Crowley, Mary Frances (1906–90), nurse and educator, was born 1 August 1906 at 12 William Street, Wexford town, the home of her maternal grandparents, James Williams, a retired lighthouse keeper, and his wife Margaret. Mary was the eldest of six children born to John Crowley, a lighthouse keeper then serving at Hook Head, Co. Wexford, and Emily (née Williams). They had married in Wexford town in September 1905. Her father was regularly absent while serving on various lighthouses around Ireland. The family moved frequently; in 1911 John was stationed at the remote and inhospitable Eagle Island, Co. Mayo, while Emily and her children resided in Ballaghboy, Kilnamanagh, Co. Cork. Mary took a leading role in the peripatetic household, supporting her mother in raising her five younger siblings.
Moving to the UK, where Irish nurses paid no educational fees, Crowley trained from 1931–35 at St Catherine's Hospital on the Wirral and St James's Hospital, Chester (later renamed Chester City Hospital), and gained her State Registered Nurse (SRN) certificate in 1935. Crowley then gained her State Registered Midwifery certificate in 1936, after study at Birkenhead and Merseyside Maternity Hospitals, Liverpool, and Mile End Hospital, London. In these hospitals Crowley gained extensive experience (1936–40) as a staff and surgical nurse, medical unit sister, maternity unit sister and pupil midwife teacher. She also took courses in administration and management. During this period her interest in furthering the education of practising nurses was ignited.
Returning to Ireland in 1941, Crowley worked as an administrative sister at Sir Patrick Dun's Hospital, Dublin. In 1942 she spent six months establishing an obstetrics nurse and midwifery training school at the newly founded International Mission Training Hospital (later renamed Our Lady of Lourdes), Drogheda, established in 1939 by the Medical Missionaries of Mary. Enjoying her time in Drogheda, Crowley returned to Sir Patrick Dun's Hospital as administrative sister in 1943, drawn back by the opportunity to also serve as nurse tutor there.
Crowley joined the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital (RVEEH), Dublin, in 1944 as assistant matron and a nurse tutor. Taking leave of absence, she volunteered to serve in the Irish Red Cross Hospital, Saint-Lô, Normandy, France. A central transport hub of strategic importance, the town was in complete ruins by the close of 1944, razed by Allied bombing during the Normandy landings and subsequent German aerial assault during their retreat. Crowley sailed to Dieppe with a detailed outline of the supplies necessary to equip the hospital. She arrived there on Christmas Eve 1945 and was met by the hospital's quartermaster (store man) and translator, Samuel Beckett (qv), who drove her to Saint-Lô. Commissioned in April and built and equipped from scratch, by mid-summer 1945 the hospital (staffed by over thirty Irish nurses and ten Irish doctors) was treating 115 inpatients, with Crowley acting as matron. She returned to Dublin after the handover of the hospital to the French Red Cross in December 1946. On 10 April 1948, Crowley, along with other members of the hospital's management, was awarded the silver Medal of French Gratitude (La Reconnaisance française) at the French legation, Dublin.
Crowley established the nurse training school in 1944 at the RVEEH and became director of nursing studies there in 1947. Recognising the demand for specially trained nurses, she went on to establish the ophthalmic nurse training school there in 1948, the first in Ireland, with students attending undergraduate medical lectures in UCD. From 1950 the twelve-month post-registration course, the first of its type in Ireland, was accredited in conjunction with Moorfields Hospital, London, and a standardised diploma was introduced in 1951. Widely recognised internationally, the development of nursing education at the RVEEH conferred notable prestige on Crowley and the hospital. Honorary secretary of the National Council of the Nurses of Ireland in the mid-1950s, Crowley also served on the executive committee of the Irish Guild of Catholic Nurses, of which she was vice-president for a time, and gave lectures to the Irish Red Cross and St John's Ambulance Brigade.
A regular attendee and representative at international nursing conferences and medical colloquia, Crowley was central to the establishment of the Nurse Tutor's Academic Society in 1960 (known until 1962 as the Nurse Tutors' Association), serving as the first president. In 1964 UCD established the first full-time nurse tutors course in Ireland, running over two years, which heralded the beginning of a wave of formal educational provision for nurses in Irish voluntary hospitals. Decreasing demand for shared educational facilities led to the closing of the independent, though RCSI-linked, Dublin Metropolitan School for Nurses in 1969, Crowley had been a leading figure in its governance for two decades. Determined to continue the provision of coordinated post-registration education for nurses, Crowley lobbied for some kind of institutional response, negotiating on behalf of the Nurse Tutor's Academic Society with the RSCI in the early 1970s.
Appointed first dean (1974–9) of the RCSI faculty of nursing, Crowley's establishment of the faculty within the RCSI in 1974 was her crowning achievement over a lifetime of devotion to her profession. Collecting £100 donations from 200 senior nurses, the faculty was established 27 June 1974, after intense efforts earlier in the decade to generate consensus between the profession, An Bord Altranais (The Irish Nursing Board), the Irish Nurses Organisation (on whose executive council Crowley sat), and the RCSI. In a ceremony conducted by the Mr John McAuliffe-Curtin, president of the RCSI, in the presence of minister for health, Tánaiste Brendan Corish (qv), Crowley, in her address to 700 attendees, argued 'nurses must be educated on a parallel with the medical profession' (Ir. Times, 29 June 1974). Crowley was among the faculty's seventeen inaugural members inducted into the RCSI at a ceremony on 30 October 1974. Strongly urging a voluntary approach in the first decade of the faculty's existence (which gave way to professionalism as the scale of educational provision increased), Crowley designed the dean's medal and the faculty gown herself, a reflection of her attention to detail. She travelled the country promoting the vision and activities of the faculty, overcoming opposition from some sections of the medical profession, and some nurses, who preferred to retain independent, hospital-based education.
Delivering post-registration education to nurses across the island of Ireland, gradually expanding course provision to centres outside of Dublin, Crowley instituted and developed a range of modular courses in nursing, clinical and various related skills. By 1979 over 1,000 nurses were taking courses across the faculty, and a fellowship in nursing was offered from 1982. By the mid-1990s the faculty was providing Bachelor of Nursing courses, alongside a variety of diploma and certificate courses.
Crowley was active in a range of nursing organisations in Ireland and the UK, especially committed to the Florence Nightingale Committee of Ireland. Editing A century of service 1880–1980: the story of the development of nursing in Ireland (1994), she wrote The Christian nurse (1979), published by Veritas publications and the Irish Guild of Catholic Nurses, of which she was a vice-president. Although she retired from nursing in 1980, Crowley remained very involved with the Faculty of Nursing and committed to her profession. Deeply religious, she was a member of the Third Order of St Francis and a member of the Sacred Heart Sodality, retaining a life-long interest in the educational and religious writings of Cardinal John Henry Newman (qv). Crowley died at the Adelaide Hospital, Dublin, 11 March 1990; the RSCI flew their flag at half-mast as her funeral cortège processed past the college to University Church, St Stephen's Green, where her funeral mass was held; she was buried in Fingal cemetery, Balgriffin, Co. Dublin.
A natural born administrator, imperious if diminutive in stature, with a gentle voice, Crowley's meticulous attention to detail and gifted organisational skills were brought to bear on her nursing practice. Her career traversed the nursing profession's transition to institutional independence and educational excellence, both of which she spearheaded. The Faculty of Nursing established the Mary Frances Crowley Medal for academic excellence in her memory. In 2019 the RCSI commissioned a portrait of Crowley, part of their 'Women on walls' project, to recognise her importance to the nursing profession and the faculty she founded – which became the largest in the college – alongside her impact on post-war nursing in Ireland.