Herbert James William Davis (1920 to 1939)

Almost eighty years ago to the day, Herbie Davis died from diphtheria at the age of 19.  

He was born into the Larkfield household on the verge of bankruptcy, struggling with the shame and hardship of losing almost everything when his father’s, Richard’s, cattle business collapsed. On leaving nearby Mullaghduff National school he worked on the farm, his extra labour helping to provide for the growing family.

Herbie to the left of his mother Annie. His siblings back row Ena and Reco. Front row Cecil, Phyliss, Alf, Wallace and Jack.

When Herbie was about 16 and Reco 15, they went out to work. With their horse and cart, they would draw stone from Bird’s Quarry to nearby council road works. This was the first regular money that came into the farm in a number of years; neighbours said it marked a turning point in the family’s fortunes.

It started as a simple cold and sore throat in the early autumn of 1939, just as the 2nd World War was declared, and petrol rationing was introduced. But it got progressively worse as a fever set in and he could no longer go off to work. Their Manorhamilton doctor treated him with a tonic, but it had little effect. Sometime in late September he was confined to bed, his face and neck swelling, a continuous barking cough heard throughout the house.

His siblings saw their big brother laid low, weak and suffering. They could see the worry and distress of their parents, Richard and Annie. Reco, his younger brother and work mate took on extra chores on the farm. All but Jack were teenagers and felt the anxiety and upset, missing Herbie around the house and farm.

Diphtheria is a bacterial infection of the mouth, throat and nose. As the illness progresses untreated a growing mucus closes the airways and produces high levels of toxins. The illness can be cured with a course of simple antibiotics, which were widely available 5 or so years after Herbie’s illness. Today diphtheria is an extremely rare illness with all children being vaccinated at an early age.

Neighbours and relations came to the farmhouse in the evening to sit with Herbie and support his parents. William O’Malley, my grandfather Richard’s cousin from Tawnymanus sat with Herbie near the end. Later William could not bring himself to visit his own son, Wills, when in hospital with acute appendicitis. The young Wills, very confused by this, would years later understand his father’s behaviour in light of the traumatic experience sitting with the dying Herbie.

Herbie Davis circa 1939.

As the winter deepened and the nights grew longer Herbie’s condition worsened. Their doctor visited again but there was little he could do for him.  He was slowly choking, toxins poisoning his body. On the 30 November his father sent Reco to Manorhamilton on the horse and cart to summon the doctor again, with the express instruction, not to return without him. But the doctor refused to come, saying that he could do no more. Reco returned to Larkfield alone, and Herbie died a short time later.

I look at the last picture taken of him, dressed for church, a haunted look about him, photographed for posterity, the energy gone from him – a young man, my Uncle, never to meet.

Richard and Annie had experienced the death of a previous child when Herbie’s younger sister Maureen died at the age of two on 9th December 1923.


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