Mary Aikenhead and the cholera epidemic of 1832Print
When an epidemic of Asiatic cholera struck Ireland in the spring of 1832, Dublin’s densely populated slums and inadequate sanitary system were ill-prepared. No one understood how the disease was transmitted and there was no effective treatment.
The public authorities converted Granggorman penitentiary into a temporary fever hospital. However, the poor were wary of the doctors who they feared meant to kill them and the nurses were mostly illiterate servants who faced with an overwhelming situation took refuge in alcohol. Bishop Murray to help calm the terrified patients asked the Sisters of Charity to visit the temporary hospital daily. A Sister later recorded:
“The disease ran its deadly course with appalling rapidity. Sometimes the Sisters counted as many as eight different occupants of the same bed within twenty-four hours. Every morning a fresh list of the dead was posted at the gates. . . The mortality among nurses was particularly great. It often happened that every one of these poor creatures who had come in at night to attend the dying was carried out dead in the morning.”
The following year during another outbreak of cholera, Mary Aikenhead obtained donations and set up a small temporary hospital at Ringsend to care for cholera victims.
It was a long way from her vision of opening a large hospital where the sick poor could enjoy the benefits of the best medical and surgical skill, and where they could be tended back to health and strength by the Sisters of her Congregation. The ideal of such a hospital arose from the Sister’s mission but there were also practical considerations. Working in poor conditions during outbreaks of cholera and typhus, visiting the sick in all weathers left the Sisters vulnerable to succumbing to the same diseases or having their health permanently impaired. Mary Aikenhead also saw that ignorance frequently rendered her Sisters helpless in their ministry to the sick poor. It was necessary to harness science to its service. Mary believed this could be done only in a hospital.
From The Life and Work of Mary Aikenhead: Foundress of the Irish Sisters of Charity 1787-1858
Image shows a mass grave – a cholera pit -from the epidemic of 1832 (Wiki Commons)