Programme One: Killer Influenza 1918
As the First World War drew to a close, nature created a lethal virus that would kill an estimated 50 million world-wide. More than 20,000 people died in Ireland alone. Only the oldest in our society remember the true horror of the outbreak.
The programme features three witnesses to a forgotten tragedy. It also evokes the Ireland in which they lived - childhood memories of a world of big estates, farm labourers, busy canals, and houses with servants, with the backdrop of the Great War and a country in turmoil.
Nellie O'Toole was 10 in 1918, and will be 101 in June 2009. Nellie grew up in Rathvilly, County Carlow. Her father, like most local men, was employed as a farm worker on local big farms and estates. When the flu hit, Rathvilly became a deserted village. Everyone was laid low, and the national school was closed. Life-saving hot soup was sent to the village every day by Lady Rathdonnell of Lisnavagh House. Nellie's brother was worst affected by the flu, but her whole family survived.
Tommy Christian has always lived in Ardclough, County Kildare. His father was a cobbler. Tommy was five in 1918, and is now 95 years of age. Ardclough is close to the Grand Canal, and Tommy remembers the Canal when it was a vital transport link between the Shannon and Dublin. Up to 90 horse-drawn and motorised barges passed Ardclough each day. In Ireland, County Kildare recorded the highest death rates during the 1918 Flu. Naas, not far from Tommy's home, was a particular black spot. Tommy's whole family caught the Flu, and his mother died shortly after - a death attributed to flu.
Professor R.B. McDowell grew up in Belfast. He is now 95 years of age, and is a retired Professor of History in Trinity College, Dublin. Robert's father was a tea merchant in a thriving business city. Even as a child, the Great War was a mysterious and threatening presence in the background of his life. Soldiers in uniform were constant visitors to his home. Again, the whole household caught the flu, and one servant died. Robert McDowell remembers the day he got better too. He was taken to the window to witness the celebrations on the day that the First World War ended.