President hosts a reception commemorating The Great Flu Epidemic of 1918-1919

Fri 31st May, 2019 | 14:30
location: (Dublin) Áras an Uachtaráin

“The Great Flu of 1918-1919:  Why Remember? Why Forget?” - Speech by President Michael D. Higgins at a reception commemorating The Great Flu Epidemic of 1918-1919

Áras an Uachtaráin, Friday 31 May 2019

Despite the fact that it claimed many more lives than the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War combined, the Great Flu is rarely incorporated into the narrative of 20th-century Ireland.

A chairde,

May I begin by wishing you all a warm welcome to Áras an Uachtaráin today, and thanking you for taking the time to join us here at relatively short notice for busy people, as we mark a century since the end of one of the world’s worst ever recorded pandemics, that of the so-called, indeed miscalled as we will hear, Spanish Influenza. I wish to pay particular thanks, if I may, to Dr Ida Milne of Carlow College, Dr Patricia Marsh of Queen’s University Belfast, and Prof. Guy Beiner of  Ben-Gurion University (Israel) for agreeing to speak at today’s event, and may I also thank the School of Histories and Humanities at Trinity College Dublin and the Glasnevin Trust for their exhibition materials that are displayed here today.

Just over one hundred years ago, as the First World War was drawing to a fitful close, an influenza virus, unlike any before or since, swept across the world, felling soldiers and civilians alike.

The global death toll was inconceivable: according to the most recent estimates, between 50 million and 100 million people worldwide perished in the three pandemic waves between the spring of 1918 and the winter of 1919, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history.

Indeed, the pandemic caused mortality that was similar in scale to that which resulted from the Black Death in the 14th century. If one adjusts for population growth, the death toll would be equivalent in terms of impact to between 200 million and 425 million deaths today.

As with other 20th-century epidemics and pandemics, such as HIV/AIDS, Africans and Asians suffered proportionately more than Europeans and North Americans. Thus, while the average case mortality in what we term the developed world was about 2%, in India, where 18.5 million perished, it was 6%, and in Egypt, where 138,000 died, it was 10%. In isolated regions in which populations had no immunity to flu, the impact was truly astonishing: in Western Samoa, for example, a quarter of the population died, while in Alaska some entire Inuit communities died as a result.

Infectious disease had already limited life expectancy in the early 20th century. However, in the first year of the pandemic, life expectancy in the United States was shortened by about 12 years as a direct result.

Mark Honigsbaum, the author of Living with Enza: The Forgotten Story of Britain and the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918, has written extensively about the pandemic’s probable origin.

“Few epidemiologists believe the pandemic began in Spain, pointing instead to pre-pandemic waves in Copenhagen and other northern European cities in the summer of 1918. Where the virus first leapt from birds to humans or some other mammal is even more perplexing, with some scientists favouring a Kansas point of origin and others northern France or China.”

Spanish flu was so-called because neutral Spain was one of the few countries in 1918 where correspondents were free to report on the outbreak. To maintain morale in countries at war, wartime censors minimised early reports of illness and mortality in Germany, the United Kingdom, France and the United States. Papers were free to report the epidemic’s effects in neutral Spain (such as the grave illness of King Alfonso XIII). This created a false impression of Spain as especially hard hit, thereby giving rise to the pandemic’s moniker, ‘Spanish flu’.

In a 2007 analysis of medical journals from the period of the pandemic, it was found that the viral infection itself was not more aggressive than any previous influenza, but that the special circumstances of the context, both structural and contingent of the epidemic (malnourishment, overcrowded medical camps and hospitals, poor hygiene) promoted bacterial superinfection that would kill most of the victims, typically after a prolonged deathbed.

However, there remain many mysteries associated with the pandemic, perhaps chief of which relates to why the Spanish flu proved so deadly to young adults. Here, present-day science has some interesting hypotheses to offer but, it appears, no conclusive answers.

One suggestion is that the elderly enjoyed greater immunity because, as children, they had been exposed to a pandemic virus with a similar genetic makeup to what was called the Spanish flu. Conversely, those aged 28 and over had an immunological blind spot because their first exposure had been to the 1890 ‘Russian flu’, a virus with a completely different configuration of genes.

Another explanation, posited by Honigsbaum, is that the unusual mortality pattern seen in 1918 was the result of an as-yet unidentified environmental exposure, or stressor, peculiar to young adults at the time.

Answering these questions is important because genes from the Spanish flu continue to circulate in human and pig populations to this day. Some of these genes are direct descendants of the 1918 virus; others have reasserted with other pandemic viruses, such as the 1968 Hong Kong flu and the virus responsible for the 2009 swine flu pandemic.

The pandemic reached Ireland, most likely in Spring 1918, as troops sailing home took the flu into Dublin and Cork. The first recorded outbreak was on USS Dixie, off Cobh, in May. From the ports the disease swept across Ireland in three waves: mild in spring 1918; lethal in autumn 1918; and moderate in early 1919.

