The hope of healing and the charity of care

Caring for the Nation: A History of the Mater Misericordiae University Hospital, by Sr Eugene Nolan (Gill & Macmillan, €29.99 / £26.99)

Tony Farmar

Considering the pain, distress and even death suffered within their walls, it is extraordinary how much affection and loyalty our hospitals generate.

Caring for the Nation is the first full history of one of Ireland’s best-loved Catholic institutions, the Mater Misericordiae Hospital. From the purchase of the site in 1851 the Sisters of Mercy planned a large hospital, now back in the news in a controversial way with an imposing front on Eccles Street and as many as 500 beds. Its southside rival, St Vincent’s, founded some years before, had only 90 beds.

The poor

At this time hospitals were almost exclusively for the poor. The simple medical equipment of the day enabled the well-off to be treated in their own homes, or later in nursing homes. The city was subject to terrifying epidemic outbreaks of killer diseases such as smallpox and cholera. The insanitary conditions of the tenements were a seedbed of diseases such as tuberculosis, typhus and dysentery.

Before the discovery of germs there were conflicting theories as to the cause of these diseases, resulting in very varied curative strategies. One tactic was common however: good nutrition and plenty of bed rest. The Mater’s very first patient (alas unnamed), admitted on September 26, 1861, spent as many as 584 days in the hospital before he died.

The Mater had a continuing connection with the newly founded Catholic University (now UCD) School of Medicine, and many of the hospital’s medical staff were also on the staff of the school. Some of these, such as Thomas Hayden, Christopher Nixon and Francis Cruise, were associated with the hospital for 30 years or more.

Ultimate control

By 1961 there were as many as nine UCD professors on the staff. But, as Sister Eugene describes, all power rested with her order. The sisters “had ultimate control over the services provided, the staff appointed, the buildings erected, even the patients admitted”. The model whereby doctors were hugely respected, but had no role in the running of the hospital was established.

As the premier northside hospital the outpatient department acted as a general practitioner service for north Dublin. This was normal. According to the Hospitals Commission, a staggering 452,000 OPD attendances were recorded across 14 Dublin hospitals in 1933, a figure not far from the entire population of Dublin and suburbs. The Mater saw 101,000.

Public drama saw patients coming in during the 1913 Lockout with injuries from police batons, and with different injuries in 1916 after the Rising. During the First World War the military authorities filled the wards with war wounded—everything from the little understood ‘shell shock’ to trench foot, and of course actual bullet and shell wounds.

During the War of Independence the hospital was regularly searched by Black and Tans who rightly suspected that wanted men, not least the redoubtable Dan Breen, were being treated there by sympathetic staff. During the rest of the 20th Century there was the North Strand bombing in 1941 (39 killed), the Dublin bombings of 1974 and the horrors of the Stardust fire in 1981.


A different kind of threat to the hospital came in the 1930s. Each Dublin hospital had its own tradition of independence, and it was not only the Sisters who resisted attempts by the Sweepstakes-financed Hospitals Commission to impose system-wide planning.

Thus began the ongoing struggle between the State paymasters (frequently derided as ‘faceless civil servants’) and the people who had created these powerful institutions.

By those who love the Mater, this richly illustrated book will be enthusiastically received.

I personally would have preferred a less partisan approach (exemplified by the boosterish title) of how this important institution developed.


Tony Farmar is the author of Patients, Potions and Physicians: A Social History of Irish Medicine.