A Woman of Mayo

My Mother,seated holds me on her right with siblings.

I was born on Feb 6th 1924 , the eldest of Dick and Bridget Lyons’ nine children. The place was Bunlahinch some five miles west of Louisburgh, Co Mayo. Bunlahinch means, in Irish, Bun-leath-hinshe or the foot of the half island.  The name predates the more common name of the place, ‘The Colony’, a name given to it by a group of Protestants who settled there during the famine. They gave soup and religion to the starving. In a more enlightened age we remember them kindly for their generosity.

Growing up I thoroughly enjoyed life in the fields, following the seasons. How we reveled in the Spring and Summers because the winters were cold, wet and wild. It is easy to forget the hard times, going out for turf or a can of water or ‘closing on the hens’ in bitter cold weather. The big hearth fire leaps into memory  as we rushed to it  when we came back into the kitchen; there we warmed our feet a t night before  rushing to bed lest the feet grow cold  on the way!

At thirteen I was sent to boarding school in St Louis, Balla, Co Mayo where I spent 6 years. At the end of that period I believed my self to have a call to serve people in Africa . Mission overseas was then only achievable by becoming a nun so I joined the Holy Rosary Sisters in Killeshandra, Co Cavan.

This did not please my mother one little bit. The parish Priest advised her to let me go to the dances and I might forget it. Now that I am older I grieve for the pain the decision caused my parents. I was young, gregarious, outgoing and loved dancing. I suppose it came to them like a bolt from the blue.

So to Killeshandra I went one cold day in February 1943 with my father who was then 70 years old. Training in the Religious life in those days was Spartan. My natural exuberance was trimmed a little (but not lost!) as I learned silence, discipline and prayer.

Kneeling at the altar having just received the habit and a new name

It was from Killeshandra that I was sent to study medicine graduating in 1952. Then to Sierra Leone , formerly referred to as The White Man’s Grave due to the death rate among the first Europeans arriving there. Of course the climate was just as deadly for the indigenous population as we who came later recognized. I worked in a farming village called Serabu where I spent most of forty two years.

My medical training was hospital based so my dream was to get a hospital going and treat those who fell ill. This was accomplished by 1970. It was small – 120 beds – with services for surgery, obstetrics, medicine and pediatrics. Our pride was the lovely children’s ward designed so mothers could have a rest when their children were ill.

As the only doctor immediately available I was obliged to respond to surgical emergencies and gained repute as a surgeon.

Gradually I began to look at the overall pattern of disease coming to the hospital and observed that a very large percentage were preventable. Many of the people liked the precision of surgery. If you could take it (the disease) out it was gone; to make sure the family always asked to see what had been removed! However, slowly it came to us that no matter how spectacular the surgery was (and the size of fibromyomata was indeed at times spectacular, weighing up to seven or eight pounds) it would never change the actual health status of the people. Energetically we looked around for some way of getting to the root of many disease problems.

Then it was my time to get a shock – I was asked by my superiors to go back to Ireland . This was my most exciting time and I was devastated. Before being assigned elsewhere I asked to do a course in Public Health for one year in Antwerp . There I was surprised to learn that planning, management and statistics; sociology anthropology, and group dynamics were all on the programme.  My small hospital concept of medical care was blown apart. I learned that health belongs to the people, that it is locked deeply into their culture and beliefs.

Back at Serabu we put our heads together and realized that we had to learn many things but from the people this time.

What were their concepts of health? What caused disease? What did they do about it? Why did they do that? And why did they choose that particular way? We went to the villages at night time, farmers were in the fields and our staff were busy in the hospital; night suited us both.

Disease causality was probably the most important. Ill health could be caused by malign spirits who in turn could be used by inimical people to cast a curse on person or property; breaking a taboo,  any breakdown in relationships within the community and many others, thus showing a more wholistic approach to health than pertains in the western world. We, of course proposed our own theories as to why children got gastrointestinal disease, malnutrition, malaria, poliomyelitis measles and a host of others. We recommended immunization, balanced diet, safe water and immunization. Farmers are not easy to convince about new things and they took us on often enough. Then there was the craic there in soft evenings of Africa !

One tragedy led to a serious change in our approach. A lovely sixteen year old girl died because of mismanagement in the bush by the village midwives. For a short while I hated these women. A delegation including local elders went to the Paramount Chief more or less saying we are here to help and that he had decisions to make or see the young  women of the tribe die.

There started our training of village midwives. Some eighty percent of them responded well to new ways  against centuries of tradition: don’t beat the woman if she has a long labour even if you believe she has  a lover. Such misbehavior would surely prolong labour! I came to love these old women for their strength, their wisdom and their humour.

The hospital was for curative care and training; health cells in each village were supervised by mobile teams as they struggled to come to terms with new concepts of health. It was going well. Then the war came, the hospital was destroyed but the training remained. That is the pride and joy of all who worked there in those 40 years.

I was in The Colony for the hundredth anniversary of Killadoon National School. The experience was for the soul. I sat on the Clapper Bridge and scanned the view: Killadoon, Ailmore, Maolrea, and nearer, Cloonlara, Killeen and Feenone. The thought came to me: this is where I belong, this is who I am, at the end of it all, a woman of Mayo.

Sister Hilary has written two wonderful books:

Old Watering Holes, Mayo to Serabu.

Where Memories Gather, Chuckles and Wisdom.

They are available in The Bookshop, Westport; Castlebooks, Castlebar and Veritas books Dublin.

Comments about this page

  • This triggered so many fond memories of Sister Hillary and the other sisters when I was posted to Serabu Hospital in the mid 1980s as a US Peace Corps volunteer with experience in public health;they inspired me and the village folks to do the best we could to improve health practices in a culturally acceptable manner. 

    By Barbara Dillon (07/07/2020)

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