Gormanston Beach, Photo Courtesy of Caoilfhionn McNamara
On June 20, 1979, I learned Emily Nutty, nee Behan, my paternal grandmother and last surviving grandparent had died. I was swimming at Gormanston beach when I got the news. It was a warm Summer day towards the end of the Intermediate Certificate exam and the Franciscan brothers, who ran the school at Gormanston, had given permission to go for a swim at the local beach. On a sparkling day, I set off with my school mates on foot. With towels tucked under our arms, we walked a little more than a mile following the Delvin River to it’s junction with the the sea.
There was talk of Summer plans and upcoming romantic rendezvous’. Much skeptical slagging accompanied these declarations, most well justified, as the truth was, we were a pimply faced scrawny lot on the verge of the first bristles on our chins. There were few head turners among us.
The Delvin, Photo: Kieran Campbell / Railway bridge at Gormanston / CC BY-SA 2.0
Crossing the Dublin — Belfast road we tracked the little river as it meandered uncertainly towards it’s outlet. We passed under the railroad where the North— South track spanned the small flow and emerging from beneath the bridge, the vista opened up onto a long strand of uninterrupted beach which stretched towards the distant Cooley mountains. We made our way to the top of the storm bluff and sat on the soft sand, taking in the scene. After chatting briefly, we got down to business and proceeded to strip for our swim. Some of us shyly, hiding behind towels flapping in the Summer breeze, others more brazenly exposing pale bodies in full on the deserted beach. Togged and a little chilled we jogged across the dark wet rippled sand, beside the final sputtering winds of Delvin, towards the distant, tide retreated sea.
The bracing entry to the water was accompanied with swear words and laughter. Some opted to plunge quickly under, when sufficient depth was reached while others extended their torture as they waded in. Those reluctant to fully immerse, were quickly set upon with splashing attacks by those entirely wet and soon all committed completely to the Irish Sea. A few struck out to deeper water, I hung back favoring the security of being able to touch the bottom when I chose to stand. I bobbed from the bottom with each successive wave enjoying the motion, the silence broken by a tractor working a nearby headland haloed by gulls. Then, the low growl of the tractor was interrupted by a call from the shore. I squinted through salty, short sighted eyes into the distance and saw a brown hooded figure hollering and beckoning. I waded towards the medieval habited figure, it was Fr. Joe. He was looking for me and had a pained look about him as he broke the news that my Grandmother had died the night before.
I don’t recall the subsequent conversation. I have no memory of any sense of sorrow. I’d gotten to that careless self absorbed teenage age which had squeezed out empathy and compassion. For the prior few years Nana had been deteriorating from the feisty lady of my childhood, to an uncertain shadow of her former self, careless of her appearance and fretful of routine things. Her increasing inability to take care of herself had led to my Uncle Bob placing her in an old people’s home much to her dissatisfaction which she expressed vigorously in her more lucid moments.
Obituary from the Evening Herald June 19,1979
After the beach, I have no memory of the journey to the removal service at the Our Lady of Victories church in Sallynogin. I’ve struggled to remember, but it has gone from me, beyond a fuzzy recollection of one of the Franciscan brothers driving me there. It might have been Fr Joe that drove, it would have been a trip of about an hour. What was talked of escapes me and only an archived newspaper obituary is left to remind me of the location. Everything of that evening is fragmentary; standing awkwardly and overgrown in a pew, looking at Nana’s coffin, enveloped by the waxy scent of church candles; my teary-eyed Uncle Bob shaking my hand and thanking me for coming and later at his house, after the service, his Brother in Law, Fr Bonaventure describing my Nana’s faltering last breaths as he tended to her spiritual departure.
I don’t recall seeing my parents that evening. Maybe they only came to the funeral the following day and if so, it speaks volumes to the relationship between my father and his mother. I did not attend the funeral mass the next day. I had my final test of the exam cycle the following morning and that was not to be missed. The small, old, square lady, they buried the next day, was more an abstraction of age to my teenage mind. Towards the end, her face was an intricate lattice of wrinkles akin to the checker of an alligator boot. A couple of stray bristles had emerged from her chin and I meanly wondered at that time, why she’d left them untended. Now, over 40 years later, I’m shamed by those thoughts. Experience and the first vestiges of age have sobered such cruel thoughts as now my furrowed face stares back daily at me in the morning mirror.
