Bridget Hedderman, Pioneer District Nurse in early 1900s.

Bridget Hedderman. Curtesy of Michael O’Connell.

Hedderman, Bridget (1872–1943), district nurse, was born on 17 January 1872, in the family home at Querrin, just outside Kilkee, Co. Clare, the eldest of four daughters of Manus and Mary Hedderman (née Nash). Michael O’Connell her grandnephew still lives in the house.

Manus Hedderman worked a variety of jobs, including fisherman, boatman and labourer. He drowned in Limerick on 14 May 1879 after bringing turf from West Clare in a turf boat leaving Mary Hedderman alone with four daughters, Bridget was only 6 and the youngest was only five months old.  Mary, his wife, never remarried, supporting her family by working first as a farmer, later as a charwoman. The details of Bridget Hedderman’s early education are unknown, but she spoke English and Irish. Irish was the language of the time in West Clare and the area was designated a Gaeltacht by the new state in the 1920s until the status was withdrawn in 1956.

Michael O’Connell

House where Bridget Hedderman was born. Her grandnephew Michael says it was thatched in her time.

By September 1893, she was a wardsmaid in the Kilrush Union workhouse infirmary. In January 1894 she was promoted to nurse, a position that then required no specialised  training however the workhouse infirmaries were one of the places that you could get the title nurse because of the experience acquired. Nursing was been established as a profession and these early pioneers had to contend with much opposition. This came from politicians who wanted to avoid cost on their rate paying voters with a system of using untrained workhouse women, as nurses. Opposition also came from the Medical Profession who felt threatened regarding demarkation and fees and the Clergy who feared nursing would be used to proselytise and felt it should be left to religious sisters.

That May, she left Kilrush to train as a midwife at the Coombe lying-in hospital, Dublin. In 1896, after receiving her midwifery certificate, she became head nurse in the Corofin Union workhouse infirmary.

When the Kilrush Union workhouse infirmary advertised for a new head nurse in 1898, she applied, and the board of guardians voted to appoint her. That vote was vetoed by the Local Government Board (LGB), on the grounds that Hedderman did not qualify as a trained nurse under the new guidelines created following the Local Government (Ireland) Act of 1898. The LGB defined ‘trained’ as a nurse who had attended a training programme at a hospital with at least 140 beds. She began applying for qualifying training programmes but struggled to find a spot.Her tenure as the head nurse in Corofin  ended in June 1901, having finally received an offer to train in Dublin. Briget’s sister Mary Ann had spent some time nursing in the United States with their sister Margaret and had brought home very modern ideas of what the neglected areas of Ireland were most in need of.

In spring 1903 Bridget found herself on board the old steamer S.S. Duras on her way from Galway to Inis Oírr as the Galway City Board of Guardians hired Hedderman, by then a fully qualified nurse to serve as midwife and district nurse for Inis Oírr and Inis Meáin, the two smaller of the three Aran Islands.

What makes Bridget so special is that she published a book, “Glimpse of my Life in Aran “ in 1917. In the memoir she published  Hedderman recalled cultural differences between herself and the islanders, compounded by her initially weak grasp of the dialect of Irish spoken there, and her boredom and despair in this remote and desolate outpost.It had stories of births and deaths and travelling between the islands in extreme weather to see a sick person sometimes at great risk.

Book Cover

When parliament introduced the Midwives (Ireland) Bill in 1917, she expressed her opposition in letters to the Irish Independent and the Nursing Times, arguing that the bill’s failure to take Ireland’s circumstances into account would prevent it from improving midwifery standards. Above all, she decried the lack of financial support given to nurses and midwives by the state and local authorities. Thus, in 1911 she clashed with the penny-no pinching Galway City Board of Guardians, which initially only paid £3 when she billed them for £4.3s for additional work; she was eventually paid in full.

She used her professional networks not only to advocate for Ireland’s healthcare needs generally but also to help her patients (many of whom were poverty stricken) earn a living. In December 1913, she wrote to the British Journal of Nursing asking her fellow nurses to recommend the islander’s crochet lace to their wealthy private patients. She promoted it as an excellent wedding or Christmas present that would help an industrious people support themselves. She also sold the islanders’ handicrafts at the All-Ireland Industrial Conference in 1908.

