'Forgotten' devastation of Spanish flu outbreak in Ireland 100 years ago brought to life

The flu pandemic of 1918 killed almost 50 million people
Seanín Graham

AN "almost forgotten event in 20th century Irish history" is being explored in a major exhibition on the devastating impact of the Spanish flu outbreak in Ireland 100 years ago.

More than 23,000 people lost their lives to the pandemic in just one year - with the first wave of the killer virus understand to have arrived in Belfast in 1918 before travelling down the east coast to Dublin, Cork and beyond.

Historians believe British Army troops returning from the continent during the First World War brought the first wave to Belfast in pre-partition Ireland.

Globally, the Spanish Flu infected an estimated 500 million people and killed three to five per cent of the world's population, making it the deadliest pandemic in human history.

Unlike previous outbreaks that infected the young and the elderly, the new strain of infection was concentrated on the able bodied and strong, with those under the age of 40 worst hit.

The exhibition which opens today at the National Museum of Ireland's branch in Castlebar, Co Mayo, will examine how "no group, location or aspect of life was spared" with villages and towns ground to a halt as the flu infected 800,000 young men and women in a "pre-antibiotic" age.

Bizarre and bogus 'cures' offered in towns and villages, including 'best quality meats' by butchers as well as bicycles to get rid of the virus, will also be documented.

Entitled 'The Enemy Within – The Spanish Flu in Ireland 1918-19', curator Noel Campbell said the epidemic remains "an almost forgotten event in 20th-century Irish history" as it was dwarfed by world events and political turmoil on the island.

"The pandemic in Ireland was part of a chapter in British history - but we there more as a sidenote," he said.

"It has been eclipsed in our collective memory by the events of that decade and the loss of life during the Great War in particular. It remains an understudied event in history despite claiming more lives worldwide than the Great War."

The exhibition - which has free admission - will also explore the folk medicines used by the public to combat the devastating illness, which led to horrific symptoms and painful death within days of infection.

A lecture series will be delivered at 16 venues across the Republic, focussing on stories of personal loss and public service breakdown forced by outbreak.

Professor Ingrid Hook, former Head of the School of Pharmacy at Trinity College, who will open the exhibition, said: "People today looking back 100 years, must realise that viruses were not well understood and those causing influenza were not correctly identified until the early 1930s.

"Because of this ignorance, treatments could only be for the symptoms of 'flu', mainly body aches and joint pains, a sore throat and cough. As this was the pre-antibiotic era, there were no effective treatments for secondary bacterial infections, such as pneumonia. A general advice for flu patients was to stay in bed, take food and plenty of fluids."

For further information on the exhibition, which runs until next April, visit

One of the advertisements that appeared at the time on the virtues of alcohol 'helping' a flu

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