Tours of Mary Aikenhead Heritage Centre, The Hospice

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Mary Aikenhead was a woman before her time. Born to privilege, she devoted her life to the care of the sick poor. In 1815 at the age of 28 she founded the Religious Sisters of Charity in Dublin. She and her sisters opened their first Catholic school for poor children in Gardiner Street, in 1830; established St Vincent’s Hospital on St Stephen’s Green, the first hospital in Ireland to be staffed and run by women in 1834 and became the first women religious to visit prisoners in Kilmainham Gaol. The Hospice, which is such an important part of the community of Harold’s Cross today, was opened in 1879. She would reputedly say: “This has never been done before – that is no reason why it should not be done now!” When considered in the context of the time, with the Order being established just 12 years after the upheaval of the United Irishmen uprising of 1803, when Catholics still suffered extreme discrimination with O’Connell campaigning for Catholic emancipation, when women had no vote and virtually no rights, and Ireland about to face into one of its darkest periods with the Famine, the achievements of Mary Aikenhead and her sisters were truly remarkable. In March 2015, Pope Francis declared that Mary Aikenhead had lived a life of heroic virtue, a move which makes her eligible to be promoted towards sainthood. At the Mary Aikenhead Heritage Centre at the Hospice, you can participate in a tour which explains the history of the Congregation in a creative way. Mary Aikenhead spent the last 27 years of her life as an invalid at Our Lady’s Mount house at the Hospice complex. The focal point of the exhibition is Mary Aikenhead’s own room, where she lived from 1845 until her death in 1858.

Mary Aikenhead had been born to privilege. Her father, David Aikenhead, was a doctor and chemist in Cork city. Her mother, Mary Stacpoole, was a Catholic. At the age of 15 Mary converted to Catholicism. Mary Aikenhead founded the Religious Sisters of Charity in Dublin in 1815 in response to the extreme poverty in Dublin and Ireland generally at that time. Daniel O’Connell was a great supporter of the Congregation’s efforts. The Congregation’s contribution to Irish society is still evident today in the Congregation’s schools, in St Vincent’s University Hospital, Elm Park (the successor to St Vincent’s Hospital established on St Stephen’s Green in 1834, the first hospital in Ireland to be staffed and run by women) and of course in their work at the Hospice which is such an important part of the community of Harold’s Cross today. In 1845, Mary Aikenhead, who owing to illness had been advised to move from the city to the country, bought “Greenmount”, a late 18th-century house on raised ground at Harold’s Cross from a family called Webb who were members of the Society of Friends (Quakers). A price was agreed with the Sisters and the Webb family kept their word despite a higher offer being received from the Mount Jerome Cemetery Company. The Sisters renamed the house “Our Lady’s Mount” and Mary Aikenhead moved there in September 1845.

The Congregation established in Harold’s Cross as the famine began to affect the country. Mary and her sisters spent the late 1840s trying to maintain their work in the educational and healthcare fields, while helping people suffering from starvation and disease, and facing eviction. While by this time Mary herself was very ill, she made heroic efforts to supply food and clothing to crowds of famished people who flocked to the convent in Harold’s Cross seeking help.

Mary Aikenhead had charged Sr Anna Gaynor from Roscommon (Sr Mary John) with the task of establishing the Hospice, which opened in 1879. Despite their rivalry with Mount Jerome Cemetery Company over the acquisition of the property, Sr Anna and the manager of Mount Jerome provided an excellent example of how to resolve the neighbourly issue of encroaching trees in their witty exchange of correspondence in verse:

1:

Dear Major Gamble, say,

Will you cut the trees away?

That stand between the living and the dead!

I fain would keep them still

But they really make me ill

When I see their branches rocking overhead.

And now our roof is new

And our little chapel too,

We deem it wrong to let these lofty trees

Be a danger when there’s wind

And disturb our peace of mind,

So I’ll ask you to assist me, if you please.

2:

‘Dear Madam, you shall see

That I heartily agree

With the views you have so charmingly expressed.

And so without delay

I’ll commence the work to-day

And thus your peace of mind will set at rest.

These elms which cause your fears

Are, like us, advanced in years,

But their lease of life they can renew.

For by cutting off their head

They’ll revive as from the dead,

A treatment that would settle me or you.

3.

‘Dear Major Gamble, I

Have to thank you in reply

For your kind and neighbourly endeavour

To deal kindly with our friends

And procrastinate their ends.

Oh! I could not bear to part with them

For in more than forty years

In this vale of weary tears

I have gazed upon them with delight,

I shall miss the pleasant shade

Which their leafy branches made

Aswaying in the quiet evening light.’

There are other interesting examples of the enterprise shown by Mary’s sisters in responding to try to alleviate the difficult circumstances of the poor in Ireland. In 1891 the Congregation was requested to send help to Foxford in Co. Mayo, then regarded as one of the poorest regions of the west of Ireland. They responded by sending Sr Arsenius as Superior and 6 sisters. Sr Arsenius felt the best way of improving conditions for the local people would be by establishing local viable industries. Looking around her, seeing that sheep farming was the principal local activity and noting that the town was built on the River Moy, she had the idea of setting up a woollen mill. She approached John Smith who operated the Caldedon Mills in Co. Tyrone for help. He is reported to have been initially disparaging:

“A pack of untrained women, secluded from the world, knowing nothing of machinery or business, how could they succeed where men failed?”

But Sr Arsenius would not take no for an answer and continued to try to persuade him of the merits of the project. He became intrigued (or worn down!) by her perseverance, and provided the help, advice and support needed to establish what the sisters called the Providence Woollen Mills. The Mills produced a travel rug woven in the colours of the tricolour which Sr Arsenius presented to Michael Collins. It was with him in his car when he was ambushed at Béal na Bláth. The Congregation continued to operate the Mills until the 1980s when it proved difficult to obtain orders. It was taken over by new owners and continues to operate as Foxford Woollen Mills.

There is now a wonderful Heritage Centre at Our Lady’s Hospice portraying the history of the Congregation in a creative way. Mary Aikenhead spent the last 27 years of her life as an invalid at the house, communicating to her Congregation through countless letters. The focal point of the exhibition is Mary Aikenhead’s own room, where she lived from 1845 until her death in 1858. A beautiful marble carving depicting Christ washing the feet of Peter and two stained glass windows can be seen in the chapel in the Hospice complex as a memorial to this extraordinary woman.

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