The Social Impact of the Smallpox epidemic in Athenry, Co. Galway, 1875

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This article investigates the smallpox epidemic in Athenry from its outbreak in March 1875 until its eradication in October of the same year. The epidemic claimed 49 lives, and 171 people suffered from the disease. The population of the Athenry Dispensary District at this period was 7,693. In order to carry out this research the principal contemporary sources include the Minute Books of the Loughrea Board of Guardians available in the Galway County Library, and the Chief Secretary’s Office Registered Papers in the National Archives of Ireland. The bulk of the records relating to the epidemic centre on communication with Dr Brodie, the Local Government Board Inspector and Dr Leonard, the medical officer for Athenry. The surviving files from the Chief Secretary’s Papers provide a wealth of detail and portray a vivid picture of local happenings. The national and local newspapers of the period also recorded the events of the community, and of the activities of both official and voluntary agencies. This article restricts its study to the cost of smallpox on the community, the damaging effect on the trade and economy of the town and the disruptive effects upon everyday life. The chronology of the outbreak has been dealt with in my article in the Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society. 1

The first significant indication of the mounting fears and tensions experienced by the community emerged from a report by J.H. Blake, the deputy vice-chairman of the Loughrea Union, dated 16th April 1875. The episode relates to the transfer of Catherine Cannon, a smallpox patient, from Athenry to the workhouse at Loughrea.

There was great consternation displayed here yesterday by the removal of a smallpox patient from Athenry to the workhouse hospital. The workhouse van was sent for on yesterday morning, Thursday, and the patient driven through the town here at a little after 5 o’clock p.m., when the streets were crowded, being market day. The people got very excited, and would, I am informed, have driven the van back again, were it not for the interference of the constabulary. 2

However, on its return from Loughrea to Athenry the workhouse van was attacked, the horse and driver sent back, and the van itself burned. The fear associated with the threat of importing the disease from an outside source infuriated the locals encouraging them to congregate on the outskirts of the town. Dr Brodie, the Inspector to the Loughrea Local Government Board, recalled the details of the incident.

As the van was passing the west bridge on the way to Athenry they shouted threatening language to the driver and taking command of the horse cut some of the harness to prevent his proceeding further. The driver accordingly returned with the horse to the workhouse and the van was taken over towards the lake and deposited on the fair green. The police subsequently took charge and two constables remained on guard. However, by five o’clock that evening the van was set alight and totally destroyed. The van was not removed from the custody of the police and it does not appear that any effort was made to extinguish the flames.3

As a result, two sub-constables, William Fitzgerald and Henry Bassett, were charged with neglect of duty for permitting the workhouse van to be burned and utterly destroyed while in their charge. The two men denied the charge and the statement they produced contains revealing details about the determination of the locals to prevent the disease infiltrating their community.

 It was to all appearances unanimously decided by the townspeople beforehand to destroy it [the van]. This is sufficiently proved by the numbers that attended there in the first instant headed by two Roman Catholic clergymen…  The ease with which it was consumed furnished I think conclusive proofs that the vehicle was prepared for destruction previous to its falling into the hands of the Police.4

The two sub-constables were acquitted of negligence and the Local Government Board requested the Guardians to provide a covered vehicle immediately for the conveyance of sick patients to hospital. However, by 1st May they had not received any tenders for the supply of the van and the clerk was again directed to advertise for such. Finally on 8th May, Captain Rogers reported that the covered car had been purchased from a Mr Gunter for the sum of £8.5

It is an interesting feature of the epidemic that as the crisis was occurring and affecting an increasing proportion of the community of Athenry, the inhabitants were cautious and reluctant to become closely involved in efforts to curtail its diffusion. The locals, for example, objected to several proposed sites for the iron hospital ordered from London 6, and subsequently the Board of Guardians was unable to induce any of the tradesmen of Athenry to venture on the hospital grounds for the purpose of getting one of the out-offices fitted up as an auxiliary. An effort was made by Dr Donoghue, the Loughrea Dispensary Doctor and Relieving Officer Fleckham, to locate a house to be used as a temporary hospital.

