“In the days of my early youth the world was shaken with the dread of a new and terrible plague which was desolating all lands as it passed through them, and so regular was its march that men could tell where next it would appear and almost the day when it might be expected. It was the cholera which for the first time appeared in Western Europe. And its utter strangeness and man's want of experience or knowledge of its nature, or how best to resist its attack, added if anything could to its horrors.
It was said to come from the East, and Abby Huch says in his 'China' that it rose out of the Yellow Sea, going inland like a cloud and dividing into two which spread North and South.
In those days I lived with my parents and brothers in a provincial town in the West of Ireland called Sligo. It was long before the time of railroads, and (I think) steam boats. At least one had never been there at the time, so news travelled slowly. But still the rumour of the great plague broke on us from time to time, as men talk of far-off things which can never come near themselves. But gradually the terror grew on us as we heard of it coming nearer and nearer. It was in France. It was in Germany, it was in England, and (with wild afright) we began to hear a whisper pass 'It was in Ireland'.
Then men's senses began failing them for fear, and deeds were done (in selfish dread) enough to call down God's direct vengeance on us.
One I remember vividly, a poor traveller was taken ill on the roadside, some miles from the town, and how did those humanitarians tend him? The dug a pit and with long poles and pushed him into it and covered him up alive. But God's hand is not to be thus stayed and severely like Sodom did our city pay for those crimes. Trenches were now cut across the road in the direction in which the cholera was said to have come, for the purpose of stopping all intercourse with the affected districts. No use, no use!
One evening we heard that a Mrs. Feeny, a very fat woman who was a music teacher, had died suddenly and, by doctor’s orders, had been buried an hour after. With blanched faces men looked at each other and whispered ‘Cholera’! but the whispers next day deepened to a roar, and in many houses lay one, nay two or three dead. One house would be attacked and the next spared. There was no telling who would go next, and when one said goodbye to a friend he said it as if for ever.
In a very few days the town became a City of the dead. No vehicles moved except the cholera carts or doctors’ carriages. Many fled, and many who fled were overtaken by the plague and died by the way. Some of the doctors made a good thing of it (as they said themselves) at first, but one by one they too dropped off, and others came and filled the gap, and then others again filled their places.
Most of the clergy of all denominations fled and few indeed were the instances in which the funeral service was read over the dead.
The great County infirmary and Fever Hospital was turned into a Cholera hospital, but was quite insufficient to meet the requirements of the occasion. The nurses died one after another, and none could be found to fill their places but women of the worst description, who were always more than half drunk, and such scenes were perpetrated there as would make the flesh creep to hear of.
One Roman Catholic priest remained (there may have been others, but I knew of this one). His name was Gilleran and he told us himself, that he was obliged to sit, day after day and night after night, on the top of the the great stone stairs with a horse whip, to prevent those wretches dragging the patients down the stairs by the legs with their heads dashing on the stone steps, before they were dead.
The habit was, when a new batch arrived, for whom there were no beds, to take those who were stupefied from opium and nearest death, and remove them to make room for the new arrivals. Many were said to be buried alive. One man brought his wife to the hospital on his back, and she being in great agony he tied a red neck-handkerchief tightly round her waist to try and relieve the pain.
When he came in the evening, he heard that she was dead and lying in the dead house. He sought her body to give it more decent burial than could be given there, (the custom was to dig a large trench, put in forty or fifty corpses without coffins, throw lime on them and cover the grave). He saw the corner of his red handkerchief under several bodies, which he removed, found his wife and found that there was still life. He carried her home, and she recovered and lived many years.
There was a remarkable character in the town, a man who had been a soldier (of great stature), he was usually known as Long Sergeant Callen. He took the Cholera, and, as it was thought, died. A coffin was brought, and as the coffin maker had always a stock on hand ready (as the burials followed immediately after the death) they were much of a size, and of course too short for Long Sergeant Callen. The men who were putting him in, when they found he would not fit, took a big hammer to break his legs and make him fit and the first blow roused the sergeant from his stupor, and he started up and recovered. I often and often seen the man afterwards.
