The Law and the ‘Flu, 1918-22

Irish legal ‘flu victim, the Hon Ernest Victor Gibson

The Spanish ‘flu arrived in Ireland in the summer of 1918, possibly in Belfast.   The Belfast News-Letter of 10 July 1918 reported the death of Bernard Hughes BL, a North-East Circuit barrister of eight years vintage, after a severe attack of influenza.   Mr Hughes, from a bakery family, was described as of a most genial and generous disposition, a thorough sportsman and one of the most enthusiastic members of the East Antrim Hunt, who had contributed liberally to the funds of the various point-to-point meetings held in the Belfast District. 

The re-opening of the courts in Michaelmas term coincided with the second wave of the virus.  Galway solicitor Philip O’Donnell, whose wedding took place on the 4th October 1918, was optimistic enough to choose Belfast as a honeymoon destination; he never made it back home to open the wedding presents piled high in his office.  Few would disagree with the view expressed by the Chairman of the Galway Sessions that it was appalling to think that wedding bells had scarcely ceased to chime when the funeral bells were tolled for the poor gentleman.

By the end of the month both the Naas Quarter Sessions and the Carrick-on-Suir Petty Sessions courts had been adjourned due to the non-attendance of witnesses and the Children’s (Street Trading) Court in William Street was closed for a month.    Meanwhile many persons were undergoing inoculation to secure immunity and the entire city was being flushed with carbolic acid in the belief that where petroleum works were situate the residents were free from epidemics.

November 1918 was the worst single month for the legal profession, with the deaths of two more young practitioners.   On 5 November 1918  John A Ronayne BL died at his residence, 51 Grosvenor Square, after an attack of influenza which developed into pneumonia.  The Freeman described Mr Ronayne as a young man of brilliant intellectual gifts who had built up a very good practice at the Irish Bar and who had been briefed from time to time in some leading cases.

The following day, Mr MT Breene, who had been the youngest solicitor in Ireland at the time of his qualification in 1917, died in a Dublin nursing home from the same cause.   The Waterford Standard described him as one of the most popular young men in Waterford who had already built up the nucleus of a lucrative clientele.    The same article noted the ‘painful coincidence’ of Mr Ronayne’s recent death, stating that he had been a  great chum of Mr Breen, and that they had been together in Dublin prior to being taken ill.

The Kerry Quarter Sessions was taking no chances in December 1918 when it adjourned all matters for two weeks.  The Killarney Echo and South Kerry Chronicle composed the following poem to commemorate the occasion:

“There was a time when courts went on without a week’s cessation, and people thought that if they stopped that fact would ruin the nation. 

Law meant the rule of order, and order without law, would be as a politician who hadn’t got a jaw.

 Now changes come and no one heeds how strange they may be seeming, some say ‘tis how the world woke up while others say ’tis dreaming.

The wheel has turned so quickly that some who were on top have now gone to bottom with an unceremonious flop

Poor Constable Muludden still in uniform may be, but he as to wink his eye awhile at some things he may see,

The lawyer if he tells the truth, as lawyers often do, can see that there are dangers beside the nasty flu,

Which doctors cannot cure awhile so everyone keeps waiting, in the hope that what each fears the most will show signs of abating”

When the courts re-opened after Christmas, it was noted that there would be an increase in the volume of business as compared with last term, during which a number of cases were adjourned as a result of the influenza epidemic. 

The third wave of the ‘flu in Spring 1919 was milder than the previous one, but did result in the death of another barrister, Alfred Coffey BL, another member of the North-East Circuit, who died at his residence, 55 Northumberland Road, on the 15 April 1919.  Deaths among the legal profession were reflective of the three waves of the virus, with most occurring in the second wave.  The age and geographic profile of the persons who died was also typical of this type of ‘flu, with younger practitioners and particularly those in Dublin or the North-East being most at risk.

By the following year, the ‘flu had died down and was even the subject of an occasional jest in the courts.   The Liberator of 10 March 1921 reports the following dialogue in the London King’s Bench division:

“Mr Justice Roche (to counsel examining a witness): Speak up, Mr Van Breda, as I have a cold and cannot hear very well.

Counsel: I also have a cold and cannot speak as loudly as I can wish.

The Witness:- I am in the same boat (laughter)

Mr Inskip KC (for the other side) And I can’t hear anybody (more laughter).”

There remained, however, those whose health had been permanently affected by complications of the virus, such as the Honourable Ernest Victor Gibson, son of the late Lord Ashbourne, Lord Chancellor of Ireland, found dead in January 1922  in an armchair in the smokeroom of the Crown Hotel, Horsham. A damaged heart, resulting from pneumonia consequent on influenza, was found to be the cause of his death.

In his youth, Mr Gibson had been a barrister and champion figure skater, and had fought in the Boer War along with the sons of other judges; more recently, he had run into financial difficulties due to excessive ‘tuck bills’ run up by the participants in a Public School Army Training Camp he was managing. The travails of Christopher Tietjens in Ford Madox Ford’s ‘Parade’s End’ come to mind!

It seems that Mr Gibson had not forgotten his country of birth.  According to the inquest report, his last words spoken to the hotel manager were

“I don’t know whether you realise it, but you have a dangerous man here tonight.  The so-called peace in Ireland is scandalous.  Lloyd George has made use of us for his own ends.  I was a Loyalist once but now I am an out-and-out rebel”

Although the ‘flu did not substantially reduce the membership of either branch of the legal profession, the reduced surveillance and adjourned court appearances which resulted from its presence may have inadvertently assisted the progress of the political and legal revolution simultaneously taking place – a revolution which ended in the severance of the Northern Irish Bar, and a substantial exodus of Southern Irish practitioners to England and the colonies. The smoking rooms of Home Counties hotels would be guaranteed a superfluity of slightly rudderless former Irish barristers for several decades to come!

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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