Bridget O’Donnell (1916–2012) - an appreciation

The late Bridget O'Donnell.
The late Bridget O'Donnell.

On 21 June of this year a woman died in the Nazareth House in Bishop Street. She had not quite reached her 96th birthday. While deaths and funerals are by no means unusual there, this particular one took place not fifty metres away from the institution where she had served for most of her long life. When Bridget O’Donnell took up her position as Matron in St Columb’s College in 1951, Fr(later Bishop)Anthony McFeely was President; she retired more than 45 later when Mgr James Coulter was President of the College. It was a daunting task for a comparatively young woman to have been made responsible for the health and wellbeing of hundreds of boarders and many more day boys, not to mention the priests on the College staff.

In those unbureaucratic days there would have been only a very general job description for the College Matron. It was in a sense up to her to define her role, and she fulfilled that difficult role with a generosity which was certainly above and beyond the call of duty. She realised that many of the ‘illnesses’ especially of the younger boarders that she was called upon to treat were often rooted in homesickness and loneliness. What most of them really needed was a hug or pat on the back or firm handshake, depending on their age. She was too professional to administer such remedies, but she was kind and only mildly sceptical of their often puerile pretences of sickness. She was full of good commonsense which she dispensed with great good humour.

Her ‘sick bay’ was a refuge for the patient and the impatient. It was really a comfortable room with a bed and easy chairs, and the temptation to seek therapeutic refuge there was very strong when stomachs were upset or heads were thumping, induced at times by the mere thought of classes and examinations. Sadly that room found its permanent place in the canon of Irish literature as the scene of one of Seamus Heaney’s most poignant poems, ‘Mid-Term Break’.

In his homily at the Requiem Mass for Bridget, Fr Colum Clerkin, Parish Priest of Culmore, and a former Dean of St Columb’s, recalled the lines where the young Bellaghy boarder had “sat all morning in the College sick bay, counting bells knelling classes to a close”. When Heaney won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995 Bridget could still vividly recall that day, when she did all she could in her typically unobtrusive manner to ease the terrible unreality of his young brother’s death.

The boys were at ease with her, knowing that she stood no nonsense and believed at least a little of what they told her! The teaching staff, cleric and lay, confided confidently in her and gladly took her advice about all manner of things, appreciative of her innate wisdom. In time her area of responsibility grew, as instinctively Bridget became more that just a Matron but rather a housemother, taking care of so many aspects of the institution, including the domestic.

She ministered to the many priests who as pupils, and later as teachers, became part of a notional extended family. This total care was most clearly shown in her personal nursing of Mgr Coulter in his last painful illness at his home in Culmore. Throughout her long retirement she continued to have the best interests of the College at heart.

Requiem Mass for Bridget was concelebrated by Fr Clerkin and former priests of the College in Nazareth House Chapel where she attended daily Mass until the last. Her burial took place in her native Moville. She will be sadly missed not only by her many nieces and nephews, but by all those whose lives she touched.

May she rest in peace.