View of Carlow Town from the Killeshin Hills. Photo: Geraldine Doyle
Carlow Town is an ancient Irish settlement, situated in the rich farming lands fed by the watershed of the Barrow River. At end of the second decade of the 20th century, the small town was comprised of close to 7,000 people. If you look to the West of the town across the Barrow River, the land rises up to form the Killeshin Hills Hills and it was there, in April of 1919, that members of the Behan family gathered at the church of the Holy Cross to bury 30 year old Elizabeth Behan Murphy who was known as Lil by those who loved and were closest to her.
Lil’s parents, Big Jim and Bridget, 61 and 55 years of age, would have been there to inter their eldest child, along with Paddy Guilfoyle, their son in law. Together they were back at the same plot where they had buried Marie, Paddy’s wife and their second daughter. Marie and Paddy had been married just three months, in 1915, when tragedy had struck in the form of an undiagnosed ectopic pregnancy. Paddy would never marry again, the trauma of losing his young wife and seeing her coffined in her wedding dress had been too much and nobody could or would ever replace her.
The Behan Family plot in Killeshin Graveyard
Stephen Murphy, Lil’s husband of 3 years and father of their 2 children, Rosaleen and Desmond would have led the mourners, along no doubt, with the five surviving siblings still resident in Ireland. All must have been crushed by the loss, but by 1919, after a year of seemingly arbitrary infection and death, they would have known the insidious nature of the Pandemic Flu which preyed on vital young adults. The Flu not only attacked strong adults, but could also debilitate with ferocious rapidity.
Stephen Murphy Later in Life. Photo: Joyce Bossonet
In a continuation of my interview with John Dorney, the Dublin based historian, our conversation provided more clarity on how the flu manifested itself and the limited treatment options likely available to Lil’s desperate family
JD: The onset of the flu was rapid and young strong people could be dead within two or three days. That happened quite a lot. Another very severe symptom that a lot of people got was they basically turned purple or they said they turned black. Seamus Babbington, a flu survivor, said in un-PC terms “the blackest man in Africa wasn’t blacker than me with the flu”. This was because of the restriction of oxygen in the veins. Some people got a mild dose of it, but many people got severe intestinal pains, bleeding from orifices, all kinds of nasty things. These are the ones who survived. In terms of medical care, I should say something about the medical system in Ireland at the time. I talked about the Poor Law Unions, the workhouses and these usually had a fever hospital and a dispensary attached. The dispensary doctor was the only healthcare available to probably about 70% of the population. If you were a bit richer, you could go to a private hospital, which was again usually run by the religious.
Portrait of Sir Charles Cameron of Dublin (1830–1921), about 1892. Photo Wikipedia
When the flu hit, there was no lockdown like what we’re seeing today, in lots of the world, so for example, in Limerick City, they closed the cinemas and theaters, in Dublin they decided not to do that because it’s a different health board and then the rules were different. Charles Cameron who was the chief medical officer for Dublin mobilized his staff to go out and try to disinfect the cinemas and the theaters every night, to try to fight the virus He went out and disinfected the trams every night but such was the state of medical knowledge at the time they weren’t even really aware that this was a virus. So what they were using was antibacterial disinfectant So it probably had a beneficial effect on public health, what he was doing, but it didn’t kill the virus at all.
Kathleen Lynn (1874–1955): Pioneering Doctor and Republican. Photo: Wikipedia
Similarly Kathleen Lynn, who was a doctor and Republican activist, opened her own emergency hospital, which was largely manned by Cumman na mBan, Republican women and Kathleen Lynn claimed to have a vaccine for the virus but it was an active bacterial vaccine. It wasn’t understood that this was a virus yet at the time. I’ve been talking to people more qualified in medicine than myself and they said, well it probably did do some good in that it probably fought secondary infections, but it couldn’t have killed the virus It didn’t do anything against the virus. Basically the hospitals and the activists and people who were trying to fight the flu, if they practiced good hygiene, if they kept patients hydrated and warm and well fed, they were doing good, they were saving lives. They had no real effective treatment at all against the virus it was down to good luck and the way that the immune system of the person concerned responded.
MN: Do you have a sense of outcomes for women versus men in Ireland? Were women more likely to get infected? With COVID right now you hear the death rate in men is significantly higher than women. Do you know if there was a similar outcome back then?
