Bohs in the time of influenza

We’re all stuck at home, talking a good game about catching up on our reading or perhaps finally completing that DIY project, more likely if you’re anything like me you’re mindlessly scrolling on your phone, or binge-watching lurid TV series on Netflix. Things are obviously a lot different if you are a frontline worker, in one of our hospitals, a member of our emergency services or working in essential retail businesses. The stress is very real. But this is not unique or unprecedented. This too shall pass.

Just over 100 years ago Ireland faced a not dissimilar epidemic. While the Spanish Flu was something of the misnomer, it was very real, and very deadly. Conservative estimates place the Irish death toll from the virus at over 20,000 from Summer 1918 to Spring 1919. Consider also that this came towards the end of the First World War which claimed the lives of perhaps 50,000 Irish people and saw a country in a state of turmoil on the topics of nationhood, conscription, poverty and on the brink of a violent War of Independence. We can perhaps sympathise with their plight.

Unlike today however, the people of Dublin in 1918 and 1919 had football. Despite schools closing, and many businesses shutting due to illness and self-quarantine measures, football continued in something akin to its usual patterns. To set the scene; at the end of the 1914-15 season due to rising costs, loss of players and supporters to the war-effort and the general disruption brought by the War, the Irish League split into regional competitions for the rest of the War. Bohemians and Shelbourne, the two Dublin sides in an eight-team league dominated by the main Belfast clubs, returned to the Leinster Senior League, and this in effect was our main league for the War and its immediate aftermath. The main Irish Cup competition still ran on an all-Ireland basis, though the early round draws were regionalised, while other trophies such as the Leinster Senior Cup were major priorities.

If anything, the years 1918 and 1919 brought almost a return to normality for Bohemians, the club had lost dozens of players to the War and many more in terms of supporters. At a conservative estimate some 50,000 Dubliners ended up in the battlefields of the First World War and perhaps 8,000 of them never made it home. This impacted not just Bohemians but every football club in Ireland. The Leinster Football Association (LFA) saw a reduction in affiliated clubs which declined by 50% during wartime and by 1919 the LFA had to go cap in hand seeking a grant or loan from the IFA to try and keep the Association afloat. A major concern for Bohemians (and many other clubs) was getting players released from their regiments in order to play for the team. In several games Bohs were hamstrung because of missing key players due to the refusal of the British armed forces to release players for matches, even after the armistice.

Willits army updated

A clipping from Sport showing Bohemian FC player Harry Willitts in army uniform in 1917

Despite all this upheaval there were still notes of optimism to be found, Bohemians won the Leinster Senior League – the highest level played by clubs outside of Belfast, in the 1917-18 season and came second to Shelbourne the following year. It should be noted that Bohs, despite the loss of numbers due to the War, were still fielding at least two teams at the time, with a Bohemian “B” side competing at Leinster Senior League Division Two against the like of St. James Gate and Glasnevin F.C.

The influenza epidemic first noticeably hit Ireland in early summer of 1918 as the football season was ending, but arguably had its peak in Dublin in October and November 1918, as well as continuing into the Spring of 1919. There were perhaps three different peaks of the epidemic. One theory for the surge in cases in November 1918 was that people congregated en masse to celebrate the end of the War and inadvertently helped spread the virus. Unlike most of the Covid-19 cases at present the “Spanish flu” (thus described because neutral Spain reported the first cases, it had been rife in the trenches of France and Belgium months earlier) seemed to affect younger, healthier people, with many in their 20s and 30s dying and leaving young families without parents.

One report in The Irish Times on November 16th 1918 noted that between September 28th and November 9th some 756 people had died of the influenza virus in Dublin City alone. Two days later Shelbourne beat Bohs in the league in front of what was described as “a record crowd of the season”. It was a good time for Shels at this point, they seemed to have the upper hand over their main Dublin rivals, the famous Bohemians, in both 1918 and 1919 they knocked Bohs out of the first round of the Irish Cup. In February 1919 they won their Cup match in Dalymount (at another resurgent point for the flu epidemic) in front of a crowd of over 8,000, which was described as a record attendance in Dublin since the outbreak of War.

Indeed, not happy with just the usual run of fixtures Bohs decided to host an alternative Cup final on 29th March 1919. On the same day that Linfield were playing Glentoran in the first of three finals (two drawn games followed by an eventual Linfield victory on the 7th of April) Bohs agreed to host beaten semi-finalists Belfast Celtic in front of a bumper crowd in Dalymount. The Bohs would triumph 2-1 on the day.

thumbnail_Belfast Celtic 1918

Belfast Celtic teams of the era

While the Dublin public were waylaid from all sides by death, whether from War, revolution or disease, somehow football continued, in the case of Bohemians the club saw suffering and death in the war, former players like Fred Morrow, Harold Sloan, Francis Larkin and others had died in action and many more were seriously injured. But during the Spanish Flu epidemic, partially spread by the return of so many soldiers from the front in 1918, while some quarantine measures and closures of businesses and schools did take place football continued as usual.

 

This article originally appeared in the Bohemian F.C. lockdown match programme which you can read in its entirety here.

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