St Ultan’s Children’s Hospital was established in 1919 to combat the ill-health of Dublin’s infant poor. Founded by the revolutionary Dr Kathleen Lynn and Madeleine ffrench-Mullen, the hospital’s nationalist and Christian ethos informed its efforts to curb soaring rates of tuberculosis, malnutrition, and infant mortality. Led by an almost entirely female staff, the hospital gained support from within republican networks as well as from across the Irish diaspora. St Ultan's offers a revealing insight into the intersection of politics, religious interests and healthcare in the early part of the twentieth century.
Dr Kathleen Lynn (1950) by St Ultan's HospitalRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
Kathleen Lynn was a Protestant doctor from Mayo. She initially became interested in the suffrage movement, through which she was exposed to the nationalist and trade unionist politics of the 1910s. The egalitarian nature of both ideologies appealed to her, and she soon became involved with the Irish Citizen Army, serving as the Chief Medical Officer during the Easter Rising.
Kathleen Lynn's Diary (24 April 1916) by Kathleen LynnRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
Lynn kept a detailed diary throughout her adult life, which offers an insight into the activities and inner life of a remarkable figure in Irish politics and healthcare.
Public health circular on venereal disease, 1918, page 1 (1918) by Sinn FéinRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
Lynn's role in the Rising saw her imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol. After her release, she became a member of the Sinn Féin executive, acting as Director of Public Health. In 1918, she identified what she considered to be the looming threat of venereal disease, brought to Ireland by the British Army.
Public health circular on venereal disease, 1918, page 2 (1918) by Sinn FéinRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
A month later a conference was held to discuss the issue of VD and the threat it posed, particularly to children. At this conference, the vision for St Ultan's Hospital, to guard the health and welfare of the next generation of Irish citizens, was born.
"A house for babes"
As the hospital developed, its focus shifted from venereal disease to "those two enemies of infant life - poverty and overcrowding". Most of the hospital's patients lived in slum conditions in Dublin's tenements, where disease was rife and unemployment was common. High rates of infant mortality were the tragic symptom of a much greater problem, which St Ultan's sought to address.
Map of Charlemont Street and surrounding area (1930) by St Ultan's HospitalRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
In the mid-1930s, St Ultan's Utility Society was established to address the ancillary aspects of healthcare for Dublin's poor by providing better accommodation.
Map of Charlemont Street and surrounding area (1930) by St Ultan's HospitalRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
In contrast to the overcrowded tenements, St Ultan's Flats only occupied part of the site on which they were built, ensuring that there was ample space for children to play outdoors, as Lynn was a firm believer in the health benefits of fresh air.
Madeleine ffrench-Mullen (26 May 1944) by St Ultan's HospitalRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
Later, in the 1940s St. Ultan’s Utility Society began construction on new flats, designed by architect Michael Scott. Founder and long-time secretary of St Ultan's, Madeleine ffrench-Mullen died in 1944, and in recognition of her contribution to St Ultan's Utility Society, the building was named ffrench-Mullen House. Unfortunately, despite the ambitions of the project, management proved difficult, and the flats were ultimately handed over to Dublin Corporation.
Publicity material demonstrating the importance St Ultan's Hospital placed on fresh air and space to play for its young patients (1939) by St Ultan's HospitalRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
The hospital provided respite for its infant patients in many ways. As many of the children had come from overcrowded slum conditions, St Ultan's provided them with fresh air and space to play. The pinnacle of this was the annual Turas to St Ultan's Well in Co Meath. This outing included a picnic, a Mass celebrated in Irish, and a football match, for which President DeValera threw in the ball in 1921.
St Ultan's publicity material depicting former patients (1934) by St Ultan's HospitalRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
St Ultan's sought to provide for its patients, even after they had been discharged, to ensure that progress that they made while in the care of the hospital could be sustained outside that environment. Lectures were held to teach mothers about infant health and nutrition, and the hospital ran a holiday home in Baldoyle to provide them with much-needed respite from the tenement conditions in which most of them were living.
