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Tuesday 16 July 2019

'I very quickly learned to drop my accent' - Irish nurses on the triumphs and challenges of working with the NHS

Over the last 70 years, tens of thousands of young Irish women have crossed the Irish Sea to begin a nursing career. Anita Guidera talks to some of them about the triumphs - and challenges - they faced along the way

Orla O'Rourke
Orla O'Rourke
Left to right: Orla O'Rourke, Sharon Murrell Kitty Finch Photos: Gerry McManus
Kitty Finch. Photo: Gerry McManus
Sharon Murrell
Sharon Murrell as a child
Mary O'Leary

'I got out before they kicked me out," jokes Kitty Finch, who dedicated 54 years of her life to the NHS, having joined when it was just a year old.

Now in her 90th year, Kitty (née O'Dwyer) from Hollyford in Co Tipperary retired at 65 only to go back and work a further 10 years as a matron in an NHS Nursing Home. "I stuck retirement for a month and I thought 'this is no good for me, I'm not having this'," she recalls. Kitty sent a written application when she was almost 21 to Whipps Cross Hospital in London, where a family relative was nursing.

"They sent you all the particulars, your ticket from home and your case labels, everything."

The fare from Dundrum train station in Co Tipperary to the hospital, including an overnight in the Globe Hotel in Dublin, was 7 shillings and 6 pence.

Of her class of 42, more than half were Irish and just 20 remained after the first three months.

"Most of the Irish ones stuck it out and saw it through for three years. I think it was dignity, you took it on and you were going to see it through."

After the first three months they were placed on the geriatric ward.

"They reckoned if you stuck that for the next three months, you were a nurse for life. It was true really, it was very difficult, but so be it. You got on with it. You weren't going to let yourself down and leave."

After several years, she relocated across the Thames to Lewisham where she continued to nurse in a hospital, and, in her later years, several nursing homes.

Kitty believes in the importance of a good nurse-patient relationship. "Something stuck in my memory from my very early days that I never forgot. When you see a patient, you close the window, screen the bed and tell the patient what you're going to do before you start. I never forgot it."

Looking back on her long career, Kitty, who is widowed and a mother of one son, Sean, is adamant she has no regrets.

"I have no regrets about leaving Ireland and I loved every minute of working in the NHS. I would do it all again."

'I very quickly learned to drop my Irish accent'

Sharon Murrell


Sharon Murrell (51)

Southend University Hospital, Essex

Sharon wanted to be a nurse so badly growing up that she requested a nurse's outfit from Santa every Christmas.

But even getting an application form for nursing in Ireland in the mid-1980s proved impossible for the Cabra West native.

"I had a very good Leaving Cert, but back then you needed to be in the know to get an application form so I had no choice but to go to England.

"It was heartbreaking at that age to leave behind everything and everybody to go to a country where you have nobody and no money.

"I would much rather have stayed, but I didn't have any option. I think most of us who went away gave up a hell of a lot."

Sharon Murrell as a child

She trained in Essex, chosen by her family because of its more rural location, but the downside was that there were few other Irish nurses around.

"I was very uncomfortable with the grief I would get from either patients, relatives or even in the pub when they heard my Irish accent so I learned very quickly to drop it. It was challenging times."

Sharon trained as a midwife and has since held a variety of jobs within the NHS including Head of Midwifery.

After 30 years on the frontline, she is now head of risk and patient safety at Southend University Hospital, Essex.

Still passionate about what she does and with no retirement plans, Sharon feels grateful for the opportunities which have been afforded her by the NHS.

"The NHS offers huge possibilities for training. I have done so many courses and have always been very well supported," she says.

"It's been a privilege to be part of the NHS and I am very proud of the work I have done over the years. I've always tried to make a difference and improve services.

"I've dined at the House of Lords, I've dined at the House of Commons, and I've dined at the top of Tower Bridge, all thanks to the NHS - and if I retired tomorrow, I'd know I've had a blast of a career."


'Initially, it was daunting. Everything was different'

Mary O'Leary


Mary O'Leary (59)

Retired Wanstead, East London

When Mary went to England to train as a midwife in the early 1980s, she thought she would stay for a year or two and then return to Ireland.

Instead, after 34 years with the NHS, she is now enjoying an active early retirement, continuing part-time work with the Care Quality Commission (CQC) and volunteering for West Ham United, close to her London home.

The Macroom native qualified as a nurse in the North Infirmary in Cork in 1981 but crossed the Irish Sea to train as a midwife in Barking, Essex. "The situation at that time in Ireland was that you would work for a few weeks or months and then they'd break your contract, and you'd come back and start again so there wasn't anything permanent."

Mary, who travelled with another nurse friend, initially found it all a little daunting.

"Everything was different. We were learning midwifery, which was new to us, but also we were trying to learn about the NHS.

"When we wanted to come home, the cheapest Aer Lingus flight was about £130 and you would have to book it six months in advance so most of us would have travelled back in Slatterys coaches. It was a two-day journey and the crossings always seemed to be wild with people getting sick all over the place."

With the support of the NHS, Mary was able to advance her career to Masters level.

"The beauty of the NHS is that there are so many opportunities to diversify into different areas and specialise, and there are lots of opportunities for promotion."

Before her retirement, Mary was a maternity matron at Queen's Hospital in Romford which made 8,500 deliveries a year. "It's all been a brilliant experience. You are working to make a difference. I am so grateful to the NHS. It's very easy to forget how wonderful it is and to have it free at the point of care is amazing." 


'Nurses here can use a bit more initiative'

Orla O'Rourke

Orla O'Rourke (26 )

Guy's Hospital, London

With a grandmother and two aunts having worked as nurses, Orla believes it was inevitable that she has ended up in the profession.

"I suppose it's in my blood so when nursing came up as my first CAO choice, I took it and I'm delighted. It's been a brilliant career so far," says the Dalkey, Co Dublin, native.

After studying at UCD and training in St Michael's Hospital, Dún Laoghaire, Orla had already applied for a job with the NHS before she qualified in 2015.

"At the time, there didn't seem to be many Irish positions. My friends and I went to a jobs fair where England was really being promoted.

"I did a phone interview for Guy's Hospital and I got accepted. I came over to London with seven nursing graduates, all of whom trained in St Michael's and all of us are still working within Guy's and St Thomas' Trust."

Orla was accepted on to Dorcas, a thoracic oncology ward, and has remained there since.

"You are literally thrown in, you get your patients and everything on day one, but you have two weeks of being shadowed with someone, which is quite a nice start.

"I think I was lucky on the ward I got because there is a great team of managers and they made such an effort with me. It's not always the case. Our ward is known to be half Irish because of the number of Irish nurses."

Initially, she found the differences between nursing in Ireland and the UK to be a little overwhelming.

"It was really quite daunting to be honest. When I trained in Ireland, everything was documented on paper whereas here, everything is done online. Here nurses can order a lot more things and can use a little more initiative.

"Also, we got all our training courses done within the first month so we could take bloods and do cannulas, which was brilliant.

"The NHS has been such an amazing experience. I couldn't fault it. I have lifelong friends now through nursing. It's fantastic."

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