On 24th October 1873 the Sisters of Mercy took charge of the hospital in Athy’s workhouse. In the previous year six nuns from the local convent travelled to Callan in County Kilkenny at the invitation of Dr. Moran, Bishop of Ossory, to open a Convent of Mercy in that town. It was a period of great activity within the local Mercy community, and this was reaffirmed in the number of new entrants to the Athy Convent, of which there were five in 1873.
Just over ten years previously the Sisters of Mercy in Athy had taken up the invitation of Bishop Quinn of Queensland, Australia and that of his brother, Bishop Quinn of Bathurst, Australia to receive and train novices for the Australian Missions. The invitation came through their other brother, Canon Quinn, who was then Parish Priest of St. Michael’s, Athy. The Athy based noviciate for the training of novices for the Brisbane Diocese continued in operation until 1868 when the last of the young nuns and postulants left for Australia.
Even while the Athy Sisters of Mercy were involved in setting up the Mission to Brisbane, they were also establishing a convent in Rathdrum, Co. Wicklow which opened in 1865. Just a year later an outbreak of cholera in Arklow required the assistance of nuns from the newly opened convent in Rathdrum and from the Athy convent to nurse the stricken victims.
Nearer to home Elizabeth Silke, who was appointed matron of the local workhouse in 1867, was responsible for looking after the female inmates in the Workhouse Infirmary. From the very start workhouse inmates were very strictly segregated. Men were separated from women and both were kept apart from their children. The hardship and distress this caused the families who entered the Workhouse can be readily imagined.
The Sisters of Mercy who had established a convent in the town in 1851, just seven years after the Workhouse opened, began to visit patients in the Workhouse Infirmary each Sunday afternoon. The benefit of the Sisters of Mercy in nursing situations was already well established following the Orders involvement in tending to the sick and wounded during the Crimean War. The Athy Board of Guardians who were responsible for the day to day running of the Workhouse made a formal approach to the Sisters of Mercy seeking their agreement to take over the running of the Infirmary. Sister Mary Teresa Maher, a niece of Dr. Cullen, the Archbishop of Dublin and a native of Kilrush, Athy, was the Convent Superior and she consulted with the Archbishop on the issue. Permission was granted by the Archbishop on condition that the nuns in the Workhouse Infirmary would have daily Mass and also a suitable residence which was not connected with the hospital wards. The Board of Guardians agreed to the Archbishop’s terms and arranged for the provision of a convent and the payment of £20 per year for a Catholic chaplain to say daily Mass.
Three Sisters of Mercy from the local convent took up duty on 24th October 1873 and gave their new residence and the hospital of which they were now in charge the name “St. Vincent’s”. Miss Costelloe, who up to then had tended to the needs of the female patients in the Workhouse Infirmary, was transferred to take charge of the nearby Fever Hospital.
When I was asked by the Eastern Health Board in 1994 to write a brief history of St. Vincent’s Hospital I did so realising that the brevity of the work owed more to the lack of documentation then available than to any reluctance on my part to tell the story in some detail. Unfortunately the same situation still applies as all of the Workhouse records were destroyed some years ago. We do not know the names of the first three Sisters of Mercy who made the short journey from the local convent to the Workhouse 132 years ago. The names of all the nuns who served in the Hospital since 1873 deserved to be recorded, but this will be a very difficult task given the paucity of original records.
I commenced this Eye on the Past with a short account of the activities of the Sisters of Mercy from the Athy Convent over the ten years prior to 1873. The Convent of Mercy is no more and even as I write the involvement of the Sisters of Mercy in St. Vincent’s Hospital is about to end. Presently four nuns occupy the building designated as their convent in the grounds of the hospital. Opened and built in 1975 as a purpose built convent, it is to be closed in May of this year, thereby bringing to an end the Sisters of Mercy involvement in what was originally the Workhouse, later the County Home and today St. Vincent’s Hospital. Sr. Peg Rice was the last Sister of Mercy to fill the office of Matron of St. Vincent’s Hospital. She had replaced Sr. Dominic who in turn had replaced Sr. Vincent in 1957 and before her Sr. Angela had been Matron.
The Sisters of Mercy link with the hospital is just one year longer than that of the O’Neill’s, successive generations of whom have served as medical officers to the hospital. The first appointed was Dr. P.L. O’Neill who succeeded Dr. Thomas Kynsey who died in 1874. Dr. O’Neill resigned in 1897 and was replaced by his son, Dr. Jeremiah, and when he retired 55 years later his replacement was his own son, Dr. Joe O’Neill. When Dr. Joe retired in 1991 he was replaced by his son and great grandson of the first Dr. O’Neill, the current medical officer, Dr. Giles O’Neill. Theirs is a remarkable record, as is that of the Sisters of Mercy who this year will bring to an end their involvement with St. Vincent’s Hospital, Athy. The gratitude of the local community of Athy and district must go to the many unidentified Sisters of Mercy who over the period of 132 years tended to the needs of the sick, the homeless and the aged within St. Vincent’s Hospital, the County Home and the Workhouse.
Finally I want to send congratulations to someone whom I first set eyes on when she was a small fragile bundle new to the world. Over the years I have watched her grow and develop, firstly as a young girl with considerable charm and thoughtfulness, and in recent years as a young women who added to those endearing qualities a measure of intelligent enquiry which has outgrown my own abilities. Many years of study commenced with a B.A. in Trinity College, an M.A. in York University and involved some time in Universities in Boston and in St. Petersburg. The last period of study was spent in Trinity College and resulted in the writing of an extensive thesis on the Irish writer, Flann O’Brien and the award of a Doctorate. Congratulations to my youngest daughter Carol, or should I write Dr. Carol Taaffe!