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 despair at three o’clock one morning. The comment was made about the strangeness of hailstones on the window, which turned out to be the cracking of windowpanes from the heat of the fire. The young children were upstairs, in and amongst the thatched roof of the upper half story of the modest farmhouse – they were to be 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 during childbirth. In any case, the entire collective would go on to find out what poverty truly meant when almost everything they owned was totally destroyed. Their friends and neighbours came together and went on to help in any way they could, to get this family back on their feet.
As the adolescent years came around and with little to do but hang around fecklessly, brother Willie (my grandfather) took a keen interest in shooting, which one way or another resulted in the next door neighbour’s dog getting shot! Events proceeded, the police were duly called and the fine, upstanding Sergeant Pogue arrived on the doorstep to investigate matters.
Seven pairs of ears were cocked in the next room as the drama unfolded, and 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 a family in need. Rightly or wrongly the suggestion was made by the Sergeant, that Willie and his brother James had the look about them of young lads who would make upstanding officers of the law. 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 him and placed it on his own head as he addressed his commanding officer. I believe that my grandfather never sought to clamber his way up the slippery promotional ladder but was able to use this position as a stepping stone and even potentially as a springboard to progress in life one way or another. From buying and selling vehicles whilst directing vehicles during his police duty at Carlisle Circus in Belfast, he went on after a good number of years to amass a significant group of local businesses.
Not only did the Sargent Pogue do all of this for the Dennison family, but his eye was maybe 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 Sergeant’s sister, to train as a nurse with her.
I very much enjoyed Auntie Martha’s aside about, ‘But how will we know each other when I get to Dublin?’ It was instructed she wrap a handkerchief over one hand on disembarkation in order to be recognised. 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 skip to the point in the 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 enduring interest in mental health, but being in her forties and having risen to the weighty rank of Matron in charge of a specialist hospital dedicated to maternity medicine, she was going to struggle to change her own career specialism.
By hook or by crook, something of a secret year-long placement as a student nurse was arranged in Crichton Royal Hospital in Scotland, an internationally recognised centre of excellence in mental health research and care. With express instruction from Auntie Martha that absolutely 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, based on the 140-acre site near Antrim and caring for over 800 inpatients 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 hear was the jangling of keys, and the clinking on locks – 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. That was until her boss at Creighton Royal whispered conspiratorially, “That place needs somebody like you – somebody to give it a good shake-up.”
And 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. They requested that they stay in the bungalow 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. She went on to deliver a number of genuine step-changes in care for the people being looked after.
Auntie Martha and I howled with laughter with the parting comment, ‘And all because your brother shot the next door neighbour’s dog.’