“To give to the poor what the rich can buy with money” – Mary Aikenhead

It makes me sick to hear self-appointed Scribes and Pharisees rubbishing the life’s work of hundreds of hard-working Irishwomen, without whom a large chapter of Irish women’s history is unwritten. Our public health service is in large part their legacy. Mary Aikenhead, founder of the Religious Sisters was, as we know, born in Cork in 1787 , the daughter of a Scottish doctor, and had as her mission “To give to the poor what the rich can buy with money”.

Victoria White, The Examiner, 4 May 2017

Mary Aikenhead 1787 – 1858, Founder of the Sisters of Charity

As a Church we must never abdicate our responsibilities towards acknowledging and rectifying past wrongs, both intentional and inadvertent. There is much in the history of the Irish and Universal Church for which we look back and cringe with a strong mixture of embarrassment, regret and sorrow, coupled with the need, and the desire, for genuine repentance.

There is still much we must learn and much, systemically, that we must strive to change in the hope of creating a more inclusive and truly respectful Church for all. And our hope lies in returning to the humility and mercy exemplified by our founder, the carpenter of Nazareth.

It would be dishonest not to acknowledge how disheartened we have become in recent decades as scandal after scandal has rocked religious congregations and dioceses, often making us apologetic and fearful to raise our voices above a whisper.

Some of the criticism has been harsh, exploding like shards of glass that tear asunder our sense of purpose and causing some to descend into a deep well of depression, even hopelessness.  

Yes, some did unconscionable deeds and terrible deeds were done in an attempt to both mitigate and hide them. And leadership was, at times, poor and scandalous, adding insult to injury, deepening the crisis and opening a chasm of distrust that seems unbridgeable.

Yet, we know, as do others, that this is not the only story. We know that much good was done throughout history, at home and abroad, and continues to be done today, by religious women and men, who dedicated themselves to the education, health and wellbeing of fellow citizens in Ireland and across the globe. This has been acknowledged by the current President of Ireland and his two most recent predecessors. And their acknowledgement is appreciated and certainly helps to lift our spirits. But far less so by the media, and media outlets, where targeting the Church, and presenting it as the paradigm of all that is evil in society, seems fair game and is seldom questioned.

Even-handed and fair acknowledgement is rare it seems. But when it happens, it certainly lifts ones spirits and offers hope. Hope that, perhaps, Ireland’s rapid transition will eventually find a balance in which we can all engage in respectful and open dialogue, from which we all can learn and grow as a society, instead of swimming in a tide of toxicity.   

A recent opinion piece, written by the Examiner’s Victoria White (4 May 2017), offered one such glimmer of light. Reacting to the deluge of negativity directed against the Sisters of Charity over the proposed relocation of the new National Maternity Hospital to St. Vincent’s Hospital Complex, Donnybrook, Dublin, Ms White offers a welcome reprieve which is broader in its perspective, as well as its focus.

We reproduce it, in its entirety, below.

Victoria White begins and ends her article with the words “Thank you.” And on this occasion we too wish to end this foreword with a genuine “Thank you” to Ms White and The Examiner

Gratitude is also extended to Breda O’Brien, the Irish Times columnist who has also addressed the same issue. We draw your attention to her article in the Irish Times (6 May 2017) which explores how the mob mentality encourages irrational and entirely unfair conclusions and outcomes. You may read it by clicking here.

Victoria White: modern habit of blaming nuns is completely counter to the facts

The Sisters of Charity in St Vincent’s Centre have done more for the women of Ireland than most will ever give them credit for.

 “Thank you.” Those are the words missing so far in the torrents which have flowed since Dr Peter Boylan stood up some weeks ago and said he disagreed with the deal the board of the National Maternity Hospital to locate their new hospital on land owned by the Religious Sisters of Charity at St Vincent’s Hospital because the sisters will retain ownership of the hospital.

It’s far from an ideal arrangement. But then it wasn’t ideal, either, that a few religious sisters should be the only ones willing to risk their necks enough to open hospitals in Dublin and Cork during the cholera epidemic of 1832. Or to work tirelessly among women convicts and their children in Parramarta, Australia. Or to open the first hospice for the dying in Harold’s Cross, Dublin, one of the first such institutions in these islands.

The reason the Religious Sisters of Charity own St Vincent’s University Hospital is that they were prepared to do what few others bothered to do. They were frequently radical and frequently heroic.

They still are. All the vile ageist, sexist poison which has gushed during the past two weeks has not obliterated the work of r Loreto Mary Ryan who until recently fed thousands of addicted Aids sufferers daily at Dublin’s Open Heart House.

