Saturday 19 October 2019

Rebels at the heart of Mater

Hospital staff conspired to protect Volunteers from arrest, finds Kim Bielenberg

Archivist Sister Euugene Nolan with some of the records from 1916 held at the Mater Hospital in Dublin. Pic: Mark Condren
Archivist Sister Euugene Nolan with some of the records from 1916 held at the Mater Hospital in Dublin. Pic: Mark Condren
Autopsy records from 1916 of Thomas Ashe held in the Mater Hospital in Dublin. Pic: Mark Condren

It was the scene of an audacious escape as nurses took pity on wounded volunteers. The Mater Hospital in Dublin's north inner city was close to some of the fiercest fighting during the Rising, and was to play a role in its aftermath when the hero of Ashbourne, Thomas Ashe, died there.

In the old part of the hospital, the Mater's archivist and historian Sr Eugene Nolan shows me some of the records, including a doctor's log, where medical staff registered as they arrived for work day-by-day. For Easter week 1916, each day is blank: just one word is scrawled across the bottom next to the date, April 24: "Riots!!"

Sr Nolan says: "The surgeon Alexander Blayney was on duty that week and never left the hospital. He was operating day and night."

One of the Sisters of Mercy who was there in Easter Week left a vivid anonymous account in a statement to the Bureau of Military History. She describes the difficulties faced by Dr Blayney when the gas and electricity were cut off.

"He had to operate by the light of candles brought from the sacristy. There was no sterilisation of instruments or dressings as there was no boiling water available…"

The Mater did not receive any casualties on the first day of the Rising, but on Tuesday, there was a sudden influx, and some of those who were wounded were civilians.

As the nun's witness statement puts it: "One of the badly wounded, Margaret Nolan, a forewoman in Jacob's factory, died that day, as also did James Kelly, a schoolboy who was shot through the skull. Another schoolboy, John Healy, aged 14, a member of the Fianna whose brain was hanging all over his forehead when he was brought in, died after two days."

Dealing with Volunteer casualties had to be handled with political sensitivity, according to Sr Eugene. At the time, the Mater was also treating troops who had been injured in the First World War.

"Nurses helped to protect the wounded volunteers from police," says Sr Eugene.

One of the wounded rebels in the hospital was Patrick McCrea, who had been fighting in the GPO, and was shot twice - first in a skirmish on Jervis Street, and then as he crossed the street near the GPO.

McCrea was conveyed to the hospital covered up in a cart-load of cabbages. Once inside the hospital, he was recognised by a policeman, and a constant guard of one or two officers was put outside his room.

He was due to be transferred by the authorities to the hospital at Dublin Castle and arrested, but the doctors and nursing staff conspired to stop this happening. One medical student even suggested that the police guard should be chloroformed.

There are slight variations in the accounts of how McCrea was able to get away. According to the nun's witness statement, the escape happened when a nurse distracted the police guard by asking him into the kitchen to have dinner. According to McCrea's own account in the Bureau of Military History, there were two policemen guarding him, and a nurse called Joy took the pair of them to the pantry for a drink, making out she was fond of them.

According to both accounts, while the police were distracted by one nurse, another sister led McCrea along a corridor down into the mortuary where she let him out an exit door onto the street. McCrea was put in a car and driven to Wicklow.

Sr Eugene says there were other similar incidents in Dublin hospitals. On one occasion, a Volunteer was hidden in a female ward, and a nurse attached plaits to his head to make him look like a woman.

In all, 75 people were taken to the Mater during the Rising, of whom 25 died.

Most casualties were Volunteers, but as one of the Sisters recalled: "There was one looter brought in. He was very drunk and wearing a couple of suits of clothes and was in possession of many other accessories including a toy revolver which was large enough to be taken for a real one."

The Mater was at the centre of media attention in the year after the Rising following the hunger strike of Thomas Ashe, commander of the 5th battalion, which was involved in the Easter week battle at Ashbourne.

He had been released from prison after the Rising, but was rearrested for sedition before he went on hunger strike in Mountjoy.

After he was force-fed in jail, he took ill and was taken to the Mater in an ambulance. As the nurse recalled in her witness statement: "About 10 o'clock that night a great change came over him and we knew he was dying."

In the Mater archives, Sr Eugene showed me the autopsy report for Ashe, immaculately written in blue ink.

Ashe's body was laid out in the hospital in a Volunteer uniform with the head of the bed draped in a tricolour - as up to 30,000 people came to pay respects.

The British authorities later complained of the republican leanings of hospital staff. One policeman wrote in a letter: "The community of nuns who manage this hospital, the majority of the medical staff, the nurses and practically all the staff are Sinn Féiners or Sinn Féin sympathisers. The Superioress is definitely hostile to the Police."

The Mater was regularly raided by the Black and Tans, looking for hidden IRA men.

During one search, they lifted a cloth covering a parrot cage and the disturbed bird let out an almighty shriek. The Black and Tans fell to the ground in terror, thinking they were the target of an attack. The nuns just stood by and laughed.

Irish Independent

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