The Sanatorium in Ballinrobe

The future seemed bright for Tom and Mary Rushe, my grandparents, as 1948 dawned. They had a comfortable, semi-detached home on the outskirts of Claremorris and Tom had a relatively secure job: since 1942, he had been working on the railway as a carpenter. Coleman, the only son, (my father) had married and left home but he and Kitty were living less than two miles away. Coleman invariably dropped in on his way home from work to visit his parents and his three sisters, who adored their only brother.

The eldest of the Rushe girls, Mary, was now twenty-one and was shy and reserved when compared to her sisters. Patsy, the middle sister, was eighteen and was the most energetic of the three. She liked dancing and staying out as late as her mother would allow. “She would burn the candle at both ends”, my father would later say affectionately. Chris, still only fourteen, was cheerfully outgoing and the possessor of a razor-sharp wit.

Patsy developed a cough and, because of the fear of tuberculosis, was immediately brought to a local doctor. To the relief of the family, the doctor diagnosed a touch of bronchitis, prescribed some medication, and sent Patsy home. When her condition did not improve, her parents’ growing concern overcame their reluctance to question the doctor’s decision. They arranged to have her re-examined by another doctor who, to their dismay, immediately diagnosed that Patsy had contracted the dreaded tuberculosis. One of Patsy’s lungs had already collapsed and the other was badly damaged.

As a precaution, the rest of the family had to be tested for TB. Their worst fears were realised when it was discovered that the eldest daughter Mary also had a small shadow on her lung.

Irish people had a morbid fear of tuberculosis, commonly known as TB. In the 1940s, an estimated four thousand people per year were dying from the disease in Ireland. It could attack the spine, kidneys, lungs, or brain and was spread by coughing or sneezing. TB also prevented defence cells from functioning properly and the resultant chronic lung infection could be fatal. Unless diagnosed and treated at a very early stage, the disease usually necessitated a stay in a sanatorium for two to three years. Patients whose condition was untreatable were allowed to return home to die. In order to prevent the transmission of the disease to other family members, the patient was obliged to live in a chalet which was usually erected in the garden close to the family home. In the sanatorium, it was considered necessary for the patient to have as much fresh air as possible. As a result, beds were moved outdoors, usually on to a veranda. Sometimes, patients were even obliged to remain outdoors overnight.

In Ireland, a stigma, born of prejudice and misinformation, was associated with TB. The public reaction was similar to the initial response to AIDS in the early 1980s. It was mistakenly believed that uncleanliness was one of the primary causes of TB. It was true that overcrowding and poor diet could make one susceptible to the disease but many people who were affluent and lived in comfortable and spacious housing were also infected. TB was seldom discussed openly, however, because of the fear and prejudice surrounding it. Misconceptions and misinformation were rampant. There were even instances where people expressed disquiet at the location of a sanatorium in their town.

Patsy and Mary Rushe were first admitted to the County Hospital in Castlebar. Mary was to remain there for six months before she was declared free of TB and, to the delight and relief of her family, she was allowed to return home. Patsy, whose condition was much more advanced, was transferred to Saint Theresa’s Sanatorium near BALLINROBE, about thirteen miles from her home. But it soon became apparent that she needed more specialist treatment and she was relocated to Castlerea Sanatorium in County Roscommon. At first, the treatment for TB patients consisted of long periods of bed-rest in well ventilated areas and often in the open air. In some cases, as part of the treatment, an operation was performed to remove some ribs. During the procedure, which often took ten hours, the patient had to make do with a local anaesthetic.

Most of the patients were young people and the boredom of bed-rest and hospital routine had to be countered by whatever means were available. Male and female patients were segregated but overcame this obstacle by sending messages and requests to each other on the hospital radio. Regular letter writing also helped to relieve the tedium. Visits from family and friends were sometimes restricted, depending upon the needs of individual patients.

The Castlerea sanatorium was twenty-five miles from Patsy’s home in Claremorris. She was allowed regular family visits and, despite the stigma attached to TB and the fear of contracting the disease, some friends also cycled the fifty mile round trip to see her. The family and friends thought little of a two hour cycle trip to Castlerea and a similar journey home in the evening.