It disrupted Irish society and politics, as has been skilfully recounted by Dr Ida Milne, whom I’m delighted is here with us today. Her doctoral research in Trinity College Dublin, which has been published as a book entitled, Stacking the coffins: Influenza, War and Revolution in Ireland, 1918-19, is the first Irish history of the disease that includes statistics where an attempt is made to analyse which groups were most affected. It is all the more valuable for also drawing from personal accounts of individuals affected.

Léiríonn an leabhar gur chuir spré an ghalair na bailte ina dtost; dhún sé na scoileanna, na cúirteanna, agus na leabharlainne, laghdaigh sé méid na trádála, líon sé na hospidéal, agus chuir sé brú as cuimse ar na dochtúirí agus iad ag cuir cóir leighis ar na céadta othar gach lá.

[The book tells of how the pandemic created a stillness in cities and towns as it passed through, closing schools, courts and libraries, quelling trade, cramming hospitals, and stretching medical doctors to their limit as they treated hundreds of patients each day.]

Dr Milne also reveals how the pandemic became part of a major row between nationalists and the Government over interned anti-conscription campaigners.

Indeed, Dr Milne and Dr Patricia Marsh from Queen’s University Belfast, whom I’m very glad to tell you is also here today, have analysed how, across the whole island of Ireland, there were more than 23,000 recorded deaths as a result of the virus. However, due to a lack of diagnosis and documentation, it is thought that up to 800,000 people in Ireland, about one-fifth of the population at the time, could have been infected.

I am also so pleased to be able to welcome to the Áras today some family members of those who died tragically and of central figures who helped those affected by the pandemic in Ireland, as well as others involved in preventing and combating pandemics today.

I wish to focus today on the legacy of the Spanish flu pandemic in terms beyond the scientific mysteries and devastating statistics that it gave rise to. By this I mean I would like to consider the link between the pandemic, and indeed other tragic historical events, and human memory.

I believe this is a worthwhile endeavour because the Spanish flu began to fade from public awareness quickly, especially over the decades of the 20th century until the arrival of news about bird flu and other pandemics in the 1990s and 2000s. Indeed, despite the fact that it claimed many more lives than the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War combined, the Great Flu is rarely incorporated into the narrative of 20th-century Ireland. This has led some historians, such as AW Crosby and Caitriona Foley, to label the Spanish flu a “forgotten pandemic”.

The challenge of remembering ethically was a significant part of the Ethics Initiative which I launched as the second President of Ireland Initiative of my Presidency. In addressing the need to “remember ethically”, I turned to the philosophical writings of, Hannah Arendt, Paul Ricoeur, Avishai Margalit and Richard Kearney. The emphasis was, perhaps on the need to respect a pluralism of narratives of shared events, including sources of conflict, its delivery, consequences, as material for revived hate, fear, xenophobia, or indeed by some necessary but rare forgiveness.

The concept of collective memory, initially developed by Halbwachs, has been explored and expanded from various angles across different disciplines of research. Our collective memory of events can be constructed, shared, and passed on by large and small social groups. Memories survive and take shape through a relationship with others, evolving over time, and open to re-interpretation and reconsideration as we strive to transact a relationship that will ideally release us from the weight of past events, and that will allow a moving forward, however tentatively, to new beginnings by loosening the lid on, what I call in one of my poems, the “mouldering jar of memory”.

The historian Prof. Guy Beiner, whom I’m also very happy to see present today, an authority on memory and history on Ireland, has criticised the unreflective use of the adjective ‘collective’ in many studies of memory. In his book, Troubles with Remembering, or, the Seven Sins of Memory Studies, he asserted:

“The problem is with crude concepts of collectivity, which assume a homogeneity that is rarely, if ever, present, and maintain that, since memory is constructed, it is entirely subject to the manipulations of those invested in its maintenance, denying that there can be limits to the malleability of memory, or to the extent to which artificial constructions of memory can be inculcated. In practice, the construction of a completely collective memory is, at best, an aspiration of politicians, which is never entirely fulfilled and is always subject to contestations”.

In its place, Prof. Beiner has promoted the term ‘social memory’ and has also demonstrated its limitations by developing a related concept of ‘social forgetting’.

Why do some major historical events occupy the forefront of the collective consciousness, while profound moments, such as the pandemic we are discussing today, sometimes stand distantly behind? Ricoeur reflects in his book, Memory, History, Forgetting, on whether it is possible that history “overly remembers some events at the expense of others”, revealing how this attempted symbiosis of what are contested and conflicting versions and the mould into which they are poured –  influences both the perception of historical experience and the production of historical narrative. The philosophical paradoxes of memory, the aporias of forgetting, and the mediating role of history are all issues we need to consider in understanding such a profound, complex and interconnected question.

Our ambivalence about remembering perhaps expresses ambivalence about our own identities. The basic dialectic of memory and amnesia is, thus, not only about remembering and forgetting certain events or people. Viet Thanh Nguyen argues that, in the context of war, it is instead more fundamentally about remembering our humanity and forgetting our inhumanity, while conversely remembering the inhumanity of others and forgetting their humanity:

“A just memory demands instead a final step in the dialectics of ethical memory—not just the movement between an ethics of remembering one’s own and remembering others, but also a shift toward an ethics of recognition, of seeing and remembering how the inhuman inhabits the human”.