Some years ago, my Father gave me a trove of pictures which included Nana, not as the old woman I remembered, but a beauty who must have turned heads. It was only then, as I approached 50, that I suddenly understood that this woman, who had been a difficult presence in my Father’s young life, had been young and beautiful and likely filled with hopes. It’s probable, this picture was taken close to the point when she married in 1922, no wonder my Grandfather Fred was smitten. It got me wondering as to whether her troublesome, divisive nature was embedded, at that point, or was that the product of later adversity?
Nana: Emily Behan 1896–1979, Photo: Nutty Archive restored by Kate Shanahan
In my early childhood, I had no sense of Nana’s divisive nature and the trouble she had caused my Father well into his young adult life. She had indulged and entertained me with stories of her younger life, a particular favorite involved how she’d saved her younger brother Jim from drowning in a canal. Jim, my Great Uncle was later to become a decorated IRA veteran, my Godfather and taught me how to play chess beyond simplistic wood pushing. I was enamored by Nana’s story telling ability and her willingness to entertain my childish curiosity. I recall asking her how, her hardcore Republican parents had reacted to her marrying my Grandfather Fred who had served in the British Army during World War I. She answered that her mother had not had a problem with it all and had been most welcoming, but was mute on her father’s reaction. Lacking a reportorial killer instinct, I omitted pressing her on that point. Frankly, I have no idea if I noticed the omission and all was only made clear, some 40 years later, when I received a copy of a letter written by Nana to her sister Christina Behan in America.
Christina Behan 1892–1964
This letter was only one of some 30 that had been saved by Christina which provide a deeper understanding of Nana’s family and stretch over a 20 year period beginning in 1911. On Christina’s death, in 1964, her son Eugene Pelligrini, had the letters transcribed and sent to his niece Rosaleen Culligan nee Murphy in Ireland.
Old letters, that have languished unread for many years, can be a treasure trove of lost family memories. Unlike civil or religious archival records, letters add depth and color to family members, they reveal hardships, feelings and thoughts which cannot be captured by sterile genealogical records. Such, is most definitely the case, with these letters which tell the story of my Nana Behan’s family. In particular they reveal the incredible stress and sorrow her family lived through in the seven years leading up to her wedding in 1922.
June of 1915 had begun with happiness for the Behan family but by August an awful tragedy would be visited upon them. Stephen Murphy, Christina’s Brother in Law, writing to his counterpart Arthur Benson in America relates the tale:
Extract (i) of letter from Stephen Murphy to Arthur Benson 19 Sep, 1915. Source Dermot Murphy
Stephen goes on to relate the sorrow and shock of the family on this sudden death. Elizabeth and Mary Behan, known as Lil and Marie, were the two oldest sisters of six. They were born a little over a year apart in April of 1888 and 1889 and were likely close as evidenced by their double wedding. Along with their 3 brothers, the family seem to have been fortunate to have not lost a sibling from childhood diseases as was certainly common in Dublin at the time. Maybe childhood mortality was not as prevalent in rural Laois where they grew up? No doubt this sudden mortality stung more for a family not hardened by early death.
Marie Behan’s Civil Death Registry Entry listed under her married name: Mary Guilfoyle 19 Aug, 1915
The letter goes on to explain that Marie had become pregnant shortly after her wedding but their was a problem lurking undetected as Stephen Murphy goes on to explain
Extract (ii) of letter from Stephen Murphy to Arthur Benson 19 Sep, 1915. Source Rosaleen Culligan nee Murphy
Stephen is describing an ectopic pregnancy which is still difficult to diagnose to this day. Prenatal medicine was likely limited in Ireland at the time and ultrasound testing, which could have detected the condition, was still decades away. Given Marie’s pregnancy and symptoms, it’s likely, a competent physician could have identified the condition, what corrective surgical action was available at the time, is unclear to me. What is clear though, is this tragedy initiated a very difficult period for Nana’s family.
