Hedderman, Bridget (1872–1943), district nurse, was born on 17 January 1872, in the family home at Querrin, just outside Kilkee, Co. Clare, the eldest of four daughters of Manus and Mary Hedderman (née Nash). Manus Hedderman worked a variety of jobs, including fisherman, boatman and labourer. He drowned in Limerick on 14 May 1879, leaving Mary Hedderman alone with four daughters, the youngest of whom was only five months old. Mary never remarried, supporting her family by working first as a farmer, later as a charwoman. The details of Bridget Hedderman’s early education are unknown, but she spoke English and Irish.
By September 1893, she was a wardsmaid in the Kilrush Union workhouse infirmary. In January 1894 she was promoted to nurse, a position that then required no specialised training. That May, she left Kilrush to train as a midwife at the Coombe lying-in hospital, Dublin. In 1896, after receiving her midwifery certificate, she became head nurse in the Corofin Union workhouse infirmary. When the Kilrush Union workhouse infirmary advertised for a new head nurse in 1898, she applied, and the board of guardians voted to appoint her. That vote was vetoed by the Local Government Board (LGB), on the grounds that Hedderman did not qualify as a trained nurse under the new guidelines created following the Local Government (Ireland) Act of 1898. The LGB defined ‘trained’ as a nurse who had attended a training programme at a hospital with at least 140 beds. She began applying for qualifying training programmes but struggled to find a spot.
Her tenure as the head nurse in Corofin did not go smoothly. She filed complaints against male patients who behaved inappropriately towards her and sometimes fought with Dr MacNamara, the union’s medical officer, who felt that her lack of formal training negatively affected her work. In January 1901 she was unable carry out his instructions due to the onset of a chronic illness that would plague her for the rest of her life. Refusing to believe that she was ill, MacNamara’s recommendation that she be fired was accepted by the Board of Guardians. She appealed the decision, asking for a sworn inquiry; the inquiry was never completed, however, as Hedderman quit in June 1901, having finally received an offer to train in Dublin. The hospital she trained in is not known.
In spring 1903 the Galway City Board of Guardians hired Hedderman, by then a fully qualified nurse, to serve as midwife and district nurse for Inis Oírr and Inis Meáin, the two smaller of the three Aran Islands. In the memoir she published in 1917, Hedderman recalled cultural differences between herself and the islanders, compounded by her initially weak grasp of the dialect of Irish spoken there, and her boredom and despair in this remote and desolate outpost.
For all that, she excelled in the job, which she held for nearly two decades. She was often the only trained help available in a medical emergency because the medical officer for the islands, Dr Harmon Kinsella (succeeded by Dr Michael O’Brien in 1907), lived on Inis Mór and could not be easily reached, much less safely fetched. In 1911, for instance, she was left alone to deal with a twin epidemic of whooping cough and scarlet fever on top of her regular duties, after her telegram to O’Brien failed to go through. For her exemplary handling of this and other difficult situations she was commended by the Galway City Board of Guardians. In awarding her a pay increase in 1913, board members acknowledged that few nurses would be prepared to undergo the hardships attendant upon such a posting, particularly the dangers associated with regularly having to travel by currach between the two islands, in rough seas. O’Brien was of the view that Hedderman knew as much about medicine as any doctor. His daughter, Penelope, recalled the island nurse as one of the most remarkable women she ever met, a short stout figure, with smiling face and luxuriant red hair: ‘There was nothing she could not turn her hand to. She was not a native islander, but I never heard her speak English’ (Irish Press, 26 Oct. 1950).
As the islanders had little prior contact with modern medicine, she struggled to convince them that her tools, like antibiotics and sanitation, could help them more than their folk practices. In her memoir, Hedderman claims that the belief in fairies was still common and that parents of sick children would refuse all treatment, claiming that their child had been replaced by a changeling (she may have been exaggerating in order to boost her book’s sales). The local faith healers, who she called ‘gamps’, scorned her efforts and claimed that the curative effect of their spells would be broken by the presence of a nurse or doctor; for her part, she held that the gamps caused many unnecessary deaths through their unhygienic cures and opposition to vaccinations. In time, she won the confidence of the islanders and became accepted into their community.
