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The feisty nun who took on Florence Nightingale

Tuesday, 28th October, 2014 7:30am
The feisty nun who took on Florence Nightingale

ONE hundred and sixty years ago this week, October 24 1854, when Mother Mary Francis Bridgeman and Sisters Lynch and Keane left St Joseph’s Convent in Kinsale, they probably had little idea where the Crimea was.

Only that they had volunteered to help nurse sick and injured soldiers in its disease-ridden hospitals. Barely a year passes without the publication of another biography praising Florence Nightingale – the Lady with the Lamp. Yet little or nothing is heard about Mary Bridgeman and her Sisters of Mercy.

Reports in The Times had highlighted appalling conditions in Crimean hospitals: ‘We are lying here like so many pigs – hundreds lying in the passages…’ wrote one soldier.

Bridgeman and fifteen nuns from convents in England and Ireland – including Kinsale, Dublin, Carlow, Charleville and Cork – answered the War Office’s appeal for more nurses.

The nuns left London early in December, with news of the Lady Superintendent’s accomplishments ringing in their ears.

After a hair-raising journey – they got stuck on a sandbank, and their cabin roof was torn off in a storm – they arrived at Constantinople, hoping for a warm welcome and plenty of work.

They got neither. There had been ‘a gross misunderstanding’. There was no work, or room, for them.

Bridgeman refused to return, so a compromise was reached: five Sisters would work in Scutari Hospital; ten would go to Therapia.

Nightingale had intended that Mother Clare Moore from Bermondsey convent should take charge of all the nuns at Scutari. But Bridgeman stood her ground – she had specifically been entrusted with responsibility for her Sisters. Miss Nightingale was unimpressed, and gave her a job ladling out soup.

Lady Superintendent and Mother Superior were at greatest loggerheads over nursing care. For Nightingale, nursing should be confined to treating battle wounds, whereas the nun’s experience tending cholera victims had shown that this ‘coarse nursing’ was inadequate. Patients needed to be cleaned, comforted, and sometimes given special diets.

There was also the delicate matter of spiritual needs. Nightingale insisted that the Sisters keep to nursing, chastising the ‘Reverend Brickbat and her group of female ecclesiastics’ for wandering over the whole hospital, ‘instructing convalescents on the corridors…’ The opening of a new hospital at Koulali gave Bridgeman a fresh start, and she immediately transferred across the Sisters in Therapia.

But Nightingale still made frequent visits, found fault with their work, and accused the Sisters of trying to convert Protestant patients.

‘I think they will have to go,’ she wrote to the War Office. They are ‘inefficient, somber, disliked – they are Irish.’

When she gave up Balaclava Hospital in October 1855, saying she had too many other hospitals to manage, the War Office gave Bridgeman the green light to take her Sisters on the long journey across the Black Sea.

Nightingale was furious: the nuns, she said, were not needed at Balaclava, and besides, they were extravagant with food.

But friends in England soon helped her regain control of Balaclava Hospital. It was a crushing blow for Mary Bridgeman.

When she protested, she was rebuked: ‘You came out to work under me… How then can you object to do it now?’

‘Experience, Miss Nightingale...’

She had little choice but to bring the Sisters home.

Florence Nightingale was shocked: ‘You will regret your decision for the rest of your life... God forgive you.’

But many did not blame her. ‘The good nuns have been badly treated by Miss Nightingale…’ commented the Cork Examiner.

Soldiers begged the departing nuns for souvenirs. One said he would rather have a book with ‘a bit of writing from a Sister’ in it than his Crimean medal.

Before the nuns sailed, Nightingale boarded their ship for one final rebuke.

She listed the sick men they were turning their back on, complained that the hospital was filthy, and that Irish soldiers were drinking in the kitchen.

As they left Balaclava in April 1856 Bridgeman rejoiced: ‘The snare is broken’.

The Irish countryside was ablaze with bonfires to celebrate the return of the ‘Russian nuns’.

After the war, Nightingale published Nursing Notes, a book that emphasised the importance of ‘careful nursing’ – the kind that Mary Bridgeman had introduced, and which Florence Nightingale had tried so hard to discredit. Interesting that.