1918 Flu & The War of Independence

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?

Seán Beattie

Culdaff National Volunteers 1915 – Sean Beattie

Throughout the country, the National Volunteers were being organised and by 1914 a corps was formed in Culdaff with the purpose of securing the final passing of the Home Rule Bill. Initially, the corps was unarmed but by the end of 1914, finance became available from an unusual source. A Ballyharry man, James Kelly was working in Boston and was in contact with a Carndonagh man Patrick Doherty of Churchtown. Kelly decided to hold dances to raise funds for arms and huge numbers turned out for the functions, most of whom were from Inishowen. It was a night for exiles to meet, exchange greetings, and support a national cause.

By 1915 the corps had a collection of rifles, mostly second-hand, and they met three nights weekly for drilling in the village. An army instructor was at hand for training purposes. Emigrants continued to supply money for more rifles. Such activity was illegal but Volunteers were active through the land and the government took no action. It was a warning of things to come and in Culdaff House, there was much unease. The Culdaff Yeomen of old were being replaced by a new force.

At the same time, on a lighter note, the band of the Inniskilling Fusiliers was entertaining local people by marching through Moville. In the Square, Col. Robert Montgomery stood on a platform making speeches urging young men to sign up and fight for Belgium. This was the town his fore fathers had founded and he was proud of it. The band travelled to the town from Ebrington Barracks by boat and marched from the pier, while townspeople looked on silently.

Meanwhile, the Development Commissioners, the Congested Districts Board and the parish committee were demanding grants from the War Office in London for the development of Leenan pier in Clonmany to develop the fishing industry. Although the pier served Fort Dunree, the War Office refused to help because its resources were being diverted to the war in Europe.

But for many Donegal families, it was a time of suffering. News came through that Private Patrick Murrin of Killybegs was killed in May 1915 at Neuve Chapelle. A Moville man from Cooley, Private William Doherty was still fighting on the front and his family was concerned at newspaper reports of the fighting. The Law family was celebrating in Dunfanaghy when Francis Stewart Law, son of Hugh Law, MP for west Donegal was granted a Commission in the Irish Guards. The Laws were lucky as he would survive the war. With a world at war, local people turning to arms and politicians making questionable promises about Home Rule, it was difficult to predict the future turn of events in Donegal in 1915. No one knew what lay ahead. The arms which the Boston dancers paid for in support of the Culdaff Volunteers would subsequently be used for an assault on Culdaff House which would be burned to the ground along with courthouses, coastguard stations and police barracks. It was clear that even in peaceful districts such as  Inishowen, which were far removed from the conflict in 1915, it was the calm before the storm.

S Beattie. More to follow. Keep in touch.

Enjoy Burns Night on the 25th January (see earlier post)