TB, polio and those teen tearaways: the terrors of our times

By | March 23, 2020

We have been here before. We’ve survived much worse times. The First World War, for instance, which was followed with heartbreaking speed by the so-called Spanish Flu. It’s just about in living memory, and the government was in a state of chaos.

n December 1918, just weeks after the guns of World War One fell silent, the people of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland went to the polls for the first time since 1910. The campaign took place during the great Spanish Flu pandemic which killed up to fifty million people worldwide, wiping out 280,000 victims in Britain and Ireland. The Evening Herald speculated that the cause of the flu was swine fever caught from eating “bad bacon”.

More than 23,000 people lost their lives in Ireland to the pandemic in just one year – with the first wave of the killer virus believed to have arrived in Belfast before migrating down to Dublin and Cork. Globally, the Spanish Flu infected an estimated 500 million people and killed three to five per cent of the world’s population, making it the deadliest pandemic in human history. This virus was unlike any other – it infected the young and the old. The new strain of infection – the most devastating since the great plague of the 17th Century was concentrated on the healthy and strong, with those under the age of 40 worst hit.

The terror of the middle 20th Century in Ireland was TB, tuberculosis. A disease of the lungs, it took away three of my uncles. TB rampaged the land and ravished the people. In the capital city it killed more than 10,000 people a year, most of them children. The infectious tuberculosis virus thrived in the crowded tenements of inner city Dublin and in the badly ventilated thatched cottages in the country. Its speed of infection was devastating, even among those who were healthy. A man (it was always men who got the jobs) could not land a slot in the civil service without a clean x-ray.

Disease stigma

The historian Anne MacLellan captured the terror of the times, writing: “In 1922, the year the independent Irish state was founded, a total of 4,614 deaths from tuberculosis were recorded in the country. Of these deaths, 611 were among children under the age of 15 years. This is probably an underestimate of the real death toll as there was a stigma associated with the disease and people tried not to have tuberculosis recorded as the cause of death for family members.

“For every death, it is estimated that there were five to seven people ill with tuberculosis. For the first half of the twentieth century tuberculosis was the third leading cause of death among Irish children, eclipsed only by gastroenteritis and pneumonia.”

After decades when it was the illness that dared not speak its name, tuberculosis became front page news with the appointment of Doctor Noel Browne as Minister for Health in 1948. Browne – in an unusual step for the times – appointed a woman, Dorothy Stopford Price, as the chairman of a National Consultative Council on Tuberculosis. Dublin Corporation and Department of Health officials were not in favour of having a strong-willed woman running things.

Without doubt the most effective Minister for Health in the country’s history, Noel Browne was not thanked by his coalition partners. Fianna Fáil had succeeded in making the term ‘coalition’ a dirty word with Irish voters, with the result that the five-party coalition which took power in 1948 had called itself an Inter-Party Government in an attempt to ward off the stigma of instability. After three years in office, the coalition had notched up some achievements, most tellingly Noel Browne’s drive to wipe out tuberculosis. However, cracks increasingly began to show after the Health Minister went on a solo run and unveiled plans for a free Mother & Child health plan. This was empowering women. Browne’s radical scheme was denounced by his own party leader, Sean MacBride, as the thin end of the Red wedge. The Fifties were a particularly poor time to be accused of communism.

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Polio panic

Mass polio epidemics crippled hundreds of Irish children and caused panic every summer during the Forties and Fifties. The last major epidemic in Ireland occurred in Cork in 1956. Those stricken were immobilised inside iron lungs – gigantic metal cylinders that were effectively a pair of bellows to keep people breathing. The introduction of vaccines and the movement of inner city populations out of overcrowded tenements curbed the epidemic.

And no sooner had polio been put in its place than came the next big scare, the teen tearaway.

A 1963 edition of the popular magazine Irish Housewife ran a feature on ‘A Day In The Life Of A Ban Garda’. The piece underlined society’s fear of, and obsession with, The Juvenile Delinquent. The writer reported that in 1961, 1,319 children aged 13 and under were convicted of indictable crimes, most of them for housebreaking, shoplifting, muggings and bag-snatching. This delinquency, the reader learned, was down to: “Lack of parental control, intemperate habits, laziness, ignorance and home conditions, and profitable crime depicted on television and cinema screens.”

As mentioned, throughout the Sixties, crumbling old urban tenements were being demolished and the communities that had occupied them for generations were being uprooted and transplanted to new estates in the suburbs. The new arrivals were often received with distrust and dismay by their new neighbours.

For instance, a piece on social isolation from The Sunday Review, February 1963: “At social functions, Tuppence Ha’penny must never be asked to rub shoulders with Tuppence. In two suburban areas in County Dublin where residents associations have held dances, I have been told it was found necessary to hold two separate functions – one for the teens from the better class houses and one for the more democratic housing estates.”

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Social isolation. Ask your elders, they’ve been here before.

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