Diarmaid Ferriter: St Vincent’s was built with public money
Sisters of Charity benefited greatly from the sweepstakes yet retain ownership of the hospital
“Up to 1969, St Vincent’s, Stephen’s Green [the original site of the hospital] received a total of £2.1 million and St Vincent’s Hospital, Elm Park, received £3.1 million” from the sweepstake funds.
It is a pity the former master of Holles Street, Dr Peter Boylan, abstained rather than voted against the deal to relocate the national maternity hospital to the St Vincent’s campus. It reminded me of Fianna Fáil’s Des O’Malley choosing to make a stand on contraception when legislation liberalising access to it was being voted on in the Dáil in 1985 with his now famous “I stand by the Republic” speech. He only stood by it rhetorically; after his speech, rather than vote for the legislation he decried Fianna Fáil for opposing, he abstained, partly “out of deference to some of my colleagues”, the same reason Boylan offered for his choice.
Notwithstanding, there is a weight of history adding force to Boylan’s concerns and in response, the current master Dr Rhona Mahony was alarmingly dismissive – “nothing” she insisted, “must be allowed stand in the way” of the new hospital. Such a stance is unwise and insensitive. Dr Chris Fitzpatrick, former master of the Coombe who resigned from the board managing the project, was calm and measured in claiming the new hospital should be given possession of the site by the Sisters of Charity. He gave credit to the sisters for making their campus available, but reasonably asserted that it is completely inappropriate in this era that ownership of a publicly funded hospital would be entrusted “in any shape, way or form to a religious organisation”.
Money and power
There is another reason why the nuns should hand over the site. The infrastructure the sisters generated over the decades could not have been achieved without massive philanthropic, community and State support, despite the assertion of the founder of the Sisters of Charity, Mary Aikenhead, that her only resource was the “Bank of Divine Providence”. For all the focus in recent debate on religion and ethos, money and power are also central to the controversy. In underlining this, it is unnecessary to indulge in any cartoon history of the nuns. It is unfair and unhistorical to imply that nuns involved in this area were devoid of humanity and motivated by greed. The “bad nun” version of Irish history needs to be challenged to generate a more nuanced appreciation of the relationship between State, religion, society and maternity care.
In her book Nuns in Nineteenth-Century Ireland Caitríona Clear highlighted religious vocation as “the only area” in which there was a career open to talent for Irish women. She traced the relationship of nuns to their male religious superiors and the enormous contribution nuns made to the teaching and nursing professions. They were also steely businesswomen, but they could not build their infrastructure without external aid. One of the compelling logics of situating the new maternity hospital beside St Vincent’s is because of the excellent facilities there to assist maternal care. But how was the modern St Vincent’s built? From 1930, hospital sweepstakes were authorised by the State to raise funds by means of sweeps held on major English horse races. In 1933 the hospitals commission was set up to advise the minister for health on the administration of these funds. The sweep on the 1931 derby was the first one in which St Vincent’s participated and it received just under £21,000; from the first four sweepstakes it participated in it received a total of just over £94,000.
According to F.O.C Meenan, in his history of St Vincent’s Hospital, “Up to 1969, St Vincent’s, Stephen’s Green [the original site of the hospital] received a total of £2.1 million and St Vincent’s hospital, Elm Park, received £3.1 million” from the sweepstake funds. The nuns bought the 50-acre Elm Park site, where the hospital now is, in 1934 for £24,000. Contemporary newspapers reported that the plan was “to erect a huge new hospital on the site” with the nuns “negotiating with the hospitals commission for an allocation of the sweepstake proceeds”. It was to be a long road before that hospital was ready; with the first patients not admitted until January 1970.
During these decades there were numerous rows over funding and independence. Marie Coleman, the historian of the sweepstake, records that in the 1940s there were disagreements between the government and the Sisters of Charity “until an agreement was signed that there would be no interference in the control and management of the hospital”. But whatever about the battles the sisters won, it was still dependent on sweepstake funding.
While the sweepstake thrived – notwithstanding the profound corruption of those running it – a much better health infrastructure could have been built with the funds generated and there should have been more State oversight and less stymieing of healthcare reform. But the voluntary hospitals, including St Vincent’s, must shoulder some of the blame. As Coleman observed, “They wanted to enjoy the full benefit of the sweepstake without any accountability to the State which had provided this new source of unprecedented funding”. Therein lies a compelling reason why the Sisters of Charity now owe the public ownership of the new maternity hospital.