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Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)


The Irish Sisters of Mercy


The Irish Sisters of Mercy
and the Crimean War

September 1854 to April 1856

Introduction Terence Curran c2008

Florence Nightingale and the Charge of the Light Brigade are the two main points that come to mind when talking about the Crimean War. One for it medical advancements in caring for the wounded soldiers away from the battle field, enabling more lives to be saved and the other a charge of madness or valour.

The Irish participated in this historical event, they were there in very heat of it’s battles and they are represented in the sombre task of caring for the wounded, the people of Carlow can add a few names of its own son and daughters to the event.

The Canon that guards the steps of Carlow Town Court house is there by good reason, it was awarded to the Town for the contributions that were made by the County in the effort of winning the war. However not all that went to Crimean War fought for the Colours some went there on what could be called the worlds first humanitarian missions.

The Irish Sister of Mercy

In autumn 1854, press reports from the Times’ war correspondent highlighted gross deficiencies in British military hospitals dealing with the sick and wounded of the Crimean War, prompting the War Office to appeal for respectable women to nurse the wounded. Three types of woman answered the War Office call – philanthropic ladies, paid nurses and religious sisters, both Catholic and Anglican. Among this latter group were 15 Mercy nuns from various convents in Ireland and England - all under the control of the mother superior of the Convent of Mercy, Kinsale, Co Cork (Mother Mary Francis Bridgeman).

Name   Convent  
Mthr M Francis Bridgeman Kinsale  
Sr M Joseph Lynch Kinsale  
Sr M Clare Keane Kinsale  
Sr M Agnes Whitty St. Catherine’s Baggot St,  Dubin
Sr M Elizabeth Hersey St. Catherine’s Baggot St, Dubin
Sr M Joseph Croke Charleville  
Sr M Clare Lalor Charleville  
Sr M Aloysius Doyle Carlow  
Sr M Stanislaus Heyfron Carlow  
Sr M Paula Rice St. Maries of the Isle, Cork
Sr M Aloysius Hurley    
St. Maries of the Isle, Cork  
Sr Winifred Sprey Liverpool  
Sr M Elizabeth Butler Liverpool   
Sr M Magdalen Alcock Liverpool  
Sr M Bernard Dixon Chelsea,  London

By Siobhan Horgan Ryan PhD B.A. R.G.N

Why did the Mercy nuns volunteer to nurse in the Crimean War? Primarily, according to surviving diaries, it was carried out as part of their mission to aid the less fortunate of society – especially given the high number of Irish soldiers in the British Army during the 19th century. The Mercy sisters had had experience of home nursing in the houses of the poor since the first European cholera epidemic in 1832.

Gradually this work expanded and, by the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854, the sisters had gained much valuable domiciliary nursing expertise and had laid plans to open hospitals in Dublin and Cork. The Crimean War allowed these women to apply the nursing skills they had acquired and to gain public recognition for their nursing care. Although much of the work was necessarily surgical, nevertheless there was a very high incidence of infectious disease, such as cholera and typhus, with which the nuns were already very familiar. A second consideration was political – to showcase the benefits of Catholicism.

Despite the removal of the last vestiges of the Penal Laws with Catholic Emancipation, nevertheless a suspicion remained in the establishment mind about the motives of the Catholic hierarchy. The Catholic Bishop of Southwark, London urged the Mercy sisters in Bermondsey to volunteer and also contacted the Irish hierarchy, who in turn encouraged Irish convents of Mercy to participate in the endeavour. One dissenting voice was that of the Bishop of Galway who refused permission to travel for four nuns who had volunteered from the convents at Galway and Westport and they were forced to remain in Ireland

The first contingent of volunteers was made up of Nightingale herself, some paid nurses, some Anglican sisters and two groups of Catholic nuns – one group from the Convent of Mercy at Bermondsey. Meanwhile, the second contingent had departed from London, including Mother Bridgeman’s group which comprised eleven nuns from Irish Convents, 3 from Liverpool and 1 from Chelsea. (See list above). The Irish nuns met up at St Catherine’s where there was a delay of 3 weeks while various administrative problems were sorted out. They then travelled together to London and were joined by the sisters from Liverpool and Chelsea.

