The cholera pandemic of 1832 – presented a similar threat to Ireland as Covid 19

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The cholera pandemic of 1832  – presented a similar threat to Ireland as Covid 19

Teddy Fennelly tells the story

Ireland is in almost complete shutdown in an all-out attempt to stop the spread of the deadly virus, Covid 19. The worldwide range of the epidemic is unprecedented in modern times. We live in the hope that the country will be able to turn the tide on this worrying and invisible threat very soon and with the least possible ill consequences.

Almost two hundred years ago Ireland was hit by a similarly devastating pandemic and, unfortunately the country was ill-prepared and had much less resources to cope with the onslaught.

Ireland was under the rule of Westminster at the time and the impoverished state of the majority native Irish led to widespread unrest. The British Government had reluctantly passed the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1929, mainly due to the exertions of Daniel O’Connell, in the hope that it would placate the political agitators  seeking reforms and quieten a growing civil unrest in Ireland. But the concession by Westminster was too little too late as far as the Irish Catholics were concerned and it merely led to increased tension and violence with the payment of tithes to the Protestant clergy now the growing focus of discontent.

Attempts to collect tithe payments on poverty stricken Catholic families, led to the confiscation of goods and livestock and, in many cases, to eviction from their cabin homes. Confrontation between the agents of the State and peasant farmers reduced the country to a pitiable state.

Emergency powers were invoked by an exasperated British government and this brought about swift justice for many of those convicted of crimes, serious or relatively minor, or being involved in secret societies such as the Whitefeet, the Blackfeet and the Rockites, who were the prime movers in the campaign of unrest and, though outlawed, became the champions of the oppressed masses.

One court sessions at Maryborough (Portlaoise) Courthouse in May 1832, resulted in 39 convictions and only one acquittal. Three of those convicted, all from the collieries district in the south-east  of the county, were executed in Maryborough and fifteen others were transported, seven of these for life. This was a typical outcome in a crowded court calendar. It was rough justice in a despotic society degraded by rampant poverty, dreadful living conditions of the majority of the population, a ruthless administration, a prejudiced judiciary and a corrupt legal system.


If the people thought that the situation could not possibly get any worse, they were sadly mistaken, however. In the midst of all the misery, the country was visited by that horrendous disease, cholera. 


The cholera pandemic, which is caused by contaminated water and food and lack of sanitation is, like Covid 19, highly contagious. The squalor and lack of basic hygiene of poverty stricken regions, such as Ireland of the period, make them breeding grounds for the disease. A person could be in good health in the morning and dead by mid-day such is the virulence of the disease.

It began in India, and spread to Russia and Europe in 1831. An estimated 100,000 victims died in France alone and over 50,000 in England. It took hold in Ireland in 1832 and many thousands died in the outbreak. It was carried to America and caused havoc in poorer districts of New York,  such as the infamous Five Points, and other cities, where most of the immigrant Irish lived.

The first cases in this country were reported in the spring of 1832. As the summer progressed the deadly epidemic grew worse. The Queen’s County (Laois) did not escape the outbreak. Here we follow the devastation of the pandemic in Laois and in Ireland through the pages of the Leinster Express, which was founded in September 1831, a matter of months before the pandemic struck literally on its doorstep.


The Leinster Express reported widely on the spread of the disease.

On 6 February 1832, the King, William IV, signed a Proclamation, which was published by the local paper, which decreed that Wednesday, 21 March, was to be set aside as a public day of fasting and humiliation in England and Ireland imploring God to be merciful and remove the grievous disease from the Kingdoms. The paper carried the Proclamation which directed the bishops to compose a Form of Prayer suitable for the occasion to be used in all churches, chapels and places of public worship on that day “to obtain pardon for our sins and in the most devout and solemn manner sent up our prayers and supplications to the Divine Majesty for averting those heavy judgements which our manifold provocations have most justly deserved …”.