Within a year, the 1916 Rising, had left Central Dublin in flames and by 1917 the IRA’s Carlow brigade had been formed. The brigade’s activities encompassed the Behan family’s Belgrove holding in Killeshin, County Laois. Nana’s family were staunch nationalists, her father Big Jim, had been a Fenian in his younger years and had been an active participant in the Irish Land War of 1879–1882. Nurtured on such activity, it’s no surprise that Nana’s three brothers, Tom, Mick and Jim volunteered for the brigade. Exactly when they volunteered is unknown to me, but it is clear that they were wanted men. Their activities came to the attention of the Black and Tans as recounted by Tom Behan in a letter, written from Mountjoy Prison to Christina
Extract of letter from Tom Behan to Christina Behan 21 Sep, 1921. Source Rosaleen Culligan nee Murphy
While the brothers Behan were preparing to fight for independence, Lil had settled with Stephen Murphy in a modest house on May Street in the Drumcondra neighborhood of Dublin. Two children were born, Rosaleen and Desmond in 1916 and 1918. Stephen had a respectable civil service job and the future must have looked bright despite the political uncertainty. But all was not well in the broader world, in the Spring if 1918 a new flu emerged. Academics continue to debate the exact origin of what became the most devastating flu pandemic to be visited on mankind. The Murphy household would not survive unscathed, early in March of 1919 Lil contracted the disease. Her struggle to survive continued for 16 days, but she finally succumbed to the illness on the 19th of March at her home. In less than four years the Behan family had lost their two eldest daughters and their three sons would soon be on the run from British Authorities
Civil death registry entry for Elizabeth Murphy nee Behan: 19 March, 1919
To understand the nature and impact of the 1918 — 1919 Flu Pandemic, I spoke with John Dorney a Dublin based independent historian who has written extensively on the pivotal 1916–1924 period in Irish history. My discussion with John has been edited for clarity and brevity
MN: I’m a joined right now by, John Dorney. John, give me a one minute biographical sketch, what are you known for? What do you do?
JD: I am an independent historian. I have a website, The Irish Story, and I also do a podcast with my friend Cathal Brennan, The Irish History Show. I’ve written two books on Irish history. One is called Peace After the Final Battle, which is about the Irish revolutionary period. The second book is called the Civil War in Dublin, which is about the conflict in Dublin in 1922 to 23
MN: I’d like to talk about the pandemic flu, starting with a high level overview of how the flu played out in Ireland as you understand it? Can you paint a picture?
JD: It’s thought, what’s known erroneously as the Spanish flu, probably originated in the military camps in Northern France in 1916 and 17. A very virulent outbreak appeared in 1918 and it was at first thought to be septic, pneumonia and then they realized, it was a novel disease.
It reached Ireland in the summer of 1918 and was very much a disease born by the first world war. In Ireland, it’s initially in the port cities where there’s also very heavy military recruitment. So this is Dublin Cork and Belfast in the first wave. It was an extremely contagious flu and rapidly spread beyond those cities.
The first wave of the flu was relatively mild, so not that many deaths. It was a nasty disease, but relatively mild in the first transmission. The second wave hit, in and around the time of the armistice in the First World War in October, November 1918 and this was a much more deadly flu. Dublin and Leinster were hit again, but many towns in Munster, particularly Cork and Limerick were also hit. Again, the disease was very strongly associated with the return of soldiers from the WWI and the rotation of soldiers, but also, strongly spread by events in Ireland. An election was called just after the armistice on November 11th, 1918 and it was very active and strong campaigning for a general election, which took place in December of that year. That probably also helped to spread it.
