Infectious Diseases in the National Folklore Collection

One of the modules in the MA in UCD’s Irish Folklore and Ethnology program  is a brief internship in archival methods. This module typically takes place in the National Folklore Collection (NFC), but the 2020 module was moved online due to COVID-19. For the 2020 module, students were given a number of topics to choose from in order to do an overview of the material related to that topic in the Schools’ Collection, available online at Duchas.ie.

When the threat of COVID-19 began to loom over Ireland in early March, my partner and I were left with the decision of whether to remain in Dublin, renting a small room, with no health insurance and the possibility of being laid off from our jobs, or fly back to Canada, where, if nothing else, we had family to stay with and keep us fed. We decided to book a flight for the end of the month. On March 12, however, the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, urged all Canadians abroad to return home if at all possible, as there was a very real possibility of borders closing. At 3am on March 13th, we had packed all of our things, said goodbye to our landlady, and were in a taxi on the way to Dublin airport. We had masks and gloves, as did many people in the airport, but there was still an atmosphere of uncertainty. I am famous in my family for falling asleep before the plane even takes off, but I was wide awake the entire flight. The tension was palpable and whenever someone coughed or sneezed, the entire plane seemed to tense up. A week earlier I had recovered from a bout of the seasonal flu that left me bedridden for two weeks, and I felt as though all eyes were on me each time I breathed. When we eventually landed in Calgary, Alberta, our friend picked us up from the airport and we were lucky enough to stay in a family friend’s empty home for our two-week quarantine period. Alberta is an EXTREMELY dry place, and Rocky Mountain air is as arrid as it is fresh. The move from a humid to a dry climate, coupled with the stress of flying and the inevitable jet lag made it extremely difficult to separate potential COVID-19 symptoms from the expected dry sinuses and occasional cough. We didn’t even think to get tested until my partner lost his sense of smell almost completely.

We were likely the first people in the small town of Black Diamond to be diagnosed with COVID-19. Luckily, our symptoms were mild. I had a cough and chest inflammation, and my partner’s only symptom was a loss of smell. We were extremely grateful that we had followed the protocols for quarantine as exactly as we could. No one in our family or circle of friends has tested positive to date.

When Dr. Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh and Dr. Bairbre Ní Fhloinn sent the proposed topics for the now-online archival methods module, I immediately seized the opportunity to research Plagues and Epidemics. There are 105 entries listed under the heading ‘Plagues and Epidemics.’ For my research I went through each entry, and took note of every one that mentioned diseases or viruses that affected humans. The most common topic or disease discussed was the 1918-1919 Influenza Epidemic following the First World War. (NFC S 539:228-30) In 105 references, it was mentioned 31 times. There are surprisingly few mentions of treatments or cures, but rather many references to doctors being uncertain, and there are seven references to religious or magic cures. (NFC S 260:135) The second most prevalent disease mentioned is cholera, with 20 entries either dedicated to or mentioning the disease. (NFC SC 186:398-9) Another theme that occured on multiple occasions is the plague or epidemic being blamed on an outsider, stranger, marginalized person/ group, or “the other.” (NFC S 103:90-91) A particularly poignant example of this involves a stranger drinking from the village well, and thus contaminating it and making the village population ill. It is important to recognize how much fear and anxiety is expressed through folklore, and specifically through folklore pertaining to disease, death, disruption, and contagion.

The project illuminated many parallels to our current situation, highlighting the importance of studying folklore. I was surprised to see how much the accounts of previous diseases reflect our current moments: restrictions to social activities outside the home, increased sanitation practices, disruptions to celebrations and rites of passage (ie. holidays, funerals, weddings), and especially the fear of not knowing exactly how the disease is contracted or how best to treat it. The voices that came through in the accounts in the schools’ collection can put into perspective our current moment:

In the year 1918 there was a disease known as the flu from which many people died. Some homes were left desolate because the families died. The disease was infectious and it soon spread all over the district. When one person in a house took the disease the rest of the family took it too, and then there was no person to attend to them, and then they all died. There were funerals nearly every day, the schools were closed too. The hospitals were packed with patients, and in many cases the doctors and nurses who attended the sick took this disease and died from it too.When people thought the disease was over, it broke out again, but this time in a milder form.(NFC S 1084:038)

The above example feels as though it could be written about our current moment. During my research, I found myself reflecting on the role of the collector in our current moment, and even began keeping a journal myself.

Like the fears expressed in the Schools’ Collection, the current discourse around COVID-19 also displays a fear of the other; racism against people of Asian descent has risen as a result of COVID-19, and the disease itself has exposed inequality in our societies: in areas where higher poverty levels exist and multiple families live in one home, there are higher rates of COVID-19. The stories in the schools’ collection talk of food shortages, shop closures, and children being unable to attend school for months at a time.

The descriptions of mass burials and accounts of families with multiple people dying are especially harrowing and again shed light on the current situation. A few days ago my paternal grandmother passed away after a long illness in her nursing home, and there will be no celebration of life this year. My aunt was by her side at the end in full PPE.

On Duchas, there are stories of caretakers and doctors falling ill and dying because of being in close contact with patients. This is the case in our current moment, too. One last thing that I took away from the experience of researching contagious diseases amidst a global pandemic, was the endurance of a collective trauma in a community. The stories in the schools’ collection have been passed down from generation to generation, and eventually recorded by the NFC. They are still talked about decades or even centuries after the threat of illness has passed. I think we should read through these accounts, not only to see a reflection of our current lives in them, but to also read the accounts of  communities coming together and moving past the epidemics. As the storytellers in these entries moved forward, often in an unrecognizable world, so must we, together.

If you would like to explore the Plagues and Pandemics in the Schools’ Collection, click here.

  • This guest blog was kindly contributed by Erin Emily Ann Vance, MA Folklore Student in the National Folklore Collection, UCD.

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