Up with the Republic, down with the ship

An Irishman’s Diary about a tale of two mercy missions

‘Pádraig Pearse had just announced Ireland was summoning “her children” to the flag. But that was a figure of speech. Aged 18, Eliza Waldron, who was in the GPO on Easter Monday, was told to “run home to your mother”. ’As it happened, her natural mother was dead and her home was Dalkey, 10 miles away. So instead of running, she walked.’ Above, the ruins of the GPO, Dublin, May 1916. Photograph:  Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

‘Pádraig Pearse had just announced Ireland was summoning “her children” to the flag. But that was a figure of speech. Aged 18, Eliza Waldron, who was in the GPO on Easter Monday, was told to “run home to your mother”. ’As it happened, her natural mother was dead and her home was Dalkey, 10 miles away. So instead of running, she walked.’ Above, the ruins of the GPO, Dublin, May 1916. Photograph: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Sat, Feb 22, 2014, 01:00

Eliza Waldron, better known as “Elsie”, could lay claim to that proudest of Irish distinctions: she was in the GPO on Easter Monday 1916. Unlike others, however, she was there to work, being a junior official in the postal service. And as history unfolded in the building, she left early, on the advice of the visitors.

Pádraig Pearse had just announced Ireland was summoning “her children” to the flag. But that was a figure of speech. Aged 18, Eliza was told to “run home to your mother”. As it happened, her natural mother was dead and her home was Dalkey, 10 miles away. So instead of running, she walked.

It’s not clear if or when she returned to the civil service. In any case, Ireland’s revolutionary period coincided with a dramatic change of direction for her too. By 1921 she had joined the Sisters of Mercy, and would spend several decades working in a succession of Dublin hospitals, including the Mater, Jervis Street, and St Michael’s in Dún Laoghaire.

Then, when both she and the 20th century were in their late 50s, came another dramatic career shift, this time overseas. With three others nuns, chosen from the order’s “very best”, she was part of a crack team dispatched to Kenya to set up that country’s first Catholic hospital.

On Holy Thursday 1956, 40 Easters after getting the week off from the GPO, she and the others arrived in Mombasa Harbour, with 46 crates of luggage, including a hospital start-up kit of bed linen, crockery, and medicines. That was a turbulent time in Kenya. The Mau Mau uprising against British rule was at its height, with Nairobi – where the hospital was to be established – central to the struggle.

There were many atrocities, and an extraordinary number of judicial executions, including that of Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi who was captured soon after the nuns’ arrival (and whose death is now commemorated annually on “Kimathi Day”, held last Tuesday). In the short-term, the conflict ended with the rebels’ defeat. But by 1963, Kenya had won independence.

The nuns were amused during the sailing to Mombasa, when – it being an English ship – the St Patrick’s Day celebrations concluded with God Save the Queen . Nevertheless, even then, the sun was setting on the British empire while it continued to rise on an Irish one: the religious foreign missions, who shadowed the colonial administrations, but were usually more welcome.

Thus, when she returned to Ireland in 1970, Elsie Waldron – known by now as Sister Dolorosa – left behind not just the original hospital but a network of Mercy-run clinics, schools, teacher-training facilities and a “girls’ secretarial college”, with a combined force of 38 nuns.

She died in 1972, by which time her time in Kenya, and her middle years in Dublin, were well documented (see mercyworld.org). But her earlier life remains something of a mystery. And her nephew, Edmond J Waldron, is trying to find out more about it, with – he hopes – the help of Irish Times readers.

He’s not writing a book, or anything (in fact, he’s not averse to the idea of somebody else doing so, if possible). He just wants information. Anyone who can oblige is asked to contact him at 087-2370864 or by e-mail to ejw@indigo.ie.

Speaking of appeals for information, I’m reminded that two years ago, in advance of the centenary, I mentioned Titanic expert and author Senan Molony’s attempts to solve a long-standing mystery: the true identity of one “John Horgan”, the last unknown passenger of the doomed ship.

Well, 102 years on, the conundrum was finally resolved in recent months. It turns out that “John Horgan” was really John Landers, from Dungarvan, Co Waterford. And although the swapping of tickets and absence of passports in 1912 often made for innocent confusion among passenger lists, in this case there was a motive for deception.

Landers was a convicted thief, a former naval officer who years before had earned unceremonial discharge and three months hard labour for stealing postal orders. Via the Titanic , he may have been trying to a fresh start. If so, he committed another minor larceny en route, embarking under the name of a Waterford neighbour.

Still, to paraphrase Molony’s investigations of the story, it’s possible that nothing in life became Landers like the manner of his leaving, which may have had a heroic
element.

Katie McCarthy, the penultimate person to board the last Titanic lifeboat, spoke afterwards of being led up to the second-class deck by “a man from Dungarvan”. He was someone who knew his way around ships, and he got her to safety just in time. The lifeboat had barely pulled clear, she recalled, when the great hull broke in two and went down.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

@FrankmcnallyIT

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