In last weeks Eye on the Past I wrote of the contribution of the Sisters of Mercy to the development of St. Vincent’s Hospital and its earlier transition from Workhouse to County Home. After I had penned that piece I travelled overseas to spend a few days between bookshops and the various research libraries which are almost always guaranteed to provide long sought answers to so many questions concerning our history and particularly the Irish Diaspora. On my return I learned of the death of that great lady, Sr. Dominic McHugh, former Matron of St. Vincent’s Hospital whose funeral to St. Michael’s Cemetery took place on Monday, 20th May.
I had the privilege of interviewing Sr. Dominic on several occasions, each time coming away with a better appreciation and understanding of the wonderful contribution made over the years by the Sisters of Mercy for the benefit of Athy and its people. Sr. Dominic spent most of her adult life amongst the patients and inmates of the County Home. In so describing them I am drawing a distinction between those ill people for whom St. Vincent’s provided a happy refuge at the end of their days and the able-bodied but improvident who had occasional recourse to the County Home for shelter and a bite to eat. It was the latter who provided Sr. Dominic with the opportunity to practice the mercy and charity with which lay people come to expect from the order of nuns established by Blessed Catherine McAuley.
It was November 1937 when the young Kathleen McHugh from Ballycorman in Ballylinan entered the Convent of Mercy in Athy. The 1930’s was one of the great periods for recruitment for religious orders in Ireland and the young Ballylinan girl was joined other young Irish girls, some from as far away as County Mayo, when she became a member of the local Convent. She made her first profession in May of the following year, receiving the name Sr. Mary Dominic. After four years training as a Nurse in the Mater Hospital Dublin Sr. Mary Dominic or Sr. Dominic as she was generally known, returned to Athy to work in the local hospital. January 14th, 1940 was the date she took up duties in St. Vincent’s as assistant to the Matron Sr. Angela. When Dr. Joe O’Neill replaced his father Dr. Jeremiah O’Neill as Medical Officer to the County Home in 1952 the day nursing staff was comprised solely of Sisters of Mercy from the local Convent. Those were, Sr. Vincent who was the Matron, Sr. Dominic, Sr. Brigid, Sr. Paschal, Sr. Ignatius, Sr. Patrick and Sr. Finbar. The night nursing staff comprised Mrs. Flanagan and Miss McDonagh.
Sr. Dominic succeeded Sr. Vincent as Matron in 1957 and remained in that position for the following 24 years. Health services were then organised on a county basis and Kildare County Council allowed the big-hearted nun a free hand in the running of the County Home. Sr. Dominic was an extremely kind person with a soft spot for the under privileged. Knights of the road and persons temporarily down on their luck always found comfort and solace within the confines of St. Vincent’s Hospital. Legion are the stories recounted over the years concerning Sr. Dominic’s many acts of kindness. A breakfast reception provided for a traveler’s wedding, furniture handed out to those in need and jobs found for unemployed young people were just some of the many instances of Sr. Dominic’s charity. She had an engaging manner and despite her busy schedule found the time to exchange kind works with everyone she met. As one local said to me today, “Sr. Dominic had a place in her heart for everyone”. This was perhaps best exemplified in the support she gave Sr. Consilio when the young County Cork born nun established the first Cuan Mhuire in Athy. Her support for Sr. Consilio never wavered over the years.
The eldest of six children of James and Margaret McHugh of Ballycorman, Ballylinan, Co. Laois Sr. Dominic took pride in her families links with Luggacurran and its historic past. She often spoke of the Luggacurran evictions when her forbearers, the McHughs, like so many other Irish families, were evicted from their farm holdings.
On retiring from St. Vincent’s Hospital in 1981 Sr. Dominic continued to live in the Convent located within the grounds of the Hospital. This allowed her to maintain her daily routine of visiting the patients as well as serving as the sacristan in the hospital Chapel. Each year she undertook fundraising activities each year to assist in sending handicapped children to Lourdes and many local children had the benefit and experience of a pilgrimage to that sacred place due to Sr. Dominic’s untiring charitable work.
She had three sisters of which one, Mary Ann McHugh who lived in 98 Woodstock Street died 11 years ago. Her surviving sisters are Brigid who lives in Woodstock Street and Sr. Eileen, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph’s who has lived in Australia for over 60 years. Sr. Eileen returned to Ireland for a short visit towards the end of last year to meet her sisters and her brothers, Rich McHugh who lives at Luggacurran and John McHugh of Fallaghmore.
Sr. Dominic was a larger-than-life figure whose achievements were publicly recognised when she was the recipient of a Person of the Year Award in 1990. It was an honour she fully deserved. I’m told that during the homily at the funeral Mass on Monday, two women walked across the transept of St. Michael’s Church and placed a hand-written poem on Sr. Dominic’s coffin. It was a touching and original tribute to a Sister of Mercy who during her long life exemplified the virtues and graces which many of us long to possess. Sr. Dominic was a shining example of all that is good in life and those of us who were privileged to know her will always cherish her memory.