All the nuns kept a diary of their time away but only three survive – those written by Mother M. Francis Bridgeman of Kinsale, Sister M. Aloysius Doyle of Carlow and Sister M. Joseph Croke of Charleville. Mother Bridgeman’s party of 15 sisters left London on 2nd December 1854 with 9 ‘ladies’ and 23 paid nurses under the superintendence of Mary Stanley. They travelled via Paris and Marseilles, where they boarded a ship bound for Turkey.

When they arrived at Constantinople a message was sent to Scutari but Nightingale replied that the War Office had made a mistake and she had neither work nor accommodation for more nurses and nuns. Something of a stand-off ensued, with the ladies and nurses staying in accommodation belonging to the British Ambassador and the nuns staying with French Sisters of Charity, in their convent nearby. Eventually Moore negotiated a compromise between Nightingale and Bridgeman where Nightingale agreed to accept five nuns to work at the Barrack Hospital, Scutari, on the understanding that Bridgeman was free to withdraw them at any time.

These five replaced the Norwood Sisters who had been sent home. This left the remaining 10 nuns and Stanley’s group to cool their heels until placements could be found for them. One of the sticking points in the negotiations had been the issue of control – Nightingale wanted all the Mercy nuns at Scutari to be led by Mother Clare Moore of the Bermondsey convent but this was rejected outright by Bridgeman who insisted that she and she alone had the responsibility for them, as it had been entrusted to her personally by their respective mothers superior. This point was eventually accepted by Nightingale, who agreed that all 15 should remain under the control of Bridgeman, irrespective of their location.

Eventually a deal was worked out whereby the ten unemployed sisters would be sent to nurse in hospitals at Koulali hospitals, further up the coast. The remaining five sisters were given a choice to either remain at Scutari Barrack Hospital, where Florence Nightingale was based, or transfer to Scutari General Hospital. They opted to transfer and on 25th January 1855 Sisters M Elizabeth Hersey, M Clare Keane, M Paula Rice, M Winifred Sprey and M Agnes Whitty moved to the General Hospital.

Two days later the remaining 10 went to Koulali. When they arrived there they found that conditions there were even worse than at Scutari. There was nowhere to cook special diets for the patients and the wards were dirty – ‘disorder, filth and wretchedness’ and had to be scrubbed before patients could be admitted. For the first few days the nuns at Koulali were split between the Barrack and the General hospitals – 5 to each along with some secular ladies. On 2nd February Bridgeman took charge of the General hospital, under the nominal superintendence of Miss Amy Hutton, one of the ladies of the Stanley party who had ceded nursing responsibility to Bridgeman, and all the sisters of the Koulali group were transferred there, where they remained until the following October.

Each ward had a nun, a secular lady, two paid nurses and orderlies. The ladies had more difficulties in adjusting than the nuns who, during their novitiate, had received instruction in the art of nursing. The ladies, on the other hand, usually had only the experience of nursing a sick relative at home although a few had received some instruction in St John’s House Training Institution for Nurses in London, set up in 1848 to train Anglican nurses in the art of home nursing for the poor.

Relations between Bridgeman and Nightingale remained cool. The two clashed continuously over nursing duties and control of the nuns. Nightingale insisted that nursing care should be restricted to patients suffering from battle wounds, as those suffering from diarrhoea, fevers and infectious disease merely needed rest.

The nuns had had years of experience in nursing infectious patients, including cholera, and had a completely different view of what constituted nursing care. Also, Nightingale’s system excluded certain duties that the nuns felt were part of nursing responsibilities, such as night duty (‘watching’); administration of medicines, stimulants and food; and superintending the preparation and cooking of ‘extras’ or special diets.