… They searched, but could get no person to consent to let a house, or a field of paddock, for a site for the hospital.7

At the meeting of the Board of Guardians on 24th April the clerk produced letters and telegrams received from Mr Goodbody of Clare, relating to the site for the iron hospital on one of his farms near Athenry, the result being that he regrets he could not comply with the request of the Board, on the grounds that his people object to have smallpox patients in their neighbourhoods. 8

A further proposal was offered by J. Blake, agent to the Marquis Clanricarde who promised a site in the townland of Slieveroe about 1 and 1/2 miles from Athenry own. However, the erection of the hospital on this site was not viewed in a very favourable light by the Craughwell people either as a large number assembled with the Parish Priest, Revd. Mr Arthur, and manifested by their expressions and gestures their disapproval and hinted their determination to oppose by force the proposed building being sent amongst them.9

The Athenry Dispensary Committee met on 3rd May and unanimously agreed to a site for the erection of the hospital, namely the waste plot of ground near the old barrack, and close to the river. The proposed new site was promptly opposed to by the inhabitants of the town, and a petition of protest was signed by thirty-seven of the parishioners including Rev. John O’Grady, the Parish Priest and Fr James Ronayne, the Curate. The opposition lodged by the protesters asserted that the selected location was commonage and that the Board of Guardians had no right to interfere with it, without the approval of the inhabitants. It was alleged that “every means will be adopted to prevent its erection, and that should it be persisted in, violence will be resorted to by the people.”10

Following a special meeting of the Dispensary Committee on 6th May Fr Ronayne stormed forth and asserted that the hospital should not be built upon the commons of Athenry. This outburst provoked further opposition from those in attendance, who in a short time afterwards gave full vent to their feelings in angry expressions to the effect that the hospital should not be put up there, adding significantly, that they could do the same as the people of Loughrea did to the van.11

In desperation, Dr Brodie exclaimed in a report to the Local Government Board – Thus we find ourselves thwarted in every step we take. The Loughrea people will not allow us to avail ourselves of the workhouse. The parish priest of Craughwell and parishioners will not allow us to erect on the site given by Mr J. Blake; and now the parish priest, his curate, and thirty-seven of the inhabitants of Athenry, are up in arms against us.12

These incidents raise the question of the authority of the clergy in the community and their ability to act as spokesmen and influence events. It is also interesting to observe that the inhabitants refused to be dictated to by the authorities and demanded an input in the decision making process. With regard to the smallpox hospital, a site was eventually agreed upon through the intervention of Mr Lambert and Mr Irvine, his occupying tenant. A part of Lambert’s field in the neighbourhood of the town was chosen as a site. To avoid further delay in persuading tradesmen to carry out construction work, Mr Irvine made an offer of the house in which he resided which could be made available for the reception of smallpox patients within days. On 9th May Dr Brodie visited the house about a quarter of a mile from the town and reported it to be quite secluded, with a field attached to it, and is in every way suitable for the purpose.13

By 30th May the hospital accommodation was insufficient for the number of smallpox patients requiring attention. The Local Government Board was unable to induce any of the tradesmen of Athenry to venture on the hospital grounds for the purpose of converting one of the out-offices as an auxiliary.

Failing in Athenry to procure skilled hands for this object Mr Keller of Loughrea offered his services to carry out work, but at the last moment he also declined, alleging opposition on the part of his family and dread of carrying the disease from Athenry to Loughrea.14

As a last resort Mr Irvine was approached and put the office in question into proper order.

The fears and concerns of the community at this time was brought to the attention of the public at large through national and international newspaper reports. The first detailed international report on the epidemic was published in the London Times of 26th May 1875. The author found it strange that no mention was made in the Irish papers of “a plague of smallpox of a most malignant type which has been desolating the town of Athenry during the last month.” He described the inhabitants as being in a state of quarantine since “nobody that can possibly avoid it will come near them. Those who must resort to the railway station outside the walls approach it by all sorts of circuitous ways, rather than pass through the streets.” Business, he reported “was at a deadlock, and the attendance at the parish church had dropped dramatically from an average of eighty to eight. A further article published in The Times on 28th June observed that the town was still rigidly tabooed.

