Smithson, Annie M(ary) P(atricia) (1873–1948), author, nurse, republican, and trade unionist, was born Margaret Anne Jane Smithson 26 September 1873 at 22 Claremont Rd, Sandymount, Dublin, daughter of Samuel Raynor Smithson, a protestant, unionist barrister, and Margaret Louisa Smithson (née Carpenter). After her father's death in her infancy, she and her mother lived with an uncle until his death when she was eight. Living in England after her mother's second marriage to a chemical works owner from Warrington, Cheshire, she was deeply unhappy, feeling keenly the separation from her Irish relatives and resenting her education in a boarding school. With her stepfather's business in decline, the family returned to Dublin (late 1880s). Despite the straitened family finances, for the sake of social decorum she was not allowed to seek work.
At age 23 she left home abruptly and went to London, hoping that an aunt, a newspaper society correspondent, might assist her embarking on a career in journalism. Her aunt refused, but agreed to finance her training as a Queen's nurse. She trained at Chelsea Hospital for Women, London, and the Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh, before completing her qualification at St Patrick's Home, St Stephen's Green, Dublin. Posted as district nurse to several locations in Ulster (1901–4), she fell in love with a married doctor, experiencing a severe emotional blow when the relationship ended. While working in a women's hospital in Glasgow and suffering from prolonged bouts of depression, she attended a Redemptorist mission, an event that commenced her conversion to Roman catholicism (1907). Finding in the religion solace, ardour, and certitude after a long experience of intensely felt spiritual disquiet, she was primarily attracted – in the words of one of her subsequent fictional characters – by catholicism's ‘absolute certainty . . . absolute knowledge . . . not “I hope”, or “I think”, but simply “I know” ’ (The marriage of Nurse Harding, 265).
The impact of the Easter rising of 1916, coupled with her discovery of her birth father's student flirtation with the 1867 Fenian rising, confirmed a second transformative conversion, that to Irish republicanism. Drawing on these experiences, she wrote her first novel, Her Irish heritage (1917); sentimental and naively patriotic, it was an instant bestseller. Returning to Ireland, she worked as district nurse in various locations while becoming involved in the republican movement. She worked for Sinn Féin in the 1918 general election and joined Cumann na mBan, teaching first aid to Cumann branches throughout the country during the war of independence. In the face of disapproval from the unionist Queen's Nurses Committee she resigned (1920) her post as district nurse in Milltown, Dublin, and relied on writing for her support. A civil-war republican, she directed a Cumann na mBan first-aid post in Moran's Hotel during the Dublin fighting (June–July 1922) and was imprisoned briefly in Mullingar barracks.
During these years she consolidated her writing career, contributing short stories and sketches to such journals as Irish Monthly Magazine and Green and Gold, and publishing the first of some twenty novels and collections of stories: By strange paths (1919); Carmen Cavanagh (1921); The walk of a queen (1922); The guide (stories) (1923); Nora Connor: a romance of yesterday (1924); The laughter of sorrow (1925); These things: the romance of a dancer (1927); Sheila of the O'Beirnes (1929); Traveller's joy (1930); For God and Ireland (stories) (1931); Leaves of myrtle (1932); The light of other days (1933); The marriage of Nurse Harding (1935); The white owl (1937); Wicklow heather (1938); Margaret of Fair Hill (1939); The Weldons of Tibradden (1940); Katherine Devoy (1941); By shadowed ways (1942); Tangled threads (1943); The village mystery (1945); and Paid in full (1946). All her titles enjoying immense popular success, Smithson was the best-selling Irish romantic novelist of the first half of the twentieth century.
Resuming her nursing career after the civil war, she was a founder of the Irish Nurses’ Union (latterly Irish Nurses’ Organisation), serving as the body's secretary and organiser (1929–42), and edited Irish Nursing and Hospital World (1930s). An early member of the Old Dublin Society, she served on its committee despite failing health (1941–8). A staunch supporter of Fianna Fáil, she shared a flat for many years with Kathleen O'Connell (qv), personal secretary to Éamon de Valera (qv). Her autobiography, Myself – and others, appeared in 1944. She died 21 February 1948 in Dublin, where she was buried in Whitechurch cemetery, Rathfarnham. She never married.
Usually described as romantic fiction, Smithson's work might more aptly be regarded as conversionist, as she bends the conventions of romantic genre to proselytise her two fervently held beliefs: Roman catholicism and Irish nationalism. A happy death – in the embrace of the church, of Ireland, or, most blessedly, of both – is a consummation more devoutly to be wished than that of a private romantic passion. Private passion, when allowed to consummate in marriage, must respect stringent social barriers or face earthly, if not eternal, doom. Depicting characters and situations that dramatise the tensions, contradictions, and prejudices of her own personal experience and the historical experience of her country, her novels are deeply flawed by clichéd language and persistent reliance on coincidence, wild improbability, and supernatural intervention to resolve plot and impose thematic rectitude.