The Crimean War was a chaotic affair involving Russia, the Ottoman Empire, France and England, over an area disputed for centuries. It lasted from October 1853 until March 1856, costing some 600,000 lives. Initially, like all wars, it was believed that Russia’s land grab in the eastern Mediterranean, would be quickly stopped; but as the months dragged on the armies on both sides were not prepared for the harsh, winter weather, and the length of the conflict. A number of fierce battles were fought including the infamous ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, and at Sebastopol, Alma and elsewhere causing thousands of casualties for which the military hospitals of the time were hopelessly inefficient, and unable to cope.
At first the British public read with admiration the thrilling reports of charges and manoeuvres, but as the months went by, and the amount of casualties increased, it was sickened by the reports, mainly by two Irish journalists, William Howard Russell (London Times ), and Edward Lawrence (London Daily News ) of the appalling medical facilities available to their army.
The Government appealed to the public for help, and two interesting women responded. One was Florence Nightingale, a brilliant, disciplined, compassionate woman, from a wealthy background, who from the age of 17 years had devoted herself to nursing. From a strong Anglican background, Nightingale believed she had received a calling from God to devote her life caring for the sick.
The other woman was Catherine McAuley, also from a wealthy, well educated background, and founder of the Sisters of Mercy in 1831. This was a band of talented and generous women, many of who had nursed the sick during the Great Famine, but were mainly dedicated to developing free schools for poor girls, and houses of safety for women, where they learned skills to assist them to get work. It was understood that a religious and moral foundation would be given, in order for them to become strong Catholic women.
Both Nightingale with her team of nurses, and the 15 Mercy sisters, led by a very able Sister Frances Bridgeman, set out for the Crimea in the late summer of 1855. Nightingale, who was appointed the superintendent of the nursing staff, was not happy having Irish religious sisters working with her. She was particularly concerned that the sisters would indulge in proselytising catholicism among the Protestant soldiery. She warned Sr Bridgeman that the sisters would be sent home if there was any report of such behaviour.
However, as they worked in different hospitals, the two women avoided contact as much as possible. The hospital conditions were challenging to say the least. The sisters faced filth, smells and vermin, wretched food and beds unchanged for weeks, infected wounds, and men in trauma from crude surgery and neglect. There were several outbreaks of typhus and cholera.
But the Irish sisters excelled at nursing. Catherine McAuley may have had an other direction in mind for her sisters after she founded her Baggot Street school in Dublin, but they certainly saw a lot of blood.
The doctors soon realised that their instructions to the Mercy sisters, were carefully followed and their patients recovered quickly. The Sisters devised a system of recording and conveying orders for treatments in the wards, and performed the treatments themselves. At least two Sisters were typically assigned to cover the wards at night (in a curious imitation of Nightingale’s vigil on the wards ), to check on the patients, and give the treatments as indicated by the surgeons, including dressing changes, interventions for fevers, and tonics containing alcohol which were the sole treatment for pain following an amputation or other surgery.
Jealousy or exhaustion
Frances Bridgeman was willing to break rules and regulations, and she had no compunction in doing so, to source good food for her patients. She appointed two of her Sisters to set up a diet kitchen, and made sure that food was prepared properly, and that the patients’ meals were delivered at designated times. The same was true for the laundry. Good blankets and clean linens were available, but often impossible to locate in the tangled mass of regulations and requisitions. Frances tracked down the person in charge of supplies and made sure that linens and blankets were provided to the patients. She also obtained new mattresses for patients. The Sisters ran the laundry themselves and then trained orderlies to assist.
For going outside the strict arrangement which had been set up for obtaining supplies, Frances incurred the wrath of Miss Nightingale numerous times, Whether it was jealousy or exhaustion, Nightingale, who deserves the recognition she received for her patient care and skill, giving birth to the legend of ‘The Lady of the Lamp’ for her nightly rounds on the hospital wards, eventually felt there would only be one heroine of the Crimea, and that would be herself. Inevitably there was a show down between Bridgeman and Nightingale. In March 1856, the closing months of the war, Nightingale, expressing her concern that the sisters were proselytising among the sick, she ignored Bridgeman’s plea that the sisters were only giving spiritual comfort, and told the Irish sisters to pack their bags and head for home.
Eight years later, September 1864, the Sisters of Mercy were invited by the elected Guardians of Galway’s workhouse, to take over nursing duties of its infirmary section. Only opened in 1840 five years before the Great Famine, the Galway workhouse had been through a maelstrom of horror. Located on approximately where the University College Hospital is to day, it was designed to shelter 800 destitute persons, but other buildings were quickly converted to auxiliary hostels as demand for shelter far exceeded the accommodation.
