Credit: Alamay Photo Agency

Disremembering the daughters of ‘that matchless woman’

I visited St Vincent’s University Hospital last week. Walking along the ground floor, there was a sense of something missing – something important. It was disquieting, in the way these things are -something familiar and reassuring, suddenly no longer there.

St Vincent’s University Hospital has served this country well since it was first founded by “that Matchless Woman”, Mary Aikenhead – in the words of a man in poverty in her own time – and then developed by her successors in the Sisters of Charity, and all who came to work there.

Her commitment to individuals, especially women, who needed care and had nowhere to go – and no means to pay – was literally unconditional. One biography I read recounted that she sewed bedsheets for the original St Vincents when it was located in Dublin, from her own bed, she suffered from scoliosis and other disabilities.

By the most exacting standards, national and international, Mary Aikenhead was an extraordinary woman and an innovator in every domain of Healthcare. She was ‘inclusive’ in an age long before it became the most mundane and misused cliche of our own times. She taught, pioneered mental as well as physical care, worked in prisons and reached out, in particular, to women and to the poor.

The women who came after her achieved extraordinary things in every sphere of medicine, nursing and midwifery and surgery. They lectured and innovated. They invested their lives in developing the hospital that St Vincent’s has become today. They empowered so many others.

THEN I knew what, it seems, was missing from the ground floor corridors.¬† It was the old, familiar photographs on the walls of those same women, outstanding in their professions, as well as in their commitment to St Vincents. I couldn’t see the photographs¬† They, whoever ‘they’ are, appear to have taken down the photographs of women who must surely have inspired so many nurses and midwives, interns and consultants, as they began, and later went about, their work, in the days and through the nights.

The specialisms which they nurtured and cultivated certainly saved my life on one occasion, and, of course, the lives of countless others, over the decades. Those women, begining with Mary Aikenhead, began a whole era in Irish healthcare.

So, where are these photographs? Why are they not still up on the walls? How strange is it that with all the talk about women and leadership, as well as the challenges of mental as well as emotional health in our society, they have excised some of the best and the rarest of women. And in a Maternity Hospital, of all places! Of course, they had already displaced  the statue of another woman and mother, our Blessed Lady, from the very front of the Hospital.

Still, the women who graced those photographs deserve better than to have the remembrance of them, and their work, discarded from the walls of the hospital which they founded and under whose care it flourished.

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