The work of the Extern Department : One of our "babies" is now 14 and is a champion Irish dancer (1935) by St Ultan's HospitalRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
One of the most unique aspects of St Ultan's was the extent to which it centred its infant patients at a time when paediatrics was a fledgling field of medicine. In publicity material and ephemera for the hospital, the health and success of former patients was showcased, as in the case for this champion Irish dancer.
Photograph album from St Ultan's Hospital (1919-1929) by St Ultan's HospitalRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
The importance placed on the infant patients is also evident from the hospital photo albums.
While the names of the staff members are not given, those of the patients are carefully noted.
St Ultan of Ardbraccan (1940) by St Ultan's HospitalRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
The hospital's name affirmed the religious and political inspiration of its founders. Its patron saint, Ultan of Ardbraccan, was a Bishop who housed orphans in his monastery in the 540s to protect them from the 'Yellow Plague'. Frequently referred to as Teach Naoimh Ultúin, the hospital's use of the Irish version of its name was consistent with its founders' political affiliations.
A list of visiting physicians to St Ultan's Hospital, 1920-1951 (1951) by St Ultan's HospitalRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
During the period in which Lynn qualified, female doctors often struggled to find work. Despite her professional ability, when Lynn applied for a residency at the Adelaide Hospital, she was refused due to a lack of accomodation for women. St Ultan’s therefore employed a policy of positive discrimination towards female doctors, enabling them to enter a profession from which they were frequently excluded.
St Ultan's Hospital nurses and patients (Mid twentieth century) by St Ultan's HospitalRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
The work of the physicians was facilitated by a highly capable nursing staff, led by the “indefatigable matron” Nan Dougan. The hospital's policy was to "only train girls who show a special aptitude for the work and a real love for small babies". This, coupled with reports of the Spartan quarters “cheerfully and nobly endured” by the nursing staff, emphasise their commitment to the hospital’s mission.
"I'm glad of a chance to help"
Raising funds for the hospital was important both to continue its work in healthcare, and to emphasise this mission’s link to a wider nationalist cause. The unmistakably nationalist tone of the hospital’s publicity material evidently appealed to its benefactors, particularly from within the Irish American Diaspora, who were some of the hospital's most generous benefactors.
Cover of The Book of St Ultan (1920) by St Ultan's HospitalRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
The hospital’s efforts to embody the ideals of 1916 were supported by a concurrent cultural nationalist movement. Prominent artists, poets and writers contributed pieces to The Book of St Ultan, which was compiled to raise much-needed funds for the hospital.
Content page of The Book of St Ultan (1920) by St Ultan's HospitalRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
The book showcased work influenced by the Gaelic revival, featuring prominent figures such as Maud Gonne and Jack B. Yeats
Artwork from The Book of St Ultan by Maud Gonne (1920) by Maud GonneRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
Tickets to amusements in aid of St Ultan's hospital (1920) by St Ultan's HospitalRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
Plays and concerts with a distinctively Irish cultural identity were performed in the Abbey Theatre and elsewhere, as well as céilithe in aid of St Ultan's Hospital.
While these raised the required funds, they also cultivated a network of support for the hospital amongst Lynn's and ffrench-Mullen's republican circle.
Scrapbook containing tickets to fundraising events for St Ultan's Hospital (1920) by St Ultan's HospitalRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
A programme of events for St Ultan's Week gave medical and non-medical supporters of the hospital an opportunity to socialise, and to promote the nationalist cause in the early years of the Irish Free State.
Caitlín na Clúide at the Olympia Theatre (1920) by St Ultan's HospitalRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
Nativity plays were also held annually, evidently to great success. The Annual Report of 1923 advised that "no lover of art, music or children should miss the opportunity of seeing this play"
Teac Naoim Ultuin wants £1,500 (10 February 1919) by St Ultan's HospitalRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
Lynn was pragmatic in her efforts to gain support for the hospital. While financial donations were important, donations of useful items were also gladly received. Chief amongst these were “woollies” and other items of clothing, but donations also included two goats, one of which was donated by Lady Carson, the wife of the unionist politician Edward Carson, and was named after its donor.