The great disadvantage of financing the workhouses was based on what could be raised through the Poor Law Rates. As the crisis grew, and the workhouses were overwhelmed with people desperate to help, a rate increase would have been enormous, and the Guardians were reluctant to increase it. The system collapsed. The Boards of Guardians of Galway, Clifden, Gort, Loughrea, and Tuam were dissolved, and replaced by paid officials. Captain Hilliard RN took over a store in Newtownsmith to accommodate 300 and 400 abandoned children. Another building was commissioned at Dangan; and Major McKee, another official, converted a cornstore at Merchants Road to accommodate 1,000 people . During 1848, at the height of the famine, further auxiliary workhouses were commissioned at Barna, and at the former Connacht Laundry site on Helen Street. Both Major McKee, and Hilliard died of typhus.
Orphan children became a particular problem. A Foundling Home was maintained at Parkavera and, in December 1849, further accommodation for children was established at Dangan, and behind the main town workhouse at Newcastle. Farmers, in East Galway, which were not severely affected by the famine, were asked to take children into their homes.
Unfortneatly lessons had not been learned from previous famines. The one great disadvantage of the workhouse system, which had undoubtedly saved many from death by starvation and exposure, was that once disease struck, it ran rapidly through the sheltering crowds, who lived close together. Between 1841 and 1851, there were 1,581 deaths from dysentery in the Galway workhouse, in contrast with only 301 deaths from the same disease in the town.
Same work ethic
It was hoped that by the time the first of the Mercy sisters came into the Galway workhouse the worst was over. The same work ethic that had worked so well in the Crimea now applied to the care of the poor in the workhouse. The sisters went among the shop keepers and traders in the town collecting funds. The straw palliases were replaced with bedsteads and mattresses, the bare whitewashed walls were releaved by pictures, religious or otherwise. Bedside lockers and cupboards were provided. A proper diet of good food was distributed three times daily. Clean cutlery and tableware were given out for each meal and collected for washing afterwards. Fireside chairs and strips of carpet helped to provide a more homely atmosphere. The Rosary was recited every evening.
The nuns left the Galway workhouse when it was occupied by the British Military in August 1921.
NOTES: By contrast with the attitude of Ms Nightingale, in America the work of the Mercy sisters during the Civil War was singled out for praise. “Of all the forms of charity and benevolence seen in the crowded wards those of the Catholic sisters were among the most efficient,” President Abraham Lincoln wrote after visiting Stanton Hospital, staffed by the Sisters of Mercy, the order founded by Catherine McAuley in Dublin barely 30 years before. “More lovely than anything in art are the pictures that remain with me of these sisters going on their rounds of mercy among the suffering and dying.” A nice sentiment, but by sanctifying these sisters he unintentionally diminished their human accomplishments. The 36 sisters who nursed at Stanton Hospital, near Washington, D.C. in April 1862, were not angels but women. Tough, determined, intelligent women with names like Murphy, Byrne, Ward, Leahy, and Maguire.
In the years following the Civil War, nuns established 800 hospitals throughout America, the basis for a network of Catholic hospitals that now serves one in six patients, the largest private group in the U.S. A great number of the hospitals and education academies throughout the U.S. were built with money raised by nuns.
The names of the heroic Sisters, who became known as the ‘Russian Nuns,’ who were chosen to go from Ireland, were: Srs. Joseph Croke and Clare Lalor from Charleville; Srs. Paula Rice and Aloysius Hurley from Cork; Srs. Agnes Whitty and Elizabeth Hersey from Dublin; Srs. Aloysius Doyle, from Old Kilcullen, Co Kildare, and Stanislaus Heyfron from Carlow; and Mother Francis Bridgeman, with Srs. Joseph Lynch and Clare Keane from Kinsale.
They were accompanied by four Sisters from England: Sr. Bernard Dixon from Chelsea, London and Srs. Magdalen Alcock, Winifred Sprey and Elizabeth Butler from Liverpool. Mother Francis Bridgeman was appointed Superior of the group.
The story does not end there. About a year and a half after her return from the Crimea, Sr Aloysius Doyle was appointed leader of a group of Sisters from the Carlow convent to establish a similar community in Gort, Co Galway, where she was to spend the remaining 51 years of her long and fruitful life.
Other sources this week include extracts from an article by Mary Raphael Pardis, National Library of Medicine, March 17 2017 (inference of Florence Nightingale’s attitude is suggested by Diary author ), Ray Burke, ‘An Irishman’s Diary’ November 29 2022, and Galway: A Medico Social History, by James P Murray 1992, and Near Quiet Waters, by Sister de Lourdes Fahy.