I have written before how records from the Military Pensions Archive show that more than 200 members of Cumman na mBan, some who had sustained injuries and took risks with their lives participating in military action both during the Easter Rising, and in the subsequent War of Independence, were refused a pension because the pension was only applicable ‘to soldiers as generally understood in the masculine sense’.*
Ada English, a prominent member of Cumann na mBan, an elected Sinn Féin member of the Dail for the National University of Galway constituency, with a busy career as the resident medical superintendent at Ballinasloe Lunatic Asylum (now St Bridget’s ), was one of 50 women imprisoned by the British authorities in 1921. Yet she too had to suffer from the sly remarks from men.
Ada voted against the Anglo-Irish Treaty, voicing her opposition in the Dail on January 4 1922.
“I credit the supporters of the treaty with being as honest as I am, but I have a sound objection to it. I think it is wrong...I do not like talking here about oaths. I have heard about oaths until my soul is sick of them...But if this treaty is forced on us by England - as it is being forced - and that paragraph 4, the one with the oath in it... in which we are asked to accept the King of England as head of the Irish State, and we are asked to accept the status of British citizens, British subjects, that we cannot accept.
“As far as I can see the whole fight in this country for centuries has been centred round this very point...Ireland has been fighting England and, as I understood it, the grounds of this fight always were that we denied the right of England’s King to this country.”
Some deputies, who supported the treaty sneered that women deputies were opposed to the treaty for emotional reasons. Was deputy English’s objection related to the treatment given to Mary MacSwiney (the sister of Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork. Terence died after a prolonged hunger strike, October 1920 ).
Ada replied that such remarks were ‘unworthy’ of the men in the Dáil. “ I thank my God I have no dead men to throw in my teeth as a reason for holding the opinions I hold. I should like to say that I think it most unfair to the women Teachtaí because Miss MacSwiney had suffered at England’s hands.”
Ada English stood again for the National University of Ireland at the 1922 election, but lost her seat. She assisted the anti Treatyites during the Civil War, and reportedly served with Cathal Brugha when the anti Treatyites sealed off part of Dublin city against the Free State troops. The siege ended on July 5 1922 when Brugha walked out of the Hammam hotel with a revolver, and was wounded. He died two days later.
When it was all over Ada returned to work full time at Ballinasloe, which was an enormous institution with vast grounds and 1,293 inpatients.
Professor Brendan Kelly** tells us that over the following four decades, Ada introduced many changes in order to coax Irish attitudes toward mental health out of the dark ages, and was especially concerned that patients be humanely treated and gainfully occupied.
She oversaw the expansion of occupational therapies, including horticulture and farming, and was particularly keen that patients have weekly trips to the cinema in Ballinasloe, especially when the hospital’s own cinema projector was broken.
At national level she campaigned fiercely for much-needed reform of mental health legislation.
Locally Ada was very well liked. She was referred to as ‘Lady English’ owing to her dignified bearing. She loved to tour the highways and byways around the town in her horse and trap, driven by a patient, and would stop and talk with those she met on the road.
One man she met frequently when he was a child, remembered her as being of light build, invariably well-wrapped up, and always accompanied by her dogs, Victor, Isabel and Judy.
Ada would speak to the boy in Irish and take a particular interest in his schooling, bidding farewell with a cheery “Beannacht Leat!”
In January 1944 Ada died in Ballinasloe. She was buried at her own request, alongside her patients at Creagh Cemetery, adjacent to St Brigid’s Hospital. Ada never married, and left no diaries, or journals.
Next week: Cumann na mBan - Some Galway Dimensions, published by Galway County Council
NOTES: * Women had to wait 10 years longer than ‘masculine soldiers’ before the law was changed to allow them receive a pension. Some waited many years more.
** Brendan Kelly, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCD School of Medicine and Medical Science, and author of Ada English: Patriot and Psychiatrist (Irish Academic press ).