Dirty Oul’ Town

In the early summer of 1956, an epidemic of poliomyelitis broke out in the city of Cork. It was not unexpected. The Irish medical authorities had noted the two-year gap between previous outbreaks, and were ready for 1956 to be a polio year. ‘Ready’ rather overstates it. Some hospitals had been designated as polio reception centres, but no attempt was made to import and use the newly released Salk vaccine, which was soon to obliterate the disease in the Western world … The death toll seems to have been relatively low, as it usually is with polio: the damage is reckoned in the spoiled bodies of the young rather than in mass graves. Nearly 550 patients, most of them children, were brought into hospital presenting fever and paralysis within less than four months … ‘The epidemic in Cork was a strange prelude to the years in which Ireland became a modern and developed country, whose success is studied by other countries emerging from the Third World.’ It was strange in two ways. In the first place, the epidemic is something that Cork people are deeply reluctant to remember, mostly because they associate epidemics with poverty, dirt and underdevelopment – the conditions that ‘Celtic Tiger’ Ireland has so astonishingly left behind in the last twenty years. But strange, secondly, because the significance of the Cork plague was really just the opposite. Historians today can read it as early but clear evidence that Irish society had already begun to emerge from poverty into something like the basic living standards of Western Europe.

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