Eerily reminiscent of today’s coronavirus pandemic, 190 years ago Ireland was gripped by an outbreak of cholera, imported from the far east, which ripped through the country and killed at least 50,000 people. It had a terrifying death rate of some 70% of patients, writes HARRY WARREN.


An Irish lady returned from Northern Italy on 17th February, 2020, with symptoms of general malaise and cough. She became unwell and she was officially diagnosed on the 26th February, 2020 becoming the first case of Covid-19 diagnosed in Ireland. Happily, the lady recovered from the illness. Tragically since that date, far too many have sadly died of the infection in Ireland.

There have been many instances in the past that Irish people have succumbed to a potentially deadly Pandemic disease and here is a little history of one particularly nasty one, Cholera, whose story should be told. And in echoes of today it even had its own nonsensical conspiracy theories abouts its origins and the supposed profiteering by the medical profession.

The first cholera pandemic spread from India in 1817 to Russia fading out in 1824 due to the Russian winter. Breaking out again in Asia, it finally reached and ravaged through Europe during 1831. Many hoped Ireland’s location on the edge of Europe would save it but sadly it was not to be. Spreading westward across Europe, the first cases were recorded in Dublin and Belfast in 1832. There is evidence the infection was introduced to Ireland via British troops who had served in India.

Between 1832-3 upwards of 50,000 died in Ireland. A terrified writer described the new pestilence sweeping the globe. “It has mastered every variety of climate, surmounted every natural barrier, conquered every people.”

It was endemic on the Indian subcontinent for centuries, and the inhabitants of Lower Bengal worshipped it as the goddess Oolee Beebe. It was a new disease in Europe and Ireland, and was highly lethal, due to a lack of immunity, thriving in the unsanitary crowded conditions that the poor lived in.

As it afflicted all classes of society and not only the poor, it led to greater government intervention. In preparation for the coming onslaught, the government re-activated the Irish Central Board of Health, a body that was formed during a previous Typhus epidemic.

The Board, more commonly known as the ‘Cholera Board’, ordered the public to bring their sick to hospital, to ventilate rooms, to scrape dirt from the floors and scrub surfaces with lime.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own