They have done the State some service

There aren’t any nuns in my family and at school nuns didn’t teach me but I learned a lot from the nuns, from many congregations, with whom I worked in the health services over more than thirty years, writes Denis Doherty.

Denis Doherty
Denis Doherty

When the health boards came into existence and for many years afterwards nuns managed district hospitals and hospitals for the elderly. Known as Matrons, they were in effect the managers of the hospital. They also managed the nursing care services provided in many general hospitals.

Many of these hospitals were old, unsuited to the needs of a modern service, inadequately funded and understaffed. In these circumstances, the standard of care they provided was remarkably high. St. Patrick’s Hospital, Carrick on Shannon, ably led by Sr. Maureen and Dr. Bill Mc Garry became a role model for how modern services for the elderly should be organised and delivered. Those high standards were achieved in what was an old workhouse building. In neighboring Longford, similarly high standards were achieved in a new building under the leadership of the redoubtable Sr. Calasanctius.

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Coincidentally, some of the other more formidable matrons also had fascinating names. I recall Mercedes in Dungloe, Stanislaus in Ballyshannon, Kevin in Mullingar and Rock in Ballymote. These women and many others like them commanded respect and authority because of their leadership abilities; their commitment to the welfare of their patients; their entrepreneurial skills and their strong personal commitment to the work they did.

When the health boards came into existence and for many years afterwards nuns managed district hospitals and hospitals for the elderly.

In some respects their management styles might not pass muster today but they were of their time; jobs were few and staff were plentiful; the ‘marriage bar’, that prevented women from holding permanent public jobs, prevailed up until 1973; women in Ireland were paid much less than men and employment entitlements, for women and men, were very limited compared to those prevailing now.

Irish nurses have, for over a century, been highly respected at home and abroad. In Ireland, most nurses were trained in schools run by religious congregations and took great pride in wearing the badge of the school where they trained. The evolution of nurse training in Ireland owes much to the role played by religious communities of nuns.

In post famine Ireland, the workhouses were dismal institutions associated with starvation and death on a grand scale during the famine. It was only in 1851 that legislation was passed that enabled the dispensary system to be set up. From about 1856 the criteria for admission to workhouses were relaxed and more poor as distinct from destitute people were admitted. A person called the Master managed each workhouse and there was also a Matron employed. Medical and nursing care was very limited.

The Mercy Order was founded by Catherine McAuley in Dublin in 1831. It seems she had inherited a large fortune and decided to use it to provide education for poor children and to support women and children. By 1861, the Sisters of Mercy had acquired a reputation for caring for the needs of the poor and the sick.

For many years nuns were disproportionately represented among women in leadership and senior management positions in areas such as healthcare and education in Ireland.

In The Workhouse – The Story of an Institution, Peter Higginbotham relates how in 1861 the Sisters of Mercy, after protracted correspondence with the Irish Poor Law Commission, were allowed to act as workhouse hospital nurses at Limerick Union Workhouse. Three of the order’s nuns were appointed initially, following advertisement and interview. The workhouse Master retained overall responsibility for the infirmary’s operation. Twenty years later, any reservations that may have existed at the beginning had clearly been dispelled and the Irish Local Government Board was actively encouraging the employment of Sisters of Mercy to provide nursing care in workhouses. In time, the Sisters of Mercy and nuns from a number of other congregations were employed in many of the workhouses.

At the turn of the twentieth century, abandoned or orphaned children in workhouses numbered nearly 3,000. In an attempt to reduce the mortality rates of children less than five years of age, boarding out of children with foster parents was introduced in 1862. This initiative succeeded to the extent that by the year 1900 there were about 2,200 children boarded out in Ireland, a little over two thirds of the number still in workhouses.

Following independence, 33 workhouses became County Homes providing services for the elderly and chronically sick, 32 became District or Fever Hospitals and nine became County Hospitals. These 74 hospitals have always been owned by the State.

What appears to have been a modest beginning in Limerick in 1861 expanded across the network of workhouses, continued across the network of public hospitals, other than psychiatric hospitals, as that network evolved following independence and expanded into new service areas notably those providing services for persons with intellectual disabilities. As their numbers declined and as the approach to the organisation and delivery of public health services evolved, the number of nuns involved in the delivery of healthcare has reduced to a trickle.

For many years nuns were disproportionately represented among women in leadership and senior management positions in areas such as healthcare and education in Ireland. Among the reasons for that were the marriage bar, the pioneering role played by religious congregations in developing healthcare and educational services and the greater educational opportunities open to nuns compared to other women. That said, the majority of nuns employed in hospitals and in schools served as nurses on the wards or as teachers in the classroom. In addition, the pastoral care they provided on a voluntary basis was greatly valued by those who benefited from it. The value placed on it was influenced by the fact that it was for the most part delivered discretely.

The nuns were drawn from many strata of Irish society and were in many ways representative of the strengths and failings of Irish society of their time. Nuns working in healthcare and education were confronted with the realities of life locally. Within the parameters of the religious life to which they belonged, they were progressive, creative and public spirited. We are surrounded by examples of developments they have influenced.

In acknowledging that I am much more familiar with the achievements of religious congregations of nuns in Ireland than I am with their failings, it seems to me to be important that we acknowledge that these congregations have done the State and generations of Irish people some service.