How my grandmother died: expertise and folk knowledge at a time of pandemic


Dr Kieran Fitzpatrick, National University of Ireland, Galway

A version of this blog was first published in the Sunday Independent. We are grateful to them for allowing us to share it with our readers.

In the days before she died in 1963, tuberculosis had consigned my grandmother to solitude. Restricted to a room that had been sealed off from the rest of her family’s cottage in rural county Wexford, her lungs were close to collapse, her body weakened by years of pulmonary infection and isolation in Brownswood sanatorium, just south of Enniscorthy, one of the county’s larger towns. Shortly before she passed, the tape was momentarily removed from her bedroom door, so that she might see her children once more. Looking out of the window, she spied my grandfather, walking towards the house from the bottom of the field that opened out onto the Blackstairs Mountains and Mount Leinster, a large length of wood slung across his shoulders. “Mind him”, she said to my father, aged eight at the time, “he’s a good man”. She expired shortly after, leading my father to conclude that at once he had both known and not known his mother.

The details surrounding my grandmother’s death were a history unknown to me before the onset of COVID-19. I knew she had died young from tuberculosis, and left behind a husband to raise four children on his own. However, I was unaware of the finer grain that clarified her story’s larger detail. They only fell from my father after breakfast one morning in the second week of ‘lock-down’. It was one of many such discussions that have occurred in the weeks since I came to my parents’ house on the Loop Head peninsula in Clare, on Ireland’s opposite, western coast, to weather the pandemic’s effects. This sort of opening up to the effects of infectious disease in our recent past is what I mean here by “folk discourse”. There is knowledge of epidemic disease within our families, which has existed tacitly and unspoken for decades. That knowledge has the power to connect us to our very recent social and cultural histories, and to provide a form of emotional and philosophical support not received from scientific expertise. It can also help us to better understand some of our most long-standing relationships.

In this example from my own family, tuberculosis seemed to correlate with emigration, that most common of Irish experiences. Although also a function of the “usual suspects” in the emigration story – the push of local and national poverty, the lack of employment, the search for an imagined better life – their experience of my grandmother’s death saw all her children emigrate, my father and his sister, like so many others, to London in their late teens. Given the endemic nature of tuberculosis in Ireland in the middle of the twentieth-century, there is not only an interesting line of historical inquiry to be interacted with here, by way of the work of historians who have traced how disease, tuberculosis and others, restructured medical knowledge and familial relations, drove the embodiment of stigma, and – in Ida Milne’s memorable phrase – made Ireland, at points, “a society silenced”. To what extent did disease make emigrants, too?

There is also an opportunity for us to conceive of infectious disease in 2020, not as something unprecedented or novel, but as a long-standing determinant in the structuring of our social and cultural DNA. Those previous experiences of infectious disease are still in living memory, through parents and grandparents. Perhaps knowing their memories would provide solace, or at the very least context, to those of us experiencing isolation and social distancing as measures that have induced anxiety or fear about the future. There is, I believe, value in understanding previous hardships thrown up by infectious disease, the way in which people adapted to meet their demands, and how they might compare to our experiences in the second quarter of 2020. By emphasizing the ability of our forebears to adapt to disease-induced change, we equip ourselves with a cultural acuity to the resilience of those who have come before us, and reckoned with the social effects of previous infectious diseases.

The “novelty” of coronavirus has rapidly come to define our lives in recent weeks, with the word understandably being used to express COVID-19’s status as the newest mutation of the coronavirus family. However, we should resist assuming that the disease’s novelty in science applies to society and culture, too, even if our public discourse has recurrently described our current moment as “unprecedented”. Our fear of COVID-19 lies only partially in the disease itself, and as much in our willingness to submit to its supposed newness, and strangeness, to scientific expertise.

By drawing on the cultural resources embodied in those closest to us, we are provided with sustenance for coping with this fraught moment in our history. Folk knowledge of disease can help us understand how to live with the changes it induces and, additionally, renew our bonds with those whom we find ourselves isolated. Nothing other than the mass social anaesthesia induced by this global pandemic would have made me as attentive to my family; whilst distanced and isolated from society at large, I have also been brought into closer relations with my status as a son. If I surrender to poetry, perhaps the depth of my now knowing Dad corresponds to the shallowness of his knowing my grandmother, enforced as it was by tuberculosis’ regime.

I am aware, too, that my ability to isolate and distance from COVID-19 has been made easier and more tranquil by having the option to escape from the relatively densely populated town where I work, to the more sparsely populated place that I think of as home. Indeed, I could not claim in good faith to be one of the people for whom isolation has proven to be a trial; that same privilege is unobtainable for many. However, I am grateful for the opportunity that this physical making of space has afforded me to make space in a second sense: for reflection on not the novelty of our times but the continuities in our social history, and its being defined by how we, “the folk”, respond to moments of epidemiological crisis. At the same time, I have been given space to reflect on one of my most substantial and cherished relationships, that which I enjoy with my father. History, which I so often study in abstraction, in the mode of an expert, has been brought into intimate contact with my role as a son. From that synergy, between expert and folk knowledge, I draw strength and comfort in a time of uncertainty.


About the author: Dr Kieran Fitzpatrick is an essayist and social historian of medicine and healthcare. His academic research focuses on the evolution of professional specialisms in scientific disciplines, and how this process is driven by social and cultural histories. He is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Moore Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences at NUI Galway, where he is using the personal archive of the genitourinary surgeon, Peter Johnstone Freyer (1851-1921) as a lens to explore the history of elite surgery in London at the turn of the twentieth-century.

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