Ada English (1875–1944) was an Irish psychiatrist and freedom fighter who dedicated her life to mental health–care reform and revolutionary politics. English worked to reform the medical establishment by instituting occupational therapy and patient-centered care. A revolutionary and member of Sinn Fén, she advocated for Ireland's independence from Great Britain and served in pro-Irish organizations as well as holding posts in local government.
Although English was a talented and innovative physician as well as an outspoken reformer and advocate of Ireland's independence from England, little record remains as to her life or accomplishments. No will or marriage certificates, no diaries, and no letters have been found for historians to study. At her death, English was buried, at her request, among her patients at the asylum where she worked for over 40 years. Her few possessions were auctioned off to the public. Seventy years would pass before a curious medical historian pieced together her story from public records, news archives, and the personal papers of her contemporaries.
At the time Adeline English was born, on January 10, 1875, Ireland was a nation wherein women did not attend college, let alone practiced medicine. With the admission of female students into Irish universities starting in 1879, however, the stage was set for her eventual education and profession. Although Ada was born in Cahersiveen, in County Kerry, the English family had moved and was living in Mullingar, County Westmeath. (Irish counties have distinct regional characters and were often ancient kingdoms in their own right. Westmeath was such a kingdom until the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1172, when it was captured for the English crown.) Her father, Patrick English, was a pharmacist and member of the town council, and her mother, Nora, was a homemaker. English had two sisters and two brothers, one of whom also became a doctor. Reaching school age, she attended the local Loreto Convent, where her intellect became obvious. Matriculating at Queen's College Galway, she graduating from the Royal University of Ireland, Dublin, in 1903, becoming one of the first female psychiatrists in Ireland.
For a year after graduation, English worked at local hospitals in Dublin. Then in 1904, she was hired as assistant resident medical superintendent (RMS) at the Connaught District Lunatic Asylum (later named St. Brigid's Hospital), located in Ballinasloe, one of the largest towns in County Galway and located in the heart of Ireland. While also ministering to patients at the Castlerea Mental Hospital, further north in County Roscommon, English continued to work at the Lunatic Asylum until her retirement in 1942.
Dr. English wasted no time when she arrived at the asylum in Ballinasloe. She noted that the staff uniforms had buttons featuring the face of Queen Victoria, the late monarch of England, and immediately ordered them switched to the coat of arms of County Galway. More importantly, she set about changing the way the asylum's patients were treated, making sure that they had opportunities for exercise, entertainment, and meaningful work. This was a revolutionary change from the dark, oppressive, confinement-based treatment programs traditionally employed in such facilities. Patients at Ballinasloe could get involved in horticulture, farming, sports, entertainment, and other routines of daily life as part of the occupational therapy English helped pioneer.
Her strong social conscience drove English's professional work, and her reputation grew. She was eventually invited to be a lecturer at University College Galway, a position she held until her retirement.
Along with her education and psychiatric practice, English was a committed Irish nationalist who believed that Ireland should be ruled by the Irish, not by the British government based in London. During her student years, she met several leaders of the nationalist movement, learned Gaelic (the native Irish language), and joined the women's branch of the Irish Volunteers, one of many groups and societies committed to gaining Irish independence. In 1916, English also served as medical officer for the Volunteers at Athenry, in Galway, during a protest known as the Easter Rising. Also known as the Easter Rebellion or Éirí Amach na Câsca, this action was an organized, armed attempt by nationalist groups to seize control of Dublin and declare an Irish Republic.
Over the course of Easter week, April 24–29, British troops gradually overwhelmed the rebels in Dublin, killing many civilians in the process. Leaders (and a few non-leaders) were arrested and tried without due process, then executed. At Athenry, the rebels were few and poorly armed. After initial fighting was met with superior force by the local British garrison, the rebels retreated and ultimately dispersed. When the fighting was over, 485 people had been killed and another 2,600 were wounded. English was not arrested until 1920, when the British military searched her home and found “seditious literature” supporting rebellion. She was sentenced to nine months in prison, serving six before she suffered food poisoning and received a medical discharge.
In May of 1921, English was elected to the Irish Assembly (Dâil Eireann), a parliamentary body formed of educated representatives from the National University of Ireland. Her election was to the second of three assemblies held to consider a treaty with England, called the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which would give the Irish limited rule of their country, but only as subjects to the British Crown, under a loyalty oath. She and many of her colleagues were fiercely opposed to this treaty, and in a speech before the assembly in 1922, she called the establishment of the proposed Irish Free State as “complete spiritual surrender,” according to the January 5th edition of the Irish Times. Ultimately, those who were opposed lost the vote and the Anglo-Irish Treaty was ratified. English continued to support anti-Treaty efforts, but she lost her next election, in June of that same year. She participated in the ensuing Irish Civil War (June 28, 1922–May 24, 1923), which was again won by British-backed forces and resulted in the confirmation of the Irish Free State.
Dr. English remained devoted to her work at the asylum throughout her life, and in various ways helped change the way the Irish thought of mental illness. Once a week, she took groups of patients to the local movie theater, and in her off hours could be found touring the country roads near Ballinasloe in her horse-drawn carriage, which was driven by a patient. Locals affectionately called her “Lady English” because of her elegant bearing, and many recalled how, in colder seasons, she would be bundled up in her carriage, accompanied by her three dogs.
Although women were able to attend university and join the professions in English's era, there was still much to attain in order to establish true equality of opportunity between genders. English had served as assistant RMS at the Ballinasloe asylum for 30 years when her boss, a man, died. She took over his duties as superintendent and was nominated to replace him by the hospital's management committee. Ultimately, a man from another hospital was chosen by the local appointments commission, to the disappointment of both English and the committee. Four years later, the offending hire was fired, and English, now age 66, was at long last awarded the position. She served for two years as RMS before she retired.
Certain mysteries surround English to this day. It was thought that, from time to time, she hid fugitive revolutionaries, such as her friend Eamon de Valera, at the asylum. It was also suspected, though never confirmed, that she participated in other revolutionary activities. Regardless of suppositions, her contributions to Ireland's political life, mental-health system, and social development were substantial and lasting.
Kelly, Brendan, Ada English: Patriot and Psychiatrist, Irish Academic Press, 2014.
Kissane, Bill, The Politics of the Irish Civil War, Oxford University Press, 2005.
Irish History Review, February 17, 2015, Mel Farrell, “Ada English, Patriot and Psychiatrist.”
Irish Times, January 5, 1922; October 13, 2014, Brendan Kelly, “The Lady Vanishes: Dr. Ada English, Patriot and Psychiatrist”; August 18, 2016.
Journal of International Women's Studies, Volume 16, number 3 (2015), Megan M. Connerly, “Ada English: Patriot and Psychiatrist,” p. 324.❑