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The Cholera Epidemic in Ireland and the Irish Nuns as Nurses

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L.M.Reid is an Irish writer who has published many history articles online and in magazines.

Read on to learn about slums in Dublin, Ireland, and the Irish cholera epidemic. You'll also learn about the inspiring story of Mother Mary Aikenhead, foundress of the Sisters of Charity. The above photo is of Glasnevin Cemetery, established In 1832.

Read on to learn about slums in Dublin, Ireland, and the Irish cholera epidemic. You'll also learn about the inspiring story of Mother Mary Aikenhead, foundress of the Sisters of Charity. The above photo is of Glasnevin Cemetery, established In 1832.

The Cholera Epidemic in Ireland in 1832

When Cholera struck Dublin, it quickly spread into an epidemic because the city was overcrowded with slums. It was a very frightening time for the people because everyone around them was dying within hours of getting the disease.

Dublin in Ireland during the spring of 1832 was very mild and wet. This helped the epidemic spread very rapidly amongst the poor. Temporary hospitals were set up all over the city. People were terrified because it seemed that no one could help them as their family members were dying, some within only a few hours of getting the disease.

The Spread of the Sickness

Irish history records this time as the 1832 Cholera epidemic. The first symptoms of cholera were stomach cramps, followed by hallucinations and convulsions, after which death would be very rapid. The spread of the disease was unchecked because large families of up to fourteen people were living in one room in the many tenements around Dublin city.

One outside toilet and an outside cold water tap were the normal living conditions for people living in the tenement houses around Dublin, each of which had approximately seventy people. Unfortunately, Irish history records that these tenements and slums in Dublin continued to be lived in by the people well into the 1940s.

The Dublin slums in Ireland

The Dublin slums in Ireland

No Nurses for the Dying

Grangegorman Prison in Rathdown Road, Dublin 7, was reopened as one of the temporary hospitals. In the middle of 1832, as the cholera epidemic was at its worst, six hundred patients were admitted in five days.

It was impossible to get anyone to nurse the dying. The old cells were soon packed with patients, and even the long corridors had to be used. There were some recoveries, but those already in poor health due to malnutrition and bad living conditions usually lasted only a few hours.

Cholera Was at Epidemic Levels

A list of the dead was put up outside the prison every morning, with between fifty and eighty patients dying every night at the height of the disease. This list included the carers brought in to nurse the patients the day before. Everyone was scared, and it soon became impossible for the authorities to get anyone to nurse the dying.

Temporary Dublin hospital during the Irish Cholera epidemic.

Temporary Dublin hospital during the Irish Cholera epidemic.

Sisters of Charity of Stanhope Street Dublin 7

They asked the Sisters of Charity just down the road in Stanhope Street for help. The Convent immediately sent nuns up to the hospital without any thought of the danger to themselves. Mother Catherine also came from the Gardiner Street Convent with two novices to help with the nursing. They arrived at the hospital every morning at 8.00 o'clock.

Overcrowded Conditions

The beds were so tightly packed in the corridors that it was difficult for nurses to pass from patient to patient. The old prison beds were used, and some of the smaller nuns had to use a box or climb the sides to reach the patients. When the nuns went back to the Convent at night, the first thing they did was change their clothes and wash thoroughly in Chlorate of Lime to keep any danger of infection away from the other nuns.

Sister Francis

One morning Sister Francis was preparing to leave the Stanhope Street Convent for the hospital with the other nuns when she received word that her own mother had died that day from cholera.

She insisted on carrying on the work, saying the patients in Grangegorman needed her. That same day she caught the disease herself, but she recovered and once again went back to the hospital to help. It took until December of that year for the disease to run its course. But the death toll was very high. By the end of 1832, there were 50,769 deaths recorded due to the cholera epidemic in Ireland.

Mary Aikenhead founded the Hospital for Poor  in Ireland

Mary Aikenhead founded the Hospital for Poor in Ireland

Hospital for the Poor

Mary Aikenhead had a dream to open a hospital for the poor. The lack of services for the poor at the time, coupled with the devastating 1832 Cholera epidemic, strengthened her resolve to fulfill her dream of running a hospital. She heard of a house for sale at St Stephens Green for £3,000.

