On an autumn day, twenty five years ago, in a farmhouse kitchen in Killough in Co Down, there was a conversation about the closing days of 1918.
“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.
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 be changed forever. The shadow of sectarianism would last through his life, the shadow of the Big Flu still touched him after seventy-five years.