Sr. Consilio. The name immediately conjures up images, not of a woman in Holy Orders, but rather of a movement which now reaches across the length and breadth of Ireland. Cuan Mhuire, meaning the Harbour of Mary, are homes for the care and rehabilitation of those with alcohol dependency problems and are located in Athy, Bruree, Newry and Athenry. They exist because Sr. Consilio, a member of the Sisters of Mercy congregation in Athy, sought to provide a service for people, whose needs she felt, had been overlooked by society.
Born Eileen Fitzgerald in 1937, she began training as a nurse in Cork in 1956. Soon the religious life beckoned. Her own sister, Ita, was in Ardee Convent of Mercy and on her suggestion Eileen Fitzgerald entered the Convent of Mercy in Athy, after qualifying as a nurse. Her noviceship was spent there, but in 1965 she transferred to the local St. Vincent’s Hospital, where the Sisters of Mercy had provided nursing care since 1873. It was here that she first came in regular contact with men and women suffering from alcoholism. Her concern for their welfare found support in the compassionate outlook of Sr. Dominic, Matron of St. Vincent’s Hospital. Before long however, she was transferred to St. Finbar’s Hospital in Cork to complete her midwifery studies, which when completed, saw her returning to the Athy Convent.
Sr. Consilio’s charitable response to the needs of those troubled by alcohol addiction encouraged those requiring help to call on her at the local Convent of Mercy. In time, the small library room in the Convent building became a meeting place for alcoholics. In 1968 the library was deemed unsuitable for the numbers attending, and it was then that the dairy house attached to the Convent was given over for the use of Sr. Consilio’s group. This became the first Cuan Mhuire residential centre in Ireland.
In 1971, Sr. Consilio, determined to provide accommodation for the men and women seeking help from the torment of alcoholism, agreed to buy 70 acres of farm land at Cardenton, Athy. The purchase price at auction was £49,000.00, and when the property was knocked down to her, she did not have that money. Fate played its hand when the vendor died before the legal formalities could be completed, resulting in a lengthy delay, which allowed Sr. Consilio sufficient time to raise the necessary funds. The first buildings on the Cardenton lands were planned and erected by members of her group, all of whom brought their own talents and skills to the work. Building work began in 1972, with Paddy Lalor of Woodstock Street as the only contractor employed on the site.
The early success of Cuan Mhuire was achieved despite the misgivings of some members of the local community in Athy to the siting of an alcohol treatment centre near to their town. Over time however, the local opposition to the centre evaporated, as it became clear that Sr. Consilio’s mission was fulfilling an important need in Irish society.
The mission statement of Cuan Mhuire is an affirmation of the relevance of Sr. Consilio’s work in every community “to provide a context in which persons who feel rejected or dejected because of their addictions become aware of and learn to deal with the underlying problems related to those addictions and discover their uniqueness, goodness, giftedness and real purpose in life.”
In 1975 Sr. Consilio received a Person of the Year Award for her work and in the following year the second Cuan Mhuire was opened in Bruree House, Bruree, Co. Limerick. The continuing demand for Cuan Mhuire services led to the opening of another centre in the former Good Shepherd Convent, Newry in 1984. Two years later, Galilee, a house of prayer was opened in what was the former Fever Hospital in Athy.
The facilities originally provided at Cuan Mhuire, Athy, were replaced by a modern complex which was opened on the 14th of June 1992 by the Superior General of the Sister of Mercy. This was followed by the opening of the fourth Cuan Mhuire in Coolarne, Athenry, Co. Galway and an after care facility in the former O’Briens Hotel, Gardiner Street, Dublin. This latter facility provides short term drug free residential accommodation for those who have attended Cuan Mhuire for treatment. Overnight accommodation is not yet available, but in the meantime the city centre complex operates as a drop-in centre.
Today the four Cuan Mhuires provide places for 418 persons suffering from alcoholism. It is a proud tradition of Cuan Mhuire, that regardless of circumstances, no person is refused admission or treatment. This in itself can create problems, but given the inspirational leadership and dedication of Sr. Consilio and the Cuan Mhuire staff there is no reason to doubt the continuing success of the Cuan Mhuire Alcohol Recovery Programme.
Equally, I have no doubt that the future of the Cuan Mhuire movement is assured. So much of what has happened in its formative years was due, largely, if not solely, to one woman - Sr. Consilio. In time to come her name will be remembered alongside that of Catherine McAuley, Mary Aikenhead, Nano Nagle, and those other great women in religion, who stirred an Irish nation’s conscience by tackling the social problems of their day.