This large amount of money was not the only problem. The people on the more affluent Southside did not take kindly to the idea of a free hospital. That did not stop her.

Due to good public relations from her more wealthy patrons and donations, the Sisters of Charity were able to buy the building on 23rd January 1834. More donations secured the money for the renovations and supplies, some of it coming from England and Scotland.

Nurses in Ireland

Another problem that Mother Aikenhead had to overcome was the appointment of nurses. In her time, nursing was not a skilled profession. Only the poorest and lower class took on the job of nursing. They had no training whatsoever. The conditions they worked in were dangerous and unhygienic for themselves and their patients.

No Respectable Lady Would Become a Nurse

When Dr. O’Ferrall pointed this out to Mother Aikenhead, she said in her usual way that ‘just because it had never been done before that was no reason why it shouldn’t be done now.’ She sent three of her nuns to a hospital in Paris.

The Nuns of the Order of St Thomas of Villanova had set it up. They would receive the best training available in hygiene and good nursing practice. She told Dr O’Ferrall she envisioned that nursing would become a respected and honourable profession one day. Doctor O’Ferrall gave the hospital his full support and worked long hours for free.

St. Vincent's Hospital

This was the first hospital in Ireland to be owned and staffed by nuns. St. Vincent’s Hospital opened in the spring of 1835, with a ward for twelve women called St. Joseph’s. Two more female wards and a children’s ward were opened soon after.

On 15th August 1836, St Patrick’s ward was opened, the first for men. The hospital now had sixty beds. It was the first hospital in Ireland to be owned and staffed by nuns. Anyone who was poor and needed hospital treatment was admitted without charge. In 1841 Mother Aikenhead bought the house next door and knocked through to the hospital. The cost of purchase and building work came to £8,000.

No Anaesthetic

All operations had to be carried out without anaesthetic, which was not invented until 1846. The patients had to be strapped to the operating tables and held down. Mother Aikenhead heard that a young boy, Danny, needed an operation on his leg and would be strapped to the table. Danny had an abscess on his leg that had become infected, and it needed to be lanced. She was ill herself and in a wheelchair at the time.

Young Danny Woke up Screaming

A young boy was brought into a small room off the ward where Mother Aikenhead greeted him. He was crying because he had overheard the doctor talking about the need for the operation. As he sat on her lap, she was able to calm him down and offered him an apple and a sweet. She began to tell him a story from the bible, but he’d already heard it and wanted to hear one about a naughty boy.

Danny O’Connell

Mother Aikenhead asked him what the naughty boy’s name would be, and he told her Danny. So she started to tell him a story about a boy called Danny who had climbed up a tree. He settled down and soon forgot why he was there. Danny fell asleep in her arms. The doctor very gently prepared the child.

When they were ready, with Danny still asleep, the nurse held his leg in position, and Mother Aikenhead held on tight to Danny. The doctor very quickly performed the cut. Danny immediately woke up screaming, but the worst was over.

Orphanage at Stanhope Street

On another occasion, Sister Mary Camellias was making her rounds of the wards. She came across a very distressed woman. She was a widow and dying of cancer. She was worried about her three children and what would happen to them when she died; the oldest was only eleven.

Her husband's family was unwilling to take in the children after her death. Her own family lived in Cork, and she had lost touch with them over the past twenty years. The Sister brought the problem to Mother Aikenhead. She told Sister Camellias to tell the woman that same night not to worry as they would be well looked after at the orphanage at Stanhope Street.

Mother Aikenhead died on 22nd July 1858

Six men arrived at the Convent in Harold's Cross and asked to see Mother Francis Magdalene. When she arrived, they were too shy to speak. Eventually, a young man in his early twenties stepped forward and asked permission for them to carry Mother Aikenhead’s coffin to the grave.

She was unsure about this and told them she’d have to ask the other Sisters. Some of them were undecided. Six labourers being given the honour of bearing the coffin of such an important and much-loved person was highly unusual.

Then Sister Camillus reminded them that Mother Aikenhead was industrious and innovative, and that when someone would tell her she was doing something that had never been done before, she’d always say, “That’s no reason why it shouldn’t be done now.”

