Clodagh Finn: Recalling a religious ‘radical’ when radical action is needed

What would Sisters of Charity founder Mary Aikenhead make of the row over the new National Maternity Hospital?
Clodagh Finn: Recalling a religious ‘radical’ when radical action is needed

St Vincent's Hospital, Dublin, which is at the centre of the row over the new National Maternity Hospital. Picture: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

It isn’t the kind of thing you can say these days, but I still have huge admiration for Mary Aikenhead, the Cork woman who founded the Sisters of Charity and, later, St Vincent’s Hospital, both of which are back in the headlines now for very different reasons.

I wonder what the woman herself would make of the row over the new National Maternity Hospital which, in essence, represents another important step on the inexorable journey to separate Church and State?

It is interesting to recall that Mary Aikenhead herself crossed the Church/State boundary in a way that was radical in its day. When she founded the Sisters of Charity in 1815, she was part of the first congregation to venture outside the convent’s cloistered walls to administer to the civilian population. They visited the sick in their homes, ran primary schools for local children, and were the first religious sisters to visit prisons.

Prison visits

There is a tantalising mention of one such visit in a diary kept by Mary Aikenhead’s close friend and colleague Alicia Walshe (Mother Catherine). Over a period of three weeks, exactly 200 years ago, both women paid daily visits to Biddy Butterly and Biddy Ennis, two women held at Kilmainham Gaol awaiting execution for murder. The diary, reprinted by historian Ciarán McCabe in a fascinating piece in Archivium Hibernicum, says they went “to comfort and assist [the women] in preparing for death”.

On the morning of the execution, May 4, 1821, the two nuns visited again and stayed for several hours until shortly before the women were hanged for murdering their mistress, Miss Thompson. Outside, according to one report, “an immense number of people assembled on the occasion, who murmured loudly against the inhuman victims who had committed this horrid bloody deed”.

Of all the accounts of the early good deeds by the Sisters of Charity, that one stands out. It must have taken courage and steely spiritual conviction to visit and comfort two women so reviled by the baying crowd outside.

Mary Aikenhead’s greatest work, however, was in her service of the poor. “The poor are the chosen children of God,” she said regularly, as she worked to establish St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin in 1834 so that those people could receive the same medical care as the rich, but free of charge.

With a donation of £3,000, she bought the residence of the Earl of Meath on St Stephen’s Green and set up the first hospital in Ireland to be staffed entirely by women. She sent three of her sisters to be trained in Paris and ran the hospital entirely on donations.

And she did all of that even though she was an invalid and ran the congregation from her bed for several years before her death in 1858.

Church and State

It would take a few volumes to trace the history of the Order since and explain the many ways in which Church and State affairs became so deeply entangled in the decades that followed.

We see the ongoing difficulty in separating them again now as we face the possibility that €800m in State funds will be spent building a hospital on land owned by a charity which expressly forbids some of the clinical procedures due to be carried out in that hospital.

By any logic, that is a cause for concern. What is most wearying about the current debate, however, is that we have been here before. Four years ago, serious concerns were raised about building a public hospital on a site owned by the Sisters of Charity. The Sisters plan to gift the land to a private charity, but they will continue to appoint its directors who, in turn, will lease the land to the State.

The Government has insisted that the Order will have no say in the running of the hospital but, as has been pointed out, the Sisters are bound by canon law as well as civil law. How can we be sure that won’t change in the years ahead?

Another uncomfortable truth is that this is the same Order — though not the same institution — that was shown, in the Ryan Report, to have presided over systemic abuse. More recently, an RTÉ Investigates documentary shone a light on illegal adoptions and misregistered births at St Patrick’s Guild, an adoption society run by the Sisters of Charity.

One of the revelations that still shocks is the reference to a birth mother who was pursued by the Order for maintenance even though her child had already been adopted. She was charged £85 (over €3,000 today) and when she couldn’t pay it, the sisters rang her place of work threatening to send in a collector. She was working as a sales assistant in Arnotts in Dublin.

A document shows correspondence from a nun which reads: “If you do not send, my collector will call to see you. She would prefer not to have to do this as it might be embarrassing for you and we want to safeguard your reputation. We have not failed you; you have failed us.”

Cork woman Mary Aikenhead, who founded the Sisters of Charity and St Vincent’s Hospital.
Cork woman Mary Aikenhead, who founded the Sisters of Charity and St Vincent’s Hospital.

The Sisters of Charity later said they recognised the hurt and emotional distress felt by those affected and said they supported a full inquiry into adoption in Ireland.

Few will welcome such an inquiry given the ongoing fallout from the report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes. That report does, however, illustrate how Church and State were closely entwined over many decades and how both utterly failed generations of mothers and their children.

Now, we are back to mothers and children again as they are the ones most affected by further delays to a new National Maternity Hospital. 

Women and children, it seems, continue to be used as the anvil on which we hammer out a modern Ireland. It is absolutely exhausting. 

Though, if you have any energy at all, use it to join the protest outside the Dáil on Saturday to insist that the new National Maternity Hospital is entirely in public ownership.

This is not just about ensuring that a modern hospital is publicly owned, or that nothing can prevent it from providing medical procedures that are legal in the State. It is also a very important step in the long, tortuous journey of separating Church and State.

There are still two forces at work in Irish society. One is modern, inclusive, and secular. It gave us marriage equality in 2015 and repealed the Eighth Amendment three years later. The other promises change, but fails to deliver. Here’s one example: despite Government commitments to diversify primary school patronage, some 88% still have a Catholic ethos.

In her day, Mary Aikenhead’s schools and hospitals certainly had a Catholic ethos, but she was radical in reaching out to help the sick and the poor. Perhaps the most radical thing her successors can do now is gift the hospital land at Elm Park back to the people of Ireland, the ones whose donations paid for it in the first place.

Maybe, then, we can talk about Mary Aikenhead again too.

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