No wonder, then, that for Jorge Luis Borges, remembering is a “ghostly verb”. Memory is haunted, not just by ghostly others, but by the horrors we have done, seen, and condoned, or by the unspeakable things from which we have profited. The troubling weight of the past is especially evident when we speak of war and our limited ability to recall it. Haunted and haunting, human and inhuman, war remains with us and within us, impossible to forget but difficult to remember.

According to Avishai Margalit, shared memory in a modern society travels from person to person through institutions, such as archives, through historiographic texts, and through communal mnemonic devices, such as speeches enunciated by public representatives, monuments and the names of streets; all of these reflect a distribution of power.

Memory, indeed, constitutes one of the greatest sources of interrogation bequeathed to us by the 20th century, with its cortege of pandemics like the one we are remembering today, mass crimes and fateful experimentations with totalitarianism. How and what are we to remember? How are individual and collective memories articulated? What must never become the subject of amoral amnesia? In what ways does the ‘duty of memory’ summon us to do justice to the dead?

To what extent are we to allow ourselves to be changed as we listen to the narrative of the other? What is the relationship between memory and history? These are first-order moral questions. They are central to the work of important thinkers such as Maurice Halbwachs, Hannah Arendt, and Paul Ricoeur – work that I find myself returning to again and again as I attempt an answer to such questions.

There really can never be a new moment; rather, it is that from the fragments of the old, as in nature itself, something new seeks to be born, often against the impediments of the old, and thus arrives with a scream that in time may become a smile.

Edith Wyschogrod, in An Ethics of Remembering: History, Heterology and the Nameless Others, attempts to answer the question, ‘can the historian ever bring back that which has gone by, ever tell the truth about the past?’. Wyschogrod is concerned with the cataclysm: mass annihilations of the 20th century such as the flu pandemic. Realising the philosophical impossibility of ever recovering ‘what really happened’, Wyschogrod nevertheless acknowledges a moral imperative to speak for those who have been rendered voiceless, to give countenance to those who have become faceless, and hope to the desolate.

Various theories of why there is something of a collective amnesia regarding  Spanish flu include: first, the rapid pace of the pandemic, which killed most of its victims in the United States, for example, within a period of less than nine months, resulting in limited media coverage; second, the fact that, as the historical epidemiologist Morrissey pointed out, the general population was familiar with patterns of pandemic disease in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, with typhoid, yellow fever, diphtheria and cholera all occurring near the same time, possibly lessening the significance of the influenza pandemic for the public; third, in many areas the flu was not reported on, the only mention being that of advertisements for medicines claiming to cure it, as discussed by Benedict and Braithwaite; fourth, the outbreak coincided with the deaths and media focus on the First World War which took precedence, according to AW Corsby; and fifth, related to this, the majority of fatalities, from both the War and the epidemic, were among young adults, with the deaths caused by the flu potentially overlooked, according to Simonsen and others, owing to the large number of deaths of young men in the War or as a result of injuries.

It seems highly plausible that, particularly in Europe, where the War’s toll was extremely high, the flu may not have had a great, separate psychological impact, or may have seemed just another terrible extension of the War’s tragedies. The flu-related deaths appear to have been absorbed into the public consciousness side-by-side with those deaths directly attributable to the War.

The duration of the pandemic and the War could have also played a role. The disease would usually only affect a certain area for a month before leaving, while the War, which most had initially expected to end quickly, had lasted for four years by the time the pandemic struck.

Historian Nancy Bristow has argued that the pandemic, when combined with the increasing number of women attending college at the time, contributed to the success of women in the field of nursing. This was due in part to the inability of medical doctors, who were predominantly men, to contain and prevent the illness. Nursing staff, who were predominantly women, felt more inclined to celebrate the success of their patient care and less inclined to identify the spread of the disease with their own work, according to Robin Lindley’s The Forgotten American Pandemic: Historian Nancy Bristow on the Influenza Epidemic of 1918.

Our consideration today reminds me again of how the interpretation of silence, gaps, exclusions, are in assessing the historiography of this time, of the importance of new approaches, reworkings. We have had some good work on the silence that followed An Gorta Mór. We now have to deal with the War of Independence and the Civil War. However, is there a continuing thread we ignore, the thread from which respectability is knitted, a garment commenced, when land was secured, surplus population gone in involuntary migration. An atmosphere where being born from a chesty family damaged marital prospects, but above all the holding on of the land. “Keep yourself nice”, Samuel Beckett has Winnie say in Happy Days.

I wish to conclude, if I may, with a short quotation from French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, who remarked, “to be forgotten is to die twice.” Initiatives, such as the one I am taking today, may I hope play a modest, but meaningful, role in remembering the tragic loss of the millions of lives that occurred during a catastrophic event in recent history, ensuring these mostly young men and women are not forgotten, and are allocated their rightful space in our shared historical memory. I do so look forward to listening to our eminent speakers’ contributions to this seminar, and I wish you all a stimulating and thought-provoking afternoon.

Go raibh mile maith agaibh go léir.