The depth of fear can be measured to some extent by the lack of support demonstrated at funerals for bereaved friends and neighbours stricken by the disease. Funerals are avoided by the populace to such a degree that until a suitable mortuary vehicle was provided by the Board of Guardians mothers were reduced to the bitter necessity of carrying their children to the grave. I do not recollect that Defoe relates a similar incident in connection with the Great Plague of London, but, allowance being made for the humanising progress of two centuries, the ‘present horror’ is very revolting.15

The Irish Times sent a special correspondent to Athenry who relayed that smallpox of a type of unusual malignity and fatality had settled down in the town. The editor commented that his report was written with the object of moderating and allaying the feeling of panic and terror and continues:  … lt is not so much to the disease itself that we now desire to call attention, but to consequences just as serious, which are its outcome. All trade, business, traffic, and industry, have ceased in the village, round which fear has established a cordon as effective as a blockade. Many of those better off fled to other towns, but on their place of abode being ascertained, they were driven back by the people. Tradesmen and labourers have been out of employment for weeks, and numbers of them and their families are in the direst want, conditions that tend powerfully to stimulate the spread of the disease. The Catholic clergy have had to exhaust all their influence to prevent the unemployed and destitute from breaking out, under the black flag of starvation, and levying on the rich pastures of the locality a demand, by sheep and cattle raids, for the means of support. 16

This article generated a lively response in the local newspapers and Dr Brodie accused it of brewing up unnecessary and damaging fear and alarm in the minds of the uninformed outside community.  … with the introduction of smallpox into the neighbourhood nothing else has tended more to injure the prospects of the town of Athenry or interfere with the business or calling of its inhabitants than the sensational news which have been from time to time sent to the public papers and will not hesitate to exaggerate or distort facts to suit their own purposes, the result being to cause unnecessary alarm and terror in the minds of people at a distance, and prevent them resorting where their business might require their presence.17

The considerable influence of the newspaper reports is evident from the reaction generated, for example, by the article to The Times of 28th June, and subsequently reproduced in The Freeman’s Journal three days later. The circumstances of the Boyle family whose names had been so prominently put before the public in these articles led to an inquiry by the Local Government Board. The inquiry was initiated following the harrowing report of the funeral of a young member of the Boyle family. Four of the five children had been stricken by the disease and died, and when Mrs Boyle brought out the third for burial there was no man to assist her. She therefore, placed the little coffin on her head and set out unattended towards the Abbey churchyard.18

The account explains that Many, her eldest daughter of about sixteen years seeing her mother pass rushed out from her master’s house into the street and seizing the coffin by force bore it away  returning jaded and breathless to her mother’s door – it would have been useless to present herself at any other door after that open contact with mortality – Mary Boyle sank down upon the threshold  and in less than 48 hours men were found to carry her over the path which she had trodden alone, and to place her in the same grave with her little brothers and her sister.

Dr Leonard’s recollections of the events surrounding the funeral were at variance to The Times report. The doctor insisted that he had ordered a coffin himself and had sent the assistant Relieving Officer to see to the grave being dug. He related that the neighbours attended and were waiting for the funeral when the mother whipped up the coffin and carried it a short distance, when it was taken from her by a man named Flynn, who carried to the churchyard and deposited it in the grave previously prepared by the assistant Relieving Officer.19

Dr Leonard denied both the allegations that Mrs Boyle’s daughter carried the coffin to the graveyard and that her remains were placed in the same grave within 48 hours. She was in hospital four or five days before she died, and was two days with Mrs McTighe, her mistress, before admission to hospital; nor did she at all come to her mother’s house until the morning of her removal to hospital. The doctor’s evidence was corroborated by the Relieving Officer of the district. 20

The tragedy of such events was brought to the attention of a wide audience both in England and Ireland and would have had a great impact on the public regardless of whether the account had been exaggerated or not.

During the epidemic the Board of Guardians had to contend with issues such as the advisability of holding or postponing certain events. The annual fair, for example, due to be held on 5thMay caused particular concern to the Guardians.

… in consequence of the prevalence of smallpox, and having requested the opinion of their consulting sanitary officer thereon, he stated that he considers it would be perilous to hold said fair under the present circumstances.21

The magistrates at the Ballinasloe Petty Sessions communicated with the Lord Lieutenant to advise him of their opposition to holding a fair at this time. They pointed out that it was the habit of cattle dealers to purchase stock at Athenry and resell them to the Leinster grazers at Ballinasloe fair. … we fear if the fair of Athenry is allowed to be held on the 5th May the fearful disease will be sure to extend to this town (now happily free from contagious disease) and to other parts of the county, and we therefore respectfully request His Excellency to prevent by order in Council the said fair of Athenry being held.” 22

Despite the concerns of the Ballinasloe magistrates and the Loughrea Board of Guardians, their applications to postpone the fair was refused. The Local Government Board replied that they had received communication from the Under Secretary for Ireland stating that he had no power to prevent the holding of the fair on the grounds suggested. The fair was subsequently held in a large field in the town know as “The Back Lawn” and not on the streets as before.

