Lady Rachel Dudley- a superwoman of her time

Week III

Lady Rachel Dudley - Her nursing scheme spread throughout the western seaboard.

Lady Rachel Dudley - Her nursing scheme spread throughout the western seaboard.

There is a sad little story told by one of the so called Lady Dudley Nurses in Carna shortly after the nursing scheme had been introduced in 1903. A nurse had been attending a sick child for some time. The child had suffered, but was getting better. One day the nurse brought her a doll, with a smiley face, and nice clothes. The girl had never seen a doll before. She held it in awe and with gentleness. But the next time the nurse visited the house the child was in despair. “Oh nurse,” she cried, “the little one hasn’t eaten a thing since you were here and I am afraid she will die, and I’ll be sick again wanting her back”...

As the wife of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lady Rachel Dudley was acutely aware of poverty in Dublin city. Sick people there, however, at least had some access to the many city hospitals, and charitable institutions; but during her visits to Inver Lodge in Connemara she was shocked at the destitution of the poor. Most of them just about survived by subsistence farming on poor land. But if a member of the household was ill, or had an accident, especially in the area of maternity care, the only help available was the advice of neighbours. District doctors were few and far between. Bad weather made many of the small cottages inaccessible from the main roads; rough seas delayed, often for days, access to the populated islands. Lady Dudley’s plan was to establish trained, and committed nurses, who would live in specially built houses within the community, and be on call for the sick.

Using her own persuasive personality, and her husband’s considerable influence, she persuaded the government, and every person with money to spare, to support her project. It was an outstanding success. The Lady Dudley Nurses eventually spread throughout the western seaboard, supported through fund raising, bazaars, church collections, and the Congested District Boards.*

The women who made up this extraordinary commitment to the scattered communities of Connemara, Mayo, Donegal, and Kerry were warmly regarded, and still remembered with respect. A report tells us ‘That sometimes working 48 hours on end, these nurses have to battle with wind and rain and all the powers of darkness. Sometimes, when their patients live on islands, to wait for hours before the wind and waves will let them embark.’

‘Sometimes they are called up far into the mountains; they must wade through streams and jump from boulder to boulder to avoid marshy land, or climb up rough, steep paths often with the risk of losing their way, and have to wait till guidance comes. Despite all this,‘Life after life, which must otherwise have been lost, is saved by these nurses, who bring succour and comfort to the sick, whose utter ignorance of proper treatment of disease and accident prevails in these remote regions.’

The Australian Hospital

When in 1908 her husband, the Earl of Dudley, was appointed Governor-general of Australia, she followed him. With the same energy and determination, she set up a similar nursing scheme there, which became a forerunner for the famous ‘Flying Doctor’ service.

At the outbreak of World War I her husband joined the South Midland Mounted brigade, eventually supporting the ANZACS (the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps ) during its ill-fated Gallipoli campaign. In an attempt to break through the Turkish defences, there were disastrous results. Many thousands of lives were lost or wounded.

Again Lady Rachel was motivated to act. She proposed a special Australian Hospital in northern France. This was fiercely opposed by the War Office. It saw the tending of the wounded to be a military concern; and was fed up with ‘do-gooders’ interfering with the war. However, it had totally underestimated the determination of the proposer. Again Lady Rachel used all the influence that her husband could muster, ‘from the king to every old bath-chair general’, to get what she saw was an absolute necessity.

She got her hospital. It was located in two adjoining chateaux, beside a golf course. In the midst of an overbearing army culture, the Australian Hospital became a breath of fresh air. It soon became the busiest, and most important private hospital on the Boulogne front. It became a rendezvous for all the great consultants of the military medical world, free to discuss the war, and the management of its wounded. It introduced its own regime. Medical attention was excellent.

Lady Rachel washed the faces of wounded men until she was driven from the wards by the matron. She sent an SOS to all her friends, resulting in ‘some of the richest men in London washing out bedpans, carrying coal, and cleaning up pots and pans.’**

Full of good memories

For all her worldliness, and exceptional achievements, however, she kept coming back to Connemara. Ireland was going through its own bloody epiphany at the time. While Lady Dudley was battling to get her Australian hospital in France, there was the Easter Rising in Dublin, followed by the War of Independence. But she never felt threatened by these dramatic events. She was now separated from her husband, who had lost his heart to a famous musical comedienne Gertie Miller, whom he later married. Lady Rachel didn’t stay at their former home at Inver Lodge, but nearby at Screebe Lodge, now the Screebe House Hotel. She always stayed in her favourite Room 4.

It was, as it is today, a tranquil and peaceful place. Surrounded by mountains, lakes and rivers it had to be a restful place for a woman who had done so much in very difficult circumstances. The landscape was full of good memories. During her husband’s time as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the Dudleys motored down to the Ros Muc area with large parties of fashionable men and women. An observer, Sir Henry Robinson, of the Local Government Board, describes Lord Dudley as a ‘wonderfully good all-round sportsman. He kept a racing cutter at Kingstown....No one could handle a boat better than he in a thresh to windward in hard weather. He was a crack shot...he had a fishing lodge in Connemara, and he could throw a salmon fly against any man in Ireland. He rode to hounds well, and was a good golfer, though not a very considerate one, as he would think nothing of keeping people waiting behind him for a quarter of an hour while he drove off practice shots from the tee..’ and despite his enormous wealth, and his generosity to his guests, he was slow to pay his bills. Nevertheless, the Dudleys were as popular in Dublin as they were in Connemara.

The catch of the day was usually divided among the local children who gathered to tie up their boats at the end of a day’s fishing. The women of the party, dressed in the hats and big Edwardian dresses of the day, called to the local cottages. They were on friendly terms with many.

In the summer of 1920, while the War of Independence was raging, Lady Rachel came once more to Screebe Lodge. She was alone. On the morning of June 26, she went for a swim, and never returned. Her body was later retrieved from the sea. Tim Robinson (in his Connemara - A Little Gaelic Kingdom ), adds a poignant note:‘ Rachel’s plaintive spirit sometimes returns to her favourite Room 4 in the lodge, and has been seen in the roads and woods nearby too, a fading trace of the belle époque of Ros Muc.’

Next week: Back to Teach An Phiarsaigh

NOTES: *Attractive cottages were built for the nurses. You can still see one by the road about two miles west of Recess.

** Taken from Happy Dispatches, by Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson, published by Gutenberg of Australia. Describing Lady Dudley, Paterson writes: ‘A wonderful woman. She should have been a general, for no doubts assailed her and no difficulties appalled her.’

Lady Rachel Dudley was the youngest daughter of Charles Gurney of Norfolk. She married William Humble Ward, Earl of Dudley, September 14 1891, with whom she had four sons and three daughters. She received a number of awards. She was appointed CBE, and awarded the Royal Red Cross, for her outstanding services to humanity. In an era of heroes, Lady Rachel has to be in the super bracket.

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