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The Spanish Flu: A Global Pandemic conference

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On Friday 16th November, a half-day conference was held in the Ulster Museum on the Spanish Flu, a partnership between Living Legacies and National Museums NI. Northern Ireland is currently in the midst of what is termed the Decade of Centenaries, an important time in our history between 1912 and 1922 in which we have been looking at events such as the Home Rule Crisis, the First World War, the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme to name a few. To highlight these, we have embarked on a programme of exhibitions, talks and conferences with particular emphasis on the period 1914-18. The Spanish Flu emerged at the start of 1918 and reached its height during the final months of the year.

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Despite the ferocity of the outbreak, it has become an overlooked and at times forgotten part of history, which is surprising when we consider its global impact and the incredibly high death toll. Estimates of between 50 and 100 million deaths far surpass that of the First World War, a conflict that has been remembered as one of the deadliest in history. The conference gathered the leading historians on the subject to tell us more about why this is the case and to explore further the impact the epidemic had around the world and here in Ireland.

I also had a personal reason for wanting to remember the Spanish Flu.

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We didn’t actually have any images in the museum archive that could be appropriated directly to the influenza epidemic, so we used this photo of my family. The woman sitting in the middle is my great grandmother, Minnie Crothers, sitting with her four children. My Nana is on her knee. Minnie died Nov 18th 1918 aged 39 from the Spanish flu so, quite by accident I had timed the event to coincide almost to the day with the anniversary of her death 100 years ago. My great grandfather Thomas was a labourer soldier and had returned from the war just before her death. As a single father of four children and without employment now that the Frist World War was over, Thomas made the decision to emigrate with his family to Canada when my Nana was 6 years old. Life was very hard for them as it took several months for Thomas to find a job and afford a house to live in. Unable to look after the children during this time, they were temporarily placed in an orphanage, which was very traumatic for my Nana and her elder sister who received regular beatings. Eventually they were removed and went to live with Thomas and his new wife Lizzie who became a wonderful stepmother to the children.

This is just one story amongst thousands and yet, the Spanish flu does not receive the same commemoration or remembrance as past conflicts or national events. The idea of remembering within a private sphere and forgetting in a public was the main thrust behind keynote speaker Guy Beiners talk. Guy travelled from Israel where he teaches as Professor of Modern History at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He provided his expertise on the idea of memory; why we choose to remember certain historical events and not others.

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Over the past century public commemoration was barely, if at all, visible. Nonetheless, behind a façade of social forgetting, families who suffered from the ravages of the disease often maintained private recollections. In recent years, general awareness of the pandemic has significantly grown and this rediscovery has initiated new forms of remembrance.

Emeritus professor David Killingray discussed the impact of the Spanish Flu globally with particular emphasis on East Africa, the main focus of his work. He looked at the debates on the origins, course and consequences of the three concurrent waves of the virus throughout the world.

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Dr Patricia Marsh, curator at the Public Records Office NI, has carried out years of work on the 1918 flu and her research has shown that Ireland did not escape the high mortality rate with a recorded national death toll of 20,057 and 7,582 deaths in the province of Ulster. By exploring the medical, local authority and charitable response to the disease at a regional level she examined how the lack of a cohesive medical and welfare response to influenza at central government level impacted on the local response to the pandemic particularly in Ulster towns such as Lurgan, Cookstown, Newry and Belfast.

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Dr Ida Milne is Lecturer in European History at Carlow College and has recently published her book Stacking the Coffins, influenza war and revolution in Ireland, 1918-1919 and her PhD focused on the social, political and economic experience of the pandemic. Ida has carried out thorough research into the oral histories behind the statistics and shared some of these stories with us at the conference.

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The issue of forgotten heritage has repercussions within the museum sector as it has left relatively little in the way of material culture. At the Ulster Museum there are no images and only one object in our entire collection that relates to the Spanish Flu. This is a Next-of-Kin memorial plaque awarded to the family of local man Robert Gordon Dowse. Born in 1886, he enlisted with the Royal Army Service Corps and died 19th December 1918 in France. Our History Curator Fiona Byrne carried out research on the man behind the plaque and discovered that he had died from influenza and pneumonia.

Image: Next of Kin Memorial Plaque. Image courtesy of National Museums NI
Next of Kin Memorial Plaque. Image courtesy of National Museums NI

The plaque is now on display in the Modern History gallery at the Ulster Museum until the end of April 2019. It was not until April 1919 that the flu outbreak began to subside after a third severe outbreak at the beginning of that year.

It is hoped that the conference will help raise awareness of the Spanish Flu of 1918 and make us think about the ideas behind commemoration and why certain historical events are remembered over others. The last century has seen a number of flu-like epidemics sweep the globe. As we await the next one looming inevitably on the horizon, the influenza outbreak of 1918 becomes ever more relevant.