A birthday gathering yesterday for a man born in 1918. To sit and converse with someone whose life has encompassed almost the entirety of modern history is fascinating. It is not the big stuff that is intriguing, anyone can read that in the history books, it is the reminiscences of daily life and events.
The ability to be quiet and to listen has developed greatly in the last quarter century. One day, in 1993, there was a conversation about 1918 in a farmhouse kitchen in Killough in Co Down
“D’ye mine the Big Flu?”
“I don’t, Sam. The Big Flu was at the end of the First World War, 1918. That’s seventy-five years ago”.
“Ach. Ye would nae mine it then”.
Sam sat at the black range in his farmhouse kitchen. Arthritic, even in his late 80s he still pulled himself up onto his old tractor each morning and went out to his fields. A grandson came and helped; it was a hard life.
Sam sat on an upright wooden chair in the warmth of a log fire. The autumn cold penetrated his joints and the strength of former days was gone. There was silence as he looked down at hands the size of banana bunches with skin the texture of sandpaper.
What was it that Sam had remembered on that afternoon in 1993? Who had died from the townland in which he lived? What stories did he still recall from those times?
The Big Flu, Spanish Influenza, swept through Europe at the end of 1918. As if four years of slaughter had not been enough, natural causes were now to claim more lives than the war had done. The further irony was that the Big Flu targeted the age group who had suffered most in the years of warfare. While most influenza threatened the vulnerable: children, the frail, the elderly; Spanish Flu had its most devastating effects among young and healthy adults.
The Big Flu must have seemed like the final straw to communities battered and reeling from the years of the war. Conservative estimates of the fatalities caused by the influenza worldwide suggest 25 million people died; other estimates are far higher. Around the world, perhaps one person in forty, or even one person in twenty, had died from flu by 1919. Everyone would have known someone who had died – including Sam.
It was not even as though the end of war meant peace. Germany collapsed into a state of revolution; Ireland succumbed to the Troubles. Everywhere there was discontent and anger.
In the rural areas of England it was possible in some ways to revert to Edwardian times. J L Carr’s A Month in the Country creates a vision of a world coming to terms with the devastation that had changed their world, and doing so in the very English way of carrying on as though everything was normal. Sam would not have had that option. His world had changed and would change forever. The shadow of sectarianism would last through his life.
Being asked now, “D’ye mine the Big Flu?” I would have the wisdom to respond with a question and not a statement. Sam had wanted to say something and I had cut him off. What I missed that afternoon more than twenty years ago was an insight into the world of 1918.