Analysis: this isn't the first time hurling, football and soccer have had to deal with returning to competitive action after a global pandemic

Sports organisations in Ireland and beyond have begun to assess and plan a return to play in the hope that the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic has come and gone. The word "unprecedented" has been a common accompaniment to the analysis of events in recent months. However, the "Spanish Influenza" of 1918-19 offers us an insight into how sport interacted with a pandemic a little over a century ago

Whilst preventing a second wave of infections is a central aim of the current restrictions, historian and Brainstorm contributor Ida Milne contends that three waves of Spanish Influenza in Ireland can be identified from the newspaper coverage of just over a century ago (early summer 1918, autumn 1918 and spring 1919). From that same source base, we can see how sport in Ireland operated during that public health emergency.

The 1918 All Ireland hurling and football finals were not played until January 26th and February 16th 1919 respectively, during a hiatus between those second and third waves of infection. The health of the players was a key concern in allowing the hurling final to take place at all, with the Freeman's Journal reporting that the Limerick and Wexford teams were "as fit as the proverbial fiddle". 

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, What It Says In the Papers 1918. 

Limerick won the game comfortably in front of what the Irish Examiner described as "an attendance that must be regarded as a record when the prevailing limited travelling facilities are taken into consideration". Travel restrictions comparable to the present are not apparent, with The Nationalist newspaper reporting the Tipperary team as "fit and well" having finalised their preparation for the football final in Dungarvan, Co Waterford.

Beyond the GAA, the 1918 and 1919 finals of the Irish Football Association Challenge Cup (Irish Cup) occurred just prior to and during the first and third waves of infection in Ireland respectively. Compounding matters, both years’ finals required two replays to settle the tie, meaning approximately 89,000 football fans in close proximity immediately prior to and during a pandemic.

During the peak of the first wave of infection, the Belfast Newsletter reported an epidemic in the city and that "it is understood that a number of soldiers have been affected". The same newspaper  had previously advertised that admission to the first replay of the 1918 cup final was free for soldiers, undoubtedly a gesture of solidarity during a critical phase of the war in the spring of 1918.

From the Belfast Newsletter, April 13th 1918. Courtesy of Irish Newspaper Archive.

The origin of Spanish flu is the subject of debate and many contend that American soldiers brought the virus to the frontline in Europe when they joined the war in early 1918. In hindsight, it seems incredible to us now that those most likely to have contracted the virus were incentivised to attend the Cup final in 1918.

The Belfast Newsletter also reveals that wounded soldiers on leave from the frontline were entertained at musical receptions and free buffets in Belfast in the early months of 1918. Advancements in epidemiological science and the revenue demands of modern sport suggests that any comparable solidarity with healthcare workers on the frontline in 2020, will not result in their free admission to a mass gathering upon the resumption of sporting fixtures. Nonetheless, the fact that the Cheltenham Festival and the Liverpool-Atletico Madrid Champions League tie went ahead in mid-March would appear to be a comparable blunder with the 1918 and 1919 Irish Cup final trilogies during that pandemic.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Philip Quinn from the Irish Daily Mail on estimates that the Cheltenham Festival was linked to additional Covid-19 related deaths

While it is not clear if those events caused a spike in the infection in Ireland, that pandemic killed tens of millions of people worldwide. Two key distinctions between the Spanish flu and Covid-19 could have allowed sport to continue apparently unabated during the former. First, the Spanish flu began during the existential crisis that was World War I. Some might argue that the present pandemic has temporarily suppressed an existential crisis potentially presented by Brexit, but few would seriously suggest it is comparable to the millions of lives lost during WWI.

Second, the partition of Ireland that occurred between 1920 and 1922 means that two separate co-ordinated public health responses to the current pandemic are in play. The same was not true a century ago. In sport too, Ireland had been one footballing nation prior to 1921, and teams north and south competed for the Irish Cup annually. However, the strength of Belfast heavyweights such as Linfield and Belfast Celtic ensured they were in the firing line, as far as mass gatherings are concerned, during the first and third waves of the 1918-19 pandemic.

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