Life in Cork during the polio scare of ‘56

Having lived through one health scare in Cork in 1956, Jo Kerrigan finds similarities to the present coronavirus pandemic
Life in Cork during the polio scare of ‘56

LIVING IN FEAR: The Blessing of the children of Cork city at Holy Trinity Church on July 7, 1956, during the polio outbreak.

THESE are strange times we are living through at the moment, with schools, places of work, cinemas, theatres, gyms and shops closed, and children compelled to forego contact with friends and stay indoors.

Adults fear for themselves and their loved ones, and everyone wonders who will be next.

But we’ve been here before.

The summer of 1956 may be forgotten by all but a few, yet when the polio outbreak happened, Cork was a frightened city.

Poliomyelitis (or infantile paralysis as it had formerly been called) had occurred several times in the preceding years, but with not enough cases to warrant concern. 1956, though, was different.

The first case was notified to the medical authorities on June 13. Two further cases were reported on June 19, one on July 2, and another two the following day.

Dr Saunders, the city’s chief medical officer, knew then that an epidemic was unavoidable. And indeed the number of cases began to increase exponentially.

By August 9, 90 cases had occurred in the city and 34 across the county, with one death. The majority of these were children, with most cases occurring on the south side of the city. Over Ireland that year, there were 499 cases, with almost half of those in Cork.

The front page of the Evening Echo on July 5, 1956 reporting on the polio outbreak in the city.
The front page of the Evening Echo on July 5, 1956 reporting on the polio outbreak in the city.

We were a family of five children, living on the breezy heights of Summerhill North, just below St Luke’s Cross. Being pretty young and therefore heedless, we regarded the whole thing very lightly, but in retrospect, one realises that our parents must have been desperately worried. As were the medical authorities, who, fortunately, treated the situation seriously from the outset. Their objectives were to stop the spread of the disease and to limit the consequences in those who had contracted it.

During that hot summer, the open-air swimming pool at the Lee Fields was closed, and people were warned of the dangers of swimming in any part of the river, as back in those days the entire drainage of the city flowed into it.

One of my brothers recalls seeing children cheerfully jumping into the river just off the Coal Quay and thinking ‘Not a good idea!’ showing that parental advice was at least assimilated in part.

We were severely limited in where we could wander — nowhere near the river or its many little tributaries (remember the stream that flowed in opposite the Opera House, at a point locally known as Poweraddy Harbour?) and definitely not out to Fitzgerald’s Park or up to Goulding’s Glen, where it was felt there might be far too high a likelihood of contact with infected persons.

Today, it might seem surprising that well-brought-up little children should even consider wandering around the city, but back in those days, Cork was still very much a gentle market town, and one of our joys on summer evenings was exploring the many alleys, steep flights of steps, roundabout lanes, and hills that are so much part of our native city. Tiny hucksters’ shops where you could get a square of jawbreaking toffee for a penny, shawled women sitting outside their front doors, enjoying the song of a linnet in a tiny cage hung above the lintel, even the occasional happy drunk staggering home with a song on his lips.

What harm could come to us there? And none ever did.

But during that summer of fear, exploring was out, and we had to stay at home in the garden, where we played quite happily, ending the day with card or board games, or reading peacefully in a quiet corner.

The city council indeed emphasised the very real need for children to avoid crowded places or gatherings of other youngsters, and encouraged parents to get them to bed early.

One alderman reported his dismay at finding children still playing in the streets at a very late hour in the flat of the city. But that was where they did play back in the 1950s.

The front page of the Evening Echo on 9 July, 1956. Cork parents were urged to have their children in bed by 10pm at the latest to prevent the spread of polio.
The front page of the Evening Echo on 9 July, 1956. Cork parents were urged to have their children in bed by 10pm at the latest to prevent the spread of polio.

Little girls skipped to age-old songs, or played hopscotch on a chalked pavement with a boot polish tin. Small boys chased each other in endless games of cowboys and Indians or tossed a ball against a high wall in imitation of their elders playing handball in special alleys. How many children do you see playing outdoors these days? Modern social thinking has outlawed those simple pastimes of earlier times.

Of course, civic and church leaders insisted that there was no need for worry, which naturally led to even more fear among the people.

The redoubtable Bishop Lucey, while organising a special day of prayer for polio victims and their families, tartly observed that though it was a time of anguish and anxiety, it was not a time for panic.

Somehow, that didn’t have quite the same effect as normal episcopal diktats.

It’s a reflection of juvenile versus adult reactions to a crisis that the chief thing worrying us youngsters was whether the schools would reopen in September as usual.

I can vividly remember my mother coming home on a wet Saturday night with the Echo. Splashed across the front page was the headline ‘Schools To Stay Closed’. That was a happy weekend for us, although possibly not for our parents.

The polio epidemic slowed down that autumn, although it wasn’t declared completely over until the following year. And it left its casualties, mercifully few fatalities but many damaging disabilities.

The Cork Poliomyelitis Aftercare Association (afterwards COPE) was established in May, 1957, to help those thus disabled. And life in Cork took up its accustomed pattern once more.

At the time, it must have seemed that things could never get back to normal again. But they did.

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