Nurse Katie McConologue and the Great Flu of 1918
Nurse Katie McConologue (nee Tinney), a widow woman from Killygarven, Rathmullan, County Donegal died in the Parish of Glencolmkille, in her thirty second year, from virulent fever contracted while carrying out her duties as a Jubilee Nurse and Midwife during the pandemic known as the Great Flu of 1918.
She had been working there for almost four years at the time of her death. Katie was born and brought up in a two-bedroom thatched cottage on a small farm of marginal land in the townland of Binn, three or four miles north of Rathmullan. She married Patrick McConologue of nearby Killygarven in 1906. He was 20 years her senior. Her daughter May was born on the 11th March 1911 and her second daughter Rosena was born in 1913. Patrick died of Tuberculosis in 1913, only seven years after they married. When he died, Katie then went to the Rotunda Hospital, in Dublin for six months of training as a nurse. Her first and only post as Jubilee Nurse and Midwife was to Glencolmcille, where she was appointed in late 1914 or early 1915. She traveled there with her brother Eddie by horse and trap the 70 odd miles from Killygarven.
Over 20 million persons (and some say this estimate might have been 30 million out) died from the influenza worldwide in the Spanish Flu, and 23,000 persons died in Ireland from the same cause. 1918 was a time when fear of death gripped the living. It was called Spanish because the Spanish press being neutral in the war felt free to report it unlike the belligerents. Death dropped its calling card with chilling nonchalance that year and logic it seemed was temporarily turned on its head as the young and strong proved more vulnerable to the virus than the more immunised old and feeble. God alone knew who was going to die next. The deadly virus, they later identified as H1N1, was stalking the townlands of Glencolmkille that winter. Kate herself succumbed to the virus and after a desperate struggle for life she died on the 9th of December 1918. She left behind her two young children, seven-year-old May and five-year-old Rosena.
The Jubilee Nurse Scheme was the precursor of the District Nurse Scheme. In the Congested District Board areas, the Board built Nurses Cottages for the nurses. They were supplied with bicycles and sometimes a pony and trap to allow them to travel around the areas where they were in charge of as nurses and midwifes. They were located in remote areas along the western seaboard and islands. They brought about a dramatic improvement in health care in the areas where they worked.
In the short days of that horrible winter of 1918, Kate and a young priest, Father Phil O’Boyle, who was originally from the townland of Ballinacarrick, in the Parish of Lettermacaward, in the Rosses, made their way through the townlands of Glencolmkille with a pony and a trap that was provided for her by the Jubilee Scheme. The disease was close to them and death pursued them. They laid out the corpses of the dead by day and prayed for the souls of the same dead in empty wake houses in the silence of the night. There was one particular family, that of Billy Cunningham and the mother Annie were expecting twins. The twins were born. The night of the day they were born, Father Boyle went home and Katie remained with them as the family had the fever. When Father Boyle returned to the house in the morning the father and the twins were dead. The mother died a few days later leaving three surviving children. The people were afraid to go near the house for fear of contagion from the disease and Katie and Father O’ Boyle had to lay out the corpses and leave them out on the street to be collected for burial.
Katie and Father O’Boyle were often drenched by rain as November was overly wet that year. The fields were bare, black and hungry looking. The trees were leafless and colourless. The weather was overcast or wet, day after day, sometimes from morning to night. The community was desolate, exhausted and broken (in spirit) from the endless struggling with the oppressiveness of the disease. Death stole the lives of many people that winter and regrettably, it stole Katie’s as well. She became ill but continued to work on for almost a week her doctor said. The Jubilee Scheme sent a nurse from Dublin to look after her. Her sister Biddy was with her during the last week of her life and was at her death bed. Katie was attended to by a doctor every day. After 12 days’ illness, according to her death certificate, she died. She had finally got the rest she deserved.
Father Phil O’Boyle survived the dangers of that winter and died in old age in the 1970s. He had been a curate in Kincasslagh and Termon, a diocesan inspector and Parish Priest of first Gweedore and then finally Kilcar. He spent a few years in retirement in Glencolmcille. He then moved to a nursing home in Warrenpoint, County Down and died there in 1970.
Letters to America
There were four letters to America. The siblings of Katie McConologue were, Eddie, Paddy, John, Dan and sisters Minnie, Bridget and Hannah. Hannah had joined Katie in Glencolmcille to help look after her children, and John, Eddie and Minnie emigrated to the US. Kate wrote a number of letters to her siblings in the US and three of the letters still exist. Two were written to her sister Minnie, a nun in the US. A further letter was written to her brother John in the US. A fourth letter was written by Biddy to Minnie informing her of the death of Katie. John was working in the US. Eddie was in the American Navy over and back to France from America in 1918 and there is a reference by Katie to the war with the hope that it will ‘end well soon’ and alluding to the fact that Eddie was at sea and ‘that the sea was safer than land’. Writing about Binn to her sibling in the US old Bob, who was a horse, gets a mention as being still alive. Fidda, she said was dead and he was probably a dog.
