Dr. Brigid Lyons Thornton
Physician / Revolutionary
Dr. Brigid Lyons was a fearless Nationalist who was the first Woman Officer in the Irish Free State Army. She pioneered the “BCG Vaccination” in Ireland.
Brigid Lyons was born in Northyard, Scramogue, Co. Roscommon during 1896 a daughter of Patrick Lyons, Fenian / Farmer. [i] Her academic talent was evident as a young child when she won a prize for best Irish speaker in her school. [ii] Following her mother’s death she went to live with a nationalist family her uncle, Frank Mc Guinness and her aunt, Kate in Longford. They paid for her education at a Secondary school in Sligo. Brigid Lyons won a county scholarship to study medicine in University College Galway during 1915. [iii] (She stayed at digs at Maud Kyne’s house on Francis Street, Galway that turned out to be “warm, hospitable and chatty”)
Following her illness with T.B and decommission from the army in 1925 Dr. Brigid Lyons was sent to Switzerland to recuperate, while there she learned how to treat patients with the ailment. She also met her future husband Captain Eddie Thornton of Toomore, Co. Mayo in Switzerland, their marriage took place at St. Kevin’s church in Dublin Pro–Cathedral on October 10th 1925. She qualified as a doctor with a Postgraduate Diploma from U.C.D. during 1927. [iv]
When Brigid Lyons joined a branch of “Cumann na mBan” where her aunt was a prominent officer of the branch she learned First Aid there among her other activities. At the funeral of the nationalist Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa she was picked to lead the Cumann na mBan section. In Galway as she studied Medicine she formed a branch of “Cumann na mBan,” she was active in organizing parcels and letters to prisoners among other activities. During April 1916 while visiting Dublin she volunteered to attend at the front line where she administered to the wounded at the Four Courts and adjacent streets. She was involved with North King Street and Church Street areas where she operated a first–aid post and canteen for the volunteers. She was awarded gold sovereigns for her efforts which she stitched into her dress in case of arrest. Along with her colleagues among the volunteers she was incarcerated in Richmond Barracks. Following her release she had changed…she knew that only a Government by the people for the people would solve Ireland’s problems. [v] She supported the Treaty side in Ireland also she played a very significant role in the foundation of the Army Medical Corps. Dr. Brigid Lyons Thornton was the first female Irish woman to be commissioned as a 1st lieutenant in the Medical Corps of the Irish Free State Army by Michael Collins during 1922. [vi]
Dr. Brigid Lyons Thornton contributed an article to An Cosantoir in November 1975 wrote an article, entitled “Women and the Army” arguing for a Women’s Service Corps within the National Irish Army. She referred to the fact that no photo of her in her Army uniform was ever taken: she stated that when she applied for the usual uniform allowance, which she did not receive! She wrote that “somebody suggested that I should wear kilts and a short cape.” [vii] Also she stated that “as a Commissioned Officer I was never faced with a single duty that I felt incapable of seeing through successfully.” [viii] During the following years of Home Rule plus W.W.1, she was heavily involved with the Nationalist Movement as dispatch carrier etc, along with her comrades in Cumann na mBan. Dr. Lyons Thornton kept “Morale high with parcels, protests and letters.” [ix] During Ireland’s Civil War Dr. Lyons Thornton was given responsibility for the welfare of the Female Political Prisoners in Kilmainham Gaol. [x]
Shortly before her demise Dr. Lyons Thornton described to John Cowell, a retired colleague in the Irish Health service, her experiences while incarcerated in Dublin: “which make it harder for me, and often extremely embarrassing. Grace Plunkett, Joseph’s Plunkett’s widow, was brought in….Then Anne Mac Swiney, sister of Terrance Mac Swiney, went on hunger strike and nearly broke my heart… But the crowning tragedy came one night when I was called to see a new prisoner. Of all people, it was Mrs. Tom Clarke. She was hurt to meet me there, and I was hurt to meet her. In every way it was all too, too cruel. She would never forget the misery in those awful dungeons.” In her old age, Dr. Lyons Thornton was tormented by the bleak words spoken by Mrs. Clarke of “We meet in strange places.” [xi]
Dr. Brigid Lyons Thornton entered the Public Health Service in Co. Kildare prior to moving to Co. Cork. She returned to Dublin where she practiced as a pediatrician with Dublin Corporation Public Health Service until her retirement. She carried out research in Switzerland and Nice. She was instrumental in pioneering the “BCG” vaccination during the 1950’s. She also lectured on Public Health. Following her retirement Dr. Lyons Thornton worked as a Librarian within the Rotunda Hospital also as a researcher in Trinity College Dublin. When Dr. Brigid Thornton died, aged 91 years on 15th November 1987, she was interred on Easter Monday in Toomore Cemetery Co. Mayo. Her coffin was draped with the Tricolour. Members of the Western Command rendered Military honours at the graveside. [xii]
Her life has been documented in “A Noontide Blazing” by Dr. John Cowell. Also by Dr. Anne Mac Lellan in Ireland’s “Unmanageable Medical Revolutionaries.” [xiii] A new Housing Development – Thornton Heights, in Inchicore Dublin of seventy – five houses and apartments was opened by the President of Ireland, Dr. Michael Higgins on the site of the Richmond Barracks (earlier yet St. Michaels Estate and Keogh Street) during early 1973. He described Dr. Thornton Lyons as a remarkable woman who worked for the welfare of Irish citizens, that most remarkable among her achievements was her fight against tuberculosis among Ireland’s poor plus her role in the pioneering of a BCG vaccination scheme during that 1950’s that contributed to Ireland’s end of the plague. [xiv]
Dr. Anne Mac Lellan in Ireland’s “Unmanageable Medical Revolutionaries.” wrote that extraordinary Irish women were involved in the revolution during 1916, most on the Republican side. Kathleen Lynn, Ada English, Dorothy Stopford plus Dr. Brigid Lyons Thornton were all from the medical profession with a concern for the social issues and poverty of the time. Each took a unique path to their passionate work for Ireland. [xv]
Dr. Brigid Lyons Thornton was mentioned by James Langton who called her “The Heroine of the War of Independence” in the Irish Volunteers Commemorative Society.
Liam Kenny wrote of the Rebel, Soldier and Doctor, Dr. Lyons Thornton in “A Brigid of the 20th Century in the Irish Emigrant published in the Leinster Leader. On June 11th 1990.”
“A Noontide Blazing – Brigid Lyons Thornton” by John Cowell, 2009, Currach Press,
Clonan, Tom; Women on Frontline across Irish Defense Forces, Dublin in The Irish Times. [xvi]
On March 27th 2016, (as part of the 1916 Commemorations) Dr. Lyons Thornton was honoured at Toomore Graveyard. A wreath was laid by a relative Seamus Thornton. Members of the Irish Army, including four female NCO’s were in attendance. She has been Honoured this 2016 in various Exhibitions in Ireland.
[xiii] Irish Times, 20th November 2014.
[xvi]The Irish Times. Dec 10th 2010