Analysis: as the 1832 "Day of the Straws" demonstrates, Ireland was not immune to fake news and quack cures during previous pandemics

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In his St Patrick's Day address to the nation on the Covid-19 crisis, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar warned "scared and overwhelmed" people not to subscribe to what he called the "contagion of fear". He was referring to the sharing of misinformation on WhatsApp: forwarded messages often of dubious origin, that speculated on topics from the defence forces being mobilised to lock down the country, or conspiracy theories of media blackouts, or of cases in hospitals "So much harm has already been caused by those messages" he said, describing this "contagion of fear" as "a virus in itself".

This primal fear in the face of an epidemic, and the willingness to believe in almost anything in an uncertain climate, is an age-old one. It serves to show that people are people and our ancestors were just as susceptible to "fake news" and hysteria as we are. It recalls a curious panic in Ireland 200 years ago known as the Day of the Straws, which shows the strange lengths a people fearful of disease are capable of going to.

Conspiracy theories and quack cures

The research I have undertaken shows how the 1832 cholera epidemic would eventually influence the author Bram Stoker, and demonstrates how some events of real life can be far more horrific than anything in fiction. By the time Stoker lifted his pen to write Dracula in the 1890s, cholera was better understood, but it had been the terror disease of the 19th century.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Arena, Sinead Egan reports on how the Dublin's Buckingham Street had a gruesome influence on Bram Stoker's novel Dracula

Back in 1832, the scientific community had yet to make the discovery of the bacterium vibrio cholerae or make the link between contaminated water and cholera transmissions, and there was no cure or effective treatment. It was a new mysterious disease that offered a horrific, painful and undignified death within hours and it did not discriminate between rich or poor. No-one was safe, and people were very scared. Wherever that cholera went in Europe, it was accompanied by fear and panic in the local populations, who often rioted against the local authorities who were blamed for failing to prevent it.

In events that mirror those of today, many conspiracy theories abounded. While these spread relatively quickly in the past, social media means they can now circulate in minutes. Last week, theories were spread online that China created the virus as a bio-weapon to attack the US economy. In addition, some speculated that the virus was connected to the 5G network’s ability to control the oxygen supply of patients.

During the cholera pandemic of 1832, many believed that cholera had been invented by the rich to wipe out poorer communities. There were even rumours that doctors had somehow encouraged the spread of the disease so that they could make money from treating patients! Doctors went about their duties often in fear of attack.

During the cholera pandemic of 1832, many believed that cholera had been invented by the rich to wipe out poorer communities

Quack cures also abounded in the past. In 1832, brandy or whiskey mixed with ginger was thought to be prophylactic or curative for cholera. A number of quack doctors made fortunes from selling mixtures marked as "cholera remedies" that were not effective at all.

"The Day of the Straws" in Ireland

What occurred in Ireland was basically a repeat of what had happened in other European countries affected by cholera. As the disease began its march of destruction across Ireland, starting in Belfast on March 18th 1832, it was accompanied by panic, fear, conspiracy theories, belief in quack cures and riots. When cholera hit Dublin, the chaplain to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland preached of it in a widely reported sermon: "it is a pestilence, which walketh in the darkness". There was a growing perception that this epidemic was caused by something rooted in the supernatural.

With the general lack of confidence in the medical establishment and the failure to find a cure, a void was created in society. This left people relying on their faith, on prayers and folk cures and on supernatural signs and omens. There was a willingness to believe in anything that might offer hope. This is exemplified in a strange series of events that occurred in Ireland known as variously as the "Day of the Straws" or the "Blessed Turf" that swept the country in June 1832.

Alfred Johannot's painting "The Duke of Orleans ..During the Cholera Epidemic', c1830. Photo: Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

It initially started with a Marian apparition in Cork, where Our Lady is said to have proclaimed that the cure for cholera lay in a protective charm obtained by enacting a specific ritual. Believers should distribute ash (from beneath her feet) to four houses and place it in the rafters of each house. One occupant from each house in turn was take either smouldering turf or straw from that house to another four houses, and so on.

As numbers partaking grew, the problem was to find four houses that had not yet been visited, and all while the material was still smouldering. Thus, it became a frenzied panic involving people racing around the countryside on their mission. Some were out of breath and in a state of undress, having jumped from their beds at all hours to dispense the holy material. The processions were often accompanied by false reports of cholera deaths in the locality or rumours of neighbouring towns being destroyed by fire from heaven.

Within days the craze was spreading to many (but not all) parts of the country, with unruly crowds, sometimes numbering people in their hundreds, moving from the south to the north of the country, trying to obtain and distribute as much of the material as possible. Where possible, police made arrests of those involved. The Catholic church also denied any involvement or belief in the ritual and the panic eventually died down. The whole sequence of events lasted from June 9th to June 15th.

At emotionally heightened times like these, just as in the past, people need to exercise careful critical thinking on their information sources

It was generally thought that the participants, those ordinary people spreading the message, were ignorant to the exact origins or meaning of the initial message. They simply took it on good faith, and blindly believed it to be true and acted accordingly.

And so, we come back to today. At emotionally heightened times like these, just as in the past, people need to exercise careful critical thinking on their information sources. People chose to believe those WhatsApp messages, and forwarded them without thinking, causing a minor panic. Referring to this the Taoiseach advised people to get information from official, trusted sources and to take breaks from social media: "constantly scrolling on your phone or obsessively following the latest developments… is not good for anyone." But in an era of unprecedented events that are scarcely believable, among a populace who are understandably fearful, this may be easier said than done.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