Plaque commemorating Countess Markievicz's support of St Ultan's Hospital (1931) by St Ultan's HospitalRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
St Ultan's hospital evidently benefited from the networks of support that its founders cultivated. Its benefactors included local schools and Red Cross youth branches, members of the Irish diaspora in America, well-wishing neighbours and significant republican political figures, demonstrating the success of the hospital's fundraising and publicity efforts.
Report of joint committee appointed by the boards of the National Children's and St Ultan's Hospitals to consider the question of amalgamation and the building of a new hospital on the St Ultan's site as requested by the Hospitals' Commission (1935) by St Ultan's HospitalRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
"We need more cots, we need a hospital to put them in"
By the beginning of the 1930s, conservative Catholic doctrine characterised the direction of the Irish Free State. The 1937 Constitution confined women to the domestic sphere, at odds with Lynn and her staff’s professional roles. These developments also entrenched a division between Catholics and Protestants, who were seen as a potential moral threat. Amidst this environment, the Hospitals Commission put forward a proposal which would see St Ultan’s and Harcourt Children’s Hospital amalgamate to become a National Children’s Hospital. This proposal would ultimately become a battleground between Lynn and the Catholic Archbishop, who opposed the amalgamation.
Proposed new hospital for St Ultan's (February 1940) by St Ultan's HospitalRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
As infant mortality rates remained alarmingly high, by the 1930s, it was clear that a more concerted approach would have to be taken towards children’s health. The Hospitals Commission hoped to amalgamate St Ultan’s, which treated infants, and Harcourt Street, which admitted older children.
This was agreed to by both hospitals and a committee was formed. A suitable site for the new hospital was chosen on the banks of the canal, near both hospitals.
Still waiting! The dream hospital (1936) by St Ultan's HospitalRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
Architect Michael Scott drew up a design for the new hospital. Scott was a friend of Lynn’s and one of the most important Irish architects of the period, designing the Abbey Theatre and Busáras, as well as ffrench-Mullen House.
Statement of His Grace, the Archbishop of Dublin, to Members of the deputation of the Committee of St Ultan's Hospital (20 December 1935) by Archbishop Edward ByrneRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
However, the project soon encountered difficulties, as Archbishop Edward Byrne staunchly opposed the amalgamation “on religious principles solely.”
He argued that the faith of Catholic children was at risk under a Protestant staff, and outlined two main concerns. Firstly, his fear that contraceptive advice would be available in the hospital, and secondly, the issue of enforced sterilisation on eugenicist grounds.
Archbishop Byrne's concerns were somewhat symptomatic of the period, as the Smyly Homes were also accused of proselytising Protestantism to orphans. Internationally, eugenic concepts were on the rise, and Professor T.G. Moorhead had recently advocated sterilisation for the 'unfit' in an address in Trinity College.
Response of the amalgamation committee to Archbishop Edward Byrne (January 1936) by St Ultan's HospitalRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
The amalgamation committee responded to these concerns, refuting suggestions of prostelytising, and reminding the Archbishop that there were many Catholic members of staff in both hospitals, including nurses, matrons and physicians.
They also noted that the issue of sterilisation would not arise in a hospital for children under 16, and neither would the question of sex instruction, particularly as the hospital would treat acute illness rather than chronic cases.
Hadn't we courage in 1919! - or was it vision? (1930) by St Ultan's HospitalRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
Despite the committee’s engagement with the Archbishop’s reservations, and Lynn’s attempts to appeal to him directly, the question of amalgamation ultimately reached an impasse. This interference by the Catholic Church in the provision of social services would be characteristic of the Irish state for decades to follow.
"Childhood tuberculosis is as yet untouched here by the Government"
With plans for a National Children’s Hospital thwarted, Lynn focused her efforts on expanding the number of beds in St Ultan's, particularly for infants suffering from TB. The role St Ultan's played in the prevention of TB would become one of its most significant achievements. These efforts were led by Dr Dorothy Stopford Price, a physician at St. Ultan’s who introduced the BCG vaccine to Ireland. TB had been one of Ireland's most significant health issues since the beginning of the twentieth century. However, like the proposed hospital amalgamation, the fight against TB was to become embroiled in a similar politicisation of healthcare.
