Hospital Was On Front-Line Of 'Troubles'
(Part 2)

“There is a need for more clothing for women and children, - summer and winter dresses are the same. Children and the most delicate adults require shoes and stockings. The absence of buttermilk, and the frequent use of treacle are causing bowel complaints. And many inmates are getting `Lent broth,` made without meat.” An outbreak of cholera also caused alarm, with houses at Drumalane and Warrenpoint being rented to serve as Cholera Hospitals.

Some public-spirited citizens campaigned to ameliorate the conditions of the inmates, notably Mr John F. Small, who was elected as the first nationalist M.P. for South Down in 1885. A major fire destroyed the main building in 1901, the workhouse and hospital being rebuilt and re-opened in 1902. A less harsh system followed. Sick wards were commodious and well-ventilated, along with baths and day-rooms for visitors. A special “consumptive department” was provided. He also invited St John of God nuns to join the nursing staff.

Another personality, who ameliorated the condition of workhouse and hospital inmates was W.F. Cunningham, chairman of Newry Urban Council in 1938, who would inspect the premises on a regular basis. He would organise trips to the seaside for the children, collect food parcels from the business community, and also slip cigarettes to the unfortunate men.

However, conditions were still Dickensian, when Violet Durkan joined the hospital nursing staff in 1940. Having been trained in England, she had come back to Newry with two friends, Mary Lavery and May Cahill. They were persuaded to join the staff by the Master, Mr Greenan, one of whose sons became a priest and the other a doctor.

Violet’s father had been a member of the R.I.C., based in the frontier town, while her mother was from Limerick. When the police force was disbanded, Mr Durkan refused to take the Oath of Allegiance, required for joining the R.U.C. Instead, he started a dairy business in Newry.

Back in 1940, Daisyhill Hospital was in a ramshackle state, with only five nurses caring for over 100 patients. There were Catholic and Protestant wards, and medical services were minimal. Nurses often had to carry out X-rays, etc. Indeed, Violet was the first nurse to inject penicillin, as well as `Strep`, the wonder-drug which combated T.B. And, along with two consultants, she established the Coronary Care Unit at the hospital.

During her 40 years at Daisyhill, Sister Durkan’s happiest memories are of organising the Annual Nurses’ Dinner Dance, which drew huge crowds to Newry Town Hall and later to Ballymascanlon Hotel. Since she retired after 40 years service, this popular personality has been involved in assisting the elderly, the handicapped and disadvantaged.

As a founder and key-worker with the Community Services Council, along with Grace McGaffin and a dedicated team, they have supplied 60 meals per day to the house-bound, and organised holidays for hundreds of disadvantaged children. Also the McGrath Centre has been a valuable focus of activities, which seem doomed to cease unless Newry and Mourne district council has an early change of heart.

Sister Durkan was also a founder of Carers in the Community, who have provided back-up for those who look after the sick, elderly or handicapped relatives. Meanwhile, the Stroke Club has brought together people with heart condition, or suffered a stroke. Outings and socials have been organised to demonstrate that their predicament was not unique.

President of the Old Newry Society, Violet helped to organise the ambitious Newry 850 Historical Exhibition, which was a major portrayal of the frontier town’s ancient and medieval past. Also vice-chairman of the Newry Drama Festival, she first got involved when invited to help with props, and joined the committee.

One-time chairperson of Newry branch, Irish Catholic Nurses Guild, she had great praise for hospital chaplain, the late Fr Henry Devlin, who was also National chaplain. His commitment to the welfare of the nurses, as well as his effort for peace and reconciliation were recalled.

But if Sister Violet Durkan was critical of Newry and Mourne council’s attitude to the McGrath Centre (named after a former S.D. L.P. councillor), she has great praise for the initiative and drive of Newry Urban Council in the early 60’s, under its dynamic chairman, the late Tommy Markey.

Describing Daisyhill Hospital as `a glorified workhouse,’ the ebullient council chairman led numerous high-powered delegations to Stormont, badgering ministers and officials to “give Newry the hospital it deserves.” Ironically, that campaign finally bore fruit 35 years ago, after Newry Urban Council had been abolished, and Newry and Mourne district council established.

When the first patients entered the ultra-modern Medical Block in 1973, the Chief Administrative Officer, John Berry stated: “Those unfortunate to be ill will receive care from the medical and nursing staff in the most modern wards in the country. They are equipped with the best that medical science can offer. The designers have ensured that patients will have the ultimate in care, comfort and attention.”

Indeed, generations of patients owe a huge debt of gratitude to dedicated teams of consultants, surgeons, doctors, nurses and ancillary staff. They have ensured that the former `glorified workhouse` has provided a service of excellence, in war and peace!

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008