Jeanne Rathbone

Ada English Psychiatrist Galway Woman

Posted in Ada English Psychiatrist and Irish Nationalist by sheelanagigcomedienne on July 20, 2018

Ada biography

Dr Ada English is someone whose role in Irish history is beginning to be acknowledged particularly because of the centenary events in the past few years where women’s contribution to revolutionary Irish politics and entry into the professions is  being celebrated and commemorated, at last. I too was intrigued to hear about another inspiring Galway woman.

Ada English seems like a strange name for an Irish nationalist who spoke the language having  received lessons from Pádraig Pearse in the Irish language in which she was fluent. It was only her gravestone in Ballinasloe District Asylum where she was buried alongside her patients that gave her name in Irish as Eithne Inglis.  Ada was an influential  psychiatrist under British rule in Ireland and who would also have understood the importance of identity. She was also a woman in a male dominated profession with all the attendant prejudices against women and the lack of appreciation for their work and achievements in gaining promotion and having their expertise and insights appreciated.

Ada has recently begun to be given the recognition she deserves. The biography by Dr Brendan Kelly kick started the process of the appreciation of the life and work of of one of the earliest female doctors in Ireland as well as becoming one of the original female psychiatrists in Ireland.

But she was so much more as she was an active nationalist in Cumann na mBan during the Rising and the civil war serving as a doctor, she served 6 months in prison in  Galway  Jail and she was elected to the Dáil all this alongside her very dedicated work as psychiatrist in a busy mental hospital.

She featured in Ireland in History Day by Day on the anniversary of her birth 27th January 2018

Ada English 1875-1944 was born in Cahersiveen (Cathair Saidhbhín). The family moved to Mullingar when she was a year old where her father was a pharmacist and Town Commissioner. She had four siblings while her grandfather, Richard, had been Master of the Old Castle Workhouse in the town. to secondary school at the Loreto Convent in Mullingar in 1881.

Having already trained briefly in Richmond Asylum, The Mater Misericodiae and Temple Street Hospital, Dr English arrived as the second assistant medical officer in Ballinasloe District Asylum in 1904 and for a short period, she had an appointment at a London hospital before taking the position of assistant at what is now St Bridget’s Hospital in Ballinasloe. Chronic overcrowding of the 1,293 patients (519 female, 774 male) greeted her there. Dr Kirwan’s was the Resident Medical Superintendent)at the time of Ada’s arrival in Ballinasloe.

Mary Macken (later Professor) remembered her:
I remember her crisp blond hair, remarkable eyes and fascinating lisp. She struck me as being singularly adult. She was in fact some years my senior and tolerant of everything except incompetence or willingness on our part to put up with it. For she burned to get at her real work of medicine; it was for her as much a vocation as a profession.


Ada English

Ada is sat in the centre wearing a white coat and a tie.

The esteem in which Ada held her patients was remarkably different from society at the time.The Dangerous Lunatics Act, which was passed in 1838 which initially applied to Ireland alone allowed individuals to be involuntarily detained in Asylums on account of testimonies of relatives or other familiar people relating to alleged present mental disorders. Inciting evidence often could be as basic as a “mere peculiarity of behaviour or expression”. Asylums became proverbial dumping grounds for those who were ostracised or dismissed by society. Due to the overcrowded nature of the local jails and work houses at the time many were transferred to asylums such as Ballinasloe. In doing so patients who had severe and genuine psychiatric diseases and disorders where overwhelmed in terms of space by those who often didn’t require psychiatric treatment.

She developed occupational therapy including farming and sports and under her direction Ballinasloe was the first mental hospital in Ireland to use  electric convulsive therapy.

The camogie team for which Ada was personally responsible for introducing in 1915 went on to be very successful in external competitions, winning silver medals at the Second Tailteann Games in 1928. There is now an Ada English Memorial Cup for camogie. A cinder track for cycling competitions was laid down in 1921. There were also hurling, hockey and tug of war teams.

Ada Camogie team

There is a lovely essay on Ada which won the Scoilnet 2017 History Competition Winner  by Maithiu Breathnach and the subject was – Dr. Ada English: Innovator and Revolutionary.

“Ada also developed the drama society alongside Dr Kirwan for those who had no interest in sports and/or had a major interest in the world of drama, thus catering for multiple individuals’ hobbies and passions alike. This is important to highlight in the regard in which she had concern and compassion for all her patients. The Asylum farm also gained substantial recognition at the summer convening of the Irish division of the Medico Psychological Association at Ballinasloe in June 1917 and the “many improvements recently made in the Asylum” were highlighted to a great effect. Ada also wholeheartedly believed in the power of cinema and later noted in 1940 that “it would be a great boon to the patients if the old cinema could be adjusted to take talkies”

In October 1914, Ada was appointed to a lecturership in mental disease in University College Galway a position she retained until February 1943. In 1921, she was offered the position of RMS of Sligo Mental Hospital by Austin Stack , Secretary of State for Home Affairs, but she decided to stay in Ballinasloe.The decision to overlook Ada despite given her thirty-two years experience there and the fact that she had already proven herself a capable RMS during the absence of Mills the RMS, caused understandable consternation.. She was finally appointed, in 1941, to the position of RMS. It was a long wait to gain the promotion but she so obviously dedicated to the patients, staff and the town of Ballinasloe and decided to stay there. Ada loved to tour the highways and byways around the town in her horse and trap, driven by a patient, and would stop and talk with those she met on the road. One man, who met Ada frequently when he was a child, remembers her as  always accompanied by her dogs, Victor, Isabel and Judy.