JD: I mean to be honest I don’t have a breakdown in gender and there doesn’t seem to have been a marked difference between men and women. But what you do see definitely is both the mother and the father of young families often been both struck down by it and the children for some reason would be spared. Again it really targeted young adults, to be honest with you I don’t have figures for the gender of the victims
MN: If a member of the family, let’s say a wife her husband, came down with it, would the other one just try to steer away? My great aunt Lil got infected. I know she died at home, so she didn’t go into hospital. I’m guessing that was probably the case for most people people might’ve been fearful of hospitals?
MN: I’m curious as to who would have taken care of Lil in those circumstances? I can only guess about the specifics, traditionally nursing being done by women.
Vincent White (1885 — 1958) Doctor, Sinn Féin Politician and Mayor Of Waterford City
JD: Okay, at the time the majority of care would have been provided by the dispensary doctor. The dispensary doctor was an employee of local government and worked for the Poor Law Union and while he had a small office at the workhouse, he basically called around to people’s houses. The majority of care people would’ve got during the 1918 pandemic would have come from the dispensary doctor calling to their houses. We’ve lots of accounts of this, for example from one Vincent White who was a Sinn Fein candidate in the election of 1918. He left a detailed account of the flu and he talks about going into the slums and the tenements in Waterford City, how he was treated as a savior, but there wasn’t a great deal he could do. He called to all the houses where the flu had hit and he treated the patients as best he could. In some cases he administered things like quinine which was an anti malaria medicine, but which we now know wouldn’t have done a lot. He tried to make sure patients were well hydrated warm. That was basically all that he could do, but most likely, any care that they would have got would have been women or possibly even local nurses but most likely the only doctor she would have seen would have been the local dispensary doctor
MN: Lil’s husband, Stephen Murphy, was a civil servant. They lived in Drumcondra fairly close to Croke Park. I would describe them as middle class, they’re not living in the slums, but would they have relied on a dispensary doctor and nurses?
JD: Drumcondra would have been the rising Catholic lower middle class or in some cases upper middle class, but it would have been mostly a solid middle class area at the time. Quite possibly, they would have had a private doctor. It would have been a step up in social class from the dispensary doctor, I would imagine. More likely they could’ve called that doctor, but again, it would have been very much this idea of the doctor calling around to the house.
Sadly, we now know that attempts to treat Lil, could not arrest the disease and a traumatized Stephen Murphy would have to cope with two motherless children while continuing to hold down his Civil Service job. I only became aware of the solution to Stephen’s dilemma when I read family letters to Lil’s sister, Christina Behan, there are tangential references to my Nana Emily Behan and how she was “keeping house for Stephen”. My Nana, who preferred to go by Emma would have been 22 at the time, she was the youngest of six girls in her family and had likely had been helping out at Belgrove, the family farm in Killeshin.
An opportunity to move from the country to Dublin, out from underneath her parents’ view likely would have held appeal for a young woman. Whether it was this, a sense of family obligation or love for her oldest sister’s little children, Rosaleen and Desmond, Emma fetched up at Stephen Murphy’s home at 2 May Street, Drumcondra in 1919. Emma’s life would change completely as a result.
Emma arrived in a city edging towards political violence three years after the 1916 Rising. The intervening period had transformed Dubliners from perplexed bystanders of the rebellion to broad based supporters of immediate independence from Britain. Political mismanagement by the ruling British powers had cultivated the seeds of revolution beginning with the drawn out executions of the 1916 leaders, continuing with the internment of many nationalists with little or nothing to do with the Rising, complicated by spurious arrests precipitated by the German Plot and finishing with attempt to impose Conscription.
The radicalized Irish electorate made their feelings known in the 1918 Irish general election. They voted in droves for Sinn Féin, an emerging nationalist political party. The newly dominant party campaigned under the banner of establishing an Irish Republic. The results validated the platform with the party winning 69 of 105 seats. Rather than trekking off to Westminster in London, party members as promised during the campaign, established the Dáil, their own political assembly in Dublin. The breakaway Dáil met for the first time on the 21st of January 1919.
A proclamation offering a reward of £1,000 for information leading to the capture of those involved in the Soloheadbeg ambush. Image: Wikipedia
On the same day, that the newly founded Dáil met for the first time, a group of some eight men lay in wait for a horse drawn cart carrying a shipment of 160lbs of gelignite destined for a nearby quarry. The ambush in the townland of Soloheadbeg in Tipperary resulted in the death of 2 native born Royal Irish Constabulary officers who were guarding the consignment. It seems that this action, carried out by the 3rd Tipperary Brigade of the nationalist Irish Volunteers, was opportunistic and planned without regard for any centralized command. Regardless of it’s maverick origins, this encounter some 5 miles north of Tipperary town initiated the Irish War of Independence.