Minnie Tinney / Sister Simplicia
The four letters in existence are connected with Katie. That is why they were kept by Minnie/Sister Simplicia and her brother John. All four letters were written to America. The first letter was written probably in the autumn of 1917, although the letter is undated, to her sister Minnie in America. It makes reference to her having got a letter from Minnie when she was on holidays at home. It also makes reference to her children going to school. This letter is on Lough Derg headed note paper. She may have been in Lough Derg on a pilgrimage or more likely may have been given the paper by someone who had been there such as Father O’Boyle.
I have corrected some of the spelling and added punctuation so that the letters are easier to read. Katie and her sister Biddy who wrote one of the letters often give a phonetic spelling of the word and had difficulty with mute letters in words as in write that became rite in their spelling.
This first letter reads as follows;
St Patrick’s Purgatory, Lough Derg, Pettigo, County Donegal
My Dear Minnie,
I cannot explain how delighted I was to receive your letter. I was home on my holidays at the time so my people were all glad to hear from you.
We are all back again in Malinmore and May has got in to the first book, she is getting along very well and she always says that she is going to be a nun like Minnie. Little Rose is very funny she goes to school but did not learn much yet. I had a letter from Eddie about two weeks ago. I hope he is back again in Phila by this time. I do not know what I have done to John, I wrote to him two letters and he never answered any of them and I would like to hear from him for I don’t know how it is that I always keep thinking of him for I know he is well. Eddie always tells me about him. Poor Eddie is getting the (word unclear) of life. I trust the Lord will spare his life, the sea is not as bad as the land and we get shipwrecked sailors in here as we live on the coast of the Atlantic. Well Minnie theres a great change in Rathmullan since you left, it is terrible what government works are going on in it. I don’t think that I would like to live in Killygarven now as it is very lonely, poor Dan always stays up and the old horse is the only thing of the old stock left. I suppose Aunt Sallie and Mrs Graige goes often to see you, do you hear from your father. I have heard that Sarah has come out as a nurse, I saw Anthony when I was at home, he is the picture of John when he was like him, and our Rose is the spit of John also. Well Minnie I must draw to a close and hopes these few lines will find you well as it leaves us all at present. Write as soon as you can again and pray for me and the children, I will pray for you, goodbye and God Bless you,
Minnie McConologue from Killygarven/Sister Simplicia of the Order of Saint Joseph in Philadelphia.
The second letter to Minnie.
A letter was written by Katie to her sister Minnie in the United States on the 2nd March 1918. There is a reference to her brother Eddie who is in the American Navy in France. The letter read as follows;
Glencolumcille, Co. Donegal 2/3/1918
My Dear Minnie,
This eve, I take the pleasure of addressing a few lines to the Convent to you. I sent you a few lines some time ago to Doughertys but I was beginning to think that the letter had got lost for I did not get any answer and that was before Xmas. I did not have a letter from John these last four months. Eddie writes regular, he is near home in France and the letter does not take as long. I have sent him cake and some oatbread. I hope he will get it.
Well Minnie there is no use of me trying to tell you how glad I was when I got your letter, for I was afraid that you could not write for some time now. I am very glad that you are so happy. I am sending you a few shamrocks I hope you will have them for St Patrick Day. I would have sent them sooner only I was waiting so I would get a little ribbon as what I got is not worth much. When you see John ask him why he does not write especially when Eddie is not there. May and Rosena is getting very big and goes to school every day. I think I told you that she had only a few yards to go, they are very lucky for a start. I expect to go down home in June if God Spares. I will draw to a close now. Hoping you are well I will pray for you, pray you for me. Goodbye and God Bless,
PS. I hope you get this letter, I am not sure of your address, I am only guessing it.
A further letter was written to her brother John again in the United States on the 16th July 1918:
Glencolmkille, 16/July 1918
My Dear Little John,
Today I received a letter from you at long last, and I am very sorry to think that is what kept you from writing to me was to send me money. My Dear John it was the last thing I would think of is for you to send me money, a poor child that had to start out at 14 to work. I think that it is very good work of you to keep yourself for a few years and any little help Minnie wants. I am sure Eddie will do his best to help you. Poor E. I can not explain how glad I was to see his hand note in your letter I hope he will get a good while in the states now. This is a terrible war, but please God it will come to a good end yet. How is Aunt Sallie and Jack and family. I am sure Aunt Sallie is very pleased to have Minnie in the Convent, it is a great consolation to us all. How is Joe getting along I am sure he is a big boy now. May has got very big and goes to school every day. Rose does not go every day she gets tired of going, she is a great little card when we were down at home everybody said that she is the spit of you. Old bob is still well. Fidda is dead, Killygarvan is very dull, great changes about Rathmullen, goodbye John and God Bless, Katie.
A further note was written across the front page of the letter by way of a post script.
Thank you ever so much for the money but never think that you should send me money for you have to work hard for, goodbye and give my love to all the family X.