In the issue of 28 April 1832 the editorial warned the public that the disease had reached the Queen’s County (Laois) and that sufficient safeguards were not being adopted to stop the disease spreading. The first area to be affected was the afore-mentioned collieries district which was already ravaged by extreme poverty and violence. The report added:

“We have repeatedly called the attention of the inhabitants of the different towns in this county, to the necessity of adopting some measures towards the prevention of this dreadful malady. Yet our suggestions … are still unheeded …”

The article concluded by revealing that the editor had received a letter from Naas stating that out of 21 cases of cholera in that town, 16 had proven fatal.

In the same edition there was some advice from a doctor on how best to treat the disease. Its main remedy was the use of laudanum in a glass of strong brandy and water.

By 16 June, the disease had struck neighbouring towns of Tullamore, Newbridge and Athy. In Tullamore it was reported that on one evening there were about ninety cases resulting in 40 deaths. Nine deaths were reported in Athy. By the following week the death count in Tullamore had reached 160 to 200 with no recoveries reported. The Express noted that “the spirited people of Mountmellick have been very active during the past week. Every street, lane, house, cabin etc. is as clean as gravel, lime and water can make them. Men are paid to watch at every road or avenue to the town to prevent the entrance of strollers. To the inhabitants of other towns in the Queen’s County we say ‘Go thou and do likewise’”.

By the end of June, the scribe appeared to be more satisfied that people in the county were actively taking precautions against the spread of the disease as this report on 30 June indicates.

“It will be perceived by our columns that this frightful, this devastating, scourge is still spreading with rapid strides throughout the land, with awful malignity. We are much gratified to learn that the inhabitants of the different towns in the county are, at length, actively bestirring themselves … The Board of Health of this town (Maryborough) are about to receive the authority of the Lord Lieutenant …We doubt not that the public will derive advantages from their deliberations by cooperating with them for mutual preservation.”

The countryside was owned by big landlords who lived in luxury from the hard-earned rents of their impoverished tenants. Many lived the high life with their families and friends in London and other big cities of the Empire and rarely set foot on their own demesnes in Ireland. They employed often ruthless agents to do the dirty work for them in this country.

Call on the absentee landlords to help out

The Leinster Express editor, W. H. Talbot, called on these “absentee noblemen” to prove the “kindness of their dispositions by affording to the persons appointed (to the Health Boards) the means, as far as is in their power, of using preventative measures”.

Although two cases of cholera were reported in Mountmellick, the Board of Health there were praiseworthy of the efforts by townspeople. The report from the Board of Health, Mountmellick, stated that the infection was introduced by a person from Tullamore and revealed that one had died. It was signed by Frans Shortt, Clk, Chairman, Edward Conroy, William Beale, Patrick Dunne, Samuel Sheane, William Keenan, C.C., James Pim, John Millner, Thomas P. Pim, Timothy Dunne, William Armstrong, M.D., and Charles Vaughan, M.D.

Indeed, in contrast to Mountmellick, the town of Tullamore was at the same time being ravaged by the disease as detailed in another report in the same issue of 30 June.

“There is no town in Ireland, of similar extent, in which the dreadful scourge has been attended with such melancholy effects as Tullamore. We have seen several accounts all which correspond in depicting the alarm and devastation which has rendered this once prosperous town, a complete lazaretto.”

The correspondent wrote:

“No tongue can express the horrors and confusion existing here; every house and every establishment are shut up; there is no such thing as business and scarce an individual in the town; but these poor people who could not get away; and such as did try to make their escape have been hunted through the country. No individual is seen in the streets but those who were emplyed burying the dead and carrying the sick; and these men get 9s. per day. We have eleven doctors and up to this day 214 cases reported and 165 deaths.”

In Mountrath the first deaths from cholera were noted in early July. Three cases occurred in the morning and all three were dead by that evening, and buried within hours to help stop the spread of the disease.

A letter from Bartholomew Seale, Mountrath, dated 6th August 1832, indicated that the disease has stalled in the town due to “the prompt attendance of the Medical Gentlemen, to the removal of nuisances, fumigation of infected houses, prevention of intercourse and to the immediate interment of the deceased”.

The edition of 14 July 1832 contained an update of the state of the disease countrywide:

Dublin: New cases 213; died 62. (Total deaths 1831).