The war did not flame up quickly and rage across the country. Much of the initial activity was sporadic and confined to the more rural counties outside of Dublin. However in close proximity to Emma’s arrival, war and death came calling to Drumcondra, the very neighborhood where she had taken up residence with Stephen Murphy.
By the summer of 1919, the 29 year old Michael Collins, had effectively gained control of the Irish revolutionary movement. While Collins had been appointed as Minister of Finance by the first Dáil, he also accrued a number of other important positions, notably the Director of Intelligence for the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Despite his youth, Collins proved to be an insightful, brilliant, cold blooded tactician who realized the war could not succeed in a conventional sense against a military power which dwarfed Irish capabilities. He opted to pursue a two pronged asymmetric conflict which dismantled British Intelligence capabilities and leveraged hit and run guerrilla tactics.
Michael Collins (1890–1922). Source: Wikipedia
Despite centuries of misrule, the British government had proved to be adept in detecting and neutralizing Irish rebel movements through their cultivation of informer networks. This facility for intelligence gathering had crushed many rebellions at their inception and no revolutionary movement could hope to succeed without dismantling this apparatus. Collins’ solution was to build a better intelligence service and bolster it with violence through a team of executioners nicknamed “The Squad” or the “Twelve Apostles”
Detective Patrick Smyth (1867–1919). Source: Irish Examiner
In June of 1919 Collins put The Squad to work for the first time. Their target was Detective Sergeant Patrick Smyth, a native of Longford and member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police G Division. The G division was a plain clothes unit based out of Dublin Castle with a focus on nationalist activities. Smyth, known as “The Dog”, was particularly fervent in his pursuit of revolutionary subversives and was warned that his continued efforts would result in the most serious consequences. Despite these warnings, Pierre Piaras, a noted revolutionary, was convicted and received a two year sentence based on evidence provided by Smyth. That proved to be the final straw.
In late July, a team of four was selected to dispatch Smyth. They began by staking out Smyth’s tram stop by the River Tolka at Drumcondra Bridge. On the night of July 30th their patience paid off. Smyth stepped down from the tram and crossed the bridge walking towards his home at 51 Millmount Avenue. The assassins followed to the darkened avenue. There they opened fire. They had used .38 caliber revolvers which proved inadequate for the job. Smyth was hit, unarmed he could not defend himself.
51 Millmount Avenue (grey door), the Home of Detective Patrick Smyth
Despite being hit four times, he managed to stay on his feet and got to within 15 yards of his home. Two of his seven children, having heard the gunfire, rushed out to help him and brought their bloodied father into the shelter of their home. Another son bravely attempted to pursue his father’s would be killers, but they melted away. A gravely wounded Patrick Smyth was transferred by ambulance to the nearby Mater Hospital. He would fight for his life for over a month but ultimately succumbed to his injuries on September 12th. He is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery far from his surviving family who departed Ireland for Blackpool in England, allegedly to avoid subsequent intimidation.
Freeman’s Journal Dec 13, 1919
This Drumcondra, that my Nana Emma Behan had arrived in, would prove over the next two years, to be on the front line of a brutal urban guerrilla war in Dublin. While its highly unlikely that Emma would have been a witness to the Smyth assassination, since it was almost a mile from her new home on May St, the war came closer on the night of December 12, 1919 when two gunmen opened fire on a certain Detective Office Walsh right outside her lodging. Contemporaneous news reports indicate that two men had staked out Walsh near the quiet corner of May Street and Fitzroy Avenue. As Walsh approached a nearby street lamp, two shots rang out missing their target. Walsh immediately returned fire and chased his would be assassins as they fled. Multiple shots appear to have been fired by Walsh in his pursuit but they appear to have been equally ineffectual and the perpetrators escaped unscathed. Newspaper accounts go on to state that Walsh, at the time of the attack, was assigned to clerical duties focusing on pawn-offices. I assume that was a story that his colleagues wanted in the media accounts rather than emphasizing his assignment to G Division. One wonders why a lowly clerical worker, would be a target or why he was carrying a revolver which was likely not usual practice for somebody involved in pawn-office oversight!
