The Crimean journals of the Sisters of Mercy 1854–56

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2005), Reviews, Volume 13

The Crimean journals of the Sisters of Mercy 1854–56 1The Crimean journals of the Sisters of Mercy 1854–56
Maria Luddy (ed.)
(Four Courts Press, €55)
ISBN 1851827560
Nuns have been getting such bad publicity recently that we are inclined to forget how much they contributed to education and medicine in Ireland at a time when such services were not provided by government. We also tend to neglect their contribution to the same services on the missions in the British Empire and in the Americas. The Irish Sisters of Mercy, founded by Catherine McAuley in Baggot Street, Dublin, in 1831, was the largest of the Irish foundations and had spread outside the city to Tullamore, Charleville, Carlow, Cork, Limerick and Naas by 1839. The first convent outside Ireland was at Bermondsey, London, also in 1839. By 1842 the order was established in Newfoundland and the following year in Pittsburgh, USA. In 1845 there was a convent in Perth, Australia, the following year in Chicago and New York, and in 1849 in New Zealand. The nuns who set up new convents in Ireland and abroad were all pioneering women, but the strangest ‘mission’ of any group was probably that of the nuns who went as nurses to the British army during the Crimean War.
The Crimean War was waged by Britain, France and Turkey against Russia and was fought mainly on the Crimean peninsula on the northern shore of the Black Sea, 300 miles across the sea from Constantinople and from the first hospitals of the war at Scutari and Koulali. About one third of the British army were Irish, and three quarters of those who perished in the war died from illness. The only nurses provided by the British army were ‘worn-out pensioners’ and there was not even linen to make bandages. Florence Nightingale, a wealthy Englishwoman, was asked by the British government to form a party of nurses at government expense. This party included five Sisters of Mercy under Mother Clare Moore from Bermondsey, and the entire group was under the control of Nightingale. The government then decided to organise a second band of nurses and it was in this group that fifteen Irish Sisters of Mercy under Mother Francis Bridgeman proceeded to the Crimea. Mother Bridgeman always considered that they were an independent group. These nuns were all volunteers and came from different convents. They were encouraged to keep diaries, two of which have survived and form the basis for Maria Luddy’s book, together with the account left by the group’s leader, Mother Francis Bridgeman (usually referred to as ‘Mrs Bridgeman’—reverend mothers were often given the title ‘Mrs’).
I am familiar with the first diary, of Sister M. Aloysius Doyle, because I quoted from it in my recent Hardship and high living: Irish women’s lives 1808–1923.  Perhaps I am prejudiced but I much preferred it to the second diary, of Sister M. Joseph Croke, sister of the famous archbishop. Sister Aloysius gives a simple account of the hardships of their lives and the dreadful conditions under which they had to work in the makeshift hospitals. She admired Mother Bridgeman and her ability to organise and to get things done. She refers briefly to the difficulty of dealing with Florence Nightingale and how badly she treated the nuns but does not dwell on the subject. She may not have been aware of all the intrigue.
The diary of Sister Joseph Croke is a more sophisticated account in style and content, and in some parts gives a lively account of where the nuns stayed. She gives more detail about the refusal of Mother Bridgeman to serve under Florence Nightingale and the latter’s continued rudeness, and more information about the overall administration of the hospitals and the disagreement between the doctors and Nightingale. Croke gives a wider view of the nuns’ work but I found the continual underlining of the text and her tendency to lapse into verse (or doggerel) annoying.
Almost half of the entire text is the account left by Revd Mother Bridgeman from Kinsale, the group’s leader. She states that it is ‘specially written for the information of superiors’ and that ‘it is needless to remark that the following pages are not all suited to be read, even in our communities. They would never have been written but under the conviction that our Superiors ought to know the facts they contain.’
There is no doubt that Mother Bridgeman was a formidable figure, much more so than Mother Clare, the Sister of Mercy from Bermondsey, London, who was in charge of five sisters who went to the Crimea under the direct control of Florence Nightingale. Mother Bridgeman contended that her brief to bring her nurses to the Crimea gave her independence and that she was not under the jurisdiction of the ‘Lady of the Lamp’. Much of her account is taken up with a detailed description of her dealings with Nightingale, criticism of the way the nuns were treated and of the administration of the hospitals. She also rebuts the accusation that the nuns attempted to ‘interfere with the faith of the Protestants’ or that they were wasteful of supplies. Much of this section of the book is taken up with the copious correspondence between Mother Bridgeman and Florence Nightingale, two able women!
An odd aspect of the Bridgeman account is that it is written in the third person, but it gives a ‘warts and all’ picture of Florence Nightingale. It also led me to wonder how both women found time to write such long letters and to make copies, presumably by hand. The book should be of great interest to anyone interested in the history of medicine and nursing, and indeed in social history. I don’t think there are many accounts available of women’s lives as nurses at that period or of nuns’ lives. It is sad to think that two of the nuns died of fever and are buried on the Crimean peninsula.
Nellie O’Cleirigh


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