The people’s saviours? Voluntary activism in Dublin and Toronto in the age of the influenza pandemic, 1900-1920
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This study compares the nature of voluntary action in early twentieth century Dublin and Toronto, with particular reference to grassroots activism during the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-20. It focuses on the relief operations of the Neighborhood Workers Association (NWA) in Toronto, which was an umbrella organisation for over 180 charities and the Saint Vincent de Paul Society (SVP), the Women’s National Health Association (WNHA), and female religious congregations in Dublin, which were at the helm of relief activities on behalf of the poor prior to and during the Influenza Emergency. Between 1900 and 1920, the theory and practice of charity in these two cities of the British Empire, underwent profound changes, which impacted the treatment of the poor at local level. In this period of huge social and political unrest worldwide, the nineteenth-century concept of relief as private almsgiving or as an activity mostly undertaken by churches and charitable organisations gave way, under the pressure of the growing masses of poor, to a new managerial ethos in charitable practices. This was rationally organised in terms of resources and the provision of professional services. While the new charitable climate was more in evidence in Toronto, the movement toward managerial practices was clearly present in Dublin, albeit in different ways and degrees. On both sides of the Atlantic, women, particularly Catholic nuns and female Evangelical reformers, including Lady Ishbel Aberdeen, were highly visible in philanthropic activities and women’s involvement in charity allowed them to exercise a degree of authority which was denied to them in the political realm. At heart though, as the comparative case-studies of Dublin and Toronto clearly show, the issue of class differences and fear of the subversion of the status quo had a role to play in the relief efforts of well-to-do Dubliners and Torontonians. At the same time, compassion for the suffering of the less fortunate could be seen in the work of charitable activists who were motivated by a multiplicity of factors, including the politics of self-interest in their dealings with the poor.
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