Waterford: New cases 28; died 16.

Clonmel: New cases 2; died 2.

Cork: New cases 35; died 10. (Total deaths 853).

Ennis: New cases 15; died 2. (Total deaths 143).

Castlebar: New cases 8; died 3. (Total deaths 30).

Galway: New cases 13; died 7. (Total deaths 322).

Loughrea: New cases 97; died 45. (Total deaths 48)

Belfast: New cases 44; died 4. (Total deaths 1081).

Strangely no new cases were reported in the list for Tullamore. Considering the 165 deaths mentioned by the correspondent just a few weeks earlier one wonders was this really the situation of a sudden cessation of the virus or was it a case of the figures not being released for the week in question?

These figures suggest that, in any event, the pandemic may have spiked by the middle of July in some places and that the worst was over for them.

Heroic work of Dr. John Jacob

Amazingly, the county town of Queen’s County, Maryborough, (Portlaoise) had escaped the pestilence up to that point and had not its first case until early September. There was a major scare some months earlier when a report found legs that the driver of the Abbeyleix Car had died of cholera in the county town, after a few hours illness. But it was a false alarm as it was confirmed by a spokesman for the County Infirmary, where he died, that the man expired “from the effects of intemperance.”

The lateness of arrival of the disease did not spare the town, however, and when it finally arrived, it hit with a vengeance. The Leinster Express of 8 September reported that

“Maryboro’ is at length visited by this awful scourge and several, who on this day last week were in the enjoyment of health and vigour, are now in Eternity. Indeed, taking into consideration the comparative population of the town, the disease has set in with as much virulence as in any other part of the kingdom. We would, however, upon this trying occasion, beg to impress upon the minds of the inhabitants, the necessity of not allowing their spirits to be too much depressed; nor to allow fear to take possession of their better sense. They should reflect that this awful visitation had long since ravaged the greater number of our towns and that we had a timely warning to prepare for the worst consequences. A considerable number of persons have already left the town; those who still remain and who have put their trust in an all-powerful and merciful Providence will find that He, in His wisdom, will give strength to meet the danger like Christians.”

Dr. John Jacob (1805-1864) was the man in charge of the only hospital in the county, the Old Infirmary, and was the leading medical man in the area. He opened a special wing in the hospital to treat those stricken with cholera. His heroic efforts in tending the medical needs of locals afflicted during the pandemic were widely praised as, indeed, was his Trojan work during the Great Famine, some years later. John was one of four generations of the Jacob family who gave sterling service to the people of Maryborough and the wider Queen’s County, both rich and poor, for over one hundred years. John’s brother, Arthur, was a famous eye surgeon, who was President of the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland (RCSI) on two occasions. He is best remembered as the first to describe the nervous layer of the retina (Membrani Jacobi) and the rodent ulcer of the lids (Jacob’s ulcer).

In the edition of the Leinster Express of 12 September, there is a lengthy letter to the Editor from Dr. John Jacob about his early experiences of the virus. He revealed that the first case concerned “a healthy young girl named Bow, who was seized while out binding corn at around 10 on Monday morning. She did not seek advice, however, until about 7 in the evening when the stage of collapse was fast setting in. She was immediately removed to hospital where every effort was made to affect her recovery but in vain. She died during the night and was buried at an early hour the following morning.”

Jacob gave similar details of a number of other cases he visited during that week including a prisoner in the jail and a soldier at the barracks and most of these had died by the weekend.

A portrait of Dr. John Jacob, 1805-1864 (courtesy of the RCSI)

The letter concluded:

“The present arrangements of the town are – Dr. Newton, Physician of the Board of Health; Mr. James Martin, inspector and assistant; Mr William Martin, apothecary in the hospital. A commodious hospital lately occupied by Mrs. Brumskill has been taken and will be this evening occupied. I have undertaken to give such gratuitous assistance as consulting physician in any cases which Dr. Newton may conceive necessary, so far as I can do without neglecting any of my other engagements.”

James Martin, Inspector, who was an elder brother of William, gave a summary of the week’s cases in Maryboro’.

