Carlow College, St. Patrick’s European History lecturer Dr Ida Milne’s book on the 1918-19 influenza pandemic in Ireland, ‘Stacking the Coffins, Influenza, War and Revolution in Ireland, 1918-19′, is only the second Irish book to be published on this important topic, which killed 23,000 Irish people and made an estimated 800,000 people ill on the island. The book has been developed from Ida’s PhD dissertation (TCD 2011), and will be launched in Carlow College on the 12th of November.
As part of this work, Ida interviewed people who had experienced the pandemic as children, when they were in their 90s or 100s. These people helped to document the extraordinary stories of death and survival in Ireland from this, the world’s largest killing influenza epidemic. They told of the fear before it arrived, and of the damage it did to families, killing many parents and children. Sometimes entire families were wiped out, while others survived, but with long term health effects.
‘So many people are curious about the pandemic, particularly if they find out from the online death certification that one of their family died from it. I’ve come to see my book as a handbook that can enable them to understand what it was about. It had an enormous impact on Irish society, often changing the course of family life.’
The book also explains contemporary medical understandings of the flu, and how doctors’ confidence in being able to treat disease was punctured by a disease for which they had no effective treatment. Some of the more unusual medicines included strychnine and tinctures of creosote. The book is particularly exciting the interest of medical workers who have to prepare for pandemics, as it gives them insight into what happens during pandemics
It explains how the nationalist movement used the flu as propaganda, warning that if political internees died from it , there would be a price to pay. When 1918 hero Richard Coleman died in jail in Britain, just before the pivotal 1918 general election, Sinn Fein quickly incorporated his death into their election publicity, covering posters in black crosses.