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Pandemic Christmas: Limerick has seen it all before!

‘Happy Christmas. This may seem strange to some who think that this is not a time for rejoicing, that things are too serious with us as present, but we must not lose sight of the fact that the event we celebrate is as same as ever’.(1)

Referring to challenges brought by the First World War, this sentiment was printed in the Irish Times on Christmas 1917. As the public prepares to celebrate during the COVID-19 pandemic, it will not be the first time Christmas is celebrated in Limerick at times of adversity.

In June 1918, the first wave of the Spanish flu hit Limerick city and county. The most fatalities in the Treaty County occurred in November. (2) While soldiers paraded down O’Connell Street following the signing of the armistice, Limerick doctors attempted to cope with patients needing urgent medical care in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

By Mid-November, Limerick City Hospital’s beds were full. Though some patients with influenza were treated at home, those who could not pay for a doctor travelled to the Old City Dispensary. A late Victorian building on the corner of Lower Gerald Griffin St, the Old City Dispensary was made famous for its inclusion in Frank McCourt’s memoir, Angela’s Ashes.

Treaty Stone, Limerick, ca. 1985
Limerick Museum, Jim Kemmy Collection, 1998.1710

Before the Old City Dispensary provided the McCourt’s with food and shoe vouchers in the 1930s and 1940s, in 1918, overworked doctors hired at Lower Gerald Griffin Street sought extra nurses who would be ‘liberally paid’ at the frontline of the city’s public health crisis. (3) Though food shortages in Ireland were commonplace due to the war and harsh winters of 1916 and 1917, those with Spanish flu at the Old City Dispensary were provided with bread, milk and Bovril under the Poor Law Relief.

In December 1918, newspapers carried stories of human perseverance and resilience. (4) For their customers, Irish shops demanded ‘Christmas sugar’ from the Irish Food Control Committee. Based in London, the committee supervised food rationing on the island of Ireland. Described as ‘a special treat’ for enduring the influenza, retailers secured an extra quarter pound of sugar for each holder of an Irish ration book . (5)

Though influenza cases had temporarily waned in Limerick city by early December, householders were still encouraged to wash their floors with Americus Disinfectant, a floor cleaner once advertised in the windows of a carpet cleaning company on 4 Lower Cecil Street.(6) As printed advertisements for pharmacies in Dublin, Fermanagh and Mayo claimed to have the cure for the influenza in pill form, The Limerick Leader’s advice to combat the illness was that ‘the inside of the nose should be washed with soap and water’.(7)

O’Connell Street, Limerick, ca.1918-1940
Limerick Museum, postcard collection object, 1987.0281

In spite of the Spanish flu or ‘the black flu’ as it was known in Ireland, Christmas in Limerick and other parts of the country materialised with Yuletide fare. Jacobs Biscuit Factory in Dublin first began to manufacture the iconic Irish Christmas biscuit tin, ‘Jacobs USA biscuits’ in 1918. (8) Santa Claus’ soft spot for Limerick children was also reaffirmed by Limerick stores in this year. A relatively new custom in 1918, stores advertised themselves as ‘Santa Claus’ Headquarters’, where children could visit Father Christmas. (9)

Though Ireland was to be transformed with the War of Independence just around the corner, unchanging traditions also formed part of Christmas 1918. As always, Irish shoppers gathered into Limerick city for supplies of decoration and merriment. Stocks of Limerick hams and bacons were sold out; a famous commodity ordered for Christmas dinner tables in Great Britain and Ireland since the nineteenth century.(10)

In efforts to boost the economy, many Irish businesses in 1918 promised pre-war prices for Christmas presents. Some of the most popular gifts remain today. To name but a few, writing sets, card games and fancy handkerchiefs were sought after products in the shops. (11) In 1918, races for the Holiday Plate, Christmas Plate and St Stephen’s Day Plate took place in Limerick city Racecourse on St. Stephen’s Day. The names of the winning race horses were Fetherney, Pride of Manister and Mozzel.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Thanks to team member Aisling for researching and writing this piece.

References

1. Irish Times, 22 Dec., 1917.

2. Tom Toomey, ‘Limerick and the 1918-1919 Spanish Influenza Epidemic’ in The Old Limerick Journal, (2011) pp. 24-29.

3. Des Ryan, ‘The great influenza epidemic 1918-1919’ in The Old Limerick Journal (1996) pp.50,51 (hereafter Ryan ‘the great influenza’.

4. Limerick Leader, 25 Nov. 1918.

5. Irish Times, 3 Dec., 1918.

6. Ryan, ‘The great influenza’ p.51.

7. Western People, 27 Jul, 1918; Irish Examiner, 14 Sep, 2011.

8. Food Ireland, ‘Jacobs USA Assorted Tin’ (http://www.foodireland.com/p/510539.html) (25 Nov. 2020).

9. Limerick Leader, 28 Dec., 1906.

10. Irish Times, 27 Dec., 1918; Irish Times, 22 Dec., 1875.

11. The Nationalist, 21 Dec., 1918.


We wish to remind everyone to follow HSE guidelines in relation to staying safe during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

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