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Spring Seminar, Cardinal O'Fiaich Library
Armagh, Saturday 30 March 2019

Seminar Attendees

Thirty people attended the seminar. Chairman Johnny Dooher welcomed the participants and thanked the Events Committee for devising a very interesting and diverse programme. He also thanked the Cardinal O'Fiaich Library for hosting it; always helpful in the past. The main speakers would be introduced by members of the Executive Committee

Damien WoodsIntroduced by Josie Herbison, Damien Woods,Seanchais Ard Mhacha, gave a fascinating talk about the tragic Armagh rail disaster that happened on 12 June 1889 near Armagh, when a crowded Sunday school excursion train had to negotiate a steep incline, was unable to complete the climb, and stalled. The disaster that followed, where 80 people, about a third of them children, lost their lives and 260 were injured, was an accident with many causes, and comprised a combination of events and circumstances involving poor management, stupidity, and organisational and regulatory issues that conspired to make it inevitable. Unbelievably, no one was found guilty of any crime though it did lead to parliamentary action to make rail travel safer throughout the whole of the UK.

Aftermath of the Disaster

Introduced by the Chairman, Prof. Brian WalkerProf. Brian Walker, Federation Vice-President, gave a wide ranging talk about the 1918 General Election after the end of the Great War and the first since 1910. He sketched the development of better understanding between the traditions over the century since then and went on to describe the background to the election and the issues involved, including the question of widening the franchise. The new rules extended the vote to all males age 21 and over, (formerly only male householders), and women householders, or the wives of householders, aged 30 or other. The restriction for women was driven by the concern that, with the loss of male lives during the war, women might outnumber men on the register.

Prof. Walker described the make up and rivalries in and between the political parties, with the rise in trade unionism and militant suffragism, and the rise of Sinn Fein. The outcome led to the demise of the Irish Parliamentary Party and the beginning of the process that led to the Government of Ireland Act and the creation of the 26 county Irish Free State and six county Northern Ireland.

Jonathan GrayJonathan Gray, Killeshil and Clonaneese Historical Society, described the development and content of the Society’s website. The aim, in addition to its local focus, was to reach the global audience of the descendants of emigrants from the 62 townlands whose population had dropped by over 40% between 1831 and 1871. It was also developed as a resource for the local area. He described the main features including a password-protected members’ area, video and sound recordings of events and talks, payment of subscriptions on-line, local archives, church records, maps and databases and a news section. A very valuable resource to local historians and others. Altogether an excellent example of local initiative of great value locally and globally, and an inspiration to societies.

Josie HerbisonJosie Herbison, Antrim and District Historical Society, described The Perfect Society (tongue in cheek) and went on to outline the ideal qualities needed in society committees to improve their services and engage their membership. Among these are the ability to listen to and encourage participation, good planning, including contingency planning, good PR and engaging with neighbouring societies. She recounted a couple of stories of local initiative that had paid off, including, especially, a young man who attended one of their meetings and was so inspired that he spent the next eight years researching the Antrim involvement in WWI, producing a book that listed the names of all the servicemen from Antrim and the surrounding district who had died in the conflict. A singular achievement.

Patrick BonerPatrick Boner, County Donegal Historical Society gave an outline of the rich sources of information now available to local history researchers on-line - information that before the digital revolution resided in libraries, museums and depositories, often in forms difficult or impossible to access. This led to a rapid expansion of on-line sources, with more being added continuously. He illustrated his theme with a variety of sites dealing with historical, military, parliamentary, maritime and other categories of sources and provided examples of how a single issue or event could be investigated from a variety of angles by tapping into the different sources.

James KaneIntroduced by Bridie Bradley, the final speaker, James Kane, O’Neill Country Historical Society, provided a well illustrated talk on the local impact of the devastating so-called Spanish Flu of 1918 -1919, the worst outbreak of disease in the history of the world. It killed more people in 11 months than died in the five years of the Great War. In Ireland over 20,000 died, over 7,500 of them in Ulster. In the world, over 100 million died, 5% of the world’s population. It infected over 800,000 people in Ireland, some 100,000 in Ulster.

Statistics of the great fluThe virus was not identified until 1933. It spread like wildfire, in three waves June 1918 to May 1919. It is now thought that it originated in Kansas USA at an army camp close to extensive pig farms but there were other possible sources. In Ireland it was called The Great Flu or An Tinneas Mor. The first wave, June to September was the least virulent. It spread through the rail network. Unlike previous flu epidemics it targeted the young and the fit and healthy adults. The second wave, October 1918 to January 2019, had a faster spread and was more severe. The final wave from February to May 1919, had a more gradual spread. The highest mortality were in three areas, Donegal, an area from South Armagh to Larne and the East Coast from Dublin to Wicklow.

The hardest hit were institutions like army barracks, hospitals, asylums, prisons and industrial schools. Many professions were badly affected such as health staff, postal workers, rail staff, factory workers, priests and Ministers of Religion, leading to disruption in many activities like markets, postal and rail services etc. All ranks in society were infected although the fatality rate was proportional to wealth and position in society, mainly due to the ability of some to pay for additional care.

Quarantined in Workhouse Spanish Flu epidemic

The high mortality rate led to the loosening of social, neighbourly and community bonds and a major fall in business activities, some taking many years to recover. Some tried to profit from the epidemic by promoting their products as cures including spirit distillers, soap makers, beef drinks etc. Much disruption occurred e.g. The General Election, sporting fixtures, markets, school closures, religious services.

Because of the momentous events unfolding at the time the end of the war and the war of Irish Independence, the flu receded rapidly from active historical memory and interest was not revived until the 1970’s.

At the end of the individual presentations there were lively discussions and debates about many aspects of the talks that drew out additional information and clarifications of the main subjects.The Chairman thanked the speakers and declared the event an outstanding success.