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A BRIGID OF THE 20th CENTURY

 Leinster Leader January 29 2009
 
 
 
A Brigid of the 20th century – Rebel, Soldier and Doctor
by
LIAM KENNY
 
 
The history of a locality is ultimately made by its people. Very often historians document the life of somebody who was born and reared in the locality and who went on to play a prominent and distinguished role in the life of the community. But sometimes a character flits across the stage of local history, spends only a short time in the locality and yet leaves a mark which is worthy of record.  Such a character who spent a brief but significant time in Co. Kildare was Brigid Lyons, revolutionary activist and campaigning doctor. She had a career full of adventure becoming at a young age deeply committed to the nationalist movement and being involved in the thick of the 1916 action, all the time weaving in her studies for the medical profession, itself a career which seemed unachievable to women in the early decades of the 20th century.
Brigid Lyons’ story has been brought to print in a book titled ‘A Noontide blazing – Rebel, Soldier, Doctor’ by John Cowell, himself a member of the medical profession. By bringing her story to book he continues the process of highlighting the under appreciated involvement of women in the Irish independence struggle. As the author himself declares with lyrical flourish ‘ On that April day in 1916 when a patriotic bunch of men in cloth caps wheeled into Sackville Street, antique rifles on their shoulders and newly burnished purpose in their hearts, a group of equally patriotic , long-skirted, long haired women followed …’
Brigid was born in east Co. Roscommon but as a child went to live with an uncle and aunt in Longford, a garrison town indeed but her new family was marked by its adherence to nationalist politics. Her Uncle Frank was up to date with the emerging nationalist currents of the time – Arthur Griffith, Sinn Fein and the Abbey Theatre. Another uncle, Joe, was even more radical – he had just returned from the United States where he had worked with John Devoy and Joe McGarrity in keeping the militant republican thrust for Ireland alive.
Brigid completed her secondary school in Sligo where encouragement from a teacher, Mother Scholastica, inspired her to pursue her dream of medical studies. However this aspiration was to take second place as her involvement with the nationalist movement took over her life. She moved to Dublin in 1915 where her Uncle Joe was training and recruiting the Irish Volunteers and his wife, her Aunt Joe, was training their female counterparts the Cumann na mBan. Back to Galway she began her first year at medical studies. On a break to her Dublin relations in April 1916 she found herself ushered into the front line of the 1916 rising. Brigid spent the week as nurse and provider to the First Battalion of volunteers who had taken possession of the Four Courts and the adjacent streets. She worked with other Cumann na mBan volunteers as the battle raged with ferocity throughout Easter week. She volunteered for a particularly dangerous mission when she joined a colleague in making their way through the murderous cross fire to a position in a house at Church Street where they converted the place to a canteen and first-aid post for the Volunteers. She was to find herself at the centre of the battle of North King Street, one of the most vicious episodes in that Easter week of violence in Dublin city. 
The remainder of her participation with the Volunteers, her completion of her medical studies, and her re-engagement with the struggle through the 1919-21 period are well documented in Dr. John Cowell’s book including the excitement of her involvement with Collins in an attempt to rescue Sean McEoin from Mountjoy jail.   
Brigid Lyons connection with Kildare was to come in later years when she resumed her medical career. She had a particular interest in tackling the epidemic which was the scourge of Ireland for decades – tuberculosis. She had suffered herself from the disease so had an especial empathy with its victims. The Medical Officer for Co. Kildare in the late 1920s was Doctor Austin Harbison (father of the former state Pathologist – Dr. John Harbison). He was one of three Doctors selected by the new Free State Government to train with the Rockefeller Foundation in the US in regard to establishing a public health service. Brigid, now a qualified doctor, was appointed as his assistant in Kildare which had been designated as the pilot area for a tuberculosis treatment scheme. Despite her best professional efforts a certain amount of political and public indifference, and, in her view, a lack of commitment within medical circles meant that TB would remain a scourge for years to come. Nonetheless there were many who benefited from her care and attention during her year with the County Kildare medical board in 1928.
 
‘A Noontide Blazing – Brigid Lyons Thornton’ by John Cowell, published by Currach Press.  
 
 Series No. 104
 
 

In his regular Leader feature 'Nothing New Under the Sun', Liam Kenny recalls the life of Brigid Lyons, revolutionary, activist and campaigning doctor.


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