Thursday, 1 August 2013

The Mystery of the Children - A Sign of the Times?

I had discovered that my great grandfather, James Sproule of Tullymoan, had an older brother, William John Sproule. On researching William John, one of the first things I learnt about him was that he had died in 1839, aged approximately 28 years.1  Now this gave me a bit of a jolt because this was now the fourth adult child of my great, great grandparents who had died between 1833 and 1839! What could have happened?

These were not young children. The other three were girls, aged between twenty and thirty.  The girls had all died at home on the farm in Tullymoan, Urney, County Tyrone.1 This land was rich and productive, and it should have been a healthy environment.  The generation before this, and the generation following this, were all raised on the same farm and most of them lived long and healthy lives.  Was there something in Ireland of the 1830s that might have contributed to the deaths of Catherine, Margaret, Matilda and William John Sproule?

Life in Pre-famine Ireland

The 1830s was just before the famine in Ireland and life had changed dramatically. The population had exploded. In 1754 the population of Ireland was a tiny 2.3 million. Fifty years later in 1800, it had more than doubled to between 4.5 and 5 million. In the 1821 census it was recorded as 6.8 million and by 1841 it was 8.1 million. It had quadrupled in less than one hundred years! The vast majority of people still lived in abject poverty, and with this population explosion came hunger and the rapid spread of disease. 2

The Cholera Pandemic

At the end of 1832 there came an epidemic that hit rich and poor alike. The cholera pandemic had started in India, it spread across Europe and it first appeared in Ireland in mid 1832. The effect here was devastating. By 1833, it had spread to every corner of the country and had claimed some 60,000 lives. Catherine Sproule, aged 30, died on the 4th January 1833 at her home in Tullymoan, right in the middle of this cholera epidemic. 3 

The Contribution of Irish Traditions

Ireland had its own endemic diseases that could spread easily in this overpopulated country. People were on the move, there were transient workers who were both adults and children.  The Sproule farm in County Tyrone would certainly have employed people to work on the land and in the kitchen. We also had the tradition in rural Ireland of visiting with neighbours in the evenings, attending the sick, and of course the whole townland came to the wake of the departed.  Disease spread easily.

All classes became vulnerable to outbreaks of cholera, whooping-cough, typhus, dysentery, influenza, small pox and measles. Any one of these diseases might have caused the death of Margaret Sproule in February 1835 and Matilda who died in April 1838.

William John and the Dispensary

William John, son of Andrew and Rebecca Sproule, had gone to Glasgow University where he qualified as a doctor in 1834. Doctor William John immediately got a position in the dispensary at Dunfanaghy, County Donegal.  These local dispensaries had been set up to help the poor in Ireland at that time.  They were funded by local subscriptions, so occurred only in areas that could afford them and they were generally badly run.4 By the mid 1830s some of these local dispensaries were staffed by qualified doctors, and Doctor William John Sproule was one of these.

Two years after leaving college in 1836 William John married Ellen Ramsay of Letterkenny, and just over two years after that, Doctor William John Sproule had died. On the 8th January 1839, William John became the fourth of these Sproule children to die.

The Result of Disease – or the Cause?

William John was at the coal face, working with people with highly contagious diseases and it is not really surprising that he died at such a young age.  Indeed, there were many priests, ministers and doctors of that time who suffered a similar fate.

The other problem was that those tending to the sick were carrying the diseases home to their families. William John’s two older sisters had both died after he had begun working in the Dunfanaghy dispensary.  Could his efforts to help the sick have been the cause of this family’s grief? That is a sad thought, and I hope it is not so. 

The Big Wind

Indeed, William John may not have died in that way at all, he might have been injured in the Big Wind. On January 6th 1839 a hurricane swept across Ireland causing devastation throughout the country. It is famous in Irish lore, many of the old ones talked in terms of before the Big Wind or after the Big Wind. Dunfanaghy, where William John was doctor, is a wild coastal place in the far north of Ireland, and it would have been very exposed on the night of January 6th when the hurricane struck. William John died just two days later in the home of his father-in-law in Letterkenny.

I have no definite answers, but what I do know is that Andrew and Rebecca Sproule had suffered great loss. They had seen these four children survive childhood, only to lose them all as young adults. There were many in Ireland in the same position at that time, and it was indeed a sign of those times - and of worse times to come.

1 From entries in The Strabane Morning Post 1812 – 1837 and The Londonderry Sentinel 1829 – 1869
2 Pre-famine Emmigration, Irish Ancestors, Irish Times
3 The Cholera Epidemic in Ireland, 1832-3: Priests, Ministers, Doctors; Hugh Fenning;  Archivium Hibernicum, Vol. 57, (2003), pp. 77-125
4 The Sick in Pre-Famine Ireland: Charity and the State, Laurence M. Geary, University College Cork

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