Home News The story of Britain’s Irish nurses

The story of Britain’s Irish nurses

Ethel Corduff (nee Walsh,) 1965 City General Hospital Stoke-on-Trent.

Ethel Corduff, herself a nurse in the UK for over 40 years, told David Hennessy about her new book Ireland’s Loss Britain’s Gain which is the first comprehensive account of the Irish contribution to nursing in the NHS.

The new book Ireland’s Loss Britain’s Gain by Ethel Corduff looks at, for the first time and comprehensively, the impact of Irish nurses on the British health service.

Ireland’s Loss Britan’s Gain traces the phenomenon right from the Florence Nightingale era to the early years of the millennium.

The book takes the reader back to a time when social demographics and limited career opportunities left many young Irish with little choices for the future other than travel across the water and take up nursing training.

It is a story that Ethel knows all too well herself.

Originally from Tralee, Ethel left Ireland in 1964 and nursed in England for over 40 years.

Boasting personal recollections from many of her fellow Irish nurses as well as her own research, the book looks at their contribution to the NHS.

Ethel begins by examining the debt owed by Florence Nightingale to the Irish nursing nuns in Ireland, England the Crimea.

She then looks at how Irish nurses were needed to fill the vacancies left when the war effort took so many of Britain’s own before bringing it up to modern times and the cosmopolitan NHS of today that still has a strong Irish representation.

Ethel told The Irish World that the book came together over almost 20 years: “I think how it started originally was I did a short article for a course I was on.

“First of all, it was just about nurses in the NHS.

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“Then I thought I would do a little about Irish nurses.

“And I went to a seminar at the then City of London Polytechnic, which is now London Met.

“And Dr. Alan Clinton gave the seminar and he said how little research there was an Irish women.

“And I just said I had done a little piece on Irish nurses. He got really interested and he asked to see it.

“He asked me to give a seminar which made me actually do more research so that’s really how it started.”

Ethel would be inspired to compile the book in order to record the stories of a great deal of Irish nurses before they were lost to us.

“I did a degree at London Met and I did Irish Studies and Health, so for the Irish Studies I did Irish nurses in London.

“I was gathering material without really realizing it and then I started more research.

“I did it like a book. It was a bit rough but I sent it to the Royal College of Nursing Scutari Press.

“But it was rejected. They said there was no personal stories. There wasn’t, so that put me thinking.

“Gradually, because I had already got some personal stories from the survey that I had done on Irish nurses in London, I then started interviewing friends- Sometimes when I was on night duty.

“When I was working with somebody, I would get their story, you know?

“And I became really interested in it and I thought to myself, ‘It’s a shame that these stories will die out because they’ve never been recorded’.

“Actually one of the people I interviewed in my chapter about wartime and its aftermath died at the weekend- Before she even got the book.

“That’s why it’s sad some of these stories are going.

“A lot of people now are contacting me about their mothers, their mothers were nurses but some of the mothers have already gone and their stories are, I wouldn’t say they’re lost. They’re not but they’re not from the nurse herself.

“It’s just to get all these nurses stories, you know?

“To get their stories and to not have them forgotten.

“And people had such interesting things to say.

“Also, the amount of people that were nursing from Ireland was amazing.

“There’s so many more nurses’ stories that I haven’t got yet but I might, I might.

Annette McGarry from Limerick when a student nurse at The Whittington Hospital, London in 1957 (Photo by Seamus McGarry).

“The only thing is I didn’t really do many Irish men so I devoted a whole chapter to Irish men in the book, because they’re always important. It wasn’t all just women.

“The men went mostly to psychiatric hospitals. They needed strong bodies for dealing with violent patients.

“Also, during the war years, so many men were recruited for the war so the psychiatric hospitals were very short of staff.

“Some nurses ended up in psychiatric hospitals. Often they didn’t even choose them, they were just sent there and often they were put on the ward the next day after you arrived.”

Although she had been working on it for many years, it was lockdown that gave Ethel the push to finally complete the book.

“I was working on it gradually, gradually, gradually but lockdown was the catalyst because I thought, ‘Lockdown. I must do it. I must get it right’.

“I had it in 14 chapters.

“I had had those chapters reviewed by Edith Parker who was the director of nursing at the Royal London hospital. She was also chairwoman of the of the History of Nursing group: A very knowledgeable person.

“And then after that, I gave several talks which prompted more research. Everything I did was more research.

“I gave a talk The Royal College of Nursing. And then I gave a talk at the Hampstead Women’s Centre on the  topic of Irish nurses in the swinging 60s.

“They weren’t really swinging but they were in the swinging 60s.

“And then Michael (Round, Rainbow Valley Books) said he would publish it.

“He and I have worked together since last October until the end of April, May. We went through every page, he queried everything. I was really lucky with him.”

Ethel left Tralee when she saw an advert for student nurses in the Catholic publication, The Universe.

