Port health has been an important aspect of public health since at least the middle ages. The practise of quarantine began in the early modern period, and focused in particular on ensuring isolation for a period of forty days during outbreaks of the plague. The use of quarantine continued when necessary throughout the early modern period and into the nineteenth century, by which time the ports of Britain were bustling with people, ships, and cargo. A number of Parliamentary Acts were passed with regards to health and movement, their aim being to prevent any infectious diseases that could spread through the population from entering the country whilst also maintaining trade and travel links between Britain and the world.
Whilst quarantine prevented diseases from spreading by curtailing the movement of people and goods, it only worked if a disease had been identified. When the so-called Spanish Flu entered Dublin Port in 1918 this was not the case – the disease came into the country among soldiers returning from the First World War. Although termed the ‘Spanish Flu’, the disease may have originated in Kansas and then spread to the battlefields of Europe and ultimately around the world as the soldiers in France and Flanders returned home. It acquired the name ‘Spanish Flu’ as Spain – as a neutral country during the war – was the first to make a public declaration of the instance of the disease on its soil. The belligerent nations of Europe were hesitant to provide their enemies with any encouragement that news of the disease within their own territories might engender.
Wherever the disease came from, it was spread by the movement of people. During the war, people found themselves uprooted, in unsanitary camps, and vulnerable to infection. Furthermore, large numbers of people were on the move, which allowed diseases to spread from camp to ship, from ship to port, and on to the city and the country beyond. Dr Kathleen Lynn, a female doctor in Dublin, called for returning soldiers to be quarantined and their uniforms disinfected – she referred to the front in Flanders as a ‘factory of fever’. However, by the time this occurred the disease had already spread, exacerbated by civilian travel across the Irish Sea. The disease caused mass deaths on a scale not witnessed in living memory, both in Ireland and across the globe.