Landmark day for city’s maternity services

TODAY has long been earmarked as a landmark day for maternity services in Cork.

With the Erinville Maternity Hospital, St Finbarr’s Maternity Unit and the Bon Secours Maternity Hospital scheduled to close their timeworn doors, the €75 million state-of-the-art Cork University Maternity Hospital (CUMH) was poised to assume that mantle of care.

In this context, it is fitting to look at the contribution the three older hospitals have made to the women, their families and the community they served.

Alicia St Leger’s timely publication “Born in Cork” provides a valuable insight into the differing history and culture of each hospital. The Erinville Maternity Hospital (1799-2007)

WHEN the Erinville first opened its door in 1799, there was a fear it would be seen as “encouraging vice”. This was according to an article written by a Presbyterian Minister, Rev Thomas Dix Hincks, whose efforts to help the poor of the city had ultimately led to the opening of Cork’s first “lying-in” hospital.

By involving the wives of wealthy families in the city, funds were raised to open a hospital dealing with maternity cases.

It opened on March 10, 1799, at Hanover St, Cork city, with eight beds, and catered for married women only — a rule which survived until well into the 20th century.

It is believed the hospital moved to Dyke Parade in the mid-1820s, where it expanded to 12 beds. In 1835, records show that 368 poor women availed of its services.

Addresses of parents show they came from all parts of Cork city, but also Ballincollig and Passage West. Some came from as far afield as Clonakilty, no mean feat in a time of limited transport.

The occupations of fathers included some unusual entries such as whip maker and figure maker.

Many were listed as labourers, while the wives of coachman, coopers, sail makers, bookbinders and blacksmiths also gave birth at the Erinville.

In 1898, the building which we now know as the Erinville was bought from the wealthy Perrot family for £2,000.

The new building accommodated 20 beds.

From the late 1970s, husbands began to be present at births, and this was regarded as normal by the 1980s, when epidurals also became available — on a 24-hour basis from 1999.

By 2000, the Erinville had expanded from the eight-bed hospital in Hanover St to 56 maternity beds and 17 neonatal cots, delivering just over 3,000 babies per annum.

Today marks the closure, in the words of Ms Leger, of “an enduring institution which contributed to the well-being of women and children from over 200 years”.

St Finbarr’s Maternity Unit (1840-2007)

THIS unit has its origins in the Cork Union Workhouse on the outskirts of Cork city. From the start, Ms St Leger writes, the workhouse catered for pregnant women, initially with a 10-bed facility. It was not until 1952 that a high-quality maternity service was built on the site.

The 2,000 inmate workhouse was on a 12-acre site between Evergreen (now Douglas) Road, and the Passage (now South Douglas Road).

Conditions were harsh, especially during the famine.

If a mother died, her child was usually given to another inmate, Ms Leger writes, “who had little or no interest in her welfare”. Nearly 150 children died in Cork workhouse in the year 1864 alone.

In 1871, the Sisters of Mercy took charge. By the early years of the 20th century, there were about 90 births per year in the workhouse.

Those admitted were deemed destitute. Many were poverty-stricken married women, but the majority were unmarried.

Between July and December 1983, St Leger writes, nearly 1,000 children were born at workhouses, just over 68% to unmarried women.

Maternity services at St Finbarr’s were expanded in 1903 with the construction of a separate maternity unit.

In the 1920s, workhouses were abolished under the Free State Government and the institution emerged as the Cork District Hospital. It had 16 beds out of a total of 907 on site, all of which were public.

A 51-bed maternity unit, with some private rooms, opened in 1952 around the time the name of the hospital changed to St Finbarr’s.

Many mothers still chose to have their babies at home and St Finbarr’s midwives travelled to all parts of the city in their distinctive navy cape, carrying her large midwife’s bag of equipment.

Ms St Leger writes about one midwife who recalls being followed by a group of children asking “nurse, have you the baby in the bag?”.

The maternity unit was near the Roman Catholic chapel where babies were taken for baptism three nights a week. Mother did not attend as they first had to be “churched”. As well as baptisms, the chapel was used for weddings from the maternity unit.

A second labour ward was added in the 1970s, and, by the late 1970s, St Finbarr’s was catering for about 3,500 births a year.

In 2000, St Finbarr’s and the Erinville were combined into the Unified Maternity Services.

In 2,000, just over 1,500 babies were born “in conditions which would have been unimaginable to the mothers giving birth during the grim days of the Famine.”

Bon Secours (1958-2007)

THE hospital opened in 1958, but its links with Cork go back to the 1860s,

The Sisters of the Bons Secours arrived in Dublin in 1861, and an outbreak of cholera brought the congregation to Cork in 1866.

Four sisters were first based at Dyke Parade, a short distance from the Erinville, nursing both rich and poor, financed by the wealthy.

Their first patient was Venerable Archdeacon John Murphy, a member of the prominent brewing and distilling family.

Shortly after, they moved further down the Mardyke to Shrubbery House, now the Cork Public Museum — in the grounds of Fitzgerald Park.

Their superior general, in Paris, decided to close the Cork foundation in 1877, prompting a flurry of fundraising and allowing the Sisters to move to a larger and more suitable premises. The decision to close was reversed and the Sisters moved into a new convent on College Road.

It was decided about 1911 that a noviciate would be built in Cork to include a home for elderly ladies and a small hospital.

The home was the start of the Bon Secours hospital services in Cork.

In 1916, there were 21 patients, with pressure for places growing. In 1940, two wings were added; one called the hospital had 100 beds, two operating theatres, a radiology department, out-patients facility and a lecture and study hall for student nursing Sisters.

In 1958, the Bon Secours Maternity Hospital was established with 60 private and semi-private beds.

The first baby of more than 100,000 born there was a girl from the Ballinlough Road in Cork.

The hospital underwent major renovation in the 1990s, when a new labour suite was added.

The hospital was renowned for the quality of its food. Standards were high: one staff member recalled being taught how to make butter balls for patients, and visiting relatives were sometimes given a meal.

As Ms St Leger writes in her book, Born in Cork: “The Bon Secours Maternity Hospital held a special place in the hearts and minds of the people of Cork for almost 50 years, offering a remarkable service of dedication and professional care to mothers, fathers and their babies.”

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