Written by Conor Finnerty (Originally Published in Dec '14 - Jan '15 issue of Ballinasloe Life Magazine)
Ada English: Patriot And Psychiatrist
by Dr. Brendan Kelly.
Published by Irish Academic Press.
It has lately been remarked that among the beneficial effects of the present decade of centenary commemorations is the incentive it gives historians to produce biographies of some of the minor players in the events that led to the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. Ada English was one such player, and in Dr. Brendan Kelly she has found a biographer whose present work is scholarly and meticulously referenced yet eminently readable.
Born in Caherciveen, County Kerry, in 1875, English grew up in Mullingar where she attended the Loreto Convent Secondary School. A 1903 graduate of the Catholic University School of Medicine, Dublin, she was appointed the following year to the post of second assistant medical officer in Ballinasloe Lunatic Asylum, as the Mental Hospital was then known. Having development advanced nationalist view, she was instrumental in setting up a branch of Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin in the town in 1910. Later she joined both Irish Volunteers and Cumann na mBan, and may have acted as a medical officer to the Volunteers during 1916 Rising in County Galway.
Arrested in 1921, she was sentenced to a term of imprisonment in Galway Jail for possession of criminating documents. Following her release, she was elected unopposed to the Second Dáil where she spoke eloquently and forcefully against the adoption of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. It would seem that she played at least a peripheral role in the ranks of the Irregulars during the fighting in Dublin when the Four Courts were attacked by the Free State Army at the start of the Civil War. She was not, however, among the over 400 Republican women later interned for militant opposition to the Government. Thereafter her political involvement was marginal or non-existent.
English is credited with introducing occupational therapy in the Mental Hospital, and soon came to be regarded as a doctor with enlightened views on the treatment of psychiatric illness. In the late 1930s she is said to have promoted Cardiazol therapy for schizophrenia whereby patients were subjected to chemically-induced convulsions. This method was quickly superseded by electroconvulsive therapy. Eventually appointed resident medical superintendent in June 1941, she retired in August of the following year and died in 1944.
Any potential biographer of Ada English would be confronted with formidable difficulties. She never wrote her memoirs nor, as far as if known, kept a diary. Her personal papers have disappeared. Contemporaries who would have known her well are no longer with us. Like so many of her generation, she was revolutionary rather than a politician, and never attained public office through a popular vote. Her brief term as a T.D. ended in electoral defeat after just twelve months. Consequently she didn’t have to undergo the constant scrutiny that people who make a career in the hurly-burly of parliamentary life are forced to endure. Given these circumstances, it is understandable that the Ada English who emerges from these pages remains, unfortunately, a shadowy figure. All too often the writer is obliged to resort to conjecture or to rely on uncorroborated assertions whose veracity cannot be tested. The result is that significant events in the subject’s life, as well as aspects of her character, are frequently shrouded in obscurity. One episode, not related by Dr. Kelly, will suffice to illustrate this point.
Facilitated by the absence of a statutory police force, combined with a dearth of responsible leadership at local level, the anti-Treaty I.R.A. conducted a campaign of ethnic cleansing against members of the Protestant community in Ballinasloe during May and June of 1922, in the course of which many were hounded from their homes and businesses, some never to return. Political figures on both sides of the Treaty debate roundly condemned this outbreak of criminality, yet English, who at the time was a sitting T.D. hoping to retain her seat in the Pact Election, remained tight-lipped about what was happening, and never subsequently repudiated the sectarian thuggery, of her associates. It would be futile to speculate on the reasons for her silence, a silence that, on the face of it, reflects little credit on a woman described in this biography as a persona of “human and compassionate spirit”.
The author has fleshed out his narrative with fascinating short biographies of four of Ada English’s coevals, all female medical doctors, whose careers and preoccupations ran parallel in many ways to those of his main subject.