The Broken Boy


“Written with affection and insight.” —Maeve Binchy

“Charming, interesting and moving by turn.” —Sunday Telegraph

“Engrossing . . . an often perceptive genre-defying gem . . . engaging and entertaining.”
Scotland on Sunday

“This is wonderful writing . . . Brilliant . . . Cockburn has pulled off something remarkable.” —Observer

“The best journalist's autobiography to appear for years . . . This is a story of endurance and a hugely adventurous mind, elegantly told.” —Evening Standard

“Sad and entertaining, and altogether evocative of a vanished Ireland.”—Sunday Times

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About the Book

In this expanded edition of a widely praised book, now available for the first time in North America, the renowned journalist Patrick Cockburn looks at his experience of contracting polio as a child in the context of a new pandemic, that of COVID-19. The parallels between what happened 65 years ago and today’s crisis are both striking and salutary.

Cockburn was just six when he woke up one day in the summer of 1956 with a headache and a sore throat. His parents, Claud and Patricia, had recently returned to Ireland, to their house in East Cork, careless of the fact that polio had broken out in Cork City. Patrick caught the disease and was taken to the fever hospital. The virus attacks the nerves of the brain and the spinal cord, leading to paralysis of the muscles. Patrick could no longer walk.

The Broken Boy is at once a memoir of Patrick Cockburn’s own experience of polio, a portrait of his parents, both prominent radicals, and the story of the Cork epidemic, the last great polio epidemic in the world.

384 pages • Paperback ISBN 9978-1-68219-321-1• E-book ISBN 978-1-68219-320-4

About the Author

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Patrick Cockburn is currently Middle East correspondent for the Independent and worked previously for the Financial Times. He is the author of various books including, Behind Enemy Lines, The Rise of Islamic State, Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq, The Occupation, Saddam Hussein: An American Obsession (with Andrew Cockburn) and, with his son, a book on schizophrenia, Henry’s Demons, which was shortlisted for a Costa Award. He was awarded the Martha Gellhorn Prize in 2005, the James Cameron Prize in 2006, the Orwell Prize for Journalism in 2009, the Foreign Commentator of the Year in 2013, and the Foreign Affairs Journalist of the Year in 2020.

Read an Excerpt


I was unlucky in catching polio in Cork in Ireland in 1956 as this was one of the last polio epidemics ever in Western Europe and the US. Dr Jonas Salk had discovered a vaccine that had been successfully tested the previous year and, at the time I fell ill, mass inoculation was being rolled out for the first time to stop the spread of the virus in Chicago. Across the city, health workers took over vacant shops, the forecourts of gas stations, the backs of trucks, parks and street corners to vaccinate people. The number of new infections declined as herd immunity was established, marking a turning point in the effort to stop epidemic polio. The success of this decades-long campaign was one of the greatest American achievements in the twentieth century.

Not that it did me any good at the time as I was admitted to St Finbarr’s fever hospital in Cork city on 30 September. When I was released three months later, I was at first confined to bed or was in a wheelchair and learned to walk again with metal calipers on my legs and wearing a plastic waistcoat to keep my back straight. Though my mobility improved markedly over the years, I could not run and have always walked with a severe limp. I was conscious of my disabilities, but I never thought much about why this had happened to me or about the epidemic in general. I could not have said with any certainty – and this self-inflicted ignorance was to continue until I was well into middle age – in what year it had taken place or whether it was caused by a virus or by bacteria. I sensed that thinking about this, picking at the emotional scar tissue, was not going to help me. Only in the late 1990s, when I was in Iraq as a journalist talking to doctors and patients in ill-equipped hospitals hit by UN sanctions, did I start to feel it strange that I knew more about sickness in Baghdad than I did about polio in Cork, when it had been me lying in a hospital bed.

I started reading about polio, a disease that has probably been around for thousands of years. There is an ancient Egyptian sculpture of a man with a wasted leg, looking very much like my own. Walter Scott was made lame by it as a child. But these were individual cases and it was not until the first half of the 20th century that polio epidemics began to sweep through cities. Before then most people contracted the virus in infancy, when their mother’s antibodies helped them to gain immunity. Long before the Covid-19 pandemic made the phrase ‘herd immunity’ infamous, the pool of people who had polio without knowing it was large enough to prevent pandemics. It was modernity that gave the polio virus its chance: as 19th-century cities acquired clean water supplies and efficient drainage systems, babies were no longer contracting the virus in large enough numbers to provide protection. When collective immunity faltered, epidemics would surge periodically through cities like New York, Melbourne, Copenhagen, Chicago. Devastating though these outbreaks were, they seldom occurred at the same time in different places because vulnerability to the virus would vary.

