Atkinson, Sarah (1823–93), philanthropist and author, was born 13 October 1823 in Athlone, Co. Roscommon, eldest of five daughters and one son of John Gaynor , gentleman, and Anna Gaynor. The family moved to Dublin for the sake of the children's education, but no details are known. Sarah married (11 August 1849) Dr George Atkinson (qv), joint proprietor of the Freeman's Journal; their only child, a son (b. 1850), died in his fourth year, a tragedy that was probably the starting point of Sarah's varied philanthropic activities and lifelong commitment to helping the poor. With Ellen Woodlock (qv), she founded (1855) St Joseph's Industrial Institute, Richmond Ave., Dublin, for girls from the South Dublin Union workhouse and for impoverished young women; it provided both primary education and training, which included knitting, glove-making, and laundering as a means to future employment. Regarded as highly successful, it ran for several years; but, failing to gain government assistance, the school was eventually closed and the pupils transferred to the Sisters of Charity, N. William St.
Atkinson had great confidence in the abilities of women and always encouraged them to realise their gifts; she opened a school for girls in Drumcondra (1850s), but it too was closed through lack of funds. In 1872 she was a member of the group that helped Woodlock to establish St Joseph's Infirmary for Children, Upper Buckingham St., Dublin, (forerunner of the Children's Hospital, Temple St.), which was run by the Sisters of Charity from 1876. The hospital was intended solely for the poor and home visits were regularly made to ensure that only the most needy were accommodated. As one of two founding secretaries, Atkinson was responsible for its daily management, gave financial aid, and became a life governor. She also administered the Sodality of the Children of Mary and its lending library, which was attached to St Francis Xavier's Church, Gardiner St.; a regular visitor to hospitals, prisons, and refuges, she is credited (with Woodlock) with gaining access for women visitors to the Dublin Union workhouses.
Her experience among the poor stimulated her to campaign for reform through the pages of the Irish Quarterly Review, and with Woodlock she prepared evidence for the house of commons select committee on poor relief in Ireland (1861) and presented a valuable paper to the Social Science Congress in Dublin (1861) on workhouses and the need for industrial training. She took great delight in accompanying her husband on their frequent visits to Europe, which enriched her ‘quarries’ (notes) that subsequently became the basis of a variety of articles, which she published anonymously in magazines, such as the Irish Monthly, The Nation, Freeman's Journal, and The Month (London); many were published posthumously as Essays (1895). Her works include translations from the French of articles in the periodical Annals of the propagation of the faith (London, 1839–1936); articles on foreign travel, biographical essays on Eugene O'Curry (qv) and John Henry Foley (qv), the lives of the saints, and a remarkable historical essay, ‘Irish wool and woollens’, which earned the admiration of W. E. H. Lecky (qv), who wrote to her in appreciation of the range of her work on eighteenth–century Ireland. Her major work was the meticulously researched biography of the foundress of the Order of the Sisters of Charity, Mary Aikenhead: her life, her friends, and her work (1879); she prefaced it with an historical essay that again earned the commendation of Lecky. A bibliography of her work appears in Ir. Monthly, xxi (1893), 601–11.
Committed to extending the circle of the Apostleship of Prayer, she counselled others to live joyfully, ‘like a bird on the twig’ (Gilbert, p. xxii). Charlotte O'C. Eccles (qv) expressed the sentiments of many when she said of Atkinson: ‘So human a saint I never met. One never heard her speak of religion, she lived it’ (Ir. Monthly, xxii (1894), 185). Two of her sisters joined the Sisters of Charity. Anna Gaynor, Mother Mary John (d. 5 March 1899), organised Our Lady's Hospice for the Dying, Harold's Cross, Dublin (opened 1879), which she ran for many years; Marcella Gaynor, Mother Maria Thaïs, was engaged in education and training in the House of Refuge, Stanhope St., Dublin.
Atkinson died 8 July 1893 and was buried in Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin, where the cemetery committee placed an Irish cross as a monument to her and her husband after his death (8 December 1893).