“I have sons of 42 and 45. They’re not like us, they don’t remember the bad times. They don’t remember what Ireland was like in the ’50s”.
He looked across the kitchen table and I nodded. I might have objected that I had been born in 1960 and could have no memories of 1950s Ireland, to have done so would have been a mistake. It would have blocked a flow of conversation that allowed him to recall days that were less than happy. I have learned how to be quiet. It wasn’t always so. I remember a conversation in 1993, almost twenty years ago, where I objected and realized afterwards that it had been the wrong decision.
“D’ye mine the Big Flu?” Sam had asked
“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 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. Sam’s world had changed and would change forever. The shadow of sectarianism would last through his life.
Sam had wanted to say something and I had cut him off. I have learned since that day that the facts are sometimes of less importance than the story.