My Nana, Emma Behan (1896–1979) Likely not the Face of a Gun Runner
Emma was not a passive observer of the war with three brothers down the country active in the Carlow Brigade. My Father related a story of a visit to Dublin by her younger brother Jim. Emma accompanied her brother to the railway station for his return to Carlow. While waiting to board the train, a group of soldiers began searching passengers. Jim told Emma he was stepping away and to keep an eye on his bags. The soldiers bypassed Emma in their search. When the search was over, Jim returned and preparing to board the departing train, Emma handed his bags to him. Straining under the surprising weight of the luggage, she asked him what they contained. “Guns” was the single word response.
I recall my Mother being appalled that a brother would put his sister in such jeopardy. My Father, on the other hand, would have none of that criticism, viewing it as quick thinking in a dangerous situation. He admired the cold blooded calculation of it all, assuming that his Mother’s innocent demeanor and ignorance of the bag contents had protected her and the contents of the bag. It was a story he was fond of and told often through the course of his life.
Despite the charged atmosphere in Drumcondra, Emma found time to socialize. A young good looking man, by the name of Fred Nutty, had recently returned from three years of service on the Western Front. Fred lived at 37 Fitzroy Ave just around the corner from Emma’s May St residence. Just how my Grandparents met is unknown to me, but clearly their residential proximity played a roll.
My Grandad Fred Nutty (1897–1973) in his WWI Uniform Likely Taken in 1919
Fred resumed his position at the Post Office. Family lore tells of his work as a sorter on the Dublin-Belfast train line. Not the safest of jobs as trains became targets of IRA interest as the war progressed. However work would not have been easy to come by after WWI, so there was much to recommend about Fred, but their was the problematic issue of his service in the British Army. Emma’s family were staunch Republicans and would not have looked kindly on anything with a scintilla of British cooperation.
This tension comes clearly into view in a letter written by Emma to her sister Christina in Chicago. Christina would have been more than familiar with familial disapproval for rapprochement with the British Empire. Any fraternizing with the enemy was unacceptable and on learning of Christina’s relationship with a Royal Irish Constabulary officer back in 1911, her Father, Big Jim, had banished her to America. Unsurprisingly, Big Jim didn’t look kindly on the revelation of his youngest daughter’s relationship as Emma relates in her letter to Christine dated June 26, 1922:
Extract of letter from Emma Behan to her sister Christine. Source: Dermot Murphy archive
Emma was undeterred by this “disowning”, she was her Father’s daughter after all and every bit as forthright, determined and convinced of her own decisions. I expect disowning, in this context, may have meant the absence of a dowry which would have eased the way in the early day’s of her marriage to Fred. Indeed in the same letter to Christine, there is an admission concerning the difficulty of finding a suitable place to live in a Dublin chronically short of housing. I expect some additional money may have relieved that anxiety. The letter refers to Fred as floating the idea of renting a backroom in a tenement. I’d like to think that was a joke, but chances are that was not the case.
St Agatha’s Church on North William Street where Emma and Fred married on October 31, 1922. Source: National Library of Ireland
Undeterred by familial disapproval they moved forward with their plans and were married on October 31, 1922 at St Agatha’s, a neighborhood church hard by the Royal Canal. The fact that the marriage took place, in her husband’s parish rather than Emma’s speaks volumes to the ongoing tension with her her Father. I’m unsure what to make of a wedding on Halloween, it seems like an odd choice for a marriage ceremony, nor do I know if Emma had family members on her side of the church. I would like to think that some of her siblings attended in violation of Big Jim’s disapproval.
I don’t know exactly when Emma met Fred, nor under what circumstances. Might it have been a chance encounter on the shared streets of Drumcondra between a gorgeous young woman and a fine looking man returned from the hardships of WWI? Was there some, self appointed matchmaker who thought these two beautiful young people, almost next door neighbors, might make a perfect couple? That story is lost to time and the people that could provide the answers are gone. The circumstances which brought them together though, would yield great happiness and a fifty year marriage. Fred adored his “Em” and together they would have three children: Bobby, another Fred, my Dad and Marie.
The tragic circumstance of Lil Behan’s passing are inescapable. Knowing the pain of all this, I cannot gloss over this sorrowful history with a happy story of my Grandparent’s meeting. It’s likely that all family trees, when probed, will reveal similar tragedies. What I do owe to those who came before me, is an attempt at a faithful reckoning of their stories so that their trials and difficulties will be passed to future generations and their struggles and triumphs will not be forgotten. I am inescapably Pandemic’s Grandchild
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anam
Lil Behan Murphy’s Mass Card. Source: Dermot Murphy