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


Retired nurse Mary Sheridan.  Photo: Lorraine Teevan

Retired nurse Mary Sheridan. Photo: Lorraine Teevan

Mary Sheridan.  Photo: Lorraine Teevan

Mary Sheridan. Photo: Lorraine Teevan


Retired nurse 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.

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"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."

Annette moved to Stevenage in Hertfordshire in 1963 and later worked as a ward sister for 25 years. After her retirement in 2004, the mother and grandmother continued to work on call for an orthopaedic clinic, only finally retiring from nursing last year.

"I still miss it. I loved every minute of it," she said.

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.

"We were really thrown in at the deep end. I remember being sent to the sluice room where you had to wash all the commodes and that was tough, but you got used to it and soon took it in your stride.

"When I started first, syringes were glass and had to be boiled and dressings had to be sterilised in stainless steel containers in a big drum.

"Nurses were also expected to do damp dusting on all the ledges every morning. The hours were certainly long, but the time seemed to go quickly and the people looking after us in those early days were very kind."

After her training, Mary went to work in St James' Hospital in London before moving two years later to Fort Worth, Texas. She described the move to the city as a shock to the system, but in true nurse fashion she rose to the challenge.

"St James' was a huge hospital, but the Irish would stick together," she said. "I was a theatre nurse, and the A&E covered all of southwest London, but you were trained well for it and you just got on with it."

She remembered once treating a young man who had lost both his legs in a helicopter crash.

"The poor man kept shouting that he had pains in his toes, but they were phantom pains," she said.

In 1971 Mary moved to Texas, but she returned to Ireland and got married in 1974. When she came back to Cavan to work at the County Hospital, she was struck by the difference between here and her experiences in the UK and the US.

'It was a huge shock to the system. I thought they were very backward here," she said. "There was a shortage of supplies, but the people were very nice."

Cork-born sociologist Prof Louise Ryan of Middlesex University, who has done extensive research into the experiences of Irish nurses, believes their work for the NHS, which was the envy of the world, has largely gone unsung.

"Most of the nurses I interviewed were very positive about the opportunities they had enjoyed in England at a time when it was very hard for women to pursue a professional career in Ireland," she said.

"In England they got paid as they trained and lived in the nurses' homes so they felt safe, well provided for and enjoyed the companionship of other young nurses many of whom were also migrants," she said.

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