Book review - Health & Living - Caring for a troubled nation

Socially and politically, Dublin in the 1860s was a wretched place. It was a city of poverty, disease and death. Stifled by economic stagnation and political dependence on its imperial master, about half the population of the ‘second city of the empire’ lived in poverty, the type of abject economic and social squalor that can only be imagined as we obsess over the relatively minor deprivations of the current recession.

In the second half of the 19th century, epidemics of cholera, smallpox and typhoid were frequent in Ireland. The hospitals that had developed in Dublin up to then were far removed from the high-tech healthcare centres of today. They were places where the poor went to die, and frequently they didn’t want them, particularly if they had infectious diseases.

The wealthier stayed away from hospitals, choosing instead to be treated at home by their personal physicians.

Sr Eugene Nolan’s history of the Mater Misericordiae Hospital provides this sobering 19th century vignette: “… (Dublin) suffered from poor sanitation and regular outbreaks of disease. It had no formal water supply and sewage made it way among the streets to the River Liffey, which often had corpses floating in it, because access to cemeteries was too expensive.”

It was against this background that the original vision of Catherine McAuley was realised and the Mater opened its doors 152 years ago. The facilities, although primitive by today’s standards, were first regarded by some as being too luxurious for the poor – for example the use of hair, instead of the traditional straw mattresses.

Sr Eugene’s lavishly-illustrated history outlines how the Mater developed in tandem with the often troubled history of the Irish State and the rapid expansion in medical knowledge, technology and education over the past century and a half.

The book looks at how the Mater dealt with World War One, the struggle for independence, the ‘troubles’, and the Stardust fire. It also outlines how the Mater pioneered treatment in areas such as heart surgery and examines the history of nursing and nurse education at the hospital.

One theme throughout the book is the tension between the Mater’s desire to maintain its independence and ethos as a voluntary institution in the face of increasing State funding and regulation.

Caring for the Nation is a fascinating read for anyone interested in Irish medical and nursing history.

- Niall Hunter

Book review - Health & Living - Caring for a troubled nation

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