According to Bridgeman, before the sisters went home Florence Nightingale visited her and took notes on their system of nursing , ‘Miss Nightingale took notes of our manner of nursing which Revd Mother explained to her as she hoped someone might profit of it.’ Nightingale subsequently published a book on ‘Nursing Notes’ which, it has been argued, borrowed significantly from the ‘careful nursing’ system carried out by the Sisters of Mercy. Cholera was a major killer during the war and erupted in waves of epidemics. In the early stages of an epidemic all cases were fatal then the disease gradually lost its power until it would fizzle out a few months later, only to be replaced with typhus.

This pattern occurred over and over again. According to the diaries left by the nuns, these cholera patients were all filthy and shocked on admission – not helped by having been transported 300 miles across the Black Sea in crowded ships. The first job was to clean them and then give drinks of hot wine and feed them with an easily digestible porridge of sago and arrowroot. Then hot packs and poultices were applied and some army doctors tried out the new chloroform treatment but, especially in the early stages of an epidemic, most cases proved fatal irrespective of what treatment was given. The dead were buried in canvas sheets and blankets, as there weren’t enough coffins to go round.

The sisters themselves weren’t immune from illness, two were sent home that summer due to ill health. Another difficult condition to treat was frostbite which, according to Sr Aloysius Doyle of Carlow, was even worse than battle wounds. The soldiers had not been provided with warm clothing and their uniforms were too flimsy for the Crimean winter, consequently many were admitted to hospital suffering from frostbite. These poor men had to have their clothes and boots cut off, often with digits stuck to them, and then poultices containing oil were gently applied to the extremities. On the following day any diseased flesh was removed and poultices reapplied. This regime continued as long as necessary until healing occurred.

Not only were there problems between Bridgman and Nightingale, there were also difficulties between the 2 groups of Mercy sisters and their leaders – Mothers Bridgeman and Moore. These two ladies had different agendas – Moore, as superior of the first Catholic convent founded in England since the Reformation, was anxious to avoid accusations of proselytising. Bridgeman felt she was being too accommodating to the Protestants and was disturbed that Moore had placed herself in a subservient position in relation to a secular lady, and a Protestant one to boot! She also felt that Nightingale deliberately drove a wedge between the two sets of Mercy nuns. Bridgeman did not trust Nightingale and took care to ally herself with Inspector-General Sir John Hall, Principal Medical Officer of the Crimean Force, who also disliked Nightingale.

By October 1855 admissions at Koulali had dropped off, as new hospitals had been opened in the Crimea itself, and the hospital was about to be transferred to Sardinian control. Bridgeman used this opportunity to distance herself and her group both geographically and professionally from Nightingale. In a private arrangement with Sir John Hall, Bridgeman brought her entire group of 10 sisters and 2 lay sisters to Balaclava on 7th October 1855, to take over a hospital previously under Nightingale’s superintendence but which she had been manoeuvred into relinquishing earlier that month, after the ladies who had been in charge transferred [on their own initiative] to other hospitals.

In Balaclava the sisters were housed in a one-roomed wooden hut up a steep hill containing 3 beds and 2 chairs for 15 sisters, tin plates and cups, a stove, kettle tin can and sweeping brush. Despite the poor living conditions there they were happy to be rid of the ‘seculars’ – the term they used for both ladies and paid nurses. Each sister was in charge of 2 wards, with approx 14 patients and 2 orderlies in each, and they ran a rota of night duty, by which 2 sisters stayed up at night and went around the various hospital buildings together. This was strictly controlled – night nursing was only undertaken on the express, written instruction of the attending doctor.