I was surprised that nobody had written a history of the Cork epidemic which had paralysed part of Ireland for the best part of a year. It lived on in popular memory as a terrifying event and there were plenty of victims still alive since they were crippled as small children. Nevertheless, the epidemic had never been the subject of a book or a serious academic study. I asked surviving doctors from that period, who were far older and therefore less numerous than their patients, why this was the case. They said they believed that people in Cork had been so frightened of the disease that they wanted to forget about it once vaccination had removed the danger. Polio had always carried an extra charge of terror compared to other diseases because its victims, whom it crippled or killed, were young children. As I read up government documents and newspapers about the epidemic, I came to understand that a further reason for the silence was that many Irish people were ashamed of what had happened, mistakenly imagining that the epidemic was caused by Irish underdevelopment and this was a symptom of the failure of independent Ireland to successfully modernise. I embarked on interviewing any medical staff and polio survivors I could find for a long article on myself and the epidemic published in 1998. I planned to write a book on the subject, but this was delayed by the post 9/11 wars when I was to spend much of my time reporting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In 2005, I published a memoir about the epidemic as I experienced it called The Broken Boy. I described my experiences in the context of my family and of Ireland in the 1950s. The title was something of a misnomer, since I felt singularly unbroken, but it did at least tell the reader that the book was about the suffering of a small child.

I am glad I researched and wrote the book when I did because many of the best-informed witnesses died soon after its publication. Much of the text made gloomy reading but it ended on an up-beat note that later turned out to be over-optimistic. At the end of the final chapter, I had written dismissively of the last prophetic line in Albert Camus’ novel The Plague in which he wrote that ‘the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.’ I found this a bit portentous and out of date, writing that polio might have been among the last of the life-threatening plagues, such as leprosy, cholera, tuberculosis, typhus, measles, malaria and yellow fever, to be eliminated or brought under control during the 20th century.

Polio epidemics had a surprisingly short career: less than seventy years between the end of natural immunity and the widespread use of the Salk vaccine. It was a story with a seemingly happy ending and this was the topic of my original book. Few people realised – certainly I didn’t – that if polio epidemics were a product of modernity and not of backwardness, then the way might be open for other epidemics of equal or greater severity.
I was surprised but not very alarmed when Covid-19 was first identified in Wuhan at the end of 2019 because previous coronavirus outbreaks, such as SARS 1 and MERS, had not spread far and had been suppressed. As more information about the virus emerged in the early months of 2020, it struck me that in some respects the pandemic more resembled a polio epidemic on a world scale than the 1918/19 Spanish flu outbreak to which it was often compared. Covid-19 and poliomyelitis – to give it its full name – are alike in being highly infectious and most of those infected have few if any symptoms and swiftly recover. But they become carriers all the same, infecting others, some of whom may belong to the unlucky 1 or 2 percent – there is great dispute about the fatality rate among victims of Covid-19 – who will feel the virus’s full destructive impact.

There are similarities in the treatment of both illnesses, particularly in trying to keep people breathing: the iron lung was invented in the US in 1929 and the first Intensive Care Unit was created in Denmark in 1952, both in response to polio. Simple methods of combating the two viruses such as handwashing are the same: when Queen Elizabeth 11 visited Australia during a polio epidemic in 1954 there were fears that the crowds of schoolchildren assembling to greet her might pass the virus to one another and maybe even to the young monarch herself. So the Australian government launched a mass hand-washing campaign, leading to a drop in the number of children contracting polio during the royal visit. Nobody seemed embarrassed by the fact that no such effort had been made before the queen’s arrival prompted it.

The poliovirus was worse for the very young; for the coronavirus it is the old who are hardest hit. For both illnesses, respiratory aids – the ‘iron lung’ and the ventilator – have been symbols of the struggle to keep people alive. In Cork in 1956, doctors did not seem to grasp how frightening such machines were for children: when I was in St Finbarr’s, one girl screamed and struggled when doctors tried to put her inside an iron lung because she thought it was an actual coffin and she was being buried alive. Politicians often compare the campaign to suppress the coronavirus to waging war against a dangerous enemy: they wrap the flag around themselves and call for national solidarity. Fear and a need to see visible action to counter it are a feature of all epidemics. In Cork, doctors were convinced that the disease would only be stopped when it ran out of victims. In this book I quote Jack Saunders, the city’s chief medical officer, insisting that a real quarantine was impossible because “for every case detected there were one or two hundred undetected or undiagnosed in the community, principally among the children.” Similar words were to be used 66 years later in Sweden and in US states like Texas, Florida and North Dakota to downplay the Covid-19 pandemic or suggest that there was no way of stopping it.

There were similarities too in the response of governments and peoples to the threat. At every level of society and the state, fear of death – or, more accurately, fear of being held responsible for deaths – drove decision-making. As a consequence, this was often ill-judged with under-reaction and over-reaction succeeding each other as the authorities lurched from commercial close downs to over-rapid re-openings. Wuhan city in central China with a population of eleven million could scarcely be more different from Cork with just 114,000, inhabitants in 1956 but popular reaction had points in common. As in Wuhan, local people in Cork convinced themselves that they were being fed false information downplaying the severity of the epidemic. “There were rumours everywhere in the city,” said Pauline Kent, a physiotherapist who treated victims, “that dead bodies were being carried out the back door of St Finbarr’s at night.” The medical authorities in Cork were truthfully announcing the number of new cases and fatalities each morning, though they were simultaneously undermining their own credibility by issuing upbeat statements, dutifully reported in the local newspapers, with headlines such as ‘Panic Reaction Without Justification’ and ‘Outbreak Not Yet Dangerous Say Doctors’.

Arguments about lockdowns, commercial closures and quarantines raged on a miniature scale in Cork just as they were to do many years later in America and Europe …

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