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Jesuits and the influenza, 1918-19

The influenza pandemic that raged worldwide in 1918-19 (misnamed the Spanish flu, as during the First World War, neutral Spain reported on the influenza) killed approximately 100 million people. The first wave of influenza in Ireland occurred during the summer of 1918 and it affected the Jesuit Juniors (university students) who were on villa (holiday) at St Stanislaus College, Tullabeg, county Offaly. The second and third waves (late 1918 and spring 1919), were the most virulent.

Clongowes Wood College had 198 cases, out of college population of 300, in October 1918. The gymnasium and several of the dormitories were turned into infirmary wards. Jesuits and the visiting Jesuit Provincial contracted the flu. Willie Carroll, Listowel, Kerry died at Clongowes on 2 November 1918 (aged 14) and Donal Gorman, died at home in Dublin in January 1919. 10 past pupils of Clongowes died from influenza. Brother John Stone SJ died at Tullabeg on 7 March 1919 after helping at Clongowes.

Belvedere College records that on 14 October 1918: “At last the flu has gained a grip upon Belvedere”. The college was closed on 17 October until 4 November but after one hour, it was closed again until 11 November. The Belvederian, 1919 notes: “Diseases may come and diseases may go, But the Flu goes on for ever”. Seven past pupils of Belvedere died from influenza.

The diary for Crescent College, Limerick reported that on 5 November 1918: “All the schools in the city have been closed owing to the spread of the new species of Influenza. Half the boys [53 pupils] were absent the past week and today two of the lay masters were down. So we decided to close the school till Monday. Monday, 25 November 1918 – School reopened today – less than half the boys back”. The influenza returned to the Crescent in 1919: “Notice came yesterday from the Sanitary Officer of the city that all schools are to be closed from 7 -18 March”. The Crescent Journal, March 1919, puts the flu in poetic form.

‘The Flu in Limerick or limerick’

A fly met a flea in a flue,
Said the fly to the flea, what’s to do?
Let’s flee, said the fly,
Let’s fly, said the the flea,
So they flew through a flaw in the flue.

Mungret College, Limerick reported that in February 1919: “In less than a week the vast majority of boys were down with the sickness, and the house had become a big hospital. During the four weeks the influenza was raging…We owe a debt of gratitude to Miss Manly for her unwearying attentions and devotion to the the wants of the sick”. The classrooms were turned into miniature infirmaries and “The cry ‘Bread, Bread,’ rises in a wail from II Club dormitory. But the principle is ‘Starve a fever'”. 6 past pupils of Mungret died of influenza .

In St Ignatius College, Galway, Fr Henry Foley SJ wrote on 25 February 1919: “We have been hit hard again by the Flu”. Three Jesuits were laid up and “43 of our pupils [out of 100 pupils] are in bed… There have been many deaths lately, and the infection shows no sign of abating. Otherwise things are fairly well.”

In Australia, Irish Jesuits at Xavier College, Kew, Melbourne delayed the opening of the new school year in 1919 “owing to the influenza”. In May 1919, St Ignatius College, Riverview, Sydney commented that they had been “saved from the flu”, but still 30 boys have been kept away and “We closed the college to visitors for last two months”.

The influenza was widely referenced by Irish Jesuit chaplains in the First World War. Fr FX O’Brien comments from France in September 1918 that: “I suppose you had your share of influenza that swept over Ireland recently. Here even still, we get traces of it”. In October 1918, Fr Gerard Corr SJ comments that: “[I have] a heavy cold…of the Spanish variety, which has been so prevalent everywhere and in many places so fatal”. And Fr Joseph Wrafter SJ writing in December 1918: “the influenza is raging here and all over Holland as everywhere”.

The Spanish flu was a contributor factor in the death of Fr Timothy Carey SJ (1877-1919) on 27 February 1919, at Calais, France. Hailing from Kilbehenny, on the Cork-Limerick border, Carey joined the English Jesuit Province and served as chaplain from 1916, until his death.

For further information, read:

Stacking the coffins: Influenza, war and revolution in Ireland, 1918-19 by Ida Milne (2018).