Friday 19 December 2014

How Irish nurses helped make the NHS the envy of the world

These women left home for work in the '50s and '60s, writes Anita Guidera

Retired nurse Mary Sheridan.  Photo: Lorraine Teevan
Retired nurse Mary Sheridan. Photo: Lorraine Teevan
Mary Sheridan. Photo: Lorraine Teevan

Television audiences can't seem to get enough of nostalgic escapism these days, with hit TV shows Downton Abbey and Call The Midwife attracting huge audiences.

But while the opulent Downton transposes its viewers to the English countryside of the early 1920s, the infinitely more gritty Call The Midwife plunges them into a working class neighbourhood in London's East End in the 1950s, as seen through the dizzy role of the nursing midwife.

The series resonates strongly with thousands of Irish nurses who were recruited by the National Health Service during this era, and many of whom never returned home.

The story of The Irish Angels, the nurses who left Ireland in their legions in the 1950s and 1960s, remains largely untold.

Lured by more jobs and better prospects, by the early 1970s there were more Irish-born nurses in Britain than in Ireland, with the Irish making up 12pc of the entire nursing staff across the water.

But life for the Irish nurse was often tough and far removed from glamourised television images.

Annette McGarry (73) was 18 when she left her native Limerick for Whittington Hospital in London.

"I cried all the way. When I got to Heuston Station I wanted to turn around and go back home, but my mother had spent so much money on new clothes and books that I thought I'd better go on," she recalled.

She has been watching Call The Midwife with great interest.

"I think it's very authentic. I know it's about midwives, but it was the same principle," she said.

"Those early years were tough years. We had our ward sisters and some of them were dragons, but looking back now, they were for our own good and the good of the patients. I got an extremely good training."

Annette recalled how they had to file into the office for inspection by the night superintendent before going on late duty.

"Your uniform had to be perfect. You had to turn around and make sure the heels of your shoes were polished well and the seams of your stockings were safe.

"We had starch collars which irritated our necks but we got over that. We looked like nurses – we had our cuffs, our aprons and our hats, but that's all gone now."

Mary Sheridan (72), who left her native Cavan at the age of 20 to begin training at St Anthony's in Surrey, can still vividly remember the first Sunday she spent away from home.

"It was a huge wrench. I was really, really sad. They had no phone at home and it felt so far away," she said.

But she soon immersed herself in the intense training.

Irish Independent

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