irishmen who fought in the First World War. Perhaps something similar needs to be done for those who died in the Spanish Flu.
The tools are already at our fingertips and perfectly adapted. The civil death records on IrishGenealogy provide detailed causes of death, day by day, district by district, and can be minutely examined using the site’s “more search options“.
An example of what can be done by a local historian is Dermot Balson’s brilliant work on Kilkeel in Down. His two charts, based on these death records, show just how brutally the flu impacted on the area between October 1918 and March 1919, and how young adults died disproportionately.
A single page from the death registers of Athlone No. 1 district between December 12 and 19 1918 shows why a genealogist might also be interested. Out of the ten deaths listed, nine are influenza related. And the second last is the death of my grandfather’s first wife at the age of 30. He remarried two years later, to my grandmother.