How the 1918 flu changed the course of the War of Independence in Donegal
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect not only on our social life and freedoms but also on our economy. It was no different in the last great pandemic in 1918 known as the Spanish Flu.
Largely forgotten until recently, the Spanish Flu had similar consequences for our forebears. In the case of Donegal, it had a dramatic impact on the War of Independence a century ago. By way of illustration, I have taken the case of Joe Sweeney.
Sweeney is well known for having fought alongside Patrick Pearse in the GPO in the Easter Rebellion in 1916. By June 1918, now aged 21, he was a young student of Engineering in University College, Galway, and enjoying all the advantages of his third-level education. But suddenly, everything changed. He was one of the first people in Galway to get the disease. Despite his youth, he was admitted to hospital where he remained for several weeks before making a full recovery. He was fit and healthy and was the last person one would expect to fall ill.
As a result of his time in hospital, he missed his Engineering exams and decided to drop out of college. He came home and soon found himself caught up in the maelstrom of activities involving the Volunteers in west Donegal. Because of his associations with 1916 and Patrick Pearse, he quickly rose in the ranks and became O/C (Officer Commanding) of the west Donegal battalion. His mode of transport was a bicycle and his district extended from Creeslough to Cliffoney in Co. Sligo. Fortunately, his health was sound, thus making it possible for him to face the many personal and political challenges that lay ahead.
Sweeney’s future career in politics, revolution and business is well catalogued elsewhere but it is worth noting that had it not been for the Spanish Flu pandemic, Sweeney’s dynamic role in the War of Independence in this county would have been very different. He subsequently became the O/C of the First Northern Battalion which included volunteer units in Carrowmena, Carndonagh, Clonmany and Buncrana.
We are in a similar situation today. Who can dare to predict the outcomes of Covid-19? Or will it all be quietly forgotten in a century from now?