Guy Beiner writes: The world has been taken entirely by surprise by the coronavirus pandemic. It appears as if nothing within living memory could have prepared us for such an unprecedented upheaval. But is that really the case?
Among the many commemorations marking Ireland’s “Decade of Centenaries”, one event passed almost unnoticed. In May 2019 I had the privilege to be invited to Áras an Uachtaráin, alongside Dr Ida Milne of Carlow College and Dr Patricia Marsh of the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, to participate in a seminar commemorating the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918-1919( https://president.ie/en/diary/details/president-hosts-a-reception-commemorating-the-great-flu-epidemic-of-1918-1919). In convening this meeting, probably the first of its kind to be hosted by a head of state, President Michael D Higgins was characteristically far-sighted. Of all the historical anniversaries signalled out to be memorialised, this may have been the most neglected and yet the most significant when placed in a global context.
The number of fatalities from the influenza epidemic in Ireland (based on the official figures provided by the registrar general, Sir William J Thompson) was in the area of 23,000 and as many as 900,000 may have been infected. In the absence of precise data on large areas of Africa, China and the Soviet Union (which was in a state of Civil War), it is impossible to know for sure mortality figures worldwide. The most up-to-date estimate, put forward in 2002 by the Australian historical geographer Niall PAS Johnson (author of Britain and the 1918-19 Influenza Pandemic) and the German historian Jürgen Müller, suggested that deaths were in “the order of 50 million” but added the incredible caveat that “it must be acknowledged that even this vast figure may be substantially lower than the real toll, perhaps as much as 100 percent understated”. Moreover, over a third of the world’s population, perhaps even up to a billion people, may have suffered from influenza-related illnesses. It is striking that a catastrophe of such magnitude was for many decades subject to academic neglect and up until very recently was hardly ever commemorated in public.
In terms of the politics of memory, the Great Flu was overshadowed by the Great War. Even in independent Ireland, where the cliché is often voiced that Irish participation in the First World War was subject to “amnesia”, there was significantly more remembrance of the casualties of the war than of the influenza epidemic that came towards its end and continued in its aftermath.
Historiography has finally caught up with this glaring oversight and recent years have seen a good number of publications on the so-called “Spanish” Influenza (a misleading nickname that probably derived from the fact that neutral Spain, unlike the belligerent countries, did not censure reports on the epidemic). For example, Pale Rider, a global narrative of the pandemic written by the science journalist Laura Spinney and issued ahead of the centenary was translated into numerous languages and became an international bestseller. A unique feature of history books on the 1918-19 pandemic is that practically all of them end with cautionary reflections on how such a disaster could happen again. Such explicitly prescriptive warnings are most unusual in historical studies. History, it seems, was shifting its gaze from the past to the future.
The Irish-language documentary Aicíd, screened in November 2008 on TG4, was the first television programme to introduce the topic to public debate in Ireland. In 2009, the popular magazine History Ireland published an article titled “Greatest Killer of the Twentieth Century”, which has apparently since been widely read even at secondary school level. A couple of years later, Caitriona Foley’s The Last Irish Plague came out with Irish Academic Press and more recently Ida Milne’s Stacking the Coffins was published by Manchester University Press. The Cobh Readers & Writers Festival in 2018 hosted a History Ireland Hedge School panel discussion, and both the Glasnevin Cemetery Museum (in conjunction with Trinity College) and the Ulster Museum held conferences to mark the centenary. Milne has been travelling the width and breadth of the country giving talks on her book and Marsh (who has yet to publish her PhD thesis on the epidemic in Ulster) has been doing much the same in Northern Ireland. At these events, people regularly come up and share their own family recollections, many of which have never been publicly outed.
Ireland’s growing awareness of the history and memory of the Great Flu pandemic is part of a global phenomenon, which was stimulated by the fears aroused by the outbreak of SARS in 2002, the avian flu alert of 2003 and the swine flu of 2009-10. The centenary of the Great Flu in 2018-2019 brought a good deal of publicity through documentaries (including BBC Two’s The Flu That Killed 50 Million), public exhibitions (such as Spanish Flu at the Florence Nightingale Museum in London) and online platforms, such as the podcasts of “Going Viral: The Mother of All Pandemics”, presented by the historians Hannah Mawdsley and Mark Honigsbaum (whose most recent book is titled The Pandemic Century).
Perhaps most remarkable is how popular culture has taken on board the new historiography. “Spanish” influenza has been frequently referenced, and even featured, in television dramas, most notably in an episode of Downton Abbey (series 2, episode 8). Over the past two decades there has been a growing crop of novels set against the background of the 1918-1919 pandemic. In English alone I have encountered over eighty books, including juvenile fiction and a whole range of genres from historical novels to sci-fi, though few of these titles have attracted critical attention. More generally, this rediscovery of interest kindled a wider fascination with apocalyptic stories of pandemics that is apparent in contemporary literature and cinema (Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 movie Contagion being the most prescient example).
All in all, if we take into account the large volume of readily available information and cultural representations on the pandemic of a century ago, it turns out that the experience of the present pandemic is not entirely unfamiliar. In my studies of history and memory, I have proposed that the relationship between the two is not necessarily linear. We intuitively suppose that an event can be remembered only after it has occurred, but in practice remembrance begins during the event, if not earlier. Even before an event unfolds, our perceptions of it are shaped by expectations and anxieties grounded in historical remembrance of previous events.
It is too early to say how we will ultimately remember the COVID-19 (or to use the official medical name SARS-CoV-2) pandemic, but in a sense, we are already drawing on a prememory that is based on our notions (whether factual or fictional) of the Great Flu.
Guy Beiner is the visiting Burns Scholar in Irish Studies at Boston College and is editing a volume of essays on remembering, forgetting and rediscovering the Great Flu pandemic of 1918-19 (a project which began long before the outbreak of the current pandemic).