Mary Coleman, District Nurse

Mary Coleman, nee McCormack, was born in Crookedwood in Co. Westmeath on May 18th 1855, the daughter of Thomas McCormack and Anne Rafferty and the eldest of 11 children.

Mary Coleman Circa 1944 001 (2)
Mary Coleman in 1944

The family, or at least most of them, seems to have moved to Athboy sometime between 1872, when their 9th child Eliza was baptised in Multyfarnham, and 1874, when Charles was baptised in Athboy. They probably moved to Athboy because Thomas got a job in the area, possibly for George W. Alley, a local landowner.

At the time the McCormack family moved to Athboy Mary would have been between 17 and 19 years old, had gone to school in Ballinafid National School, and was probably working. Family lore says that Mary got the train to Dublin to go to a job interview sometime early in 1880.  She met a man from Multyfarnham, near Crookedwood, on the platform in Broadstone station who recognised her from school.  He was Joseph Coleman and his father Michael had been a teacher in Ballinafid National School.  Mary and Joseph married in St. Andrews Church on Westland Row in Dublin on July 11th 1880.

Joseph’s occupation is listed on the marriage record as “Railway Porter”, and his address was 4 Constitution Hill, Dublin.  Mary’s address is given as 3 Herbert St. Herbert St. was, and still is, a street full of fine houses, so she must have done the interview and gotten a job as a domestic servant.

Joseph and Mary moved around a lot in the first few years of their marriage, possibly as Joseph moved or was moved from station to station on the Midland and Great Western line which ran from Dublin to Sligo via stations including Enfield and Ballaghderreen. It also had a spur line to Athboy from Kilmessan.

Their son Michael was born in Enfield on the 31st of May 1881 and was baptised in Rathmolyon.

Their daughter Anne, known as Nan, was born in Athboy on October 22nd 1882. Joseph’s address was listed as Fordrath, Athboy, on the register of births, and his occupation was still “Railway Porter”.

A second daughter, Mary, was born in Ballaghderreen, Co. Roscommon on June 4th 1884. Ballaghderreen was the terminus of a branch line of the Midland and Great Western.

After this the family moved to Dublin, mostly living in a series of what would have been tenements in the north inner city.  Patrick was born in 97 North King Street on St. Patrick’s Day 1886 and was baptised in St. Pauls on Arran Quay.  Catherine (known as Kathline or Kate) was born in 110 Lower Gardiner Street on March 5th 1888 and was baptised in the ProCathedral.

Then tragedy struck – little Mary died on May 15th 1888 and was buried in the Garden section of Glasnevin cemetery in a grave with six other people. Interestingly, her “occupation” was listed as “Quay Labourer’s child”, so perhaps the reason for the family’s return to Dublin was that Joseph lost his job on the railway and was making do with casual labour on the city quays.

They had moved down the street to 114 Lower Gardiner St. when Mary Esther was born on the 5th of April 1890. It was Easter and there were several Esthers on the same page of the baptismal register. Mary E, as she was known, was christened in the ProCathedral.

When Christina was born on Oct 12 1891, the family’s address was listed as “A BI C Sect 15 Room, 70 Benburb St” on the baptismal record.  No. 70 Benburb Street seems to have been one of Dublin Corporation’s first social housing projects and would have been considerably better accommodation than the tenements they lived in until then.  When Thomas was born on March 13th 1893 they were also living in Corporation Buildings but had moved down the road to number 73 Benburb St.

Tragedy struck the family again when Patrick was drowned in the Liffey at Arran Quay on July 14th 1893.  On the grave record from Glasnevin Trust his address was given as 11 Sarsfield Quay, River Liffey, Queen St Bridge – I suspect this refers to where he died, just around the corner from the flat in Benburb St. He was listed as a “Labourer’s child”.

The youngest of the family, Joseph Patrick, was born on July 3rd, 1894, again at 70 Benburb St.

Strangely, Mary registered the birth, but did not sign the register – “her mark” and “X” was on the record. This would indicate that she could not write. This seems unlikely as she had gone to school and she certainly could write later in her life.

Little Joseph Patrick died just over a year later, on August 10th, possibly of measles, in 190 North King Street.  190 North King Street does not seem to have been a Corporation building, so it looks that they were back in the tenements again. 

Joseph Coleman, Mary’s husband, died less than 2 months later, on October 2nd 1895, in the Richmond hospital.

Mary Coleman was now a widow living in the Dublin tenements with 6 children aged between 2 and 14.

Somehow, she managed to train as a Midwife and to get a job as a District Nurse in Athboy.  Maureen Phelan, Mary E’s daughter, thinks that her father’s employers – the Alley family in Athboy – may have used their influence to help her.  She also thinks that Thomas, the youngest, was looked after by a neighbour for a while, and Mary E, who was 5, spent some time in an orphanage in Booterstown which was paid for by her mother.

