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Onerous Working Conditions in the Health Service 100 Years Ago

Onerous Working Conditions in the Health Service .... 100 Years Ago
Liam Kenny
No news story dominates our modern media more than the health services. Hardly a week goes by without stories of trolleys, waiting lists, unease in the nursing and medical ranks, and ministers grappling to find solutions to a never ending array of crises. And it was no different a hundred years ago when a correspondent to the Leinster Leader in February 1907 wrote about the onerous working conditions in the nursing profession. Under the heading ‘ Nursing in Athy Union’ the correspondent wrote ‘ At the time a few years ago of the sad and tragic death of that poor, dazed and wearied night nurse, a well-known hospital surgeon wrote a very impressive article on the subject which he called “white slavery” in which he said: - “ After a day of irregular meals and fitful sleep, she comes on night duty about 9pm to remain up and keep awake through her wards during the long cold winter nights, watching the sick, attending to the serious cases, listening to the mutterings and ravings of the of the delirious ones and then tired, nervous, unstrung she is retired about 9am to go through the same weary fitful day as before.’ The writer, surgeon Charles Ronayne, went on to say that unless there was a more humane rota brought in for nurses then the Board of Guardians who ran the workhouse hospitals (such as Athy, Naas and Celbridge) would not be able to keep staff.
Medical matters of a different kind were highlighted in a publicity notice in same issue. If the headline to the item was unremarkable ‘A Modern Family Medicine’ then the sub-head ‘Bile Beans Are Unequalled’ was bound to stimulate curiosity if not the digestive jucies.   The 1907 spin doctor made the following rhyming pitch to Leader readers ‘ We are suffering much to-day from old fashioned ills but much more from old fashioned pills.’ Leaving little to the imagination the item went on to say that old-time remedies for the stomach and liver were almost invariably based on mercury, a destructive mineral which corroded the strongest constitution if it was used persistently. However if the old fashioned cure was worse than the disease then help was at hand in the shape of ‘Bile Beans for Bilousness’ which exerted a ‘ tonic influence on the secretory glands of the stomach, liver and intestines.’
Fifty years later in the Leader of 2 February 1957 there was a curious omen of another modern media concern – the cosmopolitan nature of Irish life, immigration and multi culturalism. Europe had been convulsed the previous year with the crushing of the Hungarian uprising. Catholic Ireland extended a willing welcome to refugees from what was perceived as communist oppression. One of the refugees, Josef Zsitvai, found solace in Monasterevin where he was employed by Mr. Holmes of the engineering company in the town. Mr. Zsitvai was even feted by the ladies of Monastervin ICA who organised a party for him. Although speaking only German he told the Leinster Leader correspondent through an interpreter that ‘The Irish people were very good and kind and he would like very much to remain in his present work’. Little did he or the readers of 1957 envisage that 50 years later the presence of Hungarians, Slovaks, Poles, Lithuanians and a multitude of other nationalities would become part and parcel of the fabric of modern Kildare.
Compiled by Liam Kenny from the rich resources of the Leinster Leader files, Local Studies Dept., Kildare County Library & Arts Service, Newbridge.
First published in Leinster Leader, 1 February 2007

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