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Jubilee Nurse – the forgotten heroine of Ireland’s public health service

For bygone generations of Irish people the face of the health service was the Jubilee Nurse who visited households in rural and urban areas bringing her skills, care and compassion to families where illness, poverty, age or infancy were crippling burdens. Long before there was an organised public health service -- and certainly long before the era of corporate glass-and-steel health centres -- the Jubilee Nurse was a reassuring sight as she pedalled her bicycle, her blue uniform cape flapping in the wind, on her itinerary of house calls. She and her colleagues are the forgotten heroines of Ireland's public health history who managed to deliver home nursing to stricken households in the face of the deadly epidemics of tuberculosis (TB), typhus, typhoid, diphtheria and polio which swept the country.
Their story has now been given richly deserved recognition in a new book entitled “Jubilee Nurse – voluntary district nursing in Ireland, 1890-1974” by Elizabeth Prendergast and Helen Sheridan, two authors whose informed enthusiasm is only surpassed by their engaging writing style which takes the reader right into the lives of the Jubilee Nurses and into the homes of their patients. In a master-class of social history writing the authors weave recollections from interviews carried out with retired Jubilee Nurses together with solid historical research in archives and files meticulously cited and referenced throughout the publication.
But before going further, a word of explanation on the charming name “Jubilee Nurse”. Its origins are to be found in the celebrations surrounding the golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1887. As a practical commemoration of the Jubilee a community nursing organisation known as “The Queen Victoria Jubilee Institute for Nurses” was established by private subscription. The title was invariably abbreviated to “Jubilee Nurse” in popular conversation
A key principle of the Jubilee Nurses scheme was the local committee – officially known as the District Health Association -- which provided the community support for the nurse. There was no little or no government funding and the voluntary committees – generally drawn from prominent ladies in the locality – had to exercise considerable ingenuity in organising fund-raising events such as garden fetes, town hall dances, and parish hall bazaars to maintain the two essentials for each Jubilee Nurse to carry out her duties which were a comfortable cottage to rest after a demanding day of treating the house-bound infirm and a bicycle for navigating the rutted country lanes and unpaved town alleys on her calls to homes urban and rural.
It may come as a surprise to learn of the vitality and longevity of the Jubilee Nurse movement in Co. Kildare. The book “Jubilee Nurses” devotes a particular case study to the District Health Association in Naas, founded by Lady Geraldine Mayo of Palmerstown House near Kill, which maintained a Jubilee Nurse service from 1890 to 1965. The first Jubilee Nurse in Naas was Alice Walshe who came from Drogheda and who ministered in the county town until 1905. The longest serving Naas Jubilee Nurse was Nurse Celia Dillon who retired in 1963 after a remarkable 43 years service to the locality.
Back in the 1890s the nurse's salary was £30 per annum and a furnished house. Other expenses were the costs of the nurse’s laundry, an attendant to keep house for her, and a bicycle for transport. It was left to the doughty fundraisers of the District Nursing Association committee to fund the Jubilee Nurse service. A fixture for the Naas District Nursing Association was the annual fund-raising dance held in the Town Hall in February. The 1929 dance was particularly successful as indicated in a letter from the committee which was published in the Kildare Observer and which read: “Sir will you allow us through our columns to express our gratitude to all those who by gifts, loans and personal service enabled the committee ... to carry the dance to such a successful issue.”
The authors of “Jubilee Nurse” highlight the excellent online archive of the Kildare Observer newspaper – maintained by the Kildare County Library Local History Dept... as a significant source of material for understanding the work of the nurses and the District Nursing Associations in the period between 1890 and 1935.
As well as local newspapers the authors have tenaciously extracted detail from an impressive array of official sources – including the meticulous files of the pioneering Queen's Nursing Institute in London – to compile data on hundreds of Jubilee nurse schemes throughout the country.
Amongst the schemes listed are Athy where Nurse Theresa Brennan served from 1950-66, Carbury which had a Jubilee Nurse scheme during the worst of the TB years from 1930 to 1947, Celbridge & Straffan which had a nurse from 1910-22, Clane 1932-59, Kilcock where Mary Quigley was Jubilee nurse from 1935-60, Kill where Margaret Enright served from 1932-49, and Newbridge where Una Connolly was Jubilee Nurse from 1922-42.
 With such a goldmine of detail “Jubilee Nurse” will evoke memories in many localities of the stoic nurses who brought healing and respite to country cabins and town cottages alike.
The health service has moved on from the era of nurses pedalling their bicycles, their capes flapping in the wind. But “Jubilee Nurse” reminds us of those heroines of the nursing profession who for generations were the first line of defence in the well-being of the nation.
Book reviewed: “Jubilee Nurse – voluntary district nursing in Ireland, 1890-1974” by Elizabeth Prendergast and Helen Sheridan. Copies can be sourced in local bookshops or contact the publishers Wolfhound Press on 01 – 4853749. Series no: 305.

For bygone generations of Irish people the face of the health service was the Jubilee Nurse writes Liam Kenny in his Looking Back series no. 305

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