When you travel along the Ring of Kerry between Castlecove and Caherdaniel, you see a forlorn row of ruined buildings overlooking the sea, their windows and roofs open to the elements. What might easily be taken for an abandoned famine-era village is known locally as ‘Lady Brodrick’s’. The construction and dilapidation of these buildings belong to the life story of the Honorable Albinia Lucy Brodrick, youngest daughter of a prominent and wealthy British political family. She rebelled against a life of privilege when she learned Irish, trained as a nurse, and moved to Kerry in her 40s to build a hospital and participate in the push for Irish independence.
Albinia was born in 1861 into the British ruling class. Her father had extensive properties, with estates in Ireland which had originally been granted to the family under Cromwellian rule. Coming from a privileged background, she visited Buckingham Palace and travelled in Europe. However, her altruistic nature emerged early on in her life. As a young woman, she attended classes in nursing at St John's Ambulance in Chelsea. She also taught adult literacy at the local school in Peper Harow where the family lived. When her father became nearly blind in later life, Albinia kept him abreast of current affairs by regularly reading the newspapers to him. She also joined him on some business trips to Cork. These visits served to heighten her awareness of the appalling poverty which was widespread in Ireland. She lived in Oxford for a time during the 1890s and up to 1903, where she managed the household affairs of her uncle, George Brodrick, warden of Merton College. One of her activities at this time involved organizing chess tournaments for women. As a single woman who prized education, her life with her uncle must have provided her with the welcome opportunity of moving in academic circles. However, in 1903, this all changed. Albinia’s nursing training began in that year, her uncle died, and she appears to have cut ties with her family.
Albinia’s early nursing experience was gained in Ashtown-Upon-Lyne. She worked for a time in the local workhouse and was deeply affected by the hardships she witnessed there. In 1904, she moved to Ireland and continued her nursing training there. By 1909, she was a fully qualified nurse; certified midwife; certified health visitor and held two certificates as a sanitary inspector. Throughout her life, she would advocate for the training and registration of nurses to ensure high standards of care. She also promoted nurses’ rights and pressed for the formation of a union for nurses. She went on to chair the Irish Nurses Organisation (INO), the Irish Nursing Board, the National Council of Nurses Committee on venereal diseases and wrote of her concern about the criminal exploitation of young women.
After her father’s death in 1907, Albinia decided to use her inheritance to build a hospital in Ireland to care for the ‘children haunted by tuberculosis, the women tortured by childbirth and the men struck low before their time’. She ploughed her money into this project, building a hospital just west of the village of Castlecove and naming it Ballincoona (‘place of caring’). She also made a co-operative shop, a workshop and a storehouse, a farm and formed a co-operative agricultural society. In the process, she drained 4 acres of bog, planted many trees, laid a road and dug a 6m deep well. By 1912, her funds were exhausted. She and her great friend Mary MacSwiney travelled to the United States where they succeeded in raising funds for the hospital. A beautiful spot with extensive views and proximity to the coast and a pier, the hospital was bright and airy, in line with her approach to healthcare which was very progressive for the time. The venture had cost £11,000 - a fortune in those times. The Irish Architectural Archive records sea walls being built at Ballincoona for the Hon. Albinia Brodrick ca. 1910 at a cost of £2000. According to the London Land Tax Valuation, in 1910 the Old Bailey was worth just £6,600.
Having become fluent in Irish, by 1911, Albinia Brodrick had changed her name to Gobnait Ní Bhruadair and had become an ardent Republican.
She supported the 1916 Easter Rising (the armed attempt by a group of Irish nationalists to free Ireland from the rule of the Parliament in London). Her election as a Sinn Féin Councillor in 1920 was surely the ultimate humiliation for her brother, John, the Earl of Midleton, who led Ireland’s southern unionists in the campaigns against home rule and later partition. She opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. This was an agreement between the government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and representatives of the Irish Republic that provided for the establishment of a self-governing dominion within the British Empire which would be known as the Irish Free State.The fighting between pro- and anti-treaty factions eventually led to civil war, with Ní Bhruadair a supporter of the Anti-Treaty forces, hiding men and arms during this time.