The final letter was written on Christmas Eve 1918. Katie on that date is dead just over two weeks and the letter from Biddy her sister was written to Minnie otherwise Sister Simplicia informing her of Katie’s sad death.
Binn, Rathmullan, Co. Donegal 24-12 1918
My Dear Minnie,
I am sure it will be a shock to you to hear the sad news of Katie’s death. May her soul R.I.P. The flu was very bad in the place where she was and she was attending to ones that had it so she took it herself. The Doctor said that she done too much. She should have been in bed a week before she went to bed. But we must be content with God’s Holy Will. Poor little May and Rosena are left soon enough. They are here in Binn. We are thankful that they don’t grieve as much as we feared they would. They know she is dead and they know she cannot come back. Well dear Minnie I was with Katie for a week before she died, There was a nurse from Dublin taking care of her and she had the Doctor every day. There was no want of care on her. She had pneumonia and the Doctor could do nothing more for her. Well Dear Minnie it was a terrible blow to us and we feel it terrible to that she is gone forever. All we can do for her is to pray for her. Don’t be worrying about May and Rosena for they are very well. They don’t speak about her so that is a great contentment to us, besides if they were crying for her. I am sure Eddie and John will be very sorry when they hear it. I am writing to them now too.
Well Dear Minnie I will finish for the present.
I remain yours very sincerely, Bridget Tinney
The three children of Billy and Annie Cunningham (Glencolmkille) who survived the shocking death of their parents and their two new born siblings, were Francie, Min and Willie. Francie stayed on in his parents house, as did his own own son Francie who reared his family in that house also. Min married Jimmy Boyle also of Glencolmcille. They had a number of children including a son Francie who emigrated to the United States. His son Brendan Boyle is a member of US House of Representatives. Willie who also lives in Glencolmcille has a family and his son Liam Ó Cuinneagáin was the founder of Oideas Gael the Irish language school for ‘daoine fasta’ for grown ups.
Katie McConologue’s two children May and Rosena went to reside with their aunt and uncle in Binn, Killygarvain. May married Charlie Deeney in 1942 and had six of a family. Rosena moved to Glasgow, Scotland. She never married although she did have a child, a little boy, who tragically choked when he was about 7 years and died in Binn where he was being reared by his aunt Biddy. Rosena returned to Ireland and died in Binn some years later. May often returned to Glencolmcille, and had a grá for the place and its people arising in part from the recall of happy days of her childhood there, but also paradoxically from the tragic association she herself had with Glencolmcille as the place where her mother gallantly, struggled, worked and died.
May was there in the Folk Village in 1968 on the 50th anniversary of the death of her mother in a commemoration of her death organised by a committee headed by Father James Mc Dwyer. There was a further commemoration organised by Father Eddie Gallagher in 1999, when a mirror was placed in the Folk Village to the memory of Kate McConologue. May Deeney died on the 6th August 2003. May's daughter Mary Deeney Whoriskey of Kerrykeel made available the letters and family photographs used in this article. My thanks to her. My thanks also to Noel Carr of Carrick who owns the Nurses Cottage in Malinmore and to Liam Ó Cuinneagáin the descendent of the Billy and Annie Cunningham family who were so tragically affected by the Great Flu of 1918. They helped me research the facts of this story of tragedy and pride. Mór mo bhuiochas dóibh.
Seán A. Boner
8th June 2020
Interesting Article, Photographs and Research, all compiled by Seán A. Boner, (President of County Donegal Historical Society) and shared on: https://www.facebook.com/donegalhistorical
Shared on IrelandXO by: S.Callaghan (Kerrykeel)
Civil Parishes throughout County Donegal (IrelandXO Links) CLICK HERE
Descendants of Katie McConologue at a commemoration of the Great Flu
|Date of Birth||14th Oct 1887||VIEW SOURCE|
|Date of Death||8th Dec 1918||VIEW SOURCE|
|Father (First Name/s and Surname)||William Tinney (1849-1929) born in Bunnaton, Glenvar.|
|Mother (First Name/s and Maiden)||Rose Coyle (1861-1946) born near Bunnaton, Glenvar.|
|Townland born||Katie McConologue (nee Tinney) was born in the Townland of Binn, in the Parish of Killygarvan.||VIEW SOURCE|
|New Type||1901 Census – William Tinney and Rose (Coyle) Family in Saltpans, Rathmullan - (Kates family)||VIEW SOURCE|
|New Type||1901 Census – Edward McConologue and Mary Friel family in Killygarvan Lower, Rathmullan (Patrick's family)||VIEW SOURCE|
|New Type||1911 Census – Patrick McConologue and Kate (Tinney) married and living in Lower Killygavan, Rathmullan||VIEW SOURCE|
|Place & Date of Marriage||30 Oct 1906 – Marriage of Patrick McConologue and Catherine Tinney in Rathmullan Chapel.||VIEW SOURCE|