Reference to ‘an old style Catholic’ and mention of ‘jubilee nursing’ made me think back over the years to a time when the Church (as distinct from religion itself) held a prime position in the lives of the Irish people. We were then for the most part creatures of habit and observers of tradition, faithfully adhering to our public observances of religious practices. We went to Mass every Sunday, but devil a bit did many of us allow religion to otherwise impinge on our daily lives.
The jubilee nurse reference was of that same period – a time when community health services were provided, if at all, on an ad hoc basis organised and funded by local committees. It was a time far removed from the halcyon days of the Celtic tiger.
During the week we buried Nurse Brennan and the earlier-mentioned phrases came in Fr. Dennehy’s address to those who gathered in the Church on the evening her remains were brought to St. Michael’s Parish Church. Her old friends and neighbours, now long passed on, were represented by their children and I met several whom I had not seen for years who travelled quite some distances to be at the former jubilee nurse’s funeral. She had outlived all her friends, neighbours and colleagues, but Nurse Brennan was not forgotten and when Fr. Dennehy spoke of the deceased in St. Michael’s his kind words echoed the sentiments of his listeners.
Nurse Brennan was the subject of an Eye on the Past written some twelve or more years ago. Part of that article is repeated here to remember a lady who fulfilled a vitally important role in the more recent medical history of our town. What follows is part of what I wrote about her twelve years or so ago.
‘“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 Queens Institute of District Nursing. Teresa, a native of Belanagore, Co. Roscommon, the home of the O’Connors, one time High Kings of Connaught, began her general nursing training in Withington Hospital, Manchester, before 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, then called “Jubilee Nurses”, were employed by local voluntary committees which sought to provide medical services for everyone, irrespective of income. 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.
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 distance of ten miles around Athy on her Raleigh bicycle. Changing dressings, comforting the sick and supplying medication were the everyday 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 midwives Madge May and Josie Candy she saw and experienced life in almost every home in the area. 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 generation will 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 Council and was no longer dependent on the local voluntary committee for her wages.
Coming 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 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. “Peoples 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.
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.
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 the distant, sometimes cold room of a sick person for whom the nurse was a comforting and reassuring figure.’
Nurse Teresa Brennan died last week in our local St. Vincent’s Hospital. In her passing many of us have lost yet another link with the town of our youth. May she rest in peace.