One day in May 1923, while on a republican errand to Sneem, the sixty-one-year-old was ordered to stop her bicycle by pro-treaty forces. When she refused, they shot her. Wounded in the leg, she was taken to Dublin, first to Kilmainham jail and then to North Dublin Union. Once imprisoned, she immediately went on hunger strike. Two weeks later and close to death, she was released. She recovered her health but was later to say that it would have been better had she died for the cause. In 1924, when canvassing in the north of the country, she declined to lower the tricolour when ordered to do so. Eventually, it was wrested out of her hand, but only a short distance up the road she produced another tricolour and brandished that instead! She continued her political activities in the years that followed, remaining involved with Cumann na mBan until 1933 when she formed a new party, ‘Women of the Republic’, which however, attracted few members.
A hospital with no patients
Ní Bhruadair offered the British government the use of the hospital for treating the wounded of WWI. However, in 1915, her offer was declined. A licence was required to operate a hospital, but her application was denied, possibly due to her political activities as well as her sex, nationality and religious affiliation. A protestant, she was a member of the Church of Ireland.
According to one source, a man whose leg was broken during the construction of a neighbouring building, Staigue Fort House Hotel (still a going concern), was the only patient ever to be treated there. However, Bertie Scully, who was an officer with the Glencar company of the Republicans, speaking of a reunion of men at an Irish college in Caherdaniel in either 1916 or 1917, reportedly said that several of the 1916 men recuperated there and that it was a very advanced and enthusiastic gathering as regards language and nationalism. It is quite likely that there was music too. Ní Bhruadair herself was said to have a good singing voice. She regularly played the harmonium in her local protestant church in Sneem.
As the years passed, the hospital into which she had ploughed so much energy and resources remained unused. In the 1940s, she sold its roof. A firm from Cork used a wrecking ball to remove the roof and thereby accelerated the decline of the buildings that today stand in such ruination. However, the co-op remained a going concern until the end of her life. According to a local farmer, Michael Sheehan of Derreensillagh, who remembers ‘Albina Brodrick’, the co-op sold a great array of produce with crockery, household goods and animal feed. A horse and cart would take one day to bring the provisions from Caherciveen and another day to go back.
In January 1955. Ní Bhruadair died at home amidst the hospital ruins at the age of 93. A member of her staff was by her side. Although it is said that it amused her to think how her death would make news due to her name’s ‘wretched little prefix’ (Honourable), it was the wording of her will which was to make headlines. Written in Irish, she bequeathed the hospital to the Republicans ‘as they were in the years 1919 to 1921’ – a bequest that was ruled by Justice Sean Gannon in 1979 to be ‘void for remoteness’. A local family now leases the land, but exactly from whom is unknown.
Funeral and headstone
Few people attended the funeral. This was in part because she decreed that no intoxicating liquor was to be served at her funeral. Furthermore, a special dispensation had to be granted to Roman Catholics wishing to attend a Protestant funeral. However, the president of Ireland was represented at her funeral by on Officer of the Irish army. Her coffin was a plain deal with no metal handles or any ornament, exactly as she had wished. It was lowered into the grave wrapped in a tricolour.
Thirteen years after her death, in 1968, a Celtic cross with an inscription in Irish was erected in her honour in Sneem graveyard. In contrast to her funeral, this occasion was attended by a large with many dignitaries and was widely reported in the press.
Albinia Brodrick’s sister’s niece by marriage (not Albinia’s niece as commonly reported), Agathe, married a von Trappe. The story of their children and her husband’s second wife Maria was the subject of the celebrated film, the Sound of Music. Her great grand-niece Alexandra was a lady-in-waiting to Princess Diana in the 1990s.
What was she like as a person? Michael Sheehan (Derreensillagh) recalls ‘Lady Brodrick’ (as she is still known locally) as a small elderly woman who was instantly recognizable ‘a mile off’ due to her signature nurse’s hat. She is remembered for the swish-swishing of her big skirts as she cycled everywhere, always clad from head to toe in her blue nurse’s uniform. She was known to live frugally, wearing the same boots for decades, her clothes thread-bare. A progressive person in many ways, she was a vegetarian. Her English upper-class accent would have been remarkable in an area inhabited largely by local Irish-speaking people. It is said that her spoken Irish was uttered with the same grand English accent. Like others in the locality, Michael Sheehan pronounces her first name Albina (with the ‘i’ pronounced like eye) rather than Albinia which is how her name is entered on the 1911 census. When visiting a patient, her opening enquiry was unfailingly, ‘My dear, have your bowels moved today?’ People answering this question often masked their embarrassment with a wisecrack. However, her skills as a nurse and as an educator on health matters were very much appreciated. In the 2013 issue of the Caherdaniel Parish Magazine, Pádraig Mac Fearghus recounts how she would deal with medical cases which proved too demanding for her. She would cycle the distance of over 40km from Ballincoona to Kenmare where she would collect ‘the Buggy’, a two-horse covered carriage which served as an ambulance. She would then drive the patient to the hospital before cycling back home again. Formidable!
