Review of Ida Milne’s Stacking the Coffins by Maeve Casserly

Stacking the Coffins: Influenza, War and Revolution, 1918-1919.

Dr. Ida Milne

Manchester University Press, 2018.


Stacking the Coffins

Book details page


‘Stacking the Coffins’ is a thoroughly researched, evocative, and intimate journey into the devastating and often long-lasting impact of the ‘Spanish’ flu on all aspects of life in Ireland a century ago. The influenza epidemic, first reported in Ireland June 1918, hit the country at a time when its inhabitants were already coping with a host of life-changing events. A fact which Milne’s subheading, ‘Influenza, war and revolution in Ireland, 1918-1919’, succinctly captures. A comprehensive history of these years of the Irish revolutionary period cannot be written without including the pandemic and its impact on the running of the nation at a local, national and global level.

From the micro to the macro level, the flu ‘affected everything’ including Irish politics. For example, the Lord Mayor of Dublin negotiated the release of Dr. Kathleen Lynn from prison to help battle the outbreak. A necessary concession given by the British authorities who needed every medical profession they could get, despite their involvement in revolutionary activities. Thepandemic even impacted on the workings of the Paris Peace Conference, as many of the delegates fell prey to influenza. Milne posits an interesting theory linking the impact of contracting the flu on Woodrow Wilson’s decision-making capabilities with Irish and British relations, stating ‘some believe that influenza made him paranoid for a time’. If Wilson had not contracted the flu would it have made him more open to the Irish delegates, sent over by the first Dáil, to campaign for recognition of the Irish Republic from the U.S. President in Paris?

Milne details the three waves of the disease across Ireland, capturing particularly well the panic which spread across the country in newspaper reports; the first wave hit in the summer of 1918, the second and worst was over six weeks in October to November, with the final wave in the spring of 1919.  The flu was first reported in Ireland on 10thJune 1918 in the Belfast Newsletter, followed by 20thJune in Dublin.  There is a sense from Milne’s extracts that editors and columnists were trying to manage the worries of the public and play down the seriousness of the situation ‘the best way to ward of an attack is to take plenty of exercise’ (Irish Independent, 24thJune 1918). What alarmed people most was how the flu killed not just the young and old, but those in their physical prime. Indeed, Milne calculates that the highest death toll was among adults aged 25-34.

‘Stacking the Coffins’ successfully contextualises a history of the pandemic in Ireland within the revolutionary period. There is a significant overlap between the influenza epidemic and several tumultuous national events including, the Conscription Crisis; arrests for the German Plot; the end of the Great War; the December 1918 election; the meeting of the First Dáil; and shots fired at Soloheadbeg etc. All this was happening when the country was battling with a debilitating, and sometimes deadly, epidemic, contracted by 800,000 people and killing over 20,000. Consider these numbers in comparison to the 210,000 Irishmen who fought in the war, over 35,000 of whom were killed. The Great War took place over a four year period, while the ‘Spanish’ flu lasted less than one.

Milne’s history of the fluis competently and sympathetically told using official records, medical accounts, newspapers and oral history interviews. Milne’s sources reveal the flu’s human cost and how it fed into the already tense ‘simmering pot’ in Irish society. Anti-conscription demonstrations, election campaigns, Armistice celebrations etc. all brought crowds of people together and helped spread the disease. The revolutionary period created a reason for the Irish nation to gather together, and it was these crowds that fanned the flame of the flu. Those who were frequently in contact with large numbers of people were the most vulnerable. The statistics of mortality indicate that high deaths rates from influenza were not so much class dependent as job dependent.

Why hasn’t this history been written before?

As described by Milne ‘the pandemic represents a curious lacuna in Irish history.’  Historians have given it a ‘passing mention’ until this decade, while the Great Famine and Cholera epidemics have been much more popular themes. One of the reasons Milne gives for this is that the influenza epidemic just wasn’t that unusual, ’while it looks striking from our modern perspective… death from infectious diseases was a norm in this society.’ Sadly, ‘Spanish’ flu was nothing new to contend with for the Irish. About 70,000 died on the island each year, and one fifth of those between 1900 and 1910s were children under five years.

