A Brief History of Nursing Care in Ireland

By 29 May 2024June 7th, 2024MAI News, Special
Group of nurses with angels wings

A Brief History of Nursing Care in Ireland

“Nursing is an art: and if it is to be made an art, it requires an exclusive devotion as hard a preparation as any painter’s or sculptor’s work; for what is the having to do with dead canvas or dead marble, compared with having to do with the living body, the temple of God’s spirit? It is one of the Fine Arts: I had almost said, the finest of Fine Arts.” Florence Nightingale


Not until the second century AD did the idea of caring for the sick become a real thing in most of Europe. Before that, anyone sick was thought to have angered their gods and cures involved prayers, sacrifices and ceremonial practices. Most of the time the illness was regarded as a punishment from whatever deity they sinned against.

The origin of the word ‘Nurse’ comes from the Latin ‘Nutire,’ which means to suckle. The earliest nurses were wet-nurses used by families to suckle newborns.

As a profession, nursing first appeared in the Roman Empire about 300 AD.

Roman Hospitals

As the Romans increased their territories and expanded the Empire, they took thousands of people as slaves. Some of those were doctors from Greece or Egypt. They also realised that healthy slaves were more lucrative and that it might pay to invest in their health.

They created the first hospital (valetudinarian from the Latin word valetudo meaning Health) [1]

As they marched over Europe, Africa, and Asia Minor, they wanted to a hospital in each town. At first these buildings were used only for prisoners, slaves, and soldiers, but as time went on and more doctors travelled from Greece and other countries, the Romans began to see the advantages.

The first nurses to officially care for the sick were recruited to help the doctors in the valetudinaria.

Early Ireland

In Ireland, during the pre-Christian era, the ancient Clan or ‘Brehon Laws’, made laws for how sick people were to be treated. They included separate sections on mental health, bloodletting, war wounds, and compensation, among other things. They also provided for basic nutrition and care and even had a crude version of health insurance![2]

The Brehon Laws were protected and overseen by the Druids; therefore, most hospitals were attached to pagan temples so that the proper care could be given, and the laws adhered to.

Evidence of the existence of hospitals can be found in some town names such as An Spidéal in County Galway, – named for a medieval Leper hospital, or the town of Hospital, in County Limerick – named for the Hospital of Áine, for the Knights Hospitaller.

After the Christians arrived in Ireland, rather than rebuild, they took over many of the pagan temples, plots, and buildings to build their churches and monasteries, and continued the tradition of the hospitals.[3]

Dissolution of the Monasteries

The care of the sick remained under the auspices of religious orders until up to the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, when the beloved King Henry VIII kindly decided that the whole of Ireland would be banned from practicing Catholicism and all the money and land from the religious properties should go to him.

When the monasteries were destroyed, the hospitals were also destroyed and most versions of hospital care as well as nursing went the way of the dodo! Nursing practices were terminated and vanished from Ireland for over 200 years.

End of the Penal Laws

In the 1820s, towards the so-called ‘easing’ of the Penal Laws in Ireland, a new age of caring for the sick began.

Still under the auspices of the religious orders because of ‘Social Circumstances’ the women who emerged from the ashes were required to create voluntary societies and associations or religious sisters[4], whose purposes were to care for the sick. Two of the first to emerge were Catherine McAuley (you may remember her from the £5 note)

and Mary Aikenhead who founded St. Vincent’s University Hospital.

Both started ministering to the sick and poor in their homes in Dublin. They and their fellow sisters became affectionately known as “the walking nuns”.

Ministering in Dublin

During a cholera epidemic in 1832 nursing really came into its own when several hospitals requested that the sisters be allowed to nurse in them, including in Grangegorman.

At the time however, nursing was regarded as a profession for the poor and those with little or no skills. Those who practiced were looked down on and snubbed by society. In 1833, Mary Aikenhead sent three of her sisters to the Hospitalières de St. Thomas in Paris to learn about hospital administration, thus creating a new professionalism and dignity to nursing practices in Ireland.

In 1835, the first ward of St. Vincent’s Hospital was opened.[5]

Crimean War

Twenty years later, another nun, Mary Clare Moore, who trained under Catherine McAuley found herself in Turkey during the Crimean War looking after British and Irish soldiers.

There she met a young woman who would become known as ‘the lady with the lamp’. She passed on some of her skills and earned the respect of one Florence Nightingale, who happened to be nursing there at the time.

Mary Clare and her sisters also followed Florence’s practices and were subsequently joined by more Irish nurses to help with and learn nursing skills.

When Mary Clare returned home, Florence sent her a letter lamenting her departure. “Your going home is the greatest blow I have had yet. . . .”[6]

The painting below is called ‘The Mission of Mercy: Florence Nightingale receiving the Wounded at Scutari’ and was painted in 1857 by a man called Jerry Barrett. Barrett included Mary Clare in the painting, she can be seen standing to the left (as you are facing the painting) of the highlighted Florence Nightingale


1916 Rising

Irish nurses continued to play a huge part in all aspects of Irish society over the following several years. Some of the most famous historical event have connections to nurses. E.g., Elizabeth O’Farrell…. Who? I hear you ask!

Elizabeth O’Farrell was a midwife in Holles Street Maternity Hospital. She was also an activist and member of Cumann na mBan and a friend of Countess Markievicz, James Connolly and Pádraig Pearse. In fact, she was so well regarded and trusted by Pearse, he chose her to present the surrender of the Irish Volunteers to the British Commander in Dublin, General Lowe.

Lowe and Pearse had Elizabeth travel through the streets of Dublin under fire from all around to deliver the surrender orders and confirmations to and from the volunteer leaders and the British.[7]

WWII and Britain’s NHS

Over the next hundred years, Irish nurses were recruited to prop up the British health system. During and after World War II, Britain used Ireland as a source of trained and trainee nurses[8]

In the 1950s and 60s staff from Britain’s NHS travelled around Ireland to recruit Irish teenagers for nurse training, and in 1960s 11% of all nurses recruited to hospitals in the south east of England were born in the Irish republic. By 1971 there were 31,000 Irish-born nurses in Britain constituting 12% of all nursing staff[9].

A recent documentary (2021) on some of the women from Ireland who went to Britain to train as nurses in the twentieth century was presented and produced by former nurse Gráinne McPolin and can be heard on the Newstalk Website – ‘Angels of Mercy ‘ “Angels of Mercy” was produced by Grainne McPolin and funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland under the Sound and Vision Scheme


Florence Nightingale is regarded as the founder of modern nursing, but it’s nice to know that she had some influence from Irish nurses too. Even though when you ask someone to name an historical nursing figure, 99% of people will mention Florence Nightingale, but the contributions of Irish nurses to health care in Ireland, Britain and many other countries around the world should be recognised and proudly acknowledged.

[1] Picardi, Nicola. “Birth in Rome of the First Hospital in the History of Europe. Further Development of the Roma’s Hospitals”. Annali Italiani Di Chirurgia, vol. 82, no. 4, July 2011, pp. 329-35,









The information contained in this article is for informational and educational purposes. The information is not intended nor suited to be a replacement or substitute for professional medical treatment or for professional medical advice relative to a specific medical question or condition.