Tuesday: New cases 6; died 5.

Wednesday: New cases 7; died 3.

Thursday: New cases 4; died 1.

Friday: New cases 6; died 4.

Saturday: New cases 7; died 2.

That was a total of 30 new cases with 15 deaths recorded and no recoveries as yet.

This was followed by an alarming report revealing that the machine on which patients had been carried to the cholera hospital had been deposited in a lane to the rear of the newspaper’s printing office, which caused some consternation to the editor.

The following edition, 15 September, suggested that the disease was on the decrease.  The figures for the town of Maryborough did not support that optimistic conclusion. Published figures showed that there were 48 new cases in the previous week and 26 deaths. It was also revealed that seven cases were reported in the local jail, opened only two years previously. The streets of the town were now deserted with many of the inhabitants fleeing to the countryside, mostly to an encampment in Summerhill about one mile on the Stradbally side of the town. Soup kitchens were opened at either end of the town for those who remained and clothing and beds were distributed amongst the “more destitute poor”.  Disgust was expressed that “the cess-pools on the side of the turnpike road remain uncleansed”.

But there was praise for

“the very great exertions of the clergymen of the town in their attendance at all hours to administer spiritual comfort to the sick and the dying”.

This would have included the local parish priest, Fr. Nicholas O’Connor, who came to the town  in 1816 and is known to have played a hero’s role for his townspeople during this time of great crisis. He built the old, now demolished, Ss. Peter and Paul’s Church and the Heath Chapel as well as introducing the Presentation nuns and Christian Brothers to the town.

As in any pandemic the dangers of infection very much extends to the medical people and other front line staff.  That same edition of 15 September announced the death of William Martin, who had fallen victim to the disease “in the discharge of his duty as apothecary to the cholera hospital”. The report added: “This young gentleman participated in the very laborious exertions of Dr. Jacob and his pupils from the first outbreak of cholera in the town.” The report also stated that Dr. Jacob and four of his apprentices had been ill due to fatigue (happily not due to the virus) from working around the clock in trying to stem the epidemic.

Sr. Carmel McLoughlin in her history of the Presentation nuns in Portlaoise, who opened up their convent there in 1824, relates that their old dilapidated makeshift school was closed during the outbreak in 1832 and that the nuns were somewhat sheltered from the ravages of the outside world. She tells, however, of a young novice being struck down with what was thought a minor illness which turned out to be “a raging and putrid fever of the worst kind”.

Despite the great risks involved, Dr. Jacob, persisted in treating patients in their homes and at the Infirmary, states Sr. McLoughlin. His life was under imminent and constant threat during the outbreak and yet, she relates, that he believed that his life was never more in danger than when attending the bedside of that young nun, who died a little time later.

It was not until around Easter of 1833 that the threat of contagion finally faded away and life returned to normality, which was still not a pleasant existence for the majority of the down-trodden population.



7 thoughts on “The cholera pandemic of 1832 – presented a similar threat to Ireland as Covid 19

  • What an excellent article, thank you for writing it. We have to look at our ancestors with so much respect, for what they endured and survived, pales in comparison to today’s woes. Hopefully we will get through this pandemic soon.

  • Thank you so much for this excellent article. It fills in gaps in our family history. We loved every minute of our trip to Abbeyleix before the pandemic struck and hope we can visit again – our age permitting!

    • HI Patricia, thanks so much, and be sure to message us when you’re visiting again and we’d be happy to give a tour.
      Best wishes,

  • Very interesting article, Dr John Jacob was my third great grandfather, Arthur Jacob FRCIS being my second great grandfather. It is interesting how many family members were/ are doctors.

    One correction, Cholera is a bacterial infection not a virus. Cholera is caused by the Vibro cholerae bacterium.

    I hope to get to visit the area in 2023.

    Best Regards

    Nicholas Jacob

    • Hi Nicholas, thank you for your reply. I’m sure Teddy Fennelly would love to meet with you, he has written a lot on the history of the Jacob family. If you want to email me at I would be more than happy to organise to meet you when you visit the area. Best wishes, Regina

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Laois Heritage Society 2019