For a few short years, it had shone like a beacon across the country before fading into oblivion, written out of history.
The Women’s National Health Association was formed in 1907 with the laudable objective of eliminating tuberculosis, then rampant throughout the country, giving Ireland the highest rate of death by consumption (as the disease was more commonly known) in the civilised world.
At its height, the association had 170 local branches country wide, being particularly active in Westport, Ballinrobe, Castlebar, Swinford and Kiltimagh. It enjoyed the support of the medical profession, the clergy, the business and professional classes, civic leaders and public representatives. Its inaugural meetings in each town were invariably presided over by the senior clergyman of both the Catholic and Protestant communities.
The Women’s National Health Association was founded by Lady Aberdeen, wife of the vice-roy. Her deep interest in improving the lot of the people of rural Ireland was in stark contrast to many of her predecessors. Of Scottish birth, she led by example, and her many visits to Mayo, where she promoted and encouraged cottage industries, better husbandry and better housing for the poor, were warmly welcomed by all sectors of society. She and her husband were particularly welcomed to Erris, which they visited many times, and where Lady Aberdeen helped found a successful lace-making industry in Doohoma.
But it was her crusade against the White Plague, as it was also called, that took up most of her time and energy. The association raised funds to establish pasteurised milk depots; build cottage hospitals, dispensaries and sanatoriums; employ community nurses; introduce medical inspection in schools; and mount intensive information campaigns to educate the population about TB and how it might be curtailed. A major innovation was the War on Consumption caravan, a travelling roadshow comprised of exhibitions, lectures, pamphlets, school visits, and public meetings, often at the invitation of local doctors in despair from fighting what seemed a hopeless battle against the disease.
Among Lady Aberdeen’s staunchest allies were the McManus sisters of Killeden House in Kiltimagh – Lottie, novelist and author, and Emily, founder of the local branches of the Gaelic League. Their annual Killeden Agricultural Show was the biggest event of its kind in Connacht. Its purpose was to encourage the growing of fruit, vegetables and farm produce, and the development of the small home industries on which many families depended.
In Mayo, the Women’s National Health Association reached its peak in 1914, but other events were to push the movement off centre stage. The thunder sounds of war in Europe, the fear of conscription, and the rising tide of nationalist fervour were contributing to a mood of change. The tenure of Lord Aberdeen as Lord Lieutenant was coming to an end, and he and his wife opted to return to Britain, notwithstanding that they had always been highly praised for never involving themselves in the politics of Ireland.
Without its driving force, the association faded away. It would take another 30 years and the arrival of Dr Noel Browne for the scourge of TB to be again addressed and finally defeated.
As a footnote, and as if to show that one cannot please all of the people all of the time, is the report of a meeting of the Ballinrobe Board of Guardians, a forerunner to local councils. When the clerk sought to read a letter from Lady Aberdeen, a Mr Costello told him to leave it aside and not waste time reading it, while a Mr Hughes opined that it was all ‘a set-up, to give jobs to shoneens all over the country’.
And a Mr Walsh chimed in to say that ‘the place of women is at home, and what they should be doing is knitting and darning and looking after the household work’.