Emma Donoghue on the Impact of the Spanish Flu in Ireland
Emma Donoghue's latest novel, The Pull of the Stars, sheds light on the impact of the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19 on Ireland and, in particular, the cruel manner in which it seriously affected pregnant women and their unborn babies. In this exclusive piece, Emma explains why she chose to set The Pull of the Stars in Ireland and gives a wider context to the remarkable real-life drama that is reflected in the novel.
Back in October 2018 I was stuck on a long train journey without my laptop (having left it charging at home) so I read The Economist cover to cover. Because that magazine doesn’t use bylines, I can’t name the writer of the article I read on the centenary of the Great Flu of 1918-19, with its description of city life during that weird plague, which struck me as hauntingly post-apocalyptic.
I started binge-researching on my phone, and soon I’d found my hook: the fact that women in late pregnancy and for a few weeks after birth were particularly susceptible to catching that murderous influenza strain and suffering premature or still births or dying of it. Where did hospitals put the women who fell ill and were about to give birth, I wondered? I imagined a small, stifling flu/maternity quarantine ward, a microcosm in which horror and heroism would play out as in the trenches, but all the soldiers would be women.
I could have set The Pull of the Stars anywhere, because the Great Flu pandemic touched the whole world, and in fact death rates seem to have been worst in some Asian and African countries. But by choosing my hometown of Dublin, I could get the voices of my nurse protagonist and her colleagues and patients right.
In the first draft, though, I didn’t mention the year or the place; I wanted this to feel like a nightmarish wartime story with the feel of near-future dystopia more than historical fiction, because when a pandemic hits, I thought, it would probably feel like one long, anxiety-ridden now. Ultimately I decided this lack of specifics would be too confusing for readers, but even when I put in the where and when, I tried to keep that spare, timeless feel of a battle between frail, tired mortals and death.
I also realised that The Pull of the Stars would be enriched by spelling out the complications of what Ireland was going through politically circa 1918. Right now we’re approaching the end of the Decade of Centenaries, a marking of the tumultuous revolutionary period 1912-1922 which led to the partitioning of the island and the separation of the Irish Free State from the United Kingdom. The Great Flu was already a crisis within a crisis, overshadowed by the world war that had killed so many over four years; the Irish of my grandparents’ generation (including medical staff) were painfully divided, many volunteering with British forces and others (such as Doctor Kathleen Lynn, the one real historical figure in The Pull of the Stars) committed to revolutionary struggle and its allied causes of labour and suffragism. In the middle of all this, trying to sort out scientific fact from wild rumour, superstition and Government propaganda, my fictional protagonist Nurse Julia Power strains to keep her focus where it needs to be, on saving her patients and their babies, one life at a time.
I read a lot about the Great Flu worldwide: political cover-ups in the nations at war (who misnamed the illness the Spanish Flu to keep up morale by playing down how universal it was), medical controversies (some now think many patients died of sky-high aspirin dosing rather than the flu itself), battles over mask-wearing, Brazilian government publications, and an American volunteer nurse who said just before she died of the flu that this had been the best week of her life. But I’m particularly grateful to two Irish historians, Caitriona Foley (The Last Great Plague: The Great Flu Epidemic in Ireland 1918-19) and Ida Milne (Stacking the Coffins: Influenza, War and Revolution in Ireland 1918-19). As someone who’s published academic history as well as fiction, I know intimately how much the latter draws on the tireless, dedicated and pretty much unpaid research and analysis that goes into the former.
Two days after I delivered my last draft, the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic. I didn’t add a single echo from the current crisis to The Pull of the Stars during the copyediting; the novel felt all too timely already. I suspect that that fear of catching death from – or passing it on to – everyone we encounter has been much the same, whenever and whenever a plague has hit.
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