Ada Oireachtas Gaelic League

The photo of the 1913 Galway Oireachtas, outside the Town Hall in Galway which was attended by three future presidents of Ireland, Douglas Hyde, Seán T O’Kelly and Eamon de Valera as well as by Proclamation signatories Pádraig Pearse, Seán Mac Diarmada and Éamonn Ceannt, and other noted figures such as Cathal Brugha, Countess Markievic and Dr Ada English.


Of course, she was very politically involved in the area.
Ada was a nationalist both politically and culturally. Ada’s first role within subversive activities as seen by the British authorities was her and Dr Kirwan’s replacement of Queen Victoria with the Galway coat of arms on the buttons worn by staff members in 1905 as well as her erection of notices in Irish in proceeding years. She also was an early proponent of import substitution in the sense she insisted on purchasing Irish manufactured goods only where available.
She was imbued with the spirit of Irish nationalism. She was involved in the Gaelic League, Sinn Féin, Cumann na mBann and the Irish Volunteers. She was was  medical officer to Liam Mellows throughout the insurgency in Galway during the Easter Ris ing.
In June 1918 it was reported that she “took a prominent part in the women’s anti-conscription campaign in Ballinasloe…and was chief organiser”. Even beyond 1918 her various movements and actions were closely watched. In the same Dublin Castle File No. 4168, with the title of “Activities Since the Truce” it was illuminated how “after making a “blood and thunder” oration at Ballinasloe town she proceeded openly to enlist members of Cumann na mBan. The Asylum at Ballinasloe also provided the perfect environment for Ada to conceal prominent individuals such as Eamonn De Valera and Liam Mellows on some occasions from detection.
In 1921 Ada was imprisoned for six months for having been found in possession of seditious literature. Alice Cashel was there at the same time. That year she was also elected to the second Dáil of Sinn Féin’s underground, unilaterally declared Irish Republic. Ada was opposed to the Anglo-Irish Treaty and participated on the republican side during the ensuing Civil War. As Diarmaid Ferriter states in the forward to the biography it is fitting that participants such as Ada English are rescued ‘from the historical margins’ and assessed alongside their contemporaries of those revolutionary times. Until quite recently she was a neglected and nearly forgotten figure.

In 1944 following Ada’s death, due to a heart attack in Mount Pleasant Nursing Home, Ballinasloe in accordance with her own wishes she was buried in Creagh Cemetery adjacent to Ballinasloe Mental Hospital (later renamed St Brigid’s hospital (1960) until final closure in 2013) alongside some of her former patients.

Adas grave

Mrs Helena Concannon, a senator paid tribute to Ada on the 19th of April 1945 upon the Mental Treatment Act of 1945 passing in the Dail and noted her role in bringing it about. She highlighted Ada’s substantial efforts in having the term “Asylum” replaced with the less ominous “mental hospital”.

Ada’s desire to exchange the custodial nature of the prevalent institutions of the time
with a more therapeutic environment wasn’t achieved until recent times, with immense
progress still being required, an aspect identified by “A Vision for Change” in 2006
 Since her biography was published and the interest in commemoration women’s role in Irish revolutionary history the name Dr Ada English is now being recognised as an important figure in women’s contribution to medicine, psychiatry, the national struggle and political life. Her legacy is been commemorated in various ways.
There is a play by Pat Johnston who taught History at Garbally College, Ballinasloe and is now retired. As a member of St. Brigid’s Hospital Heritage Group she has worked towards keeping alive the history of the psychiatric hospital and its community. Her play,For a Little Lonely While, is an exploration of the life and work of Dr. Ada English.
There is a St Brigid’s Hospital Heritage Group and the erection of plaques honouring her at Pearse Street, Mullingar and more importantly at Loreto College, Mullingar alongside an ornate marble bench and there was an Ada English Summer School  held in Ballinasloe in 2013.

 Ada Summer School

In 1944 following Ada’s death, due to a heart attack in Mount Pleasant Nursing Home, Ballinasloe in accordance with her own wishes she was buried in Creagh Cemetery adjacent to Ballinasloe Mental Hospital (later renamed St Brigid’s hospital (1960) until final closure in 2013) alongside some of her former patients.

Mrs Helena Concannon, a senator paid tribute to Ada on the 19th of April 1945 upon the Mental Treatment Act of 1945 passing in the Dail and noted her role in bringing it about. She highlighted Ada’s substantial efforts in having the term “Asylum” replaced with the less ominous “mental hospital”.

I hope people enjoy discovering and celebrating pioneers like Ada and that Galway folk come to appreciate some of the fine inspiring women who played a part in the life of Galway in the last hundred years as much as I have in writing about them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: