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Mary Kenny

After the deadly Spanish flu epidemic people warned against crowds... how prescient such caution seems now

Mary Kenny


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Health risk: viruses spread like wildfire in large groups

Health risk: viruses spread like wildfire in large groups

Health risk: viruses spread like wildfire in large groups

When I awake these spring mornings, my first thought is: "So I made it through the night!" One of my sons, who knows about statistics and probabilities, has dolefully mentioned that I have a one-in-10 chance of dying from Covid-19, should I be infected, because of three conditions: age, a former smoking habit and an existing respiratory condition.

Smoking takes the blame for a lot of health problems, although, on a point of information, my bronchial weakness is due more to childhood pneumonia - I almost died at the age of four - than to the three packets of Gauloises I liked to consume, daily, in my prime.

I know I'm supposed to show due penitence for this habit, and if I do pop my clogs from the coronavirus, ye can all say, "Serves her right - she'd been a smoker". People love to blame the victim, anyway. But the truth is that I enjoyed all those fags and loved the companionship of other smokers too - sharing a ciggie moment might even be described as solidarity.

We're in a scolding culture these days - every second email I receive, currently, ends with the admonition "stay home!" and "wash your hands!" - so a reprimand will be in order. So be it!

As for this wretched coronavirus which stalks the earth, well, as our political masters have told us, people have been through similar experiences before and have endured. Indeed they have, although it inevitably left a psychological, as well as sometimes a physical, mark on them.

One of the best descriptions of the impact of a pandemic emerges in John Healy's memoir about a small-holder's life in Co Mayo in the first half of the 20th century, Nineteen Acres.

It's such a classic text now that a collectable version is on offer from Amazon at £125 and a new edition may be had for £144.95. It was originally published in 1978 for under a fiver.

Healy portrays the hard life of rural people in the 1930s and 1940s, around Charlestown. His mother Nora had been packed off to America as a young woman, with advice from her own mother to "Keep your mouth and your legs closed. Keep your ears open. And send home the money (for the next sibling's passage)."

Families saw daughters and sons, one after another, emigrate out of necessity, with the mournful custom of the American wake held the night before departure.

Nora Healy did well in America, qualifying as a nurse and a midwife. But then the formative experience of her life struck: she witnessed the Spanish flu of 1918-20 (sometimes they called it the Spanish lady), which killed countless millions worldwide - estimates range between 50 and 500 million. The flu epidemic hadn't actually come from Spain, but the Spanish press was free to report it when other media outlets were censored.

As a nurse, Nora developed a second sense about the approach of death from the epidemic. She knew, as soon as she entered a house, the "death smell" of a patient. She was able to predict "to the hour" when death would occur.

Nora herself survived, returning to Mayo to marry her husband, Stephen Healy, and give birth to five children. But witnessing that Spanish flu epidemic left her with a horror of crowds and enclosed spaces. She deplored dance halls, cinemas and all crowded places, considering them infested with infections.

Even after the influenza pandemic passed, Ireland was afflicted by tuberculosis, again spread by contact with others. Stay away from crowds and enclosed spaces, Nora would warn.

How prescient such warnings seem now as we are told to, above all, maintain social distancing and to stay at home.

There was also another psychological impact on Nora, which might have been a pre-existing condition, as we say now. She took a very stoical attitude to life. Life was precious - as a practising midwife, she was proud of her record of never having lost a baby that she delivered - but it was also tough and you had to be tough in dealing with it.

She despised "the weakness of self-pity".

She reprimanded her husband for being "soft" when he acted indulgently towards clients lapsing on their funeral insurance payments (he was an insurance agent). When her own daughter died after childbirth - in England, surrounded by up-to-date medical technology - she "cried her fill" at the grave, but then she "mastered herself".

I remember an uncle of mine using that phrase too: that you should master your emotions rather than indulge them.

This self-mastery is a tradition from before Christianity - from the Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers.

People who lived through hard times also cultivated an attitude of pride that is alien to us, even perhaps absurd. Nora refused the pensioners' free travel pass when the occasion arose because she didn't want State charity. Her brother, Jim, refused a free TV licence on grounds that he didn't fight the War of Independence for free television.

In hard times, maybe it was their robustness and their pride that got them through. As I shut my eyes each night, wondering if the virus may strike on the morrow, I'll try and emulate that stern fortitude.

Belfast Telegraph