Tuberculosis in Childhood by Dorothy Stopford Price (1942) by Dr Dorothy Stopford PriceRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
In the late 1930s, St Ultan's opened an eight-bed tuberculosis unit, and shortly afterwards, Dr Stopford Price received her first batch of the BCG vaccine. Dr Stopford Price had carried out extensive research into infant tuberculosis, cultivating an international network of colleagues, and publishing a book on the matter.
Dr Dorothy Stopford Price (1950) by St Ultan's HospitalRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
Dr Stopford Price founded an Anti-Tuberculosis League in Ireland in 1942, including Northern Ireland and the Republic. The group included medical professionals and interested non-medics, following the example of similar groups in other countries. As well as providing medical expertise, the group hoped to raise funds and run public health campaigns.
Nurses receiving BCG vaccination (1958) by National BCG CommitteeRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
The League included both Catholic and Protestant members, and they communicated their aims to Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, who assured them of his support. However, at their first public meeting, a letter read on behalf of the Archbishop announced his opinion that the fight against TB should be led by the Red Cross, a Catholic organisation.
St Ultan's Hospital new BCG unit and physiotherapy department (1945) by St Ultan's HospitalRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
The momentum of the League was lost, and the Red Cross anti-TB committee was formed in its place. This new committee was dominated by Catholic clergy at the expense of medical expertise, and it was soon introduced that members of the anti-TB committee must also be members of the Red Cross. Stopford Price, a Protestant, stood down from the committee.
Our new sun-trap : The TB extension with honey-comb roof (1945) by St Ultan's HospitalRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
Despite this setback, Stopford Price continued to be at the forefront of TB prevention. Her focus shifted to promoting the BCG vaccine, and despite disruptions caused by the Emergency, she continued to administer the vaccine at St Ultan's, with successful outcomes.
St Ultan's Hospital BCG unit opened June, 1949 (1949) by St Ultan's HospitalRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
In 1949 the Department of Health agreed to build the first dedicated BCG unit in the country at St. Ultan's. It included cots, an isolation cubicle, and outpatients clinics, and was designed as a sun trap. Shortly afterwards, Minister for Health Noël Browne established a National Consultative Committee on TB, appointing Stopford Price as Chair.
"Look for me in the nurseries of Heaven"
With the new addition of the BCG centre, St Ultan's continued to develop throughout the 1950s. However, neither Kathleen Lynn nor Dorothy Stopford Price lived to see the lasting effects of their contribution to infant healthcare. Stopford Price died in 1954, and Kathleen Lynn died the following year. Lynn received a state funeral with full military honours, in recognition of her contributions to the nationalist cause, and a wing in St Ultan's was named in her honour. A commemorative plaque was erected with Stopford Price’s name, and fittingly, sun blinds for the BCG balcony. St Ultan's Hospital continued to operate until the 1980s.
Plaque erected to commemorate Kathleen Lynn in St Ultan's Hospital (1969) by St Ultan's HospitalRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
The lasting impact of St Ultan's goes beyond its medical contributions. Its staff championed the health of impoverished infants, despite apathy and indeed active opposition from both Church and state authorities.
Plaque commemorating Dr Dorothy Stopford Price's contribution to the BCG unit, and to St Ultan's Hospital (1949) by St Ultan's HospitalRoyal College of Physicians of Ireland
St Ultan's also provided a space for women to enter the male-dominated medical sphere. This gave them the experience which resulted in the numerous contributions to paediatrics made by staff including Stopford Price, Lynn, Dr Katherine Maguire, Dr Ella Webb and others. The developments and frustrations of St Ultan's offer a glimpse into the social and political trajectory of the Free State and beyond, and the manner in which these factors influenced the provision of healthcare, particularly for some of the state's most vulnerable.
Exhibition curated by Claire Ó Nualláin
Images by Bobby Studios
Film clips from 'Kathleen Lynn: The Rebel Doctor' directed by Sé Doyle, by kind permission of LoopLine and the IFI Irish Film Archive
Audio by Ailbhe Donohue, Peter Flood and Orla Woods