The Irish Cholera Epidemic in Dublin Ireland in 1832
The Cholera Epidemic in Ireland in 1832
When Cholera struck Dublin it quickly spread into an epidemic because the city was overcrowded with slums. It was a very frightening time as panic gripped the people because everyone around them were dying within hours of getting the disease.
Dublin in Ireland during the spring of 1832 was very mild and wet. This helped the epidemic to spread very rapidly amongst the poor. Temporary hospitals were set up all over the city. People were terrified because there seemed that no one could help them as their family members were dying, some within only a few hours of getting the disease.
The Spread of The Cholera Epidemic
Irish history records this time as the 1832 Cholera epidemic. The first symptoms of cholera were stomach cramps, followed by hallucinations and convulsions, then death would be very rapid. The spread of the disease was unchecked because large families of up to fourteen people were living in one room in the many tenements around Dublin city.
One outside toilet and an outside cold water tap was the normal living conditions for over seventy people living in each tenement house around the Dublin city. Unfortunately Irish history records that these tenements and slums in Dublin continued to be lived in by the people well into the 1940s.
No Nurses for the Dying
Grangegorman Prison in Rathdown Road, Dublin 7 was reopened as one of the temporary hospitals. In the middle of 1832, as the cholera epidemic was at its worst six hundred patients had been admitted in five days.
It was impossible to get anyone to nurse the dying. The old cells were soon packed with patients, even the long corridors had to be used. There were some recoveries, but those who were already in poor health due to malnutrition and bad living conditions usually lasted only a few hours.
Cholera was at Epidemic Levels
A list of the dead was put up outside the prison every morning, with between fifty and eighty patients dying every night at the height of the disease. Included in this list would be the carers who were brought in to nurse the patients the day before. Everyone was scared and it soon became impossible for the authorities to get anyone to nurse the dying.
Sisters of Charity of Stanhope Street Dublin 7
They asked the Sisters of Charity just down the road in Stanhope Street for help. The Convent immediately sent nuns up to the hospital without any thought of the danger to themselves. Mother Catherine also came from the Gardiner Street Convent with two novices to help with the nursing. They arrived at the hospital every morning at 8.00 o'clock.
The beds so tightly packed in the corridors that it was difficult for them to pass from patient to patient. The old prison beds were used and some of the smaller nuns had to use a box, or climb on the sides to reach the patients. When the nuns went back to the Convent at night, the first thing they did was to change their clothes and wash thoroughly in Chlorate of Lime to keep any danger of infection away from the other nuns.
One morning Sister Francis was preparing to leave the Stanhope Street Convent for the hospital with the other nuns when she received word that her own mother had died that day from cholera.
She insisted on carrying on the work, saying the patients in Grangegorman needed her. That same day she caught the disease herself but she recovered and once again went back to the hospital to help. It took until December of that year for the disease to run its course. But the death toll was very high. By the end of 1832 there were 50,769 deaths recorded due to the cholera epidemic in Ireland.
Hospital for the Poor
Mary Aikenhead had a dream to open a hospital for the poor. This only strengthened the resolve to fulfill her dream of a hospital. She heard of a house for sale at St Stephens Green for £3,000.
This large amount of money was not the only problem. The people on the more affluent Southside did not take kindly to the idea of a free hospital. That did not stop her.
Due to good public relations from her more wealthy patrons and donations the Sisters of Charity were able to buy the building on 23rd January 1834. The money for the renovations and supplies was secured by more donations, some of it coming from England and Scotland.
Nurses in Ireland
Another problem that Mother Aikenhead had to overcome was the appointment of nurses. In her time nursing was not a skilled profession. Only the poorest and lower class took on the job of nursing. They had no training whatsoever. The conditions they worked in were dangerous and unhygienic, for themselves and their patients.
No Respectable Lady Would Become a Nurse
When Dr O'Ferrall pointed this out to Mother Aikenhead she said in her usual way that ‘just because it had never been done before that was no reason why it shouldn't be done now.’ She sent three of her nuns to a hospital in Paris.
The Nuns of the Order of St Thomas of Villanova had set it up. They would receive the best training available in hygiene and good nursing practice. She told Dr O'Ferrall she envisioned that one day nursing would become a respected and honourable profession. Doctor O'Ferrall gave the hospital his full support and worked there long hours for free.
St Vincent's Hospital
The first hospital in Ireland to be owned and staffed by nuns. St Vincent's Hospital opened in the spring of 1835, with a ward for twelve women, called St Joseph's. Two more female wards and a children's ward were opened soon after.
On 15th August 1836 St Patrick's ward was opened, the first for men. The hospital now had sixty beds. It was the first hospital in Ireland to be owned and staffed by nuns. Anyone who was poor and needed hospital treatment was admitted without charge. In 1841 Mother Aikenhead bought the house next door and knocked through to the hospital. The cost of purchase and building work came to £8,000.
All operations had to be carried out without anesthetic, which was not invented until 1846. The patients had to be strapped to the operating tables and held down. Mother Aikenhead heard that a young boy, Danny needed an operation on his leg and would be strapped to the table. Danny had an abscess on his leg that had become infected and it needed to be lanced. She was ill herself and in a wheelchair at the time.