Still, the influenza epidemic must have seemed like a new kind of catastrophe. Elaborating on the book’s title, ‘Stacking the Coffins’, Milne describes how the bodies were being sent to the funeral home so quickly that staff at Glasnevin Cemetery were paid double-time to work on a Sunday because there was such a queue to be buried. The coffins awaiting burial had to be stacked one on top of the other to save space. The global death toll has been recorded as anything from 20 million to 100 million people, with the estimate of those infected ranging from one fifth to half the world’s population.

Women in the history of medicine

‘Stacking the Coffins’ is an important contribution to the history of women in medicine and healthcare in this period. In Ireland the pandemic killed a conservative estimate of 20,000 people and infected approximately 800,000 (1/5 of the 1911 census population count). It highlighted the inadequacies of the healthcare system and led to radical recommendations to reform the system by the Public Health Council in 1919. During the Great War at home and the front, women were playing increasingly larger and more important roles in healthcare in Ireland. The war created a greater demand for women as nurses, doctors, and auxiliaries. A forerunner to the BCG vaccine campaign against childhood TB in St. Ultan’s, Dr. Lynn opened up a treatment centre for the flu in Charlemont Street in October 1918 – both to care for those with the disease and to vaccinate against influenza. St. Ultan’s, the first paediatric hospital in Ireland, was set-up by Dr. Lynn and Madeline fFrench-Mullen less than a year later in May 1919.

Participation in charitable and philanthropic works were considered acceptable roles for women where they could act to improve the lives of the poor in practical ways. Examples of these practical ways can be found during the pandemic, particularly in local branches of the Women’s National Health Association and St. Vincent de Paul. Mrs. Barton from Straffan House in north Kildare was driven around in her carriage bringing food and soup to the ill, while Lady Mayo from Palmerstown House visited houses with soup and milk pudding.

Life Long Trauma

Statistics are a key feature of Milne’s work, alongside important and unique oral histories. Statistical analysis of the pandemic is explored thoroughly in Chapter 3, complemented by oral history interviews collected by Milne in Chapter 7. Milne’s combination of the two creates both breadth and depth in this complex, emotionally fraught topic. Milne, who has extensive experience as an oral historian and is the current Vice-Chairperson of the Oral History Network Ireland, effectively uses oral history to capture the long lasting trauma the pandemic had on those that lived through it. ‘It made a bigger impression on me than any other incident since,’ recalled Trinity College historian R.B. McDowell, who nearly died in 1919. Kathleen McMenamin from Donegal explained the silence that followed the disease, ‘people did not want to talk about it because it was so awful, and they dreaded the thought it might come back again.’

Milne’s ‘Stacking the Coffins’ is an excellent addition to an expanding scholarship on the influenza epidemic. This already includes Caitriona Foley’s ‘The Last Irish Plague: The Great Flu Epidemic in Ireland, 1918–19’ (Irish Academic Press, 2011) as well as Patricia Marsh’s chapter ‘The impact of the First World War on the 1918–19 influenza pandemic in Ulster’ in ‘Medicine, health and Irish experiences of conflict 1914–45’ edited by David Durnin and Ian Miller(Manchester University Press, 2016).

For further information on the impact of the flu on Irish lives a century ago, you can listen in to this Near FM podcast, recorded during the 2018 Dublin Festival of History, in which Dr. Milne, and DCC Historian in Residence, Maeve Casserly discuss food and disease in 1918. The podcast also features contemporary songs on these topics from An Góilín singers club.

Maeve Casserly is a Dublin City Council Historian in Residence, an IRC Employment-Based PhD Candidate in UCD, and has been awarded a Creative-Ireland Fulbright Fellowship to research visitor engagement with women’s suffrage commemorations in the Harry Ransom Centre, University of Texas, Austin in the Spring of 2020.