Her writing displays an analytical mind and the occasional use of humour or wordplay to make a point. In 1904, she wrote a book of poems, ‘Verses in Adversity’. She did not approve of alcohol consumption and felt that its abuse was at the root of many physical and mental health issues. In a paper entitled ‘the Influence of Alcohol’, published in the Journal of Inebriety (a journal still in print), she writes: "The terms ‘toxin’ and ‘toxic’ condition have within the past 10 years become familiar to the laity, who correctly interpret them 'as conveying a warning of grave danger'. That intoxicating liquors are to be placed in the same category is a fact which they 'have so far failed to grasp . . . Alcohol is no more a necessary accompaniment of a meal than are truffles." Living at a time when women were treated as inferior beings to men, her thinking ran contrary to the prevailing attitudes of the time. ‘Sons should be brought up to be modest and daughters to be brave!’
A diary which Albinia had written as a 19-year-old during a European tour in May 1880 with her family came to light in the 1990s. Mary Horgan of Waterville made a copy of this diary. It was originally discovered by a young English boy who had been exploring the ruins of Ballincoona while holidaying in Ireland in the 1970s. He returned to Kerry in in 1999 to read excerpts from the diary at the Éigse na Brídeoig launch of Pádraig O’Loinsighs biography of Ní Bhruadair. The diary was written in the expectation that one day it would be read by her grandchildren. In Michael Donnelly’s article about this diary in the 2014 issue of the Caherdaniel Parish Magazine, he selected quotes which show us an educated, well-informed, religious, empathetic and self-assured young lady. However, the diary also gives us glimpses of her less serious side.
‘The floor of the reading room has a most beautiful parquet that almost makes you dance in spite of yourself’.
At the Cathedral St Denis. ‘did some sketching despite the express prohibition of one of the officials’. Elsewhere, ‘I occupied myself with caricaturing the boatmen, surreptitiously of course.
She makes fun of her sister Helen, who mislaid her purse five times during the trip and bought ‘a hat so large she was lost in it’. ‘Helen, on her arrival, left her umbrella outside in the rain for the purpose of drying it but curiously enough, until taking it in at 9.30pm, it was still sopping later. Curious phenomenon!’
‘At dinner, it fell to me to be seated by a fellow country man. I wonder if I shall ever again meet such a charming specimen of self-conceit and pomposity’.
If her memory is coloured in some quarters by her Anti-Treaty stance, her dedication as a nurse is universally remembered with appreciation. The premature ruination of the hospital by using a wrecking ball to remove the roof – comparable perhaps to using a sledgehammer to swat a fly - upset many people in the locality. The wording of the will has also resulted in the title of the property remaining, it seems, in some form of legal limbo. Perhaps somewhat ironically, it is the very existence of the ruins and the curiosity they arouse, that helps to keep her memory alive. When living out her days in the ruins of Ballincoona, was she ever reminded of the impression the Jardin des Tuilieres in Paris had made on her 19-year-old self? ‘Poor Tuilieres! How forlorn it looks with its windows and roof open to the rain.’
Reading and sources
Diary dated May 1880. Albinia Brodrick
‘A Lady not for Turning’, Albinia Brodrick. Pádraig Mac Fearghus. Caherdaniel Parish Magazine 2013
‘Extracts from the personal Diary of Albinia Lucy Brodrick’. Michael Donnelly. Caherdaniel Parish Magazine 2014
Gobnait Ní Bhruadair; the Honourable Albina Lucy Broderick. Pádraig Ó Longsigh & Pádraig Mac Fearghus (1997)
The Nursing Radicalism of the Honourable Albinia Brodrick,1861-1955, Ann Wickham, in Nursing History Review, Vol. 002015 (2007)
Dictionary of Irish Biography, Brodrick, Albinia Lucy. Frances Clarke
Burr, M. (1909). Some statistics of criminal assault upon young girls. British Journal of Nursing, 43 (1117), 175-178.
Irish and British newspaper archives
Ruins of the hospital with drawing of Albinia Brodrick/ Gobnait Ní Bhruadair © Aoibheann Lambe
Images of Albinia Brodrick/ Gobnait Ní Bhruadair original source and authors unknown
Newspaper cuttings from the Irish times
Ruins of the hospital as seen from the main road © Aoibheann Lambe