After making her decision almost ‘overnight’, she joined the City General Hospital in Stoke-on-Trent as a pre-nursing student.

“I never intended to do nursing.

“A lot of people didn’t always want to do nursing but there weren’t many choices at that time.

“Now, of course, it’s a different scenario.

“Also at that time, there wasn’t free education in Ireland so people were leaving school at 15, 16 and they could never train in Ireland because you had to pay.

“It had to be who you knew, contacts.

“And then, of course, you had large families. They couldn’t all stay at home. That was another thing, especially on a farm. They had to go.

“Going to England was, well, I won’t say easy but it was made easy, because there was a demand, especially for the NHS.

“Also, they went to areas where they had relatives. So they had a bit of backup.

“A lot of them went to areas where they had relatives, not all but some.”

While Ethel says it was not easy, she says she experienced little xenophobia when first arriving here as an immigrant.

“I felt welcome. I didn’t feel unwelcome.

“There was some racism, especially when the IRA bombs went off.

“People did say there were comments made, especially at work. Even some colleagues made comments.

“But usually it was when there was an IRA incident.

“But that was one question I did ask, about racism because that was an issue and some people experienced it, others didn’t experience it.

“As for being made welcome, I do think most people were made welcome really.

Ward Sister Betty Fennell from Killarney who sadly passed away this month.

“But some people really, really suffered with homesickness. Not as much as the girls from the Caribbean or other countries because they couldn’t go back easily whereas we could go back on a holiday fairly cheaply even though we would have to go by boat because at that time, planes were quite expensive.

“Looking back at that now, it took quite a chunk out of your holiday going to and from by boat because it’s a whole day and night traveling.”

Some Irish nurses, and indeed their counterparts from the Caribbean, were hired as state enrolled nurses (SENs) which was a lower tier qualification that came with less responsibilities and even some ‘stigma’.

Ethel explains: “Because a lot of Irish and overseas nurses were recruited into enroll nursing which meant they couldn’t go back home to nurse at all because it wasn’t accepted.

“That was a drawback for a lot of people, a lot of people didn’t actually know they were being recruited into that.

“And a lot of people didn’t tell their families. It was kept a secret. I’ve got quite a bit about that in the book.

“They didn’t tell people that they were that they weren’t SRNs (state registered nurses) but that they were SENs.

“They often didn’t tell their families or friends.

“In Ireland, people had high ideas.

“There was quite a bit of snobbery and if you were an SRN, it was great but if you were a lower grade, it wasn’t so great.

“Some people didn’t tell their families not that there was anything really to be ashamed about because enroll nurses were very good, it was just that they were they were often looked down upon even by their own colleagues.

“That was sad, but it did happen.

“I’ve got one incident in the book where a tragedy happened as a result of that.”

Ethel goes on to explain that many were given this lower ranking purely based on their performance in a test when they arrived.

“When you arrived, you had to do an entrance test.

“If you failed the entrance test, you were sent to do enrolled nurse training.

“Now, some people didn’t mind because enrolled nurse training was practical nursing. You didn’t deal with drugs, you didn’t take charge of the ward even though you probably were quite capable.

“And it was a lot of Irish.

“But then they brought in the conversion course later on and a lot of them converted at that stage.

“They became staff nurses.

“The other thing that’s important is an awful lot of trained nurses came to work in England. They left Ireland and left after training so it’s one of the big losses really: Ireland’s loss, Britain’s gain.

“It wasn’t just trainee nurses. It was trained nurses.”

One thing that struck Ethel in her research was actually how well that Irish nurses did with exams and qualifications despite standards of education in Ireland at the time.

“I think the amount of nurses that passed examinations during training who had no educational certificates- I’m not saying it surprised me, but it was a quite a number.

Nurses Prizegiving 1968 City General Hospital, Stoke-on-Trent 1968 (Staffordshire Sentinel) .

“They often surpassed the British in their numbers of passing examinations.

“Most were dedicated.

“They succeeded despite having little education.

“I found a lot of people wouldn’t agree that it was a vocation.

“People used to say, ‘It’s a vocation’.

“Some people dismiss that. I think they see a vocation as a life of servitude and they don’t see it in that way.

“More a career, a profession really.

“They liked the fact that with that profession, they could get work anywhere really, even back in Ireland.

“In fact, going back to Ireland, they were actually paid better. The pay was better but they didn’t have the opportunity to do many courses or get promotion.”

This is very much the case now with many Irish nurses leaving Ireland for not just the UK but also places like Australia and New Zealand.

“It’s going on all the time. It’s going on even more now because it’s degree training now and a degree is a passport to travel. You can get work anywhere really.

“And obviously in Australia, they have better conditions.

“Same for doctors as well.”

The pandemic saw healthcare professionals being viewed in a whole new light.

Sadly this was not reflected in the government’s 1% pay increase.

“That was a rubbish increase. I mean after what they’ve been through- And they’re still going to go through it. I mean this Covid is still here and it’s getting worse again.

