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Spanish Flu

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Throughout 2021, we will be adding material on the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. In the meantime, we signpost to the following.

In 'Catching Stories'

'They got that awful black flu': Mary Morgan tells of how both of her parents contracted 'Spanish Flu' in 1918.

Content log of this extract (the item is available here): my father and mother got married in February 1918 – comfortable because of the war, as farmers could prosper – ‘they got that awful black flu’ – baby born early – ‘people wouldn’t even come into the house to help, they were so terrified of it, it was so contagious’ – both recovered – two neighbouring brothers died – parents died in their ‘50s

A card of remembrance for two brothers who died within a few weeks of each other illustrate the devastating effects of the pandemic: The loss of Teddie and Charlie O'Shea of College Road

Our 'Chronicles of COVID-19' questionnaire sparked intergenerational memories of the 'Spanish Flu', which we share here: Intergeneration memory sparked by COVID-19

Quick description

The Influenza pandemic of 1918 infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide and killed between 20-50 million between 1918 and 1919. It was caused by an H1N1 strain of the influenza virus of avian origin.  Similar to what we now see with SARS-CoV2, it seems that this highly transmissible strain of influenza likely caused a severe ‘cytokine storm’ in infected people, such that they experienced an overwhelming immune response leading to severe illness and death.


Other resources

The Spanish Flu is well represented in the National Folklore Collection Schools' Collection, available and searchable at duchas.ie. Currently a search for 'flu' turns up 22 stories entitled variously 'The Great Flu', 'Flu 1918', 'The Flu Epidemic', 'The Black Flu of Spring 1918', and just two stories with 'flu' in the title that do not refer to the years 1918-19. In addition to that, 229 transcripts mention the flu, and many of these involve local accounts of the Great Flu, including accounts of named individuals and families who were affected.

Published works

Historian and oral historian Ida Milne has carried out extensive research on the Spanish Flu in Ireland, and in her book Stacking the Coffins she discusses the epidemic in Ireland in the context of war and rebellion, and also presents oral testimony from survivors of the disease and of the period. 

Milne, Ida (2018) Stacking the Coffins: Influenza, War and Revolution in Ireland, 1918–19. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Foley, Catriona (2011) The Last Irish Plague: The Great Flu Epidemic in Ireland 1918–19. Dublin: Irish Academic Press.

In a 2006 review essay, the historian Guy Beiner gives an overview of historical investigations of the Great Flu up to that date and before a wave of renewed interest in the topic:

Beiner, Guy (2006) 'Out in the Cold and Back: New-Found Interest in the Great Flu', Cultural and Social History 3: 496-505.