February 17, 2015

Ada English Biography

Brendan Kelly, Ada English: Patriot and Psychiatrist (Irish Academic Press, 2014, 170 pp, €45.00 HB, €22.45 PB).


The subject of this sympathetic and sensitive biography, Dr Adeline (Ada) English (1875-1944), was both a pioneering psychiatrist and a well known republican activist during the revolutionary period. Born in Cahersiveen County Kerry, and educated at Loreto Convent in Mullingar County Westmeath, Ada English studied medicine at the Catholic University School of Medicine in Dublin before graduating as a medical doctor from the Royal University in 1903. The admission of women to medical school being a relatively recent development – university education for females in Ireland had only commenced in 1879 – English was among the earliest women doctors in Ireland. Having grown up during the closing decades of the nineteenth-century, an eventful period in Irish history during which Home Rule and the land question dominated politics and a myriad cultural institutions were formed, English was imbued with the spirit of Irish nationalism. She was deeply involved in the Gaelic League, Sinn Féin, Cumann na mBann and the Irish Volunteers. In 1921 English was imprisoned for six months for having been found in possession of seditious literature. That year she was also elected to the second Dáil of Sinn Féin’s underground, unilaterally declared Irish Republic. When it came to deciding on the Anglo-Irish Treaty, English placed her vote with those Dáil deputies who were opposed to the terms of the agreement and she participated on the republican side during the ensuing Civil War. As Diarmaid Ferriter states in his forward to this biography, as we reflect on the events that marked the Irish revolution, it is fitting that participants such as Ada English are rescued ‘from the historical margins’ and assessed alongside their contemporaries (p. xiii).

In her professional life, Ada English devoted her medical skills to psychiatry and worked at the Ballinasloe District Asylum in a four decade stretch from 1904 to 1942. The author, Brendan Kelly, is himself an associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry while also a historian of medicine and psychiatry in Ireland. He is therefore well placed to write a biography such as this and offers an informed assessment of English’s contribution to the development of Irish mental health services in the first half of the twentieth-century. Given that his subject did not leave behind a cache of personal papers, the author has had to plough through a wide variety of sources related to both her medical career and political activism in order to write this biography. Inevitably, these two aspects of her life, medicine and politics, dominate the book. Kelly makes excellent use of such sources as the Bureau of Military History witness statements, the St. Brigid’s Hospital Archives, Dáil reports, and contemporary newspapers to chart the public record of her life while four interviews carried out in the summer of 2013 provide this biography with further insights. In chapter three, Kelly offers a wide-ranging, although accessible to the non-expert, overview of the development of mental health services in Ireland. He charts the establishment of a network of asylums across Ireland during the nineteenth-century, a development that saw an increase from 791 beds for ‘pauper lunatics’ in 1830 to 13,620 by 1896 (p. 49). When English took up her position at Ballinasloe in 1904, the asylum housed 1,293 patients, 774 of whom were males and 519 who were females. Over the next four decades English would dedicate her professional life to the asylum. In that time she encouraged progressive treatments, developed occupational therapy to a high degree and promoted sports within the institution. English cared about the welfare of patients at the asylum. She clearly had a strong social conscience and this is something that comes through very strongly throughout this biography.

Throughout her time at Ballinasloe, English remained committed to Irish nationalism and the ideal of an ‘Irish-Ireland’. She was heavily involved in both the Gaelic League, formed in 1893, and Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin, established in 1905. In 1910 she was a founding member of the Sinn Féin branch in Ballinasloe and through her cultural and political activities befriended influential figures such as Pádraig Pearse, Joseph McDonagh and Arthur Griffith. Such were her nationalist credentials that English promoted the use of Irish-manufactured products at the asylum and later set up a Cumann na mBan branch within the institution itself (p. 53). Her participation in these organisations would intensify during the revolutionary period. Kelly suggests that English used her role as assistant medical officer at the Ballinasloe asylum during the Anglo-Irish War to undermine the local RIC by offering the prospect of employment at the institution as a means of enticing policemen to leave the force (p. 26). When combined with her prominent roles in Sinn Féin and the Gaelic League it is little wonder that English came to the attention of the authorities and she was arrested at her home at 8am on the morning of 19 January 1921. She served just part of her nine-month sentence before being released on health grounds in May. The author uses contemporary accounts to document the conditions English would have encountered in prison (although there is no explicit indication whether or not prison conditions had a role to play in the bout of ptomaine poisoning that led to her release). Later that month she was elected unopposed to the second Dáil as a National University of Ireland TD. As a Dáil deputy, English demonstrated the strength of her republican sentiments by rejecting the Anglo-Irish Treaty on the basis that it was a spiritual surrender that would acknowledge the Irish people as British subjects, something that she believed had been resisted for centuries. Kelly quotes from English’s speech during the Dáil Treaty debate to show that she was at pains to put on the record that her opposition to the agreement could not be linked to personal bereavements as it had been in the case of other female deputies who voted against it. Although the Treaty was ratified by the Dáil, English would remain a staunch opponent of the settlement for the rest of her life. However, she lost her seat during the so-called ‘pact election’ in June 1922 and did not stand as a candidate in subsequent elections. She remained an uncompromising republican beyond the establishment of Fianna Fáil in 1926, and was later associated with Mary MacSwiney’s Dáil, a cohort that saw themselves as the legitimate parliament of Ireland. They rejected the Free State and denied the legitimacy of Dáil Éireann in which Cumann na nGaedheal, Fianna Fáil and the other parties had all taken their seats by July 1927.