“I think trained nurses will always leave Ireland but that time they weren’t leaving to travel, it was more for better conditions.

“Now, the Irish are so well educated, they have got more choice.

“So really the people coming into nursing now are the ones that really want to do nursing. They have more choice so now if they choose nursing, I think they really want to do it.”

Just last week the BBC looked at the contribution of health workers from overseas and their contribution to the NHS in spite of discrimination and hostility.


Ethel was invited to be on the programme but recommended two more nurses.

“One of the people that is in my book is on that programme.

“I was actually asked to be on it but they wanted people that trained in the 1950s. I recommended Maire Duckett and Annette McGarry.

“Maire Duckett. Her story is interesting.

“Another one of my interviewees Annette McGarry is the wife of Seamus McGarry. He’s well known in the Irish community.”

Annette was unable to take part in the programme but Maire featured.

The book includes humorous recollections as well as the personal stories.

“I liked to ask them, ‘Tell me something funny that happened, something unusual’.

“I gave another talk at the London Met and there was a lot of interest when I read out some funny bits.

“They thought it was so amusing. It’s good because it’s not all serious stuff.

“There was one where a patient went missing and she was missing for three days. Someone had accidentally locked her in a room.

“That was one of my wartime stories.

“And when they opened the room, they found her covered in soot.

“She had been up the chimney.

“There was one where a nurse went to a convent, and the Reverend Mother was so strict, she wouldn’t pay them.

“She didn’t pay her for the last month she was there because she was leaving to go to another hospital.

“The Reverend Mother was furious because she said she was going to a Protestant hospital.

“When one nurse was in a home, she would take patients out for a walk. I think the patients were mostly unmarried mothers, maybe with learning disabilities. As soon as they would see a man, they would run after him and try and pull his trousers down, believe it or not.

“There’s a lot more stories out there.

“I’m considering getting more stories later on and just doing a personal storybook.”

For more information, click here.

To purchase a copy email [email protected] or tel 0208 656 3891 for details.

An extract from Ireland’s Loss Britain’s Gain by Ethel Corduff:

I left school at fifteen after passing the Intermediate Certificate. After a few years of working at low wages in Dublin and Killarney, I felt there was no future for me in Ireland at that time. Most of my friends had gone nursing to England. My mind was made up practically overnight that I would go to England.

I answered two advertisements for student nurses in The Universe, a Catholic publication which I thought would only have reputable hospital advertisements. The City General Hospital, Stoke on Trent was the first to reply. Within a few weeks I received a letter of acceptance with an invitation to start as soon as possible, as a pre-nursing student before the next preliminary training began in two months.

I was so excited on departure day; I just did not feel sad. It was my first time ever to leave Ireland, even for a holiday.

Crewe was a big, noisy, dirty station where I boarded the train for Stoke on Trent. As the train neared my destination it was horrifying to see the sight of chimneys everywhere. Smoke filled the sky; there were many strange looking buildings. I was to discover later they were kilns. I was now in the Potteries!

The hospital was huge. Matron Agnes Brown was from County Mayo. She was a forbidding looking figure in black and her huge white nurse’s cap reminded me of a nun’s veil. Her voice was powerful, and terrifying. Matron welcomed us to the hospital and listed all the times of the Masses in the hospital chapel and in the nearest church at Newcastle under Lyme. She recommended daily Mass and later we discovered she was there every morning and could see which nurses attended.

I had hardly ever handled a baby but I found I was expected to feed, change, and observe them without orientation. It was July and so very hot. We had to wear masks all the time. The smell of urine and faeces penetrated the mask.

The pre-nursing students did all the menial work, sluicing used napkins and heavily soiled linen. The others seemed to know so much about babies I felt cut off from them.

I was so homesick, some nights I cried so much I could hardly sleep. After three long hot weeks of masks, daily church and sick babies, I could not take it anymore. Once I had made the decision to go, I waited in the queue outside Matron’s office. She surveyed my untidy appearance with disdain. ‘Well, Nurse.’ She boomed. ‘I want to leave, Matron, I will never make a nurse.’ She started shouting at me. ‘Coming all the way from Ireland you are a disgrace to your parents, you have no guts or backbone, obviously you are not fit to be a nurse. It is disgraceful behaviour and I am disgusted.’

In a terrible state and feeling like a criminal I eventually crawled out of her office. Chastened and nervous, within an hour I was back in Matron’s office. She was furious to see me again. ‘What is it this time?’  She yelled and she did not call me nurse. ‘I have changed my mind Matron. Can I stay on and go into PTS please?’ ‘You can’t keep changing your mind like this.  If I allow you to stay you will not be able to leave until you finish your training.’ she retorted angrily. I was trapped.

The three years ahead would be very difficult, but I knew I would have to endure it and I did: I grew to love it, becoming a ward sister and years later an acting ward manager and I nursed until I reached retirement and five years beyond.

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