“There is a crying need for a nurse in Athy”. The year was 1950 and Dr. Barry, Master of Holles Street Hospital, was addressing Ward Sister Teresa Brennan who had just completed her training with the Queen’s Institute of District Nursing. Teresa, a native of Belanagore, Co. Roscommon, the home of the O’Connors, one time High Kings of Connaught, had originally began her general nursing training in Withington Hospital, Manchester, later transferring to Townleys Hospital, Bolton where she spent three years as a Ward Sister. Returning to Ireland, she worked in the National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street, and on completing her midwifery training she undertook a District Nursing course in Leeson Street, Dublin.
District Nurses were then called Jubilee Nurses, and they were employed by local voluntary committees, which sought to provide medical services for everyone, irrespective of means. In Athy, the Jubilee Nurse Committee included Dr. John Kilbride who was the local dispensary Doctor, his wife May Kilbride, Nellie Holland of Model Farm, Kitty Higgins of Minch’s Terrace and Margaret Flood of Leinster Street. Mindful of Dr. Barry’s suggestion, Teresa Brennan successfully applied for the job in Athy where any doubts harboured by the candidate were speedily dispelled by the promise of “a house with the job”. This turned out to be number 3 St. Michael’s Terrace, which was rented by the Committee from Athy Urban District Council, and where Nurse Brennan, now long retired, still lives.
As a Jubilee Nurse she assisted at the local dispensary each morning where Dr. John Kilbride was in charge. Patients were visited in their homes in the afternoon by Nurse Brennan who travelled a radius of ten miles around Athy on her Raleigh bicycle. Changing dressings, comforting the sick and supplying medication were the every day tasks of the Jubilee Nurse who was readily identified by her navy blue uniform and white apron.
She travelled every road and by-road in the town and district and like her colleagues, the District mid-wives Madge May and Josie Candy, she saw and experienced life in all its many manifestations. The “blue ticket” which was required to avail of the services of the dispensary Doctor and the Jubilee Nurse has now been replaced by the medical card which the older people still refer to as the “blue card”.
Teresa Brennan filled the role of Jubilee Nurse for fifteen years until appointed as a public health nurse by Kildare County Council. The range and nature of her duties did not change. Now, however, she was a pensionable, salaried official of the County Council, no longer dependant on the financial well being of the voluntary committee which up to then had paid her salary.
Transferring from Dublin to Athy in 1950 was for the young Teresa Brennan a not entirely happy experience. “It seemed a terrible place” was her first impression of the town, but soon the warmth and friendliness of the townspeople won over the Roscommon girl. It was those same local people, always anxious and willing to help in an emergency, who brought home to the young nurse the strength and value of living in a happy, vibrant community. She is particularly warm in her appreciation of the help afforded to her by so many people in Convent View and St. Patrick’s Avenue and as she says “indeed every area in the town” during her time as Jubilee Nurse and later as Public Health Nurse. “People’s good nature comes to the fore in times of sickness and death and so many times I witnessed the innate goodness of the local people in dealing with emergencies as they arose.” Her words remind her of the terrible scourge of tuberculosis which was rampant in the 1950’s and which carried off so many young people to an early grave. She recalls the very real poverty which was to be seen in Athy in those years, a poverty which was matched by the poor quality housing of the time. It was in those conditions that tuberculosis developed and remained a threat to public health for a considerable time. As she recalls it, the appointment of Dr. Noel Brown, as Minister for Health, coincided with the beginning of the end of the battle against TB.
She remembers with a smile the furore in Athy soon after she arrived, when rust was detected in the local drinking water. Reminiscent of the more recent magnesium in the water scare encountered in parts of Graysland and Kingsgrove, the rusty water of 1950 was apparently a perennial problem created by the rusty pipes which carried the water from Modubeigh Reservoir. Even then, the dispensary doctor, John Kilbride, allayed public fear in a manner reminiscent of officials forty four years later with the claim “rust never did anyone any harm.”
In her time she has witnessed huge social changes in our community. “People do not need to go hungry in today’s society as they did in the old days”, she declares with the confidence and assurance of one who has witnessed at first hand those terrible times, which were once so familiar in Irish society.
As the last Jubilee Nurse in Athy, Teresa Brennan, no longer awaits the knock on the door which invariably meant a trip through the night to a distant, often cold room of a sick person for whom the nurse was a comforting and reassuring figure. Nurse Brennan, “don’t ask me my age”, is a familiar sight around Athy and is a Minister of Eucharist in the local Parish Church. Having retired some years ago, she recalls the recent past with a sometimes whimsical regret that the years have passed so quickly.