1918 Election Campaigning; Photo: Wikipedia
There’s a Naval base up in Donegal, so it appeared there. It may also have been taken back there, by seasonal laborers who worked in Scotland and worked picking potatoes, but that’s kind of conjecture, that was a very severe outbreak. Also in County Kildare beside Dublin, which was again, a military Depot. That was the second wave, the most deadly wave. Then there was another, very deadly wave in February, March, 1919 in the following year. In terms of the number infected, it was about 800,000. The population of Ireland at the time was a bit over 4 million. 800,000 is very high number, it’s in the region of 20% and in terms of deaths, we think about 23,000 deaths.
MN: How does the spread, compare to other countries, do you have any sense of that?
JD: It’s kind of average. In Britain, the death toll is about 200,000 and Britain has about 10 times Ireland’s population at the time, so roughly proportional.
MN: Britain has this same election in December of 1918. Ireland and Britain are essentially one country, despite the political background. Could it be a reason why they might line up?
JD: Britain obviously has has the same First World War context as well.
MN: Servicemen are rotating in and out from World War I, coming back to Ireland and you think that rotation itself probably brought the flu to Ireland and then you have Armistice in November 1918. We have all these soldiers coming back following the Armistice, but from what I understand, you wouldn’t really have had, major levels of returning troops until a bit after that?
JD: Yes, the Armistice is what it says, it’s an end to fighting. It’s not a settlement. Technically the First World War went on until the treaty, so the following year, so no, there wouldn’t have been, a sudden return of servicemen. But there would have been the normal rotation of soldiers to and from the training depots and to and from the fronts.
In addition to that, the effect of the Armistice, in particular, was loads of the relatives of service men in Ireland, kind of the loyalists to the ground, came out to celebrate the Armistice, to celebrate victory. There were big parades in the streets and that probably would have also helped the spread. A lot of Republicans or separatists in their recollections of the period, say separation women, which means the families of the service men who have joined the British army, were disproportionately affected, so that probably had a big impact.
In terms of the flu being introduced by troops again, this is almost certainly true, but it also has a political dimension in Ireland. Republicans, for example, Kathleen Lynn, the Republican doctor, was very vocal, about the fact that the troops were being rotated back from the front. They weren’t being quarantined and she said that this is irresponsible of the authorities and it shows how little they care about public health in Ireland. So, it has a political dimension as well, but almost certainly as it’s spread by the movement to and from the First World War.
MN: I’d like to take a step back to something that you said earlier. The Pandemic Flu came in three waves. The first wave was fairly muted, the second wave coinciding with November of 1918 and then the final wave in March of 1919. Would it be correct, in saying, that maybe the March 1919 was a bit more virulent in Ireland or is that a misreading on my part?
JD: No, I think that the November and February — March ones are both equally virulent. They’re both really bad ones. I don’t know if the March one was more virulent than November
MN: Switching gears a little bit, can you talk about support for families that lost a parent? Do you have a sense of the political/social welfare response to these kinds of scenarios? I understand that a lot of relatively young people died, young adults who might’ve had infant children. So what kind of steps were taken to address this?
JD: To backup your point there, one of the strange and tragic things about the Spanish flu, which is quite unlike this pandemic we’re having now, is that it killed people, young, strong adults, people in their twenties and thirties and early forties. We think it was because it triggered an immune response where people were killed by their own immune system.
Disproportionately, as you say, it was young adults. It was people who had young children. In terms of social welfare, there wasn’t anything like what we have in Ireland today. Children whose both parents had died, could be put into orphanages and orphanages would typically be run by religious organizations whether it was Catholic or Protestant.
That was actually great competition between Catholic and Protestant institutions over who would get children. If one parent dies, say the breadwinner and the family was destitute, they could apply to enter a workhouse or the poor law union, to give it its official title, was what passed for social welfare at the time.
So the poor would have to prove that they were destitute, and then they could enter the workhouse and they would work for their living, they would be given free accommodation and free food, but that was it. They were supported by the local taxpayers, the rate payers, so that was what was available at the time.
There was charitable organizations, which again, would have been very much dominated by the religious and they would have been at the mercy of the Goodwill of the general public, rather than state backed.