The Sisters also took turns at acting as housekeeper – one week at a time, despite having a lay sister whose specific job it was to look after the domestic arrangements of the nuns. Nightingale had many problems with the purveyor general and Bridgeman took advantage of this and fostered his friendship, as she had also done with Sir John Hall. This resulted in, inter alia, provision of better accommodation for the Sisters in Balaclava where extra communicating huts were built on stone foundations to provide dormitory space and a chapel. The stone foundations were important as there was an infestation of rats in the area and wooden foundations proved no barrier to these unwelcome guests.

A fresh outbreak of cholera coincided with the sisters’ move across the Black Sea, once again all cases were fatal in the early stages of the epidemic. One of the Liverpool nuns, Sr M Winifred Sprey – a lay sister, died of cholera on 20th October 1855, a week after arriving in Balaclava. Once again, a typhus epidemic broke out, in January 1856, as cholera was diminishing. Sr M Elizabeth Butler died of typhus on Sunday 23rd February 1856, aged between 50 and 60 years. Irish by birth, she had entered Baggot Street Convent in 1838 and transferred to Liverpool in 1845.

When Nightingale discovered how she had been duped she wrote to the War Office and insisted on being reinstated as superintendent of Balaclava. Bridgeman responded by writing to General Storks outlining the history of their relations and insisting that Nightingale had initially refused the nuns’ services entirely, then had reluctantly agreed to accept 5 to work in Scutari on the understanding that Bridgeman was free to withdraw them at any time and that Nightingale had disclaimed all responsibility over the remaining 10 sisters, who were subsequently employed at Koulali but not, Bridgeman maintained, under Nightingale’s control.

Following pressure from friends at home, Nightingale regained control of the General Hospital at Balaclava, whereupon Bridgeman decided to bring her group home, citing the decreased need for their services due to falling admissions as well as the imminent declaration of peace. Peace was formally declared on 2nd April 1856 and the sisters sailed for England on the 12th, via Constantinople, Malta and Gibraltar. They arrived in England on 8th May and rested in London before journeying back to their respective convents.

In her report to her superiors Bridgeman said that the sisters were well suited to nursing in military hospitals, by virtue of their vows, class and morality, but counselled that they should never again come under the superintendence of a secular lady, especially a Protestant one, and that she herself was ‘tired and disgusted with following and untangling Miss Nightingale’s intricate webs.’

However, Florence Nightingale may not have been her only problem. The nuns had demonstrated obedience, calmness and order throughout their time away – in part due to their vow of obedience to Bridgeman, as representative of their home superiors. Nevertheless, Bridgeman hints at some discord between nuns of different convents when she says that in future such endeavours would be better confined to nuns from one convent. However, the façade of unity was maintained in front of all - not only for the good of religion but also to promote the moral superiority of the Irish over the English nuns. Conclusion The Crimean War was the first public manifestation of the Mercy system of nursing, where care was delivered by a distinct, cohesive, obedient, morally unassailable, well managed, socially superior group of women who were experienced in the nursing care of infectious disease and used to privation.

As such it was a success the Irish nuns concentrated on the provision of hospitals and taking over responsibility of nursing departments in workhouses. The Sisters arrived back in Ireland in 1856 and within a few years the congregation had established hospitals in Dublin and Cork and had begun nursing in workhouse infirmaries. The Mercy Hospital, Cork was opened in 1857, followed four years later by the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, Dublin. Mercy nuns began working in workhouse hospitals in the early 1860s and by 1873 there were 26 nuns employed in 8 workhouse hospitals, of which 23 were from the Mercy order.

In addition, some hospitals originally set up by Protestants later had their nursing departments administered by Mercy nuns, including Dublin’s Charitable Infirmary and Cork’s South Infirmary. Sr M Aloysius Doyle (of Carlow) died at Gort convent, Co Galway in 1908, aged 94. She was the last survivor of Bridgeman’s group and had been awarded the Royal Red Cross in 1897. She could not receive it in person from Queen Victoria at the ceremony in Windsor, due to ill health, and so it was sent on to her.

The Crimean journals of the Sisters of Mercy, 1854-56

Source: Terry Curran c2008

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