But to come to our household. Gradually we ceased to go out, or hear what went on outside. The last evening we were out, we went to see the family of the Collector of Excise, Mr. Holmes. There was a large family, father, mother, grandmother, three or four sons, three daughters and a little grand-child. We left them all well at half-past nine, and next morning at nine o’clock we heard that Mr. Holmes, his mother, two sons, a daughter and the little child were dead and buried.
Fire to Burn the Cholera People.....
After that (which occurred the sixth day of the cholera) we stayed pretty much in the house. There was constant fumigation kept up. Plates of salt on which vitriolic acid was poured from time to time, were placed outside all the windows and doors. Every morning as soon as we awoke a dose of whiskey thickened with ginger was given us all, in quantities according to our ages.
Gradually the street in which we lived thinned out; by twos and threes our dead neighbours were carried away. One morning (the ninth day) four were carried at once dead out of the opposite house. Our neighbours on both sides died. On one side a little girl called Sheridan was left alone and sick, and we could hear her crying. I begged my mother’s leave to help her. She let me go with many tears. Poor Mary died in my arms an hour after and I returned home, and being well fumigated, was taken in and escaped.
Some descriptions of provisions became almost impossible to get. Milk most of all, as none of the country people could be induced to come near the doomed town. We had a cow and many persons (ladies whom we did not know except by sight) used to come and beg a little milk for their young children. The jugs used to be left on the doorstep, filled, and taken away.
At night many tar barrels and other combustible matters used to be burned along the street to try and purify the air, and they had a weird, unearthly look, gleaming out in the darkness. The cholera carts and cots had bells, which helped to add to the horror, and the coffin maker (a man named Young) used to knock on the door and enquire if any coffins were wanted. This was a climax hard to bear, few nerves could stand it.
We asked him to desist. He would still come, and one day I told him if he came again, I would throw water on him. Next day he knocked as usual, and out went the full of a big jug on his head. The fellow shook himself, looked up with a diabolical grin, shook his fist and said: ‘if you died in an hour, you shall not have a coffin’. ‘Thank you’ said I, ‘in that case I shan’t care’. He came no more.
Day now went by day, without any change. The plague was not stayed. Every morning at daybreak, a cry used to go from room to room over the house, ‘Is anyone dead’? But we were mercifully spared. In our whole long street only Dr. Little’s family and our own remained without loss.
On some days the cholera was more fatal than on others, and on those days we could see a heavy sulphurous-looking cloud hanging low over the town, and we heard that birds were found dead on the shores of Lough Gill.
Early on the morning of the fourteenth day, my mother heard a great commotion among the poultry in the back yard, and on going out found several of them dead or dying. She came in and said it was time for us to go pack up. So we put up a few things, sent the cow to the meadow in the neighbourhood where there was water, begged the people near to milk her and make use of the milk, and at ten o’clock we (that is, my father, mother, two brothers, myself and a servant) started on the mail coach for Ballyshannon, where some of my father’s friends resided, who we were sure would receive us for a few days till we could get some place to live in. It was a damp drizzling morning and we felt very miserable as if we had a forewarning of what we had before us.
All went well until we got within a mile of the village of Bundoran, about four miles from Ballyshannon, when the coach was met and stopped by a mob of men armed with sticks, scythes and pitchforks and headed by a Doctor John Shields who was half mad. He was son of one of the first physicians and most respectable man in the country, but he did not take after his father. The coach was stopped, we were ordered out, our luggage taken off and no entreaties could prevail on those men to allow us to pass. Fear had maddened them.
