The Unsinkable Bridget Hedderman
|Photo with thanks to Michael O’Connell of Querrin.
The appointment of a permanent District Nurse in 1903, to serve the people of Inis Oirr and Inis Meáin, would see a very determined and formidable Clarewoman, Bridget Hedderman, become part of Aran Islands history.
Ireland had many heroic nurses from those harsh times and we did a piece recently on Lady Rachel Dudley who was very involved in placing nurses in the more deprived parts of the country. Nursing in those times was being established as a profession and the organising pioneers had to contend with much opposition.
This came from politicians who wanted to avoid cost on their rate paying voters, with a system of using untrained pauper workhouse women, as nurses. Opposition also came from some in the upper echelons of the medical profession, who felt threatened regarding demarcation and fees and clergy who feared nursing would be used to proselytise and felt it should be left to religious sisters.
Statues have been raised and monuments built to commemorate the seafaring exploits of various adventurers but the hair-raising boat journeys of Nurse Hedderman and others like her, in the course of their duties, are surely far superior to ego driven crossings.
Of course it’s quite possible that Bridget knew Synge from her interest in the Gaelic revival when she worked in Dublin. It’s likely that she published her book as a reality-based account of life on the islands and as an antidote to Synge’s more romanticised version.
In total, Synge had only spent about five months, a month or so at a time, on the two smaller islands and during the better part of the year. He spent most of his last visit of 25 days on Inis Oirr in October 1902, staying with the same man that Bridget did when first arriving, Michael Costello.
Bridget’ sister Mary Anne, had spent some years nursing in the United States with their sister Margaret, and had brought home very modern ideas of what the neglected areas of Ireland were most in need of.
Apart from the risk of being drowned or dying of fever, Bridget also came close to dying on Inis Meáin when attacked by the island bull. By throwing off her nurse’s cape as she ran for her life, she succeeded in distracting the charging animal.
Bridget Hedderman is worthy of a much more detailed study than we can manage and her times on Arran would make a great film.
We are grateful to Bridget’s grand nephew Michael O’Connell of Querrin, for some background on Bridget. Michael lives in the house where Bridget was born and died and is a well known local historian and broadcaster with great pride in his area and his people.
We would also like to thank Paddy Waldron of Killaloe for some genealogical background on Bridget’s people.
You didn’t have to be tough to become a District Nurse but to survive, if you weren’t, you needed to toughen up quickly. Bridget faced terrible obstacles and came very close to being drowned on a number of occasions. Her background in Clare was the ideal preparation for the hazards she overcame.
Bridget was born in 1873 at Querrin on the Shannon estuary, not far from Kilrush. The Loop Peninsula is almost an island at high tide and in her youth, boats were a part of everyday life.
A fluent Irish speaker of the Clare dialect, in what was then a Gaeltacht district, Bridget was the daughter of a Shannon boatman, Manus Hedderman. Indeed her mother’s people the Nashes were also at home on the water. Some say that the Heddermans were once the boatmen of Saint Senan (488-544) of Scattery Island
When Bridget was just six years old, her father was drowned at Arthur’s quay in Limerick while delivering a boat load of turf. Her baby sister Kate, Michael’s grandmother, was only a few months old at the time. Bridget and her sisters Mary Anne and Margaret, would go on to become nurses, and at the age of 30, Bridget found herself on board the old steamer S.S. Duras on her way from Galway to Inis Oirr.
Her observations on what she found on the two smaller islands is a valuable insight into the social history and, in particular, the nursing element of those times. As well as being a first class nurse, Bridget had a gift for writing and her accounts, both sad and humorous, makes for great reading.
She was shocked at just how little medical care the two smaller islands were getting. She was shocked too at how little was known about the germ theory of disease, and much of her first years involved battling superstitions and dangerous practises.
She also had to contend with her methods being suspect and the active scorning of her skills by what she describes as ‘Gamps’ whom she blamed for causing the deaths of so many by their mixture of superstition, unhygienic ‘cures’ and resistance to vaccinations.
The belief in fairies was more common, she reported, in the better off than the poor and she found the men more receptive to new ideas.
One of her greatest obstacles to progress was a fatalistic belief in ‘toil Dé’ or ‘the will of God’.
It’s hard to credit that the belief in children being taken by the fairies was still prevalent. Bridget instances a case during the terrible whooping cough epidemic of 1908:
A golden headed little girl was so ill that her mother refused all help saying she had been switched by the Síogí. Despite the scorn of a ‘Gamp’, Bridget convinced the child’s father to let her treat the illness. After the little girl recovered, it was many weeks before the mother accepted that the child was her own.
