Pandemics, famines, plagues and the like are nothing new. But they are new to us. As we’re all settling into our new normal, I’ve been thinking about a package a relative sent my mother ten years ago.
The package contained several family heirlooms from Dublin, Ireland (where my mom’s father immigrated from), including a “war work” ledger that was “commenced 1st May 1917.”
According to the note enclosed in the package, the ledger belonged to my great-grandfather (whom I never met). I really can't understand a lot of what I see in the ledger. My great-grandfather included some rather odd diagrams in various colors of ink. But as I continued to flip through it, I came across a page that made my throat tighten.
It’s written in pencil and extremely hard to read since it is so faded. Here’s what it says:
We the undersigned beg to bring before you the inadequately low rate of pay most of us are on, in fact it cannot be described better than starvation wages at this present juncture for we cannot buy the food necessary to supply energy for the work.
A man with a family of 6 to 8 cannot support them without going on short rations himself and it would be less than human if he took from his family what they wanted more than himself.
We would not take up your valuable time by enumerating the different prices of food and clothing. Suffice it to say that [indecipherable dollar figure] before the war is not equal to [indecipherable dollar figure] so that a man on [indecipherable dollar figure] now is only equal to a man on [indecipherable dollar figure] in war time and we need not inform you the average man had not much to spare at any time no matter how frugal he may be inclined.
We are in a bad way here but we look forward in hopes of help from you.
I don’t see any names listed after that, so I’m wondering if this was a rough draft. Maybe he never sent it. If he did, I can’t help but wonder if these men ever receive a response to their plea.
It’s gut-wrenching to think about – especially knowing that this is my great-grandfather’s ledger.
What was going on in Dublin in 1917?
The National Archives of Ireland website indicates that Dublin had extensive slums that “were not limited to the back-streets or to impoverished ghettos.”
Why the slums? The same website points to “a mass of contradictions,” citing divisions of class and culture. But it was even more complicated than that. World War 1, the 1913 Lockout, the 1916 Rising, a war of independence, and an ensuing civil war all took place around the same time.
As if that wasn’t enough, the Spanish flu — which claimed 23,000+ lives in Ireland, while another 800,000 were believed to have been infected — seemed to hit in full force in 1918.
It seems like my great-grandfather’s plea would have happened before the pandemic’s arrival, which makes me even sadder because life was about to become even more difficult for him after he wrote that note in his ledger.
Sometimes, you have to look back at history to fully understand what you’re going through now. In this case, maybe by doing so, it’ll remind us that we aren’t the first generation to experience hardship via a pandemic.