A piece of history played out a few weeks ago passed unnoticed so far as most of us were concerned. St. Vincent’s Hospital, once known as the County Home and even before that as the Workhouse or the Poorhouse, was the venue as Sr. Catherine of the Sisters of Mercy retired after many years of personal service to the patients of that institution. Her retirement was a noteworthy event in its own right, but made all the more so when we realised that with her departure the last link between St. Vincent’s Hospital and the Sisters of Mercy was relinquished. It was in 1880 that the religious order founded by Mother Catherine McAuley some years previously were invited by the Board of Guardians to take over the running of the infirmary attached to the Workhouse. The nuns who had arrived in Athy in 1851 had been regular visitors to the Workhouse and were to be found there most Sundays ministering to the needs of the unfortunate inmates. Their good work soon came to the attention of the Board of Guardians who had been running the Workhouse since it opened in 1844. The Workhouse regime was harsh, separating husbands from wives and parents from children. At night-time the inmates were locked in their wards and responsibility for their care passed to long-term female inmates who without training or nursing experience had to look after their fellow inmates. Nursing then was of the most rudimentary type and it was not until the end of the 19th century that a properly trained nursing staff began to be available to Irish workhouses.
In the meantime the Sisters of Mercy had developed their own programme of weekly visits to the workhouse which eventually culminated in the invitation extended to them in 1873 to provide nursing sisters for the dark Victorian building which was Athy’s workhouse infirmary. With the foundation of the Irish Free State the Workhouse was designated as a county home and the Sisters of Mercy were by then in charge of the one time workhouse which provided care facilities for the elderly of County Kildare.
Sr. Catherine who retired on 31st March was the last of a long line of Sisters of Mercy who over a period of 130 years or so served the long-term and short-term patients who lived out their years in St. Vincent’s Hospital, Athy. She was born Mary Ann McGee to County Wexford parents and entered the Convent of Mercy in September 1955. Professed three years later she trained as a nurse in the Mater Hospital and did her maternity nursing in St. Finbar’s Hospital, Cork. Sr. Catherine spent the next 18 years working in St. Vincent’s Hospital until 1981 when she left for the Missions in Kenya. She was to remain in Kenya for ten years working as a nursing sister in the Machakos Diocese and in the Mata Hospital, Nairobi. On completion of her ten years abroad she returned to St. Vincent’s Hospital where she remained until her recent retirement.
As I write this article I do not have a list of all the Sisters of Mercy who served in St. Vincent’s from the time it was a Workhouse until the recent retirement of Sr. Catherine. I hope such a list can be compiled and indeed a similar listing of all the lay people who served in that institution should also be prepared. In any event we have the names of most of the doctors and the matrons who over 160 years ministered to the needs of the patients and inmates.
In relation to the medical staff the name O’Neill crops up with quite extraordinary regularity. The present holder of the title of medical officer to St. Vincent’s Hospital is Dr. Giles O’Neill who succeeded his father, Dr. Joe O’Neill in that post. The O’Neill family connections with what is now St. Vincent’s Hospital go back long before Dr. Joe’s time. It was his grandfather, Dr. P.L. O’Neill who was the first member of the family to be appointed Medical Officer to the then Workhouse. It was a position to which he was appointed in 1874 following the death of Dr. Thomas Kynsey who had been Medical Officer for the previous 31 years. Dr. P.L. O’Neill was replaced by his own son Dr. Jeremiah O’Neill in 1897. Four consecutive generations of the O’Neill family have held the position of Medical Officer and their combined service to date amounts to over 126 years.
During that time several members of the Sisters of Mercy were matrons of St. Vincent’s. The last religious to occupy that position was Sr. Peig Rice who retired a few years ago. Her time as matron was marked by an improvement in the patient care facilities, due in part to better financing of the health services and in part to generous voluntary contributions to the Patient Comfort Fund. Sr. Peig replaced the legendary Sr. Dominic who retired in 1981 after 41 years service in St. Vincent’s Hospital. She was in charge during the latter years of the institution’s life as a County Home and in the early years of its re-birth as St. Vincent’s Hospital. Legion are the stories told and retold of the mighty Sr. Dominic whose 24 years as matron of St. Vincent’s was marked by good natured generosity and charity extended to many down-and-outs who sought refuge and comfort within the hospital. A McHugh from Ballycorman, Ballylinan whose forebearers lost their lands during the Luggacurran Evictions of the 1880’s, Sr. Dominic joined the Sisters of Mercy in Athy in 1933. After her profession and on completion of her training as a nurse she returned in 1940 to St. Vincent’s Hospital where she was appointed Matron in 1957 in succession to Sr. Angela. The Sisters of Mercy who were matrons in the earlier decades of the 20th century cannot as yet be identified with certainty. Little is known of Sr. Angela or of Sr. Vincent, another matron drawn from the ranks of the Sisters of Mercy.
In 1994 the sesquicentennial of the hospital was celebrated. Just eight years later St. Vincent’s Hospital no longer has a member of the Sisters of Mercy on its staff. The proud achievement of the religious order in tending to the sick and poor of our area is now a matter of history. With the retirement of Sr. Catherine, the curtain has finally come down on another aspect of the work of the Sisters of Mercy in Athy. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude and to Sr. Catherine goes our best wishes for a happy retirement.