My father’s band-mate and friend, Billy Gleeson, was especially fond of Patsy and visited often. Patsy also had another admirer and there was mutual jealousy between the men. Patsy, perhaps mischievously, declined to either encourage or discourage her two suitors. My father described the scene when both men visited at the same time. They sat on either side of the bed, each holding one of Patsy’s hands, and refusing to speak directly to one another. The eighteen year old object of their admiration clearly relished the attention.

My father and mother in Streamstown and the Rushes in Claremorris were concerned at Patsy’s condition. My father, in particular, was very worried about her; they were very fond of each other and exchanged letters regularly.

Some good news was needed in order to lift the gloom so that the revelation that my mother was pregnant and was expecting her first baby was a welcome distraction. A baby girl was born on April 6, two days after her father’s twenty-fourth birthday. In a gesture designed to show love and support to the baby’s Aunt Patsy and to boost her morale, Coleman and Kitty named the baby Patricia. However, the jubilation at the arrival of the baby was overshadowed by the lack of improvement in Patsy’s condition.

There was hope on the horizon for TB sufferers. Dr. Noel Browne had recently been appointed as Minister for Health. This maverick, left-leaning politician had switched political parties on a number of occasions and had a reputation for being difficult and intransigent. His own family had been devastated by poverty and by TB: both of his parents had died from the disease. As a consequence of his youthful intelligence and ability, he won a series of scholarships and, eventually, a benefactor provided the funds and support in order to put Browne through medical school. He also became involved in politics and was elected to the Dail. He was handed the Health portfolio and he immediately set himself the challenge of overhauling the health service. His first project was the TB Eradication Scheme, an attempt to counter the devastation being caused by the disease. Over the next few years, he introduced the most modern medical procedures and practises, used funds from the Hospital Sweepstake lottery to finance the sanatoriums, and purchased the new drugs which were now coming into use in the UK and the continent. Under his watch, drugs such as streptomycin were brought to the forefront of TB treatment in Ireland.

By the early 1950s, the incidence of TB in Ireland began to fall and increasing numbers of sufferers were surviving the disease. But Patsy Rushe’s condition had deteriorated before the improved treatment regime began to have effect. Photographs of Patsy before she became ill show a healthy teenager, slightly heavier than her two slim sisters. Later photographs that were taken in the sanatorium confirm that she had lost weight. She had also aged: she would no longer pass for a teenager.

As Patsy’s hospitalisation entered its second year, spirits were lifted by the news that my mother was pregnant again. On 10 April, 1949, Kitty Rushe gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. The first photograph of the twins was taken outside the family home. When pictured, they seem to be about four months old. My mother is proudly and smilingly cradling one in each arm. The babies look healthy and contented. But tragedy had already struck by the time the photograph was taken.

Patsy’s condition had been deteriorating despite various attempted treatments. On Monday 20th of May 1949, she wrote to my father.

Regional San.



My dear Coleman,

Did you get home alright the last day? I hope so. I got a few more injections after that and I’m still getting them. I was down again today and I got my lung washed. I never expected to be going down again so soon. I got over it though. It wasn’t the same doctor as the last day. Nurse gave me punch after.

The sister came down now to see how I was this evening and she told me the stuff for the washouts is very valuable. They are only after getting it and they hope it will do me good. It’s newest on the market. She also said I had very nasty fluid on my chest and I would feel better of getting it off. I have to get them done twice weekly so please Coleman and Kitty pray for me to have the strength and nerve to go through it. I’ll probably be done on Thursday again, please God. Brigid Mc Hale said a full Rosary and prayers for me when I was down today. She’s great, God bless her. It’s no wonder I was sick with that old stuff on my chest. The doctor said I was good again today to stick out. I hope God keeps me that way. Tell Mam and the others to pray for me, as if they aren’t praying enough already I know. You are all wonderful. I hope Kitty and the twins are very well.

Please excuse my writing, Colie, as I’m tired after the day.

Your loving sis

Patsy xxxx

PS Write soon.

The envelope was postmarked Tuesday, May 21, 1949.Patsy died at Castlerea Sanatorium two days later. She had recently celebrated her twentieth birthday. Her remains were brought back home and she was buried in the graveyard at Crossboyne near Claremorris. Edited extract from my book “The Things We’ve Handed Down” available from…/dp/169119008X/ref=sr_1_1…


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