After long parley and many threats of the vengeance of the Law our coach was allowed to proceed, and we were left on the roadside sitting on our trunks cold, wet, hungry and well nigh hopeless. My father feared to leave us to go look for assistance, but at the end of about an hour and a half, we saw my uncle’s carriage and a chaise coming towards us. One of my cousins was in the carriage. They had heard of our situation and had come out to try and get us in, and an old servant of the family who had a livery stable brought his chaise for the sake of old times.
We got into the carriages, but when we came near Ballyshannon we found we would not be allowed to remain, and all we could get leave to do was drive through the town. My uncle had an old friend in Donegal about twenty miles further on, a Miss Walker, and they advised our going there, and wrote to beg his friend would receive us for a little. Well on we went, my mother and children in the chaise, and my father, the servant and luggage in the open carriage.
It was now raining as if Heaven and Earth had come together, and after driving about ten miles, my father took very ill. Our store of cholera medicines (without which no one moved a yard) were produced but no vessel to mix them in, so one set of the drivers ran to a cabin near in the fields and begged the loan of a mug and a little water. The woman gave it but on being returned she broke it in pieces and when offered money said that if we left it on the roadside, she would take it up after a while, but feared to touch anything from our hands.
My father’s illness was not cholera, but the result of cold, anxiety and exhaustion, and he was soon well enough to get on. We entered Donegal but our arrival had been announced in some way and we found the square where we entered full of men, howling like devils. In a trice, ourselves and our luggage was taken (or rather torn) from the carriages, the luggage was piled up in the centre of the square, we placed on it and a cry went out ‘fire to burn the cholera people’. We thought our last hour was surely come and sat as quiet as we could and tried to be resigned to our fate.
Fortunately the Officer in command of the regiment quartered in the town, was a man of promptitude and humanity. The barrack gate opened into the square, and in an incredibly short time, ordered out the men who surrounded us in the hollow square, and faced the mob on all sides with fixed bayonets. We were now comparatively safe, but in what condition: we were cold, hungry, houseless and surrounded by a howling multitude who would not even allow us to go on.
Presently a meeting of the Magistrates was held, - to decide on what was to be done with us (and I regret to have to tell it of a minister of Christ) the bitterest and least merciful among them against us was the rector of the parish. In the meantime some kind person sent us out a large jug of hot tea, and a loaf which we thankfully received and which was all the food six persons had that day till 10 o’clock that night.
The Magistrates decided that we should not be allowed to pass, but be sent back by the way we came, escorted by the Military to prevent us from the fury of the mob. So our carriages were again packed and back we went with our escort, who left us about seven miles on the road. We now held a council of war as to what was to be done, and the drivers advised that we should wait till dark and they would drive us by a back way to our cousins house in Ballyshannon, where we were sure of shelter if we could get there. They walked the horses and about ten o’clock at night we arrived without detection and were warmly received by our cousins.
Based on the novel Dracula (by Bram Stoker), this silent movie is probably the best ever film based on the book. Count Orlok seeks to move from his castle to a new city. Real estate agent Hutter travels to meet Count Orlok in his castle to sell him an empty house in the city. Directed by: F.W. Murnau, with actors: Max Schreck, Greta Schröder, Ruth Landshoff, Gustav von Wangenheim, Gustav Botz and John Gottowt.
We were fed and our feet bathed and beginning to feel quite comfortable when, behold! a great uproar in the street, and the voice of our old enemy Doctor John Shields, calling for us to be brought out. But we now had the best of it, and our cousins refused to open the doors.
The noise continued, and presently the chief magistrates of the town and two doctors arrived, who civilly requested admittance. They were let in on promising to abstain from violence, and we had to submit to a medical examination. We were declared free from cholera so far, but the house was put in quarantine, and no one let out for some days. At the end of that time we abode in peace, till the plague was abated, and we could return to Sligo, where we found the streets grass-grown and 5/6ths of the population dead, and had great reason to thank God, who had spared us through such dangerous and trying times and scenes.
Sligo was said to have suffered far more than any town in Great Britain from cholera.”