Pandemic Histories. A short story by Mary Gibson

So, this is our history now.
Over the years ahead we’ll, doubtless, relay intimate pandemic stories to our children’s children. When they’re old enough to ask, we’ll explain how we lived through months of isolation; through social distance, lock-down and quarantine. How we lived in a bubble, a pod or cocoon. We’ll tell them we did our part for our country and our fellow citizens.
Irish people are born with a yearning to be with and amongst others. We fancy ourselves as ambassadors of welcome and search for companionship with enthusiasm. We love our freedom and value it, being so hard won. Will they understand how fearful we were with its loss?
We’ll analyse how our nation’s psyche has been affected, what lessons learned and what was lost. We’ll see how things will settle on us. That student, who slid through Leaving Cert examinations, online and with their teacher’s blessing. The toddler, who watched cartoons at home, their play-friends, disappeared. The worker, whose day was no longer prefaced by a two hour commute. The relentless violence of homes, contained by front and back doors. Everyone will have their story.
Like my mother before me, I will tell my grandchildren how it was for us, living through a pandemic. There are comparisons with her Spanish flu and my Covid19, but there is such sadness in her personal account, I cannot begin to understand.
The deaths are numerous and the grief is immense; fear is our old adversary. I am one of the vulnerable ones staying inside, rarely leaving my home. I try to trust the frequent Government updates on how to stay safe, to protect myself and my family.
In 1918 U.S. troops deployed to bolster the war effort in Europe and as they did, they carried a virus called Spanish flu with them. Throughout April and May of 1918, illness spread rapidly through populations in the British Isles, France, Spain and Italy. It’s estimated that three-quarters of the French Army was infected by spring of 1918 and as many as half of embattled British troops.
My mother was just a small girl at that time, one of a large family living in rural Ireland. I have thought of her during my isolation and listen again to her rich voice in my remembering. What might it have been like to be alive then? I imagine Ireland with poor means of mass communication, medical care, food provision, hygiene and sanitation. I try to look at that time through my mother’s childish eyes.
The First World War was drawing to a bloody end with revolution and sedition, poverty and illness part of everyday life. She was the one left at home while her parents worked and her brothers went to school in a pony and trap. That was the way then, there was no choice for her. Her baby brother was born and she had the task of minding him when he woke, and soothing him when he became ill.
The first wave of the virus didn’t appear to be particularly deadly, with symptoms like high fever and malaise usually lasting about three days. According to limited public health data from that time, mortality rates were similar to a seasonal flu. It was nothing to be alarmed about, yet.
In the sunny nursery above their father’s bakery and shop, the wee girl and her baby brother played in loving isolation. Beneath, amid the market town’s bustle, her father cared for his customers who might or might not have the ability to pay for their purchases.
The family joined together each evening when my mother gave a lively account of what she and Patrick had done all day. She was Patrick’s companion, carer and later on, his nurse. She felt the importance of her responsibility, she carried it but it never weighed her down.
Late in August 1918, military ships departed the English port city of Plymouth. Onboard were troops unknowingly infected with a new, far deadlier strain of Spanish flu. When these ships arrived in cities such as Brest in France, Boston in the United States and Freetown in West Africa, a second, more deadly wave of the global pandemic began.
Patrick was himself that morning. He had his first feed but to my mother he felt too warm in her arms. He was restless and she played with him. His face was streaked with tears and she wiped them with a cool cloth from the water bowl on the nightstand. That afternoon, when the family came to find them upstairs, my mother rocked her feverish brother in her arms.
A third wave of the Spanish flu erupted in Australia in January 1919. Eventually that virus worked its way back to Europe and the United States. The mortality rate of the third wave was just as high as the second. However, the end of the war in November 1918 removed the conditions that allowed the disease to spread so far and so quickly.
Caught up in this wave was Patrick. He washed away, leaving a lasting loss and sadness in my mother. I cannot know how my grandparents dealt with their baby’s death or helped to soothe my mother’s grief but she still spoke of it until I had children of my own. She was left with the sense that in being responsible for the care of her brother, she’d failed to prevent his death. It may have been the reason she became a truly dedicated and caring nurse when she left school. She was such to each of us, whenever we became ill.
There was the opinion that the severity and virulence of the Spanish flu was minimised by world governments until it was too late to counter with adequate medical and social measures. That drawing attention to its indiscriminate and mortal effects would further diminish a sense of hope in a world recovering from the “war to end all wars” and on its knees.
During my time of isolation I thought of my mother, in that sunny nursery with her little brother. I missed my children. I missed the hugs and kisses of my grandchildren. I longed for the smell of their baby hair and skin, the warmth of their loving arms.
I thought of other grandmothers who struggle to live in harsh environments without adequate shelter, food and water. Those grandmothers with names like bibi, nonna, abuela and mémé who live in poverty and war.
When this time passes I will tell my grandchildren my history of this pandemic and my mother’s too.


In 2018, having retired from 40 years teaching young people with complex needs, I finally had time to pursue my own interests. With no idea of where to start, my local Library gave me a whole new community and tribe! Since then, I have not stopped exploring my own potential, finding new friends, fellow artists and support within my local area. I have been able to volunteer on behalf of young people and have cheerfully pushed myself beyond my personal comfort zone.
I have
• Produced a series of greeting cards with themes of Irish Wildflowers, Kildare Racing and Kildare Town Landmarks.
• Contributed written and illustrated pieces for “Luisne an Chleite”-an anthology for Wordsmiths writers group in Kildare, with the assistance of Kildare County Council
• Attended workshops and written poetry for a book on Brigid in conjunction with Annemarie Ní Churreáin, writer in residence Maynooth University
• Published and illustrated several pieces of memoir for “The Hollybough”- Cork’s annual Christmas magazine (2018 & 2019)
• Published an article on “Pollardstown Fen” in Irish Wildlife Magazine (May 2019)
• Given Primary School workshops on “Meet The Artist”, “A Visit to an Art Exhibition” and “Mindful Colouring” for local schools and outreach installations
• Held solo Art Exhibitions of my multimedia artwork in Dunamaise Arts Centre, (Portlaoise)
McAuley Place Arts Centre (Naas) and Kildare Community Library (Kildare Town)
• Participated in Cruinniú na Nóg event in Ballinskelligs Arts Centre, Dungeagan, Co Kerry with an international video link to schools and young people in several countries simultaneously (June 2019).
• Launched my two proposed children’s books “Lola” and “Grandmothers”, as a multimedia Art Exhibition there, while writer in residence during June/July 2019
I have submitted my project of an illustrated handbook “A Place of Stones”-on the historic area of Ballinskelligs, to Kerry County Council.
Written and illustrated (but so far unpublished) books “My First Baby Book” and “Stories That Help Me At Home” and “The Sands of Dee”
Presently, I am working on an illustrated handbook “Pollardstown Fen” to support and inform Kildare visitors and local people on this beautiful and vulnerable environment.

I continue to paint and write every day.

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