This is an interesting story as it goes against the oft quoted belief that little boys were made to wear dresses as the ‘little people’ ONLY stole boys. The main reasons for putting little boys in dresses were probably of a practical nature.
Eventually Bridget seems to have been accepted and she spent about two decades between the two smaller islands, living on both at different times.
She appears to have been familiar with Connemara and is believed to have visited Pearse in Ros Muc. She ended her career on another Island, Achill. Here she appears to have taken on a teaching and instruction role rather than nursing.
The introduction of a trained nurse/midwife in remote areas of Ireland in those years resulted in a staggering decline in infant and maternal deaths. The Lady Dudley nurses and the Queen's Jubilee scheme were part of this advance but Bridget was employed by the Board of Guardians in Galway who had a reluctant responsibility for the three islands. Part of the funding for district nurses in the West was provided to the Guardians by the Congested Districts Board.
There was a reluctance by many clergy to having a non-Catholic nurse but one priest in Achill in 1900, who feared losing the resident Catholic nurse, Mary Lee, declared that he didn’t care what religion the next nurse was, noting that in the year before the arrival of the present nurse, there were twenty four maternal deaths and hardly any in the year after.
During her years on the islands, Bridget worked with two different permanent doctors who were based on the big island. For the first three years or so it was Dr Harmon Kinsella who eventually left after some penny pinching attempts by some Guardians over paying a replacement when he was very ill. This was an effort to save some expense on their rate paying electorate.
Dr Kinsella had succeeded Dr Thomas Kean who had contracted typhoid fever while visiting his patients and, after being abandoned by the Board of Guardians, died on Árainn in 1901. He was only about fifty years old and left a wife, Delia Ruane, and seven children from the age of nine down to a few months.
|Doctor Harmon Kinsella and his wife, Delia Sheehan.
Photo with thanks to their grandson Ian Kelly in Dalkey.
Dubliner, Harmon Kinsella, was stationed in Cill Rónáin in 1902 when he married Delia Sheehan from Limerick. After leaving Aran he went to the industrial town of Nelson in Lancashire but died in 1911, leaving Delia with an infant daughter, Maureen.
Dr Kinsella and Bridget had to contend with an outbreak of smallpox in 1904 which almost killed the famous Mayo born Parish Priest Murty Farragher. Mumps, measles, whooping cough, consumption, typhus and scarlet fever were among the other main medical problems.
The second doctor was a Clareman, Michael O’Brien, from Milltown Malbay who was acting as locum, when elected Medical Officer in February 1907, staying until he retired in the early 1920s. There were a number of locums during those years too and some permanent Medical Officers who were appointed but on second thoughts, declined to serve. You can read some background on this family in a great article from 2013 by Dr Michael's great granddaughter, Mary Jane O'Brien, here.
Bridget would have been well aware of the tragedy of 1832 when a currach from the big island was overturned at Inis Meáin shore as it was returning with the priest, Michael Gibbons, and a midwife, Rose O’Malley Gillan. On that occasion, Nurse Gillan and one of the currach crew were drowned. Rose was a relation of another famous nurse, Bríd Gillan Dirrane, who, with the help of her good friends Rose O’Connor and the late Jack Mahon, published her bestseller life story in 1998 at the age of 103.
On one occasion a boat left Inis Oirr for the middle island. After a fog descended, the wind shifted and in the dark they lost their bearings. Bridget believed she could see the lighthouse on the southern end of the island they had just left. Her views were dismissed and she wasn’t listened to. Eventually the boat struck a rock and they managed to struggle ashore... on Inis Oirr.
On a number of occasions, she ended up to her neck in water but still battled on and attended to her duty, getting great pleasure from the thanks of the new mother or sick patient. On one occasion she cracked her head on a seat as she toppled backwards while trying to get ashore, but the injury didn’t see her deterred, not one bit.
There was great excitement when a gramophone and some records arrived on the shore at Inis Meáin in 1913. They had been donated by a great pioneer of midwifery in Britain, Englishwoman Jane Wilson, who had co-founded the Midwives Institute in 1890.
With the help of a visiting Oxford student they had assembled it and it wasn’t long before the local men were doing a stick dance to a horn pipe on her kitchen floor in Moor village. She also found that the music was very helpful in reducing depression among a few of her patients.
Bridget figured that she had never met people anywhere who enjoyed music more than the people of Inis Meáin. High praise indeed from a woman who hailed from a county famed for its love of music.
After all the music and dancing and all the traveling between islands, the gramophone finally became worn out in 1921 and an English newspaper article appeared which we are sure resulted in it being replaced.