Young Danny Woke up Screaming
He was brought into a small room off the ward where Mother Aikenhead greeted him. He was crying because he had overheard the doctor talking about the need for the operation. As he sat on her lap she was able to calm him down and offered him an apple and a sweet. She began to tell him a story from the bible but he'd already heard it and wanted to hear one about a naughty boy.
Mother Aikenhead asked him what would be the naughty boy's name and he told her Danny. So she started to tell him a story about a boy called Danny who had climbed up a tree. He settled down and soon forgot what he was there for. Danny fell asleep in her arms. The doctor very gently prepared the child.
When they were ready, with Danny still asleep, the nurse held his leg in position and Mother Aikenhead held on tight to Danny. The doctor very quickly performed the cut. Danny immediately woke up screaming but the worst was over.
Orphanage at Stanhope Street
On another occasion Sister Mary Camellias was making her rounds of the wards. She came across a very distressed woman. She was a widow and dying of cancer. She was worried about her three children and what would happen to them when she died, the oldest was only eleven.
Her husband's family were not willing to take in the children after her death. Her own family lived in Cork and she had lost touch with them over the past twenty years. The Sister brought the problem to Mother Aikenhead. She told Sister Camellias to tell the woman that same night not to worry as they would be well looked after at the orphanage at Stanhope Street.
Mother Aikenhead died on 22nd July 1858
Six men arrived at the Convent in Harold's Cross and asked to see Mother Francis Magdalene. When she arrived they were too shy to speak. Eventually a young man in his early twenties stepped forward and asked permission for them to carry the coffin to the grave.
She was unsure about this and told them she'd have to ask the other Sisters. Some of them were undecided. Six labourers being given the honour of bearing the coffin of such an important and much loved person was unheard of.
Then Sister Camillus reminded them that when anyone would tell Mother Aikenhead that it had never been done before when she wanted to do anything different she'd always say, “That’s no reason why it shouldn't be done now."
So the six men got their wish. Thousands passed by her coffin to pay their respects.
Mother Aikenhead is Buried at the Convent Cemetery in Donnybrook
The young man who had stepped forward from the group of labourers to make the request was none other than Danny O’Connell, who as a small frightened boy had been held in Mother Aikenhead's arms as the doctor operated on his leg.
A New Hospital for the Poor of Dublin
When the Cholera epidemic struck Dublin and Ireland in 1832 there was no free medical facilities or hospitals for the people of the overcrowded Dublin slums. The authorities set up temporary hospitals all over Ireland like the one that was opened in 1832 at Grangegorman Prison, Rathdown Road in Stoneybatter Dublin.
But these were only containment places for the people who were dying from the disease at a rate of fifty a day at the height of the cholera epidemic.Because of this situation Mary Aikenhead was spurred on to create her long held dream of a free hospital for the poor of the Dublin slums. Her benefactors who donated the money towards this free hospital were also affected by the conditions that the people had endured during the epidemic.
Mary Aikenhead - Life and Work
Other Articles by L.M.Reid
- Irish Women and Children Transported to Australia as Convicts
- The Story of an Irish Prison in Dublin 7 Ireland
- Memories of my Grandmother of the Black and Tan Raids in Ireland in 1921
- Memories of My Great Grandparents in Dublin from 1907 to 1960
- Rationing in Ireland During World War Two
- The Irish War of Independence and Kevin Barry Age 18
- A Missing Child in Dublin: Irish Nun M. Aylward spends 6 Months in Prison
- The 1913 Dublin Lockout in Ireland with James Connolly and Jim Larkin
- Patrick Pearse and his brother Willie were executed after the 1916 Rising
- Execution of Two Irish Women in Kilmainham Jail
- Evictions and Starvation of the Irish People by the British Landlords
- 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland and Joseph Plunkett
- Memories of a Dublin Child With Tuberculosis in Ireland
- Tom and Kathleen Clarke The 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland
- The 1916 Easter Rising and the North King St Massacre
- The 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin and Sean McDermott
- Mrs Rice and Her 5 Sons Died on the Titanic
- Irishman James Daly was Executed in India in 1920
- Women and Children Locked up in Prisons in Ireland
- The Visit of President John F Kennedy to Ireland in 1963
- James Connolly and The 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland
- When Women in Ireland and Britain had no rights to their children
- President John F Kennedy at The Easter Rising Memorial Park in Ireland
- The Life and work of Mary Aikenhead. By a member of the congregation.
- The Irish Sisters of Charity. Centenary Brochure.
- Mary Aikenhead - A woman for all seasons. Katherine Butler RSC. 1984
- A Candle was lit. Life of Mary Aikenhead. Margery Bayley.
- Mother Mary Aikenhead. Catherine Rynne. 1980
- Dublin Slums. 1800 - 1925. A Study in Urban Geography. Jacinta Prunty.
- Directory 1848. An Oifig Taifead Poibli BB1
- 1901 Census. Stanhope Street Convent and Boarding School. National Archives, Dublin.
- 1911 Census. Stanhope Street Convent and Boarding School. National Archives.
- Sister Patricia. Principal St Joseph's primary School. Stanhope Street.
- The Sisters of Charity ( RSC ) 1838. Web Site.
- Cholera victims’ bones from 1830s found on dig. The Irish Times 2015
- The Cholera Epidemic in Ireland, 1832-3 By The Catholic Historical Society of Ireland
- "The Day of the Straws" 1832. Ask about Ireland.
- Ireland Since The Famine. F S L Lyons. 1973