Building towards the release of my book on the Black Death – 1348: A Medieval Apocalypse on May 2nd 2016 this article look at the last time plague threatened Ireland.
While bubonic plague evokes images of the Middle Ages, Ireland has had more than one brush with the dreaded disease. As recently as the year 1900, ports across Ireland prepared for an imminent outbreak of the Black Death which killed over 30% of the population in the mid 14th century.
The last great plague scare in Ireland began after the illness broke out in Glasgow in August 1900. Ireland with its constant and frequent traffic with the Scottish port was immediately at risk of infection.
The origins of the outbreak in Glasgow are obscure. Some claimed it could be traced back to the a rat eaten corpse that had been undiscovered for several days. More likely and less sensational was the increased traffic between Britain and South Africa due to Boer War (1899 -1902) where there were confirmed cases of plague was early as March 1900. One way or another there was little doubt that the terrifying bubonic plague had returned to Northern Europe by late August.
While this was disastrous for Glasgow it posed grave dangers for the wider region. Ships from Glasgow’s docks along the Clyde traded with most major, and indeed minor Irish ports. To make matters worse large numbers of seasonal workers migrated to Scotland each year for harvest work. If the Bubonic plague developed into an epidemic they would undoubtedly carry this disease back to Ireland when they returned home.
The prospect of a plague outbreak was unquestionably terrifying. Between 1347 and 1350 it had carried away upwards of 30% of the European population. Death was excruciating. Painful buboes or egg-sized swellings developed usually under the arms, groin and neck. Black lesions appeared under the skin due to internal bleeding. Some victims coughed blood. Before their body eventually gave out, the victim suffered from frightening head aches and severe fevers.
The risk in Dublin
Of all ports, Dublin was at the greatest risk. While its population of four hundred thousand people paled in comparison to several cities in England, the filthy conditions of the city tenements, were among the worst in Europe and ideal breeding ground for bubonic plague.
The Guardian newspaper on September 4th, 1900 carried a headline “Danger in Dublin from defective sanitation”. This reaffirmed a report on the public health of the city published earlier in that year on the the squalid living conditions of the poor. It had revealed how there was
“inadequate water-closet accommodation in a foul state; backyards ill paved and littered with refuse and excrement; are conditions…these conditions tend to the production of a state of lowered vitality favourable to the contraction of disease, and to fatal result of disease when contracted. “
Furthermore the undernourishment city poor would struggle to fight off the disease if it took hold.
Facing this threat Dublin city authorities were already acting by early September. A committee which met daily to prepare the city for an outbreak also did everything in its power to prevent the arrival of the disease in Dublin.
All ships from Glasgow were subjected to a rigorous medical search by doctors. Open sewers were covered where possible. The often filthy tenement houses were cleaned and instructions were issued to whitewash walls wherever possible (whitewash contains anti-bacterial agents). An attempt was also made to scour the city of rats, which helped spread the disease in their fleas.
While the plague may have posed the greatest threat to Dublin, other Irish ports also faced the grave possibility of an outbreak. In the following days Belfast, Cork, Waterford and Limerick adopted similar measures to those in Dublin. In the coming weeks even smaller and more isolated ports such as Fenit Co. Kerry and Westport Co. Mayo followed suit.
As the death toll in Glasgow reached 13 by September 8th 1900, petty politics in Ireland hamstrung preparations to prevent an outbreak. As plans for quarantine hospitals were put in place, these soon ran into the quagmire of early 20th century local Irish politics. When an isolation hospital was suggested for Cork Street in Finglas, this was opposed by local politicians no doubt voicing the concerns of people who did not want to live close such an institution.
This N.I.M.B.Y. (not in my back yard) attitude became prevalent across Ireland. Many were unwilling to make to make sacrifices. When a doctor demanded that a certain Mrs Batten be forced to remove pigs from her house on Cattle Market Street in Dublin, this was opposed. A representative for Batten somewhat ludicrously claimed he had
“never known disease to arise form the keeping of pigs”.
On this occasion sense prevailed and the pigs were removed.
Outside the capital there was little difference in the approach. In Limerick when it was suggested that an old fort at Tarbert be converted into an isolation hospital the local community who lived over a mile away were outraged and organised a protest meeting.
No one wanted plague but few wanted to take measures to stop it.
At Fenit Co. Kerry local representatives were outraged and mounted sustained and vociferous opposition to an isolation hospital being. Claims were made that it was too costly and the decision was repeatedly postponed. Eventually the hospital was voted through at a special meeting of Tralee Rural District Council. However the attitude of one supporter of the hospital hardly inspired confidence when he said
“we shall build a shed at Fenit which we will call by the grand title of intercepting hospital”
Many authorities had little concept of what they were facing. When confronted with the stinging cricticism on the appalling conditions in the local fever hospital in Schull Co. Cork, the chairman of the board of Guardians retorted that Schull
“was a very healthy locality and there was no fear that there would be a case of plague”.
Nevertheless in spite of such attitudes all vessels arriving in Ireland from Glasgow continued to be subjected to rigorous checks. Meanwhile the Glaswegian authorities, not only isolated those who contracted the disease but also those who lived in close proximity to them. This drastically reduced contagion and by the end of September there was a dwindling number of new cases. In the opening weeks of November it was clear the fear of a major outbreak had clearly passed. On November 10th work at the highly controversial ‘shed’ at Fenit, Co. Kerry was abandoned with only the foundation complete.
On November 12th 1900 the Local Govenerment Board informed authorities that they could relax all precautionary measures. While Ireland had escaped the plague although the countries local politicians and authorities had not exactly inspired confidence.
Perhaps their ineptitude was best typified by a politician on Limerick Corporation. When two doctors applied to the city for remuneration for expenses incurred, one member of the corporation claimed
“the Bubonic plague was an imaginary scare started by medical men who wanted to make a good living”
Bubonic plague was far from imaginary. Of the dozens who contracted the disease in Glasgow the sixteen who died could attest to this. Find out more about my upcoming book on the great plague of 1348 here.
 Irish Examiner 5th September 1900
 Irish examiner 19th September 1900
 Kerry Sentinel 17th October 1900
 Souther Star 20th October 1900