RTE Brainstorm - How Dublin dealt with the 19th-century cholera epidemic

6 Apr, 2020

Fr Alan Hilliard, Co-ordinator of the Chaplaincy Service at TU Dublin, City, says there are many parallels between today's Covid-19 pandemic and the cholera outbreak of the 1820s and 1830s

The Clocktower building in TU Dublin's Grangegorman campus was built in 1816 and originally called the Richmond Penitentiary. It housed the Dublin Cholera Hospital when the cholera epidemic was at its height in 1832.

Back then, the large wooden doors bore the most recent names of cholera victims who died during the night. Relatives called by to see if the names of their loved ones' were among those on that same door that stands there today. The fact that the hospital existed and the evidence of the accompanying human horror was confirmed when the 2015 Luas line works unearthed human remains in mass graves.

The cholera epidemic wreaked havoc and caused millions of deaths in many countries. Cholera still takes its toll on people today with between 21,000 to 143,000 annual deaths according to the World Health Organisation.

The Covid-19 virus is having a very severe impact today. While mostly causing sickness that people recover from, many have already died. It is dealing with severe blows to families as their loved ones are stolen from them by invisible microbes. This will continue until the world finds a vaccine to overcome this unprecedented wave of uncertainty.

In today's hyper-globalised world, viruses can spread and mutate in utterly unpredictable ways. For a while, we looked from afar thinking that the epidemic would remain in China. Now, we are silenced by the speed of its presence as globalisation, and the accompanying speed and frequency of international travel have brought Covid-19 to most countries across the world. 

Like Covid-19, Cholera came from the east. The growth of colonialism expanded Europe's hold on the world. Though Cholera was described as "a disease of the poor", it was those in search of wealth and power who brought it to European shores. Colonialists brought back wealth, but they also brought back many sicknesses and diseases that Europeans fell victim to due to a lack of immunity. The origins of Cholera lie in warm, salty, waters where the Vibrio cholerae bacteria is carried in liquids or food that is raw or undercooked. 

People were understandably scared of the disease and were afraid of contracting it

We can learn a lot from history and there were very interesting stages in the containment of the cholera epidemic in Dublin of 1832. Initially, many thought that the cholera virus was airborne, and this was how it was passed on. It took research and time to be certain that it was passed on via contaminated water. Charles Stewart Parnell's grave in Glasnevin Cemetery lies on top of a grave where the remains of cholera victims were placed to avoid further infection among the community. It ceased to receive these remains when it was discovered that the rainwater caused the spread of the disease as it washed from the grave into the adjacent Tolka River contaminating populations downstream.

People were understandably scared of the disease and were afraid of contracting it to the extent that those who lay in the clocktower building in Grangegorman were neglected and forlorn. Following a request from the Archbishop of Dublin Daniel Murray, a group of women known as the "Walking Nuns" entered the hospital to care for those who were sick and dying.

The women took a huge risk to undertake this task. They worked four-hour shifts, four people at a time. They washed, cleaned, fed, and offered emotional and spiritual support to those who were sick or dying. When they left the hospital, they washed both themselves and their clothes in lime and water, thus reducing and even eliminating the risk of contagion. Only one of these ladies contracted the disease from which she recovered, and none died. The "Walking Nuns" were some of the original sisters who followed the vision of Mary Aikenhead and who are now known as the Irish Sisters of Charity. The order work in the area to this day. 

Following the experiences of the sisters in Grangegorman, and realising the importance of nursing, Aikenhead sent three sisters to Paris to the Hospice de la Pitie to be trained in nursing and hospital management. By the time they returned, Aikenhead had secured £3,000 and opened St. Vincent's Hospital on St Stephen's Green fulfilling her wish to have a hospital for the poor of Dublin.

Ironically, nursing was seen as a profession for the poor and unskilled. It was treated with little respect, which contributed to the spread of disease and accompanying hardship among the people.  By sending her sisters to train in Paris, Aikenhead addressed the issue of the professionalism and dignity of nursing. 

The novelist Milan Kundera said "the spirit of our times…stares into what is now, into a present so all-conquering and so expansive that it pushes the past out of our range of vision, and brings time into one ever-present moment'. (The Art of the Novel, 2004). The present is consumed with Covid-19, yet the past has much to teach us. The virus is presently occupying "one ever present moment'" However, finding how and where an infectious disease comes from and how it is transmitted is critical to remediating it.

The dignity and respect that society and its institutions must show to those who battle on the front line to care for people requires constant re-evaluation

The development of habitual, clean and regular practices based on knowledge and common sense save lives and restores dignity as shown by the Walking Nuns as they tended the infirm in Grangegorman's Clocktower. Such practices and simple methodologies are as important today (see cocooning and social distancing) in the face of Covid-19 as they were in the face of Cholera. They are of primary importance until the appropriate vaccinations are found. Each and every person has to take responsibility for these. Leaving it to someone else is not an option. The dignity and respect that society and its institutions must show to those who battle on the front line to care for people require constant re-evaluation.


This article was initially published by RTÉ Brainstorm.