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I had the immeasurable pleasure of examining my maternal great aunt Martha’s eyes at her own home recently and learned a bit of where I came from.
It all started when my great grandfather, his wife and houseful of six children were plunged into poverty at three o’clock one morning. The comment was made about the strangeness of hailstones on the window, which turned out to be cracking windowpanes from the heat of the fire. The young children upstairs in and amongst the upper half story of thatched roof – they had been burnt out of their home.
‘We go in together and we come out together,’ was whispered wife to husband, as they went back in to get their baby niece, who they had taken in when her mother died in childbirth. In any case they were to find out what poverty meant, when everything they owned was destroyed, their friends and neighbours helping them to get back on their feet in any way they could.
As the adolescent years came round, with little to do but hang around fecklessly, brother Willie, my grandfather took an interest in shooting which one way or another resulted in the next door neighbour’s dog being shot. The police were called and the fine, upstanding Sargent Pogue duly arrived on the doorstep to investigate matters.
Seven pairs of ears cocked, in the next room as the drama unfolded, events were noted between the good Sargent and my great grandfather. Whatever way it worked out, the long arm of the law acted in mysterious ways, clearly noting the need of the family, and suggesting that Willie and his brother James had the look about them of lads that would make upstanding officers.
Pogue went on to tutor and train them at his own home, in his own time, and sure indeed didn’t they go on to become fully fledged police constables. And to all accounts never was there a worse policeman than my grandfather Willie Dennison. There wasn’t a rule he didn’t break – once when reporting for duty, unshaven and minus his cap, he lifted the cap off the head of the colleague behind and placed it on his head as he addressed his commanding officer. My grandfather used this position as a springboard to progress in life one way or another, and went on to amass a significant group of local businesses.
Not only did the Sargent Pogue do all this for the family, but his eye was somewhat better tuned when he identified the skill and character necessary for the nursing profession in my great aunt Martha. She was duly packed up and put on the train to Dublin to the good sergeant’s sister to train as a nurse with her. I enjoyed Martha’s the aside about, ‘But how will we know each other when I get to Dublin?’ and it was instructed she wrap a handkerchief over one hand on disembarkation. Nowadays, the idea of upping sticks and moving away from home to stay with someone we have never even spoken to, is quite strange to me.
We skipped to the point where my aunt, who had become matron of the Samaritan Maternity Hospital, was advising the medic in charge of the hospital that she was ‘fed up delivering babies.’ The discussion developed that she had an interest in mental health, but into her forties and having risen to an admirable rank in maternity nursing, she was going to struggle to change her specialism. By hook or by crook, something of a secret year-long placement as a student nurse in Creighton Royal Hospital in Scotland was arranged. With express instruction from my aunt that no-one was to know that she was previously a matron, she endeavoured to work out what the medical, nursing, auxiliary and janitorial people on the ground really felt.
A few years down the line, the position of matron at Holywell Hospital near Antrim came up, barely a couple of miles down the road from where the nine of them had been burnt out of their home that night. Regarding Holywell, I believe the comment was, “All you could here was the jangling of keys, and the clinking on locks – 120 beds and every single occupant was committed and continually locked up.” This was the dark old days of the sanatorium, and great-aunt Martha felt it was most definitely not the place for her. She was encouraged to apply but repeatedly declined, until her boss at Creighton Royal whispered conspiratorially, “That place needs somebody like you – somebody to give it a good shake-up.”
And duly indeed did she shake it up, getting the patients into their own clothes, out of bed. She opened the doors, she opened hair salons and workshops inside the hospital, and people did indeed start to recover and actually go home. After a few years, her mentor from Creighton Royal along with her associated medical man, came over to inspect the works, and requested that they stay in the bungalow that was built for Martha in the hospital grounds. After four days the comments was, ‘Miss Dennison, tell me what you thought the real purpose of our visit was.’
Sure enough, Miss Dennison went on to become matron of Creighton Royal the largest mental health hospital in the UK, and bring her own brand of hard work, determination, reform and professionalism to that establishment too.
Auntie Martha and I howled with laughter with the parting comment, ‘And all because your brother shot the next door neighbour’s dog.’