She's Inspirational: Mary was a friend to Ireland’s poor

In our monthly column on Cork’s inspirational women - past and present - called 'She's Inspirational', NICOLA DEPUIS tells us about Mary Aikenhead - a friend of the poor
She's Inspirational: Mary was a friend to Ireland’s poor

Mary Aikenhead, who was born in Daunt Square Cork, features in 'She's Inpsirational' today in WOW!

MARY Aikenhead’s life began on January 19, 1787 in Daunt Square.

The first-born child of Dr David Aikenhead, a wealthy Protestant apothecary, and Mary Stacpole, who hailed from a wealthy merchant family, Mary was fostered out to the Rourke’s on Eason’s Hill for the first few years of her life.

Baptised a Protestant, Mary began to mix with the poorer Catholics in the Shandon area – a portion of society she would have been cut off from had she spent these formative years with her aristocratic birth parents. However, at the age of six, her parents brought her home to live with them and she was sent to a nearby school for the daughters of Protestant gentlemen, where she was to be prepared for life in genteel society.

Mary’s life changed again at the age of 12 when her aunt, Rebecca Gorman, returned from a convent in Bruges, where she had been leading a religious life. 

Rebecca was to have a huge influence on Mary, lending her religious books and bringing her along to mass.

On one of these occasions, Mary heard a sermon by Dr Florence McCarthy, coadjutor bishop of Cork, at the South Parish Church. It was about the parable of Dives and Lazarus, in which an uncaring rich man ends up in a place of torment while a poor man inherits paradise. Having lived amongst both the rich and the poor, Mary felt called to act.

Poverty was widespread in Ireland in the 19th century. Many people were unable to afford shelter, food, health-care or education, and children were frequently abandoned and left to fend for themselves.

At this time, Dr Daniel Murray was hoping to establish a congregation of religious sisters who would visit the poor in their own homes, similar to the French Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul. To Mary’s surprise, he proposed that since she had ‘a great heart and a willing mind’ she should lead this new venture as the first mother superior of the new congregation.

Her claims of inexperience and a lack of training in the religious life were dismissed, and in 1812, Mary and her companion Alicia Walsh entered the Bar Convent in York belonging to the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mary took the name Sister Mary Augustine and three years later, Mary and Alicia (now Sister Mary Catherine) returned to Ireland where Dr Murray had prepared their first convent on North William Street in Dublin.

The two women immediately set to work making the ‘walking nuns’ a reality and in 1816 Pope Pius VII gave his approval to the establishment of the congregation.

Though very short of funds and constantly relying on the ‘rich bank’ of God’s providence, in 1819 Mary opened a second convent on Stanhope Street. As the number of novices grew, Mary and the sisters, with the help of the Society of Friends and the Christian Brothers, opened new schools for the education of the poor on Gardiner Street (in 1830) and in Sandymount (1831).

However, whilst visiting the sick poor, several of the young sisters picked up illnesses from which they eventually died, and it was Mary who nursed them day and night.

To every challenge and struggle, Mary’s constant response was, ‘God’s will. Amen!’

At the age of 44, Mary’s health began to fail and she spent most of the last 30 years of her life either in a wheelchair or on a couch, crippled with spinal problems, dropsy (heart or organ failure) and eventually paralysis.

She directed her sisters in their heroic work during cholera epidemics in 1832 and 1833 and the famine in the 1840s. She undertook the establishment of new institutions, including a refuge for sex workers on Townsend Street. She sent sisters to Australia in 1838 and to England in 1840, and continued to play a very active role. It has been said she did her best work from her sickbed – an inspiring feat in itself.

Her belief that ‘just because it has never been done before, there is no reason why it should not be done now’ was regularly put into practice.

From her own experience helping the sick poor, the majority of whom were Catholic, Mary began to recognise an urgent need for a hospital where Catholic doctors and nurses could be trained. Even though the Act of Catholic Emancipation had been passed in 1829, Catholics were still excluded from positions of trust, including posts in public hospitals and schools of medicine.

Appealing for donations to start a hospital for the most needy, she wrote 4,000 letters from her sickbed, where she also hand-made bolster slips and pillowcases for the hospital.

In January, 1434, her dream was realised when she opened St Vincent’s Hospital in St Stephen’s Green, Dublin. It was the first Catholic hospital in Ireland since the Reformation and the first to be run by religious sisters. It was recorded that the first operation at the hospital was performed on a little boy who lay in Mary Aikenhead’s lap throughout the procedure.

In 1845, Mary moved to a house in Harold’s Cross, Dublin, where she spent the last 13 years of her life before dying on July 22, 1858.

Such was her impact on the poor and working people of Ireland that a deputation of Dublin workmen requested that they might be allowed to carry her coffin to the grave, and a farmer wrote in a letter to his cousin: “In her, Ireland’s poor have lost their best friend. No other woman ever did so much for them.”

NEXT MONTH: On April 27, we feature Margaret Bulkley, aka Dr James Barry - Pioneering Surgeon

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