The fair will come off on the 5th inst. Captain Blakeney, Abbert, ex-high Sheriff of the county, who is proprietor of the tolls and customs, has procured from Mr Kinneen, a part in the vicinity of the town for the purpose so that parties attending it need have no intercourse with the town.23

The holding of the Athenry petty sessions was cancelled during the course of the epidemic. The first session held in the district for several months was on 31st August. One of the cases to be disposed of was against John Dillon, a shopkeeper of the town. He was accused of exposure while suffering from smallpox, to the danger of the public and contrary to medical and sanitary directions. Dr Leonard having seen the accused on the platform of the railway station directed him to return home. He complied, but travelled to Galway the following day. For this offence Dillon was fined £3 with costs of court, or in default of payment, to be imprisoned for two calendar months in the gaol of Galway, with hard labour.24

The most significant case of prosecution during the epidemic was the case of Patrick Corcoran, a baker from Tuam, for wilfully exposing his assistant, William Burke, while suffering from smallpox. Burke had attended Dr Turner who ordered his immediate removal to hospital. lt appeared on inquiry that his instructions were blatantly ignored by Corcoran, who recommended Burke to return home to Tiaquin. Corcoran accompanied the patient to the railway station and hurried him into a carriage to evade the notice of the railway officials. Burke arrived in Athenry on 1st March where he remained for some hours before travelling the six miles by car to his father’s house in Tiaquin.

This was the first case of smallpox reported in Athenry, and within three weeks Burke was dead. The Attorney-General advised that Corcoran should be proceeded against, and after some postponement the case was heard in Tuam Court House on 10th May. 25 Corcoran was fined £2:10:0 or in default sentenced to one month’s imprisonment. A local newspaper quoted Dr Brodie’s disappointment at the leniency of the sentence [they] should have been more rigorous in the case of Corcoran. Over sixty cases in Athenry are traced to the one.26

Fr Walsh who attended the deceased in his last illness also contracted the disease and died. A small graveyard beside the Roman Catholic Church in Athenry contains the grave of Rev. John Walsh. The monument was erected by the parishioners, and the inscription mentions smallpox as the cause of death.

While some of the newspaper reports may have discredited the district they also succeeded in generating sympathy and increased donations to the relief fund. The Galway Express of 5th June acknowledged the generous contributions received and especially to one, an Englishman, who went into the office of The Times, in London, and lodged a cheque for £20 refusing to make his name public …27

The Relief Fund was established by Mrs Persse, Moyode Castle and assisted by Mrs Gardiner, the Cottage Athenry, for the relief of the poor made redundant as a consequence of the smallpox epidemic. Their brief also extended to providing clothes for the patients released from hospital, their old clothes having been burned on admission. lt is interesting that the initiative for this act of charity was taken by a lady of rank rather than members of the clergy who were dynamic and vocal in their protests associated with the siting of the smallpox hospital. The Parish priest, Rev. John O’Grady, did feature again in the Minute Books of the Local Government Board when he made an application requesting the Board to fix a salary for him drawing attention to the great trouble and danger he has to undergo in attendance on smallpox patients in hospital.28

On 9th July Fr O’Grady was granted a salary of £40 for one year as Roman Catholic Chaplain to the smallpox hospital only to be revoked by the Local Government Board as being illegal. Fr O’Grady persisted with further letters dated 4th November and 23rd February 1876, requesting £20 for his “spiritual attendance and ministration at the smallpox hospital Athenry.” The £20 was finally issued to the priest in February 1876.

The Relief Fund appears to have been extremely successful. The Tuam Herald published an impressive list of subscribers 29 with representatives from all parts of Ireland, from England and one donation was received from A.J.E. Alexander with an address in Stuttgart. The ninety contributors were also representative of all sections of the community including policemen, the clergy, the gentry, herd and workmen, and the servants at Castle Ellen and Moyode. Some of the contributions were exceedingly generous ranging from 2s to a maximum of £25.

