Castlebar remembers victims of 1918 epidemic

The outbreak of avian flu in south east Asia is a chilling reminder of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic which resulted in the deaths of more than 20 million people worldwide. Majella Loftus reports on the impact of the devastating virus in Mayo and the efforts to commemorate the victims.

Back in 1918 there was not one family in County Mayo who was not affected or knew someone affected by the “Spanish Flu” epidemic which killed more people worldwide than World War I.

Between 1918 and 1921 the flu ravaged the country and the villages of East Mayo were the worst affected. It is said the soldiers brought the virus home from the great war and wherever it entered a house its toll was usually more than one person, with up to 40% of the worldwide population contracting the disease.

A fitting memorial to the many people who died as a result of the flu in Mayo has been erected on the outskirts of Aglish Estate in Castlebar. A significant number of those who lost their lives were patients in St Mary’s Hospital, all of whom were buried without ceremony and most in unmarked graves.

Some years ago, the older members of staff of the hospital expressed a wish to build a memorial to these people. A small committee was set up and because of the amount of progress and development in the town. It took some time to establish where the memorial could be placed and remain as a reminder to all.

The victims were buried in a corner at the end of the wall between St Mary’s Hospital and the County Hospital during the period 1918 to 1921. Committee member, Mr Matt Shaw said “It was closed at that stage and they were put into the old graveyard. They were patients who weren’t ‘claimed out’ and in that time things were very bad.

The graves were unmarked and there was no records kept and we don’t know how many people were buried there.”

In relation to the monument, Mr Shaw said as far back as 40 years ago, staff of the hospital had wanted something done in their memory. Nothing could be done in the specific area they were buried for the reason trees had grown up around them and you could see the mounds still there.

“Rather than move the trees, we didn’t want to disturb it because many of them wouldn’t have been buried that deep and a lot of them were buried without coffins, so we moved it a little away.” The memorial is placed on the side of the new road between Casey’s Garage and the Westport Roundabout.

The graveyard is now cut off from the grounds of St. Mary’s Hospital Farm. That was exactly where the burial ground was, along the side of the road. ”If you examine from the memorial to about 20 yards towards the Westport road, the old wall is still there. There is an L shaped piece of the wall that was between the old jail and St. Mary’s hospital as it is since 1935. The wall was there when St Mary’s hospital was built. It is a fine wall and went all around the hospital except areas where it was deemed fairly safe for the patients.” said Mr Shaw.

Not happy with just the memorial, the committee have high hopes of restoring the wall and making it safe and have it there for the history of Castlebar.

“It’s there and it is not going to be knocked so something will be done with it over the next couple of years,” said Mr Shaw. “It’s just to remind people of where we came from and what we did with our mentally handicapped.”

Work on the memorial has been jointly funded by the Western Health Board and the County Council with the work being undertaken by personnel supplied by the Town Council. Over the coming months two black bowls will be placed on each side and flowers planted each season.

Mr Shaw explained, “The wording is the same as on an old headstone in the old graveyard which is up about 18 years now.

“There is a common burial ground in the graveyard at the back of ‘McDonald’s’ with no records of where the people were buried. There is one headstone sitting at the centre and it just said “In Loving Memory of All Those Who Lie Here, May They Rest in Peace.” We made the decision not to put anything other than that on this new memorial.”

Courtesy of the Western People
February 2004