Dr. Brigid Lyons Thornton

Physician / Revolutionary

Portrait from An Cosantoir.
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Trinity College Dublin
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Four Courts, Dublin
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Dr. Bridget Lyons Thornton
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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. She was a daughter of Patrick Lyons a noted Fenian / Farmer.[i]

Education

Her academic talent was evident as a young child when she won a prize for best Irish speaker in her school.  Following her mother’s death she went to live with a nationalist family her uncle, Frank Mc Guinness & 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.  (She stayed at digs at Maud Kyne’s house on Francis Street, Galway that turned out to be ‘warm, hospitable and chatty’) (Rachel Sayers) [ii]

Switzerland

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’s Pro–Cathedral on 10th October 1925.  She qualified as a doctor with a Postgraduate Diploma from U.C.D. during 1927. [iii]

Cumann na mBan

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 also active in organizing parcels and letters to prisoners among other activities. (Rachel Sayers) [iv]

Nationalist Activities

In the following years of Home Rule / WW1 she became very involved with the Nationalist movement; by smuggling money, gold & guns to fund the ‘cause’. She and her fellow Cumann na mBan women kept’ morale high…. With parcels, protests and letters.’  Brigid was one of the most active Cumann na mBan women as she sent parcels & corresponded with o prisoners.  She did this whilst continuing her studies. (Rachel Sayers) [v]

1916

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 / Church Street areas where she operated a first – aid post also a 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 recognized  that only a Government by the people for the people would solve Ireland’s problems. (Rachel Sayers) [vi]

Commissioned Officer

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.[vii]

Marriage

Brigid Lyons married captain Edward Thornton on 10th October 1925 in the Chapel of S.t Kevin at the Pro Cathedral Dublin. She survived her husband Captain Edward Thornton’s passing during 1946, (they had no children.) [viii]

Publication

Dr. Brigid Lyons Thornton contributed an article to An Cosantoir’ during November 1975 wrote an article, titled ‘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 by personal.  She stated that when she applied for the usual uniform allowance, she did not receive one!   She wrote that ‘somebody suggested that I should wear kilts and a short cape.’ [ix]

Also she stated that ‘as a Commissioned Officer I was never faced with a single duty that I felt incapable of seeing through successfully.’ [x]

During the following years of Home Rule plus WW1 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.’ (Rachel Sayers)  [xi]

During Ireland’s Civil War Dr. Lyons Thornton was given responsibility for the welfare of the Female Political Prisoners in Kilmainham Gaol. [xii]

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.’  During her later years Dr. Bridgid Lyons Thornton was tormented by the bleak words spoken by Mrs. Clarke of ‘We meet in strange places.’  [xiii]

Medical Career

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 paediatrician 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.  Dr. Brigid Lyons Thornton lived a long life. She had suffered ill health in her late seventies.. When retired she continued to work as a volunteer in The Rotunda Maternity Hospital. [xiv]

Demise

Dr. Brigid Lyons Thornton’ demise occurred when she was ninety – one years on the 15th November 1987. (according to this link she passed from died of cardiac-respiratory arrest)  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. [xv]

Tributes

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. (20th November 2014) 

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. Lyons Thornton 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. (9th September 2014) [xvi]

Dr. Anne Mac Lellan in Ireland’s ‘Unmanageable Medical Revolutionaries’ stated‘ that extraordinary Irish women were involved in the revolution during 1916, most on the Republican side.  Kathleen Lynn, Ada English, Dorothy Stopford also 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. [xvii]

Dr. Brigid Lyons Thornton was mentioned by the following in publications:

Cowell John ‘A Noontide Blazing – Brigid Lyons Thornton Rebel, Soldier, Doctor.’ 2005 Currach Press Dublin

McCoole  Sinead  ‘No Ordinary Women: Irish Female Activists in the Revolutionary Years 1900–1923 2003 Dublin

Clonan Tom ‘Women on Frontline across Irish Defence Forces’ Dublin in ‘The Irish Times.’ (Dec 10th 2010)

Sayers Rachel. ‘Brigid Lyons Thornton: Rebel, Soldier and Doctor’ Women’s Museum of Ireland. (Retrieved 25 November 2014)

Mac Curtain, M and O’Corrain D (eds.)  ‘Women in Irish Society’ 1978 Dublin

Langton  James. ‘Dr. Brigid Lyons-Thornton  Irish Volunteers’  (Archived from the original on 29 November 2014. Retrieved 25 November 2014)

McCarthy Cal ‘ Cumann na mBan and the Irish Revolution’ 2007 Dublin

McKillen Beth ‘Irish Feminism and National Separatism, 1914–23‘  1982  Eire

J St P C ‘(Dr) Brigid Lyons Thornton’  1987 Irish Times (Retrieved 14th  November 2014)

Anonymous A ‘An Irishwoman’s Diary’ (10th November 2008) in ‘The Irish Times’ (Retrieved 14th November 2014) [xviii]

James Langton called her ‘The Heroine of the War of Independence’ in the Irish Volunteers Commemorative Society.  Kenny Liam’s ‘A Brigid of the 20th Century’ mentioned the Rebel, Soldier & Doctor – Dr .Lyons Thornton in ‘The Irish Emigrant.’  Later it was published in ‘The Leinster Leader’ on 11th June 1990. [xix]

Tributes

On 27th March 2016, (as part of the 1916 National Commemorations)  Dr. Bridgid Lyons Thornton was honoured at Toomore Graveyard.  A wreath was laid by a relative Seamus Thornton. Members of the Irish Army, including four female NCOs were in attendance.  She was honoured that year in various Exhibitions within Ireland.  (NBC)

Sources

https://kilmainhamtales.ie/

https://www.kildare.ie/

Bibliography

[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brigid_Lyons_Thornton

[ii] https://womensmuseumofireland.ie/articles/brigid-lyons-thornton

[iii]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brigid_Lyons_Thornton

[iv] https://womensmuseumofireland.ie/articles/brigid-lyons-thornton

[v]   Ibid.

[vi]  Ibid.

[vii] https://www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/online-collections/bureau-of-military-history-1913-1921/witnesses/

[viii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brigid_Lyons_Thornton

[ix] https://www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/online-collections/bureau-of-military-history-1913-1921/witnesses/

[x]https://www.dfmagazine.ie/dfmag_pdfs/1970_1979/Vol_35_1975/11_Nov/Vol_35_No_11_Nov_1975.pdf

[xi] https://womensmuseumofireland.ie/articles/brigid-lyons-thornton

[xii]https://www.dfmagazine.ie/dfmag_pdfs/1970_1979/Vol_35_1975/11_Nov/Vol_35_No_11_Nov_1975.pdf

[xiii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brigid_Lyons_Thornton

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] https://www.thejournal.ie/irish/

[xvii] https://aran.library.nuigalway.ie/bitstream/handle/10379/1792/finalthesis.pdf;sequence=1

[xviii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brigid_Lyons_Thornton

[xix] https://www.irishtimes.com/archive

 

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