The fear and apprehension that permeated the community remained unabated, and in July the Board of Guardians requested Dr Leonard to appoint Dr Burke, the medical officer of Bullaun Dispensary District, as his locum for vaccination. The Board was most anxious that Dr Burke should attend in the Athenry Dispensary District because, having good cause to believe that in consequence of the outbreak of the disease in the District and the fact of Dr Leonard being in attendance on the patients there; an objection and prejudice exist amongst the people to allowing the medical officer vaccinate as heretofore.30

Despite the reluctance of the locals to attend Dr Leonard for vaccination, his service during the epidemic was greatly appreciated by the community at large. A Leonard Testimonial Fund was initiated in recognition of his professional zeal in coping so successfully with the epidemic. It was recognised that Dr Leonard had to relinquish his extensive private practice during the period resulting in a serious loss to himself and his family. Dr Leonard was at his post night and day, he had to live apart from his family without any attendance whatever – in fact, Dr Leonard hardly ever changed his clothes during the continuance of the epidemic. His conduct under the trying circumstances in which he was placed was the admiration of all who had any knowledge of the sad circumstances.31

The popularity of Dr Leonard in the community is evident from the long list of contributors published in the Galway Vindicator,32 and also from the highly complementary articles in the local press following his death in May 1893.

The examples cited in this article have served to illustrate some aspects of the ost of smallpox upon the everyday life of the community. The fears and tensions that permeated during the outbreak are examined and the issues that divided and bound the community together are isolated. An interesting observation from his article indicates that the inhabitants were generally cautious and reluctant to become closely involved in efforts to curtail its diffusion. However, they also refused to be dictated to by the authorities and demanded an on-going input in the community’s decision-making process. The combined efforts of the medical officer, the Board of Guardians, and the local community ensured that the epidemic did not continue to rage out of control and ceased without recurrence.

1 ‘Smallpox in Athenry 1875′, JGAHS, vol. 48, 1996, pp 143-152.

2 Smallpox (Athenry), H.C. 1875 (422), lx, p.10.

3 Chief Secretary’s Office Registered Papers 1875, no. 12512 (24th April).

4 lbid., no. 9121.

5 Minute Book of Loughrea Union, vol. 43.

6 Unfortunately the plans for the iron hospital to cater for twelve patients have not survived.

However, it is possible to speculate that the temporary building constituted a prefabricated

metal panel system to facilitate rapid site assembly. This construction would appear to be the

most practical and economical design type.

7 Report from Dr Brodie to Local Government Board, 24th April 1875, Smallpox (Athenry)

1875, p.15.

8 lbid., p.17.

9 lbid., p.24. (7111 May 1875).

10 Chief Secretary’s Office Registered Papers 1875, no. 12512.

11 Dr Brodie to Local Government Board 7 May 1875, Smallpox (Athenry) 1875, p.24.

12 lbid., p.21.

13 lbid., p.26

14 Chief Secretary’s Office Registered Papers 1875, no. 12512. (30th May 1975).

15 The Times, 2am June 1875, p.13.

16 Irish Times, Friday 11th June 1875, p.2.

17 Chief Secretary’s Office Registered Papers 1875, no. 12512 (4th July).

18 The Times, 2nd June 1875, p.13

19 Chief Secretary’s Office Registered Papers 1875, no. 12512 (4th July)

20 Smallpox (Athenry) 1875, p.38. Report from Dr Brodie, 4th July.

21 Extract from Minutes of the Board of Guardians, 24th April 1875. Smallpox (Athenry) 1875, p.11.

22 Chief Secretary’s Office Registered Papers 1875, no. 7053. (24th April 1875).

23 The Galway Vindicator, Saturday 1st t May 1875, p.3.

24 The Galway Express, 4th September 1875, p.4.

25 Chief Secretary’s Office Registered Papers 1875, no. 12512.

26 The Tuam Herald, 29th May 1875.

27 The Galway Express, Saturday June 5th, 1875, p.4.

28 Minute Book of Loughrea Union, vol. 43. 24th June 1875.

29 The Tuam Herald, Saturday 24th July 1875, p.3.

30 Minute Book of Loughrea Union, vol. 43, 17th July 1875.

31 The Galway Express, 20th November 1875, p.3

32 The Galway Vindicator, December 4th 1875, p.3.

Editor’s note: This very important article was written, by Anne Walsh, for The Athenry Journal in March 1997 but regrettably misplaced until now!

Anne, whose mother was Patricia (Patsy) Murphy, Clarke St., Athenry, was  librarian in Trinity College, Dublin. Her  She was co-editor of “History of Trinity College Library Dublin” 1999 and “Essays on the History of Trinity College Library Dublin” 2000

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About this record

Written by Anne Walsh

Published here 18 May 2023

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