In a word...


Those of us from the West and familiar with the word Portiuncula all of our lives, not least as we have had relatives born at that hospital in Ballinasloe, Co Galway, have been listening with some amusement as newscasters struggle to pronounce the word over recent weeks.

That first “u” seems to have become the equivalent of Bechers’s Brook in the Grand National where many of them are concerned. They mumble it, rush it, plough through it, or – something the horses at Aintree can’t do – they avoid or go around it. Through that spoken of life-long familiarity, the word trips easily off most Western tongues, all its syllables respected and intact.

It might as well be a hornpipe.

The hospital, particularly its maternity section, has been in the news for the wrong reasons of late. Portiuncula has been one of the main beneficiaries of the closure of another section at Roscommon County Hospital. St Anne's, its maternity ward and where I was born, was closed in the 1980s. It was the only maternity ward/hospital in all Roscommon.


My late father, a particularly colourful County Councillor and given to some remarkable turns of phrase, viewed this closure with much woe. He pronounced to his fellow councillors that it meant there would be no more Roscommon people. And lo, many of his grandchildren have been born in Portiuncula.

I am among the last generation of genuinely Roscommon-born people.

We should be a protected species.

Portiuncula is an unusual name and not native to Ballinasloe or Ireland. The hospital was opened in 1945 by the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood at the invitation of the then Bishop of Clonfert, Dr John Dignan. The sisters had by then been running a nursing home in Ballinasloe since 1943.

They decided to name the new hospital after Portiuncula in Italy, which is near Assisi, where the Franciscan movement was founded by St Francis.

Literally, Portiuncula (Latin) or Porzioncula (Italian), is a small chapel inside the Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli (Basilica of St Mary of the Angels) which is about four kilometres from Assisi. It had many close associations with the life of St Francis's who, nearing death, asked to be brought there. He died nearby.

The word Portiuncula means "a small portion of land", and referred to the chapel site.