So the six men got their wish. Thousands passed by her coffin to pay their respects.

Mother Aikenhead Is Buried at the Convent Cemetery in Donnybrook

The young man who had stepped forward from the group of labourers to make the request was none other than Danny O’Connell, who, as a small frightened boy, had been held in Mother Aikenhead’s arms as the doctor operated on his leg.

A New Hospital for the Poor of Dublin

When the Cholera epidemic struck Dublin and Ireland in 1832, there were no free medical facilities or hospitals for the people of the overcrowded Dublin slums. The authorities set up temporary hospitals all over Ireland like the one opened in 1832 at Grangegorman Prison, Rathdown Road in Stoneybatter, Dublin.

But these were only containment places for the people who were dying from the disease at a rate of fifty a day at the height of the cholera epidemic. Because of this situation, Mary Aikenhead was spurred on to create her long-held dream of a free hospital for the poor of the Dublin slums. Her benefactors who donated money towards this free hospital were also affected by the conditions that the people had endured during the epidemic.

Mary Aikenhead – Life and Work

The Story of Cholera


  • A Member of the Congregation. (2001). The Life & Work of Mary Aikenhead. University of the Pacific Press.
  • The Irish Sisters of Charity. Centenary Brochure.
  • Butler, Katherine. (1984). Mary Aikenhead – A Woman for All Seasons.
  • Bayley, Margery. (1953). A Candle Was Lit. Clonmore and Reynolds.
  • Rynne, Catherine. (1980). Mother Mary Aikenhead. Veritas Publications.
  • Prunty, Jacinta. (1997). Dublin Slums 1800-1925: A Study in Urban Geography. Irish Academic Press.
  • Directory 1848. An Oifig Taifead Poibli BB1.
  • 1901 Census. Stanhope Street Convent and Boarding School. National Archives, Dublin.
  • 1911 Census. Stanhope Street Convent and Boarding School. National Archives.
  • Sister Patricia. Principal St Joseph's Primary School. Stanhope Street.
  • The Sisters of Charity ( RSC ) 1838. Website.
  • Gartland, Fiona. (2015). “Cholera victims’ bones from 1830s found on Luas line dig.” The Irish Times.
  • Fenning, Hugh. (2003). “The cholera epidemic in Ireland, 1832-3: Priests, ministers, doctors.” Archivium Hibernicum, Vol. 57, 77-125. The Catholic Historical Society of Ireland.
  • Anonymous. (2011). “The Day of the Straws” 1832. Ask About Ireland.
  • Lyons, F.S.L. (1971). Ireland Since the Famine. Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


MG Singh emge from Singapore on October 18, 2020:

This is a very interesting article about the part of the world which is generally considered obscure. You have brought out the epidermic and all its effects very nicely making for good reading and information.

L M Reid (author) from Ireland on October 18, 2020:

Hello Joan, that is an interesting theory about Bram Stoker. His mother was lucky to survive the epidemic

Joan Grennan on August 08, 2020:

Charlotte Stoker mother of Bram has left us an eye witness account of the same cholera epidemic as she experienced it in Sligo .it makes horrifying but fascinating reading . Some details have led people to believe that it gave Bram Stoker the idea for Dracula .

L M Reid (author) from Ireland on July 10, 2017:

Hello Mel. The article is about the Cholera epidemic in Dublin and how it effected those who were living through it in Stoneybatter. The nuns were from the Convent in Stoneybatter also

Mel on May 29, 2017:

Yes, but Rathdown Road isn't in Stoneybatter. Grangegorman isn't in Stoneybatter either. They are in.... Grangegorman.

L M Reid (author) from Ireland on April 20, 2010:

Yes Jay that's how she got so much done. She had an idea and that was that, she wouldn't listen to people telling her it couldn't be done. Thanks for ur comments

Jay on April 20, 2010:

I like her attitude. . . "there's no reason it cant be done now" . . . I must remember that one. Great story. I love your articles. They are so informative and yet still a great read. I really enjoy them.

L M Reid (author) from Ireland on April 08, 2010:

Thanks for reading it, glad you enjoyed it

Casangel on April 07, 2010:

great story,thank you.