It has not put a stop to the work of Sr Ann Purcell as she helps the dying come to terms with death at Dublin’s Blackrock Hospice.

It has not shut the doors of the Mary Aikenhead Day Centre neighbouring me in Donnybrook, Dublin, where Sr Marie Smyth and her colleagues help elderly people enjoy leisure activities including “Keep Fit” classes and nutritious food.

Most of all it has not stopped Sisters like Justina Nelson fearlessly raising awareness of human trafficking in Nigeria and helping to rehabilitate traumatised survivors of this vile trade.

It is not often that writing these articles has made me cry but writing this one has. I wonder how people can have the gall to malign these women. Particularly as those shouting loudest have often done nothing more in their lives for their fellow men and women than bring home a Trócaire box when they were in High Babies.

The lazy, ahistorical narrative is that “the Sisters of Charity have been at the centre of scandals such as the Magdalene laundries” and are now being “given ownership of our newest hospital”, in the words of a petition that I was invited to sign.

Really? Yes, the Sisters ran Magdalene laundries, one in Donnybrook, Dublin, the other in Peacock Lane, Cork. Magdalene asylums both here and in Britain were grim but the truth is they gave refuge to many defenceless women who would otherwise have lived still sadder lives of prostitution.

I am currently reading the memoirs of an ultra-Protestant great-uncle who writes of his mother following a poor, “fallen” woman down a lane in Ballybofey, Co Donegal, and begging her to come to an asylum in the late 19th century.

She didn’t and I don’t blame her. Everything about locating the evils of society in a fertile woman’s body is wrong. But transferring them to the hearts of nuns is as bad. Society kicked these “fallen” women out and closed the door. The nuns opened theirs. So they’re to blame now, are they?

It makes me sick to hear self-appointed Scribes and Pharisees rubbishing the life’s work of hundreds of hard-working Irishwomen, without whom a large chapter of Irish women’s history is unwritten. Our public health service is in large part their legacy. Mary Aikenhead, founder of the Religious Sisters was, as we know, born in Cork in 1787 , the daughter of a Scottish doctor, and had as her mission “To give to the poor what the rich can buy with money”.

We all know there are massive faults in our current service but still, when I was meant to be writing about St Vincent’s this time last week I found myself in St Vincent’s having surgery on a shattered wrist.

I am uninsured. But in the end, I believe I got the best care available for any money in this country or many others. We are a long way from the cholera hospitals of Ringsend.

But the work of the sisters in building towards a public health service should end now. They need to refocus on the many areas of Irish life which still lie in darkness and redouble their efforts against prostitution and trafficking in Malawi and Nigeria and elsewhere.

Their involvement in the delivery of private healthcare is mistaken. And personally speaking, the provision of a private wing within the new NMH makes me even sicker than worries as to how many abortions will be performed in the new NMH and under what circumstances.

I will never forget going into the NMH for a scan on what I thought was a second miscarriage. I was left waiting with gel on my abdomen while the consultant took a phonecall. “It was from a patient at the Blackrock Clinic”, he explained.

Well that’s all right then, isn’t it?

The miscarriage turned out to be lively twins and I “went private” for a private room where I was visited by a senior consultant. “At the new hospital, private rooms will be standard”, he announced. “What’s happening here is that a gap is being maintained between public and private because the government is in league with the health insurers.”

So why have a private wing in the new hospital, in which public patients will have their own rooms? To maintain the private practice and staggering incomes of the obstetricians practising privately?

Consultant-led care involves more unnecessary interventions and in my experience the private wing catered for the paying client — me — not the baby, down to discouraging me from breast-feeding twins because I would be “tired”.

How will woman-centred, baby-centred maternity care ever evolve in a system dominated by private obstetricians paid to control women?

To hear the shrieks in support of the “independence” of the NMH in recent weeks anyone would think it ran a woman-friendly service. In fact the NMH pioneered and exported all over the world “active management of labour” whereby women are given a maximum of 12 hours to spit out their babies and are injected with artificial hormones if they don’t. Versions of this brutal and dangerous practice are followed in maternity hospitals all over the country.

I wish the nuns were involved because then it would be a scandal. But they’re not and it’s not a scandal because it involves too many people like us.

There are hardly any nuns left, they’re old and they wear funny clothes. We can hate them without hating ourselves.

We can take their life’s work from them without once uttering the words, “Thank you.”

You may access The Examiner’s electronic version of the above article of Victoria White by clicking here.

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