This biography also sheds light on aspects of Irish society after 1922 and the reader cannot but reflect on the conservative social conventions that marked post-revolutionary Ireland (even if Kelly is not always explicit on this point). English had always been a strong supporter of women’s rights and consistently opposed male chauvinism. However, there was more than a hint of discrimination in the manner in which English was passed over for the position of Resident Medical Superintendent (RMS) at Ballinasloe in 1936. When long-serving RMS Dr John Mills was taken ill in 1935, she had stepped into the breach as acting RMS. Kelly uses contemporary sources to show that English was widely considered a worthy replacement for Mills during his absence. When Mills died in March 1936, the asylum’s Committee of Management had no hesitation nominating English for the post of RMS. However, in spite of English’s competence in the role as acting RMS, the Local Appointments Commission instead opted for Dr Bernard Lyons who had first qualified in 1918 before going on to work at the mental hospital in Enniscorthy County Wexford (p. 68). The decision to overlook English given her thirty-two years experience at Ballinasloe, and the fact that she had already proven herself a capable RMS during the absence of Mills, caused understandable consternation. The controversy rumbled on for a number of years with the internal politics of the institution – Lyons claiming that he had found the place in a ‘mess’ –  culminating in a January 1940 sworn inquiry into the management of the asylum from 1934. Again, Kelly’s account of this episode is succinct and based on a close reading of the sources available although some further interrogation of Lyons’s motivations for making these claims would have added a further layer of understanding. By June 1940, English had been fully vindicated. Lyons was removed as RMS and Ada English again took on the responsibility of acting RMS. In June 1941 she was finally appointed RMS at the age of sixty-six. She resigned fourteen months later in August 1942 and died on 27 January 1944.

While an intimate portrayal of a pioneering psychiatrist who was ahead of her time in terms of patient welfare and innovative treatments, this biography is not without its flaws. There is a tendency to apply broad terms such as ‘struggle for Irish freedom’ (p.12) and ‘Ireland’s republican cause’ (p. 13) to such periods as the closing decades of the nineteenth-century and the December 1918 general election. Such blanket terms do not encapsulate either the era of Parnell’s leadership of the Home Rule Party, Sinn Féin’s demand for national self-determination, or the complex reasons underpinning the eclipse of the Irish Parliamentary Party in 1918. The politics of each of these periods was rather more complex than presented and a more nuanced approach, combined with a more cautious use of terminology, would be beneficial. The book also suffers from a degree of repetition: in two separate chapters the reader is informed of English’s friendships with figures such as Pearse, Griffith, Mellowes and McDonagh. When combined with a tendency to repeat background information already provided on these individuals, on multiple occasions, the reader ends up mildly irritated as the flow of the writing is interrupted (for example: p. 20, p. 24, p. 28, p. 32, p. 39, p. 53, p. 106).

In chapter four Kelly returns to the subject of female doctors of the period more generally. He places the career of Ada English in context, assessing it alongside her contemporaries: Dr Kathleen Lynn, Dr Dorothy Price, Dr Brigid Lyons-Thornton and Dr Eleonora Fleury. Collectively, all of these women worked in a male dominated profession, were pioneering in their own ways, and they all made a significant contribution to Irish medicine. Like English, Lynn was immersed in revolutionary politics and was opposed to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921. Price, Fleury and Lyons-Thornton were also involved in revolutionary politics, although the former was a strong supporter of the Treaty. All, according to the author, were conscious of the need for a health service that would be marked by a sense of social-justice. Over-crowding in institutions, the housing conditions of the working classes and the link between poverty and ill-health were concerns common to each of these women.  Kelly demonstrates the continued relevance of each individual’s work well into the closing decades of the twentieth-century, commenting that it was ‘truly remarkable’ that these women were able to combine ‘sustained political activism with progressive medical practice’ (p. 114). However, in an independent Ireland that was weighed down from its birth by the financial legacy of the Civil War, fiscal stringency was the prevailing policy and services did not secure the investment that they needed. Perhaps this section of the book would have benefited from some consideration of the economic constraints under which successive governments operated during the state’s formative decades. The state’s chronic shortage of money undoubtedly inhibited what could have been achieved by both Cosgrave and de Valera led governments.

On balance, this is an informative, well-researched and succinct biography that will be appreciated by the specialist and non-specialist alike. It is written in a way that is accessible to the general reader while carrying fresh insights on the life of an individual who will be familiar to scholars of both the revolutionary period and the history of medicine in Ireland more generally. Given current focus on the ‘decade of commemorations’, this is a timely addition to the historiography which, deservedly, gives greater prominence to Ada English. She was a republican activist, an Irish-language enthusiast and a member of the Dáil that had to decide on the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. Minor criticisms aside, this biography outlines this remarkable woman’s contributions to the development of psychiatric treatment in Ireland. Kelly concludes that English’s professional and political endeavours were directed towards the creation of an Ireland that was fair, equitable and home to the best possible services for the mentally ill (p. 134). With the modern state having to face up to so many of its past failures in regards to issues such as these, the legacy of Dr. Ada English is as relevant today as it has ever been.

Mel Farrell tutors and lectures in history at UCD and Maynooth University respectively. He is the co-editor (with Jason Knirck and Ciara Meehan) of A Formative Decade: Ireland in the 1920s (Irish Academic Press, to be published 25 February 2015).