Her work went beyond treating the sick and delivering babies. She wrote a column for the Connaught Tribune providing basic first aid instruction for rural people who might struggle to access timely medical aid, and gave lectures on hygiene and first aid in Irish on the Aran Islands. In 1909, she was one of the first Irish women to pass the Royal Sanitary Institute’s exam and become a certified Woman Health Visitor, a position intended to ensure all new mothers had the assistance and knowledge needed to raise healthy babies.
Alongside her nursing work, Hedderman wrote poetry and participated in the activities of the Gaelic League throughout her time on the Aran Islands. Within months of arriving on Inis Meáin, she started a reading circle to read An Claidheamh Soluis and Irish-language books aloud, promoting Irish-language literacy among young people and making these resources accessible to community members who could not read their native tongue. In November 1907 she wrote a letter, published in An Claidheamh Soluis, supporting language tourism to the Aran Islands, arguing that it would be economically beneficial, that the islanders’ culture was resilient enough to survive such contact, and that cultural preservation would best be achieved through importing Irish-language books rather than by restricting the islanders’ access to English-language news.
That letter was but one of many that Hedderman sent to various newspapers and nursing journals. Most of her letters addressed issues of immediate concern to her work as a midwife and nurse. When parliament introduced the Midwives (Ireland) Bill in 1917, she expressed her opposition in letters to the Irish Independent and the Nursing Times, arguing that the bill’s failure to take Ireland’s circumstances into account would prevent it from improving midwifery standards. Above all, she decried the lack of financial support given to nurses and midwives by the state and local authorities. Thus, in 1911 she clashed with the penny-pinching Galway City Board of Guardians, which initially only paid £3 when she billed them for £4.3s for additional work; she was eventually paid in full.
She used her professional networks not only to advocate for Ireland’s healthcare needs generally but also to help her patients (many of whom were poverty stricken) earn a living. In December 1913, she wrote to the British Journal of Nursing asking her fellow nurses to recommend the islander’s crochet lace to their wealthy private patients. She promoted it as an excellent wedding or Christmas present that would help an industrious people support themselves. She also sold the islanders’ handicrafts at the All-Ireland Industrial Conference in 1908.
Hedderman published her memoir, Glimpses of my life in Aran, in 1917. In interviews with the Nursing Times and the British Journal of Nursing, she revealed that she had published it in part as a fundraising effort to build a nurse’s cottage on Inis Meáin. She made only £35 a year at the time. This salary equalled that of the head nurse in the Galway City workhouse infirmary, but unlike workhouse nurses, Hedderman had to provide her own food and housing. This task proved difficult on the Aran Islands, forcing frequent moves. The cottage, which would have made her job more sustainable, was never built.
The preface to her memoir introduces the book’s entwined themes of exposing the difficulties of maternity work in remote areas, and providing information on the unique culture of the Aran Islanders. Praising her depictions of island life, most reviewers framed her book as an ethnography, comparing it to John Millington Synge’s (qv) The Aran Islands; although she knew and admired Synge, Hedderman’s account can be seen as a rebuttal to his romanticism. Scholars continue to cite Glimpses both in histories of nursing and in studies of Irish culture. It provides the only extant long form account of district nursing in rural Ireland during this period.
After leaving the Aran Islands in 1922, she moved to Achill Island, Co. Mayo, to work for the Congested Districts Board as part of a new programme that sent Irish-speaking instructors of domestic economy to help people in remote districts implement modern sanitary standards. The programme was inspired by the work of district nurses like Hedderman, who instructed their patients on how to keep their homes clean and prevent infections. Bridget Hedderman died on 14 March 1943 in Querrin, Co. Clare. Her remains are buried in Templemeeagh Graveyard, Querrin, with those of her mother and two of her sisters.