The minutes of the meetings of Trim Board of Guardians, the body who were responsible for public health at that time, were regularly reported in the Meath Chronicle. In November 1897 the Chronicle reported that the midwife in Athboy Dispensary District, Mrs. Elizabeth Russell, had tendered her resignation, would hold office until Dec 25th and expected a retiring allowance having served for 21 years. It was later reported in the Leinster Leader that Mrs. Mary Coleman had been elected as midwife by the committee of Athboy Dispensary District.  I think this means that there were a number of candidates for the job and that the committee voted on which one to appoint.

Mary’s oldest son Michael, who was 14 when his father died, started working as a labourer in the Cask department in Guinness’ on the 25th of November that year. He had gone to school in the Christian Brothers School in Brunswick Street and done his Intermediate certificate. He may have left school to start work as the family would have needed money after Joseph’s death, although it would quite common for a labourer’s child to have left school by the age of 14.  Michael worked in Guinness’ for almost 3 years until August 1898.  This means he was still living and working in Dublin when Mary had started work in Athboy.

On the night of the 1901 census Mary was living in Bridge Street, Athboy, with her son Michael, aged 19, now an Engine Cleaner, her daughter Kathline who was 13 and her son Thomas who was then 8.  Also present that night were her daughter Nan (Anne), aged 18, Nan’s husband Charles Parkinson, aged 23, and their 5 month old daughter Anne.

But where were Mary E and Christina?

There was one Christina Coleman, aged 10, a Catholic, in the 1901 census. She was listed as a “Boarder” in house 33 in Greenlanes in Clontarf East along with about 30 other girls aged between 8 and 15. Their relationship to the Head of Family is stated as “Boarder”, all of the girls were “Scholar”s and all were from Dublin. The Head of Family was Mary Ellen Finn of the Sisters of Charity. There was also one teacher and 3 servants so it looks to have been a school, or perhaps an orphanage. Mary Ellen Finn is listed as the landholder on the house and buildings census return.

There are 11 Mary Colemans aged 10 or 11 in the 1901 census. Only 2 were in Dublin. Ours looks to have been in house 61 in Booterstown Avenue. The house and building return lists a 61A, which was the Presbytery occupied by the local Catholic Parish Priest, and 61B which contained both St. Anne’s Convent and St. Anne’s Industrial School. Both were under the charge of Sister Mary Bertrand O’Keefe of the Sisters of Mercy.  This is consistent with Maureen Phelan’s information.

Also according to the 1901 census, Mary’s parents, Thomas and Anne, were living in Ford Rath, Athboy, with their eldest son Matthew, in a house rented from George W. Alley.  Thomas was a Shepherd and General Labourer and could not read.

The job of the District Nurse was largely midwifery, and the nurses travelled to their patients.  Mary travelled around Athboy and Kildalkey and as far as Ballivor to attend births, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week and in all weathers.  When the distance was too far to walk she hired a car and the Trim Board of Guardians paid for it. This was long before paid holidays were common – the Leinster Leader newspaper reported in 1905 that the the Trim Board of Guardians had agreed to give Nurse Coleman two weeks leave provided she paid a substitute herself. It was reported that she had had no leave for the five years before that.

By the time of the 1911 census, her mother Anne had died and Thomas had retired and was living in Bridge Street with Mary. Her children Kate, aged 19 and Thomas, aged 16, were also in the house on the night of the census and neither had an occupation listed.  Michael had joined the British Army and was in Clarence Barracks in Portsmouth.  Christina seems to have been working as a domestic servant for the Eaton family in Dublin.  Nan and Charlie Parkinson and their family were in Bracklin, Co. Westmeath where Charlie was a groom for Captain Featherstonhaugh. I cannot find Mary E.

Britain declared war on Germany on August 4th 1914.  Thomas enlisted in the 2nd battalion of the Leinster Regiment in Drogheda, and was sent to France and then on to Ypres in Belgium via Cork and England. He was killed in action on October 20th.  His body was never found. The minutes of the Trim Board of Guardians, as reported in the Meath Chronicle, said that Mary applied for, and was granted, two weeks sick leave.  Interestingly, the reason for her leave was not reported.  Michael served throughout the war and remained in the British Army until after he married Catherine Lynam in 1919 and came home to live in Athboy.  Their oldest son Michael was my father.

Mary continued to serve as a District Nurse in the Athboy area. She finally tendered her resignation at the end of 1933 after 37 years of service, at the age of 78.  She was replaced by her daughter, Mary E. Coleman, Maureen Phelan’s mother.  The Meath Chronicle of Sept 1st 1934 reported that Mary was awarded a pension of £44 13s 4d.

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