Mental health issues and alcohol abuse were also a problem and she had difficulty explaining to a man that his excessive drinking was contributing to his ill health. In an effort to impress him, she had resorted to telling him of the ancient Athenian statesman, legislator and poet Solon, who never touched alcohol. It seems he wasn’t impressed by the clean living life of the great man.
His answer in Irish was that… "if Solon and all the preachers had lived long in Aran...they’d want a pint!"
A conversation stopper for sure.
We have mentioned a few incidents from her book but for those who might like to find out more, here is a link to a free Internet Archive copy. Glimpses of my Life on Aran
As we mentioned before, Bridget had as her doctor Michael O’Brien (1848-1923) in Cill Rónáin. In later years, Michael’s daughter Susan wrote a number of newspaper articles which mentioned Bridget. Her father believed that Nurse Hedderman knew as much about medicine as any doctor. He was equally impressed with her courage and stamina in what was an extremely difficult job.
NB Clareman Michael O’Brien is not to be confused with the Cill Rónáin man who succeeded him, Dr James O’Brien (1883-1970), who some of our readers will remember. Indeed he probably delivered quite a few of you or your relations.
Bridget appears to have had a fairly good relationship with both her doctor and her parish priest. Vital in those difficult days. She did, however, cross swords with the relieving officer in Cill Rónáin who appears to have had an exaggerated desire to protect the public purse.
It would appear that he was anxious to be rid of her and on one occasion in 1909 he reported to a meeting of the Board of Guardians in Galway that Bridget had taken ‘French Leave’ and deserted her patients.
In the next edition of the paper, Bridget responded forcefully that she had been given permission of leave by the medical officer, Dr O’Brien. She got a nice dig in also by pointing out that she was not answerable to the relieving officer but rather to her employers, the Board of Guardians and the medical officer, Michael O’Brien. We doubt if he ever bothered her again.
A few years after Bridget’s death in 1943, Susan O’Brien Reilly wrote a newspaper article and described Bridget as follows.
The next island to us, Inishmaan, lay two or three miles away across the Cois. Here the district nurse lived. My father often said she was better than any doctor. On his journeys across those stormy seas, on his landings on islands without piers or breakwater, she was there before him - her short stout figure, her smiling face, crowned by her luxuriant red hair.
Looking back on my visits to her, of necessity during the summer months when I was at home on holidays, I think she must have been the most remarkable woman I ever met.
Susan was a boarder in the Dominican Convent on Taylor’s Hill and later a high-achieving student in U.C.G. She often accompanied her father on his trips to the smaller islands. She remembered the tears of young mothers as they handed over their babies for her to hold, as they were being inoculated against the dreaded smallpox which killed so many. Susan referred to the whole procedure as ‘gearradh na bolgach’. The mothers tears for their young causing more distress to the babies than the doctor’s needle.
|From an article by Susan O’Brien Reilly.
In later life, Susan recalled with great joy those trips by currach with her father, from Cill Rónáin to the other islands. She remembered fondly trailing her hand in the water on fine days and the friendliness of the crew; Cole Anthony, his son Anthony Cole Anthony and two other oarsmen.
Going back to what Susan wrote about Bridget, she went on…
There was nothing she couldn’t turn her hand to. She was not a native Islander but I never heard her speak English.
Her power over the islanders was a miracle to watch. A few smiling words from her in her quiet Clare voice calmed their fears and raised hopes for the recovery of their sick ones.
She rowed a currach with the best of them, showed them where to catch the seals from which she dried and cured the skins for her home made furs. Up in the crags she knew where the best berries grew for her homemade wine, for she was very domesticated and her cozy house in Inismaan was a haven of comfort.
The island men made her bookshelves and used to listen while she translated into Irish, the books she had. She wrote poetry too. She used to tell me that Dún Conor was her ideal place for composing.
“Do you ever get lonely?” I asked her once… “lonely for your home in Clare and your people?” “I have no time to be lonely” she replied.
Looking back on those days and thinking of the lives led by women on these islands, I think the wives of Lightkeepers are the most isolated. I remember one of these, a rosy cheeked woman who sat with her dying husband all night on Rock island, waiting for the doctor to come.
Bridget, in her letters to the papers, emphasised the importance of hygiene education. She also pointed out forcefully that preaching from on high would be counterproductive and placed a huge emphasis on getting to know the people on a neighbourly basis.
|Mary would have known Bridget, who probably acted as midwife for her .
Photo shows Mary holding her grandchild, sometime in the 1950s
As part of her efforts, she on occasion wrote pieces for the Connacht Tribune, giving practical advice on how to combat disease and how to do basic first aid. Her column was known as: ‘HEALTH NOTES’.
