|Disease as a political tool: Spanish influenza becomes an opportune aid to the Irish independence movement|
|the Irish revolutionary period, 1916-1923, Spanish influenza became an expected tool in the propagandists’ box of the nationalist movement.
In one of those peculiar coincidences of history, the timing of the pandemic (May 1918 to April 1919) coincided with the British Government’s ill-conceived scheme to remove the leading members of the independence movement from circulation during 1918. In May 1918, they arrested the leaders and interned them without trial in Great Britain. While they claimed there was evidence that the internees were colluding with Germany, this evidence has proved negligible. Most of the internees had been involved in the anti-conscription campaign; the Government was probably keen to reduce their influence on this campaign, and also on the campaign for the General Election in December 1918.
The internees were detained until March 1919. During that time, Sinn Fein, the more extreme of the nationalist parties, used its formidable contacts in the national and regional press to carry reports about the poor conditions in the prisons and about limited access to medical care. The press coverage reached crescendos in the week preceding the 1918 General Election, when Richard Coleman died in jail from influenza, and again in March 1919 when Pierse McCan died from influenza; his death coincided with the Government’s decision to release the prisoners.
Having originally been conceived to reduce the influence of these prominent members of the nationalist movement at an important time, the “German Plot”’s execution had the effect of fomenting support for Sinn Fein, increasing their vote during the 1918 election and in the years to come.
This paper will argue that a significant catalytic factor in the backfiring of the Government’s ploy was the Spanish influenza epidemic, which Sinn Fein’s propagandists used to harness sympathy for their own members and anti-establishment sentiment.