Pioneering psychiatrist, revolutionary & politician.
Kerry / Westmeath / Galway
1875 – 1944
Adeline English, known as Ada, was born in 1875 in Cahersiveen, Co Kerry. Raised in Mullingar, English was one of Ireland’s first female medical graduates, and a pioneer of psychiatry and occupational therapy.
She spent almost 40 years working at Ballinsloe’s District Asylum, later renamed St Brigid’s Hospital. While there, she helped to introduce occupational therapy, which included sports, farming and horticulture, and weekly trips to the local cinema. When English started working at Ballinasloe in 1904, the asylum housed 1,293 patients, 774 of whom were males and 519 who were females. This number was to rise to close on 2,000; an extraordinary figure. She campaigned for better conditions for mentally ill patients at Ballinasloe, and throughout her life, she campaigned at a national level for reform of Ireland’s large psychiatric institutions.
English was also very active in Irish political life. One of the first things she had done on arrival in Ballinasloe was to replace all the buttons on staff uniforms. They had had a picture of Queen Victoria on them, and the new buttons had an image of Galway’s coat of arms.
She was a prominent member of Cumann na mBan, and a friend of several key political figures, including Patrick Pearse, Eamon de Valera and Joseph McDonagh. A branch of Cumann na mBan was set up in Ballinasloe District Asylum, and English was its chairperson. She was a medical officer to the Irish Volunteers, and fought in Athenry during the 1916 Rising.
In 1921, she served five months of a nine month prison sentence in Galway Jail; her crime was of being in possession of nationalist literature. She was released early due to illness from food poisoning. She was elected as a Sinn Fein TD in the Second Dail of 1921-1922, but lost her seat a year later. She remained a staunch opponent of the Treaty for the rest of her life.
In 1941, aged 66, she was finally promoted to the role of Resident Medical Supervisor RMS in Ballinasloe, having been consistently overlooked in favour of male colleagues in the past, despite her decades of experience. Ada English died intestate three years later, and her possessions were sold off at a public auction in Ballinasloe.
With thanks to Rosita Boland for this week’s Herstory.