Bridget was a strong believer in education, women’s rights, Irish self determination and the language revival. She also went out of her way to secure positions for young island women as nannies who could help mainland families with teaching Irish to their children. She also organised children to come to the islands to learn Irish.
Bridget would have been seen by some as a dangerous radical with strong views on social justice. These views manifested themselves when she declared publicly that by far the best cure for the raging TB epidemic was to demolish all the slums and hovels in Ireland and build decent housing.
In June 1922, Bridget wrote detailing how she had been stopped eighteen times as she travelled by bus from Galway to Blackrock in Dublin. This was during the early days of the terrible civil war and she was in Dublin to take a little girl to the islands to learn Irish. They returned to Galway by train.
In June 1904 a group of antiquarians who were cruising from Belfast to Kingstown visited all three islands aboard the twin screw SS Magic. They met Bridget on Inis Meáin and next day on Inis Oirr, were handed a poem by their guide, written by Bridget, about the island and its ruined church.
Bridget was a friend and supporter to a huge number of the Irish language and cultural revival movement, as well as the revolutionary leader Pádraic Pearse.
|Bridget sometimes contributed to his radical newspaper
Among those whom she befriended was the tragic Eibhlín Nic Niocaill (Eileen Nicholls). Eibhlín was a regular visitor to the islands having first visited in 1903 at the age of eighteen.
As they regained their strength in the driving rain Eibhlín uttered the fateful words to Bridget…
“We’ll never be drowned as we have escaped this night”.
Eibhlín was wrong, of course, as just a few years later at the age of twenty four, she and seventeen year old Dónal Ó Criomhtháin would be drowned on the Blaskets as they tried to rescue Dónal’s sister Cáit, who survived.
Dónal and Cáit were the children of the famous writer Thomás Ó Crohan of ‘The Islander’ fame. Dónal had been working in a field near the shore and had raced to help, not stopping even to remove his hob nailed boots.
Eibhlín was in later years, and without much evidence, posthumously linked romantically by some with PH Pearse. The popular and academically brilliant Eibhlín was both friendly with and greatly admired by Pearse but her mother would later write, after Pádraic’s execution, of the great friendship that existed between her two sons and Pearse, not mentioning Eibhlín.
Bridget was a strong-willed woman and well able to stand up for herself. On one occasion she had billed the Board of Guardians for £4 and 3 shillings for extra work she had done in 1911. They grudgingly awarded her £3 but she refused to accept it and eventually got paid in full. In 1919 when she billed them for £10 for work during the flu outbreak, they paid her immediately.
In 1913, a motion was put before the Guardians to increase Bridget’s salary from £35 to £40 a year. Although many members spoke in her favour, the vote was only carried by 7 to 3 with some members warning that if she left, she could never be adequately replaced.
In September 1910, Peter O’Malley from Lettermore had his small turf boat wrecked on the South Island when it dragged anchor in a storm. Only for the bravery of some islanders who went to his aid, he would have been lost himself.
The extensive and dramatic report in the newspapers has the hallmark of Bridget as it described in detail his tears of distress at the loss of his little boat, on which his seven children depended.
Sure enough, a few days later, the newspapers reported that Bridget was organising a fund to help Peter replace his boat, the previous heart-breaking account of his loss helping to solicit donations.
On the 14th of March 1943, Bridget died in the house she had been born in at Querrin. She was 70 years old and had been nursed in her final illness by her sister Nurse Mary Anne Hedderman.
|In her poem, Bridget hoped that all the Saints of Aran
would speak up for her when she faced her final judgement.
Bridget was the first of many wonderful nurses who served with great distinction on the islands down through the decades. A woman of great substance whose efforts on behalf of the people of the two smaller islands, deserves to be remembered.
Reading about the life of Bridget Hedderman brings to mind the many dedicated nurses we have all known in our lives. In particular, the many family members who nursed over the years like our sister, Renee.
We would like to dedicate this article to our late sister, Mary Muldoon Gamble, who always fought fearlessly on behalf of her patients while practicing as a midwife in Ireland and New Zealand. A wonderful daughter, sister, wife, mother and grandmother.
Also our aunt, Una Muldoon Hazel who was a Public Health nurse in England and Dublin long ago and was involved in the nursing union. Una dealt with many health executives and with more than one Minister for Health.
Una’s hallmark opening two words, as she responded to condescending waffle, were the cause of many in high office to regret not choosing their words more carefully. With perfect diction and in a strong and confident voice, she would start, "Excuse me..."
Una, Mary and Bridget had a lot in common. May they rest easy after a job well done.