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Sisters of Mercy and 1916

1 July 2016


The early Celtic Christian monks regarded their burial place as the scene of their resurrection. The tradition is still deep in the Irish soul and so each Summer people gather wherever their dead are buried to celebrate Mass for the repose of the souls of those gone before us.
Sisters and relatives gathered in the community graveyard in Goldenbridge Dublin last week. One hundred years after the 1916 Rising we honoured the Sisters who worked in our hospitals during that week that changed our country.
During the ceremony we heard of the Sisters who visited the families of those men and women who had gone to fight in the cause of Irish freedom but most of the story told of those who worked in our three hospitals in Dublin – Jervis Street Hospital, The Mater Hospital and the hospital in the South Dublin Union (very close to Goldenbridge). 

In these three centres the Sisters nursed men with horrific injuries and saw the dead brought in and laid in the mortuary. Jervis Street was the busiest hospital in the city, the Mater was the third busiest, and somewhere close on that list came the South Dublin Union where the Volunteers took over the convent and nurses’ home. The terrified nuns and nurses were sure they would be killed. In fact a number of the Volunteers, and the British soldiers who followed them, were killed in intense combat in the hospital and grounds of the South Dublin Union. It was the only hospital where a nurse was killed (Margaret Kehoe) as she moved to help a wounded Volunteer. The patients in the hospital were not entirely safe either as stray bullets whizzed around. The Sisters and Nurses were forced to nurse patients on mattresses on the floor. Patients who were able made barricades of their mattresses and beds.
The Volunteers in the Union fought bravely and held their positions until the direction came to surrender. The lack of knowing what was happening – we know now there was a Rising but the Sisters didn’t then – men coming in taking over – Irishmen followed by more men many of them also Irish but in British army uniforms – the Sisters were running the hospital so imagine their anxiety for the patients and their not knowing where, how or when it would all end. In all parts of the city nobody was sure what was happening, word was filtering around that there was a Rising and that many buildings had been taken over. Fear and anxiety was in everyone’s heart but the Sisters had to make sure that the patients were cared for and protected from as much as possible of the fighting which was taking place on their grounds and in their house at the South Dublin Union.
One of the Sisters in the Mater Hospital at the time wrote something of what took place there. She was a nurse herself – she tells that the gas and electricity supply to the hospital was cut. The surgeons worked day and night with only the light of candles which the nuns took from the chapel sacristy. There was no possibility of keeping water boiled to properly sterilise medical instruments but she tells us that after the Rising it was noted that nobody succumbed to infection after surgery.
She also tells of a British soldier being posted in the ward of the injured men to arrest them as they left the hospital. It appears that the Sisters and the doctors were largely on the side of the Volunteers – this is evidenced by one story she tells of a prisoner being closely guarded by a British Officer. The man was known to the authorities both by name and appearance (most of the Volunteers apart from the Leaders and the very senior men were not known). An opportunity arose to allow the man to escape which he did. But after the Rising the British threatened to take his wife if they could not find him. Consequently he had to surrender and spent a long time in a British jail. (cf. Nurses and Midwives in the 1916 Easter Rising published in Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation 2016).
It seems in general that the Sisters and the medical staff in the hospitals colluded with the Volunteers to help them escape – they burned their boots and uniforms sometimes to conceal their identity, let them in and out of the hospital surreptitiously, a badly wounded man was brought in on a cart under a heap of cabbages. The stories go on and on … but it must also be said that the poor in the city, those who bought their food daily, were not on the side of the Volunteers because they could get no food - the shops in the city were closed and the foodstalls were gone from Moore Street. This Rising was not welcome.
It was, however, in Jervis Street the busiest hospital, that we can best get the feel of what it was to be there.  Of Jervis Street we have a long account from an eye-witness. Fr. Columbus from the Capuchin Friary in Church St. spent much of the week in Jervis St Hospital. At the end of the week he visited with the prisoners at Richmond Barracks, where the leaders and others were imprisoned. He also visited the men in Kilmainham Jail where the leaders of the Rising were executed. Of all this Fr. Columbus left a day-by-day account which was kindly made accessible by the Capuchin Archives.
He vividly describes the daily fear under which the hospital staff and patients existed. They heard the sounds of a city doing battle, the sound of sniper fire, of bigger guns, and then of the machine guns pounding Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) and setting the buildings on fire – all of which could be seen from the upper windows of the hospital.  The flames of the burning city could be seen from the wards and the Sisters tried to cover all the windows to keep out such a fearsome sight. How could they stay safe when they were so near the burning buildings?
Men were brought in with injuries never before seen inflicted by dum dum bullets which tore trenches in human bodies. Surgeons, doctors and nurses, priests and sisters worked day and night. In turns they tried to rest on chairs so that somebody could continue the work on the morrow.
Snipers on an adjoining roof made bad worse as their fire drew enemy fire on the hospital. Fighting men became nervous and jumpy and every light that went on they mistook for gunfire and fired in return. All could only walk by the walls to avoid bullets. Some minds gave way under the strain and the fear.
The Sisters in Jervis Street could see the burning of the General Post Office (the headquarters of the Rising) and watched nervously as the fire leapt from building to building in their direction trying to keep the patients from seeing, and praying that the hospital would be spared the leaping flames. It was a small hop from the fire to where they were. But the hospital was spared that fate. The men in the GPO were brought into the hospital wounded but still under sniper fire.

Added to the misery of the Sisters and staff by the end of the week was the overpowering smell of putrefying bodies in the hospital morgue. There was no opportunity to bury safely or no way of getting coffins. Just as they decided to sew the bodies into sheets and try to get to a nearby piece of land to bury the bodies the firing stopped. 
Nobody knew what was happening, the city went eerily quiet and eventually whispers of a ceasefire or surrender came. Eventually the word spread - to avoid further bloodshed the surrender was unconditional.
Relief spread around. The inhabitants of the ruined city could breathe again. But for the staff at the hospitals there was only relief from fear. The hospitals were still in emergency mode with many men brought in badly injured in the final stand.
No time was lost by the British in arresting and imprisoning the leaders.  Shortly after they were executed. The lesser ranks were imprisoned. The bereaved mourned their dead. The Sisters went on working in the hospitals. Those who had berated the men for destroying the city and leaving them hungry moved quickly to sympathy as word of executions by the British became public. The Rising and its aftermath bred a determination that the fight for Irish independence would go on.
Those present in Goldenbridge listened to the story and then to the names of the thirty-eight Sisters who had served in the hospitals in that historic week. A small tricolour was placed at each grave. In the eternal now of God we prayed that they were enjoying the happiness of heaven.


By Thomasina Finn rsm
Congregational Secretary                                                                                                                                                                              

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