Colourful history of country's first nurses' union documented in new book

Mark Loughrey, Cork nurse and author, with Geraldine Talty, Assistant Director of Nursing, Patient Flow, Ballinasloe at today’s launch of the book, "A Century of Service", today. Photo: Lisa Moyles.

Marriage proposals from men seeking good wives; butter, milk and potatoes as part payment of wages - such are the anecdotes that populate the pages of a new social history documenting the colourful history of the country's first nurses' trade union.

Launching his book, a Century of Service: A History of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation 1919-2019, author Mark Loughrey outlines how appalling working conditions prompted a group of 20 nurses and midwives to gather in South Anne St, Dublin, in 1919, where they agreed to formally establish the Irish Nurses' Union.

At the time, men working in the Ford Car Factory in Cork were earning €239 a year, while nurses at the Dublin Union Hospital earned a maximum of €65 per annum.

Mr Loughrey, a research nurse at University College Cork, writes how these nurses "received an allowance if 3/4lb of butter, and one stone of potatoes per week, as well as a 1/2 pint of milk per day" to supplement their salary. A UK colleague remarked at the time that "a society for the prevention of cruelty to nurses was badly needed".

Mr Loughrey, who was addressing the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) centenary annual conference in Co Meath, said some sections of the population regarded the new trade union as a type of marriage bureau.

While writing the book, Mr Loughrey "heard stories of men who wrote to the trade union looking for wives".

For instance a 38-year-old man of 'fair appearance, sound and healthy' once wrote to the Irish Women Workers' Union, the Irish Nurses Organisation's former parent, looking for "an introduction from among your members to any country girl...who would fancy a farmer husband".

"The only qualification I would ask for is that the lady should be able to milk a cow as we are all dairy farmers here in Co Limerick," the suitor said.

The book also documents how the War of Independence disrupted the postal system, making organisation of meetings difficult. In 1925, the membership was just 795 members. Membership of the INMO today is over 40,000.

The founders of the trade union also feature, including Maria Mortished, its first general secretary, who lived out her later years in Hollywood with her actor brother Barry Fitzgerald. She married Ronald Mortished, first chair of the Irish Labour Court.

There are references to the nurses' protests of the late 1970s when nurses and midwives marched on the Dáil and were admitted to the restaurant and gallery "where they put their case to TDs while the INO's leaders negotiated over tea and cake with Minister for Health , Charles Haughey".

There is a poignant reference to the treatment of critically ill Mary Madden, wife of PJ Madden, former INO general secretary, during the nurses' strike of 1999, when then INO president Anne Cody tended to Mary during the strike in between picket line duties, as Mrs Madden had been refused home hospice care.

Mr Loughrey's book evolved from a PhD thesis on the History of the INMO 2011-2015.

"I worked on it in between shifts in the intensive care unit at Mercy University Hospital," Mr Loughrey said.

The book is available through publishers Irish Academic Press

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