Hedderman published her memoir, Glimpses of my life in Aran, in 1917. In interviews with the Nursing Times and the British Journal of Nursing, she revealed that she had published it in part as a fundraising effort to build a nurse’s cottage on Inis Meáin. She made only £35 a year at the time. This salary equalled that of the head nurse in the Galway City workhouse infirmary, but unlike workhouse nurses, Hedderman had to provide her own food and housing. This task proved difficult on the Aran Islands, forcing frequent moves. The cottage, which would have made her job more sustainable, was never built.

The preface to her memoir introduces the book’s entwined themes of exposing the difficulties of maternity work in remote areas, and providing information on the unique culture of the Aran Islanders. Praising her depictions of it scholars continue to cite “Glimpses” both in histories of nursing and in studies of Irish culture. It provides the only extant long form account of district nursing in rural Ireland during this period.

After leaving the Aran Islands in 1922, she moved to Achill Island, Co. Mayo, to work for the Congested Districts Board as part of a new programme that sent Irish-speaking instructors of domestic economy to help people in remote districts implement modern sanitary standards. The programme was inspired by the work of district nurses like Hedderman, who instructed their patients on how to keep their homes clean and prevent infections.

She returned to Querrin to live with her sister after her chronic ailment returned and Bridget Hedderman died on 14 March 1943 in Querrin, Co. Clare. Her remains are buried in Templemeeagh Graveyard, Querrin, with those of her mother and two of her sisters.

In loving memory of Mary Nash Hedderman died 1928. Bridget Hedderman died 1943. Mary Ann Hedderman died 1952. Kate McMahon died 1939 R.I.P. Erected by the McMahon family, Querrin. McMAHON.

Michael O’Connell, her grandnephew, remembers the stories about her and recalled a story about the time she took her nieces to Inisheer island, one of the Aran Islands, by currach and the adventures they experienced.They probably never wanted to see the inside of a currach again after the sea crossing from Doolin.

General Registry Office, (birth and death certs); Freeman’s Journal, 15 May 1879; 13 Mar. 1899; Clare County Archives, Kilrush Union minute books 1893–4; Clare County Archives, Corofin Union minute books 1896–1901; National Archives of Ireland, census of Ireland 1901 and 1911,; Western People, 14 Nov. 1903; An Claidheamh Soluis, 19 Dec. 1906; 19 Jan., 1 July, 19 Oct., 9 Nov. 1907; Nursing Times, 24 Oct. 1908; 12 Oct., 22 Dec. 1917; 6 May 1922; ‘Meetings held,’ Journal of the Royal Sanitary Institute, vol. 30 (1909), 130; Connaught Tribune, 24 Sept., 8, 15 Oct., 1910; 21 Oct., 16, 23 Dec. 1911; 29 June 1912; 4, 11 Oct. 1913; 17 July 1915; 8 July 1922; British Journal of Nursing, 13 Dec. 1913; 25 Aug. 1917; Irish Independent, 2 June 1914; 14 Dec. 1917; Bridget Hedderman, Glimpses of my life in Aran: some experiences of a district nurse in these remote islands off the west coast of Ireland (1917); British Journal of Nursing, ‘Notes on books,’ British Medical Journal, vol. ii (6 Oct. 1917), 456; William L. Micks, An account of the constitution, administration, and dissolution of the Congested Districts Board for Ireland from 1891–1923 (1925), 93; Irish Press, 5 June 1943; 26 Oct. 1950; Nellie Ó Cléirigh, Hardship and high living: Irish women’s lives, 1808–1923 (2003); Ciara Breathnach, ‘Lady Dudley’s district nursing scheme and the Congested Districts Board, 1903–1923’ in Margaret H. Preston and Margaret Ó hÓgartaigh (eds), Gender and medicine in Ireland, 1700–1950 (2012), 271; Stephen A. Royle, Islands: nature and culture (2014); ‘The islands nurse from Querrin’, (internet materials accessed Sept. 2023)


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