Hannelly, Dympna (1922–2014), missionary nun, was born Eitne Hannelly on 4 December 1922 to Patrick Hannelly and Annie Hannelly (née Egan) of Tarmon, Castlerea, Co. Roscommon. Known as ‘Enna’ to her family, she had a twin brother Padraig, two other brothers and two sisters. Padraig became a missionary priest with the Kiltegan Brothers, and served in the Nigerian Diocese of Calabar, where he was briefly imprisoned during the Biafran war. He later ministered in Grenada, before returning to Ireland, where he died 6 December 1991, having been nursed through throat cancer by Dympna. As a young woman, she was keen to join the recently founded Medical Missionaries of Mary (MMM) (the Vatican decree Constans ac Sedula (1931) allowed catholic missionaries to practise midwifery and obstetric surgery for the first time). After her parents’ misgivings about the propriety of her vocation were overcome by a personal visit from Máire Martin (qv), founder of the MMM, Eitne entered the order’s Drogheda noviciate on 24 March 1941; she was formally received on 17 March 1942 and took the religious name of Mary Dympna (usually shortened to Dympna in her later career). She undertook her first profession in Drogheda in March 1944 but delayed formal nursing training to assist at a hospital run by the MMM in Ogoja, Nigeria (c. 1944–6) during a major outbreak of Hansen’s disease (more commonly known as leprosy).
On her return to Ireland, she trained as a nurse at Jervis Street Hospital in Dublin (1948–51), took her final religious vows on 9 September 1950, and qualified as a registered general nurse in 1951. She then trained as a midwife (1951–2) at the Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda, established and run by the MMM, and developed extensive surgical nursing expertise there as sister of the outpatient department and sister in charge of the surgical theatre. As part of the worldwide expansion of MMM services, she was posted to Tanzania in 1960 and established surgical facilities in three hospitals over five years. During this time she was based at the MMM convent and hospital in Dareda which experienced a devastating earthquake in May 1964 that levelled the hospital buildings; her eyewitness account of the disaster was published in the Irish Press and Drogheda Independent. In the aftermath, drawing on her extensive medical and administrative experience, she helped set up a field hospital and shelter, and organised the transfer of patients to nearby hospitals. In 1965 she was sent to Kenya and served in a mission at Lorugumu in the Lodwar district of the Turkana desert region. She was deeply affected by the ongoing famine there: ‘I never knew what hunger was until I reached Turkana. That was extreme famine, but I saw hunger also when people were too poor to buy food, or a drought or flood wiped out crops’ (Drogheda Independent, 1 Apr. 2005).
Her experience in Africa convinced her of the need to take a broad-based approach to public health provision and she studied the subject in depth, specialising in providing training to community leaders and volunteers. Unusually for a nun of her generation, she played golf, through which she met many local notables and community leaders. This, combined with her reputation as a highly capable hospital administrator, led to her appointment as director of nursing at the private Mount Elgon Hospital in Mbale. Her not insignificant salary funded ongoing MMM family relief work in the Turkana desert region. After moving to Uganda, she became sister in charge (1975–9) at St Joseph’s Hospital, Kitovu, outside Masaka in the Buganda Region. When in 1985, after a trip to Ireland, ongoing paramilitary conflict in Masaka prevented her from returning to St Joseph’s, she remained in Kampala for six months, working at Nsambya Hospital, run by the Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa. Even after she was able to travel to Kitovu, heightened civil unrest, alongside occasional intervention by the Tanzanian military, forced her and other MMM nuns to evacuate in 1986 to the nearby Kategondo seminary. When word came through that the invading Tanzanian army would loot the hospital in Kitovu unless she and her fellow MMM nuns returned, they did so – Sr Dympna’s grasp of Swahili (acquired during her time in Tanzania) and the reputation of the MMM hospital in Dareda eased their passage through Tanzanian army road blocks. The renewed MMM presence in Kitovu encouraged other aid workers and civilian groups to return, despite the coming and going of paramilitary forces during the ongoing conflict.
Sr Dympna then moved to Makondo parish in the Lwengo District of Uganda, where 200,000 people lived in 50 sq. km. She organised the surveying of wells, educating villagers on the benefits of clean water (which they historically sourced from swamps, natural springs and hand-dug wells), all of which contributed significantly to combatting diarrhoea and deadly water-borne diseases such as cholera and typhoid. Working with local government, communities, engineers and technical consultants, she played a key role in the development and implementation of a system of newly drilled safe wells, serving a dispersed rural population across the region. While conditions for drilling and constructing wells were difficult, and working with international and non-governmental bodies was exacting, convincing communities to abandon unsafe wells they had used for generations often proved the greatest challenge. For her work in the provision of safe drinking water, the indigenous community whose trust she had won named her ‘Namayanja’, which signified ‘bringing water from the big lake’.
By the late 1980s Sr Dympna – already coordinating diocesan community-based healthcare in the region and leading coordination efforts for the Uganda Catholic Medical Bureau – was appointed by the ministry of health as a national training advisor. Building on close links she had forged in the voluntary sector and with the local diocesan church, she was seconded to Kitovu hospital until 1993. In 1991 she returned to Ireland to mark the celebration of her fifty years in the MMM order. From 1991 to 2002 she was national training officer in the Uganda Community Based Health Care Association, an NGO uniting previously disparate efforts spread across local government, the ministry of health and the ministry of social services, which she had done much to create and unify. For a decade or so Sr Dympna, based in Makondo, worked in community-based primary healthcare across the region, deploying her vast experience as a nurse-midwife, hospital administrator and public health expert.
On reaching eighty years of age, she reluctantly returned to Drogheda in 2002, working at the order’s motherhouse until 2009. She fully retired in 2010 and having suffered a short illness died on 9 January 2014 at Aras Mhuire Nursing Facility at the MMM in Drogheda. After her funeral at Beechgrove Convent, Drogheda, she was buried in St Peter’s cemetery in the town.