Dr. Ada English was a strong woman, a fervent Nationalist, a prominent member of Cumann na mBan, and one of the first female psychiatrists in Ireland. Like her peer Dr. Kathleen Lynn, Dr. English devoted her spare time to politics and to healing and aiding the Irish Volunteers who were fighting for a free Ireland. Her story is not as well known as Dr Lynn’s however, since Ada was not in Dublin during the Easter Rising. Many political women of Ireland’s revolutionary periods have slowly vanished throughout the years, and Dr. Ada English has not been an exception to that unfortunate trend, though she should be.
Dr. English was tutored in the Irish language by revolutionary leader Patrick Pearse and through his teachings Ada became a staunch supporter of Irish Nationalism. She joined Cumann na mBan and began advocating for a free Ireland. She also became the assistant Medical Superintendent for the Connaught District Lunatic Asylum in Ballinasloe, overseeing the treatment of more than 1,200 patients. She made her Nationalist politics known on arrival at the hospital by removing the image of Queen Victoria on the employee’s uniforms. She replaced the queen with the symbol of the Galway Arms. Dr. English pioneered and supervised many early forms of psychiatric therapy including shock therapy, but she also advocated for less intrusive and more enjoyable activities to help those in the asylum such as gardening, farming, and weekly movies. She helped remove some of the awful stigmas about mental health throughout Ireland and her balanced treatment helped thousands of patients.
When the Easter Rising of 1916 began in Dublin, Ada reportedly joined the western division of the Irish Volunteers who were attacking Royal Irish Constabulary stations throughout the west of Ireland. They also briefly took over the city of Athenry. She melted back into her work when the division stood down at the end of Easter week, but she did not give up on a free Ireland. She continued her service in Cumann na mBan and was arrested for possessing Nationalist papers and seditious propaganda in 1921 during the War for Independence. She spent six months in prison. Later that year she was elected to the Dáil Eireann, the Republican legislature that was set up to counter English rule. She was one of six female deputies. The others included more well known ladies like Mary MacSwiney and Constance Markievicz just to name a few. Ada English might have been one of the lesser known women, but she was just as passionate about Ireland’s future as she was about psychiatry. During her time in the Dáil, Dr. English campaigned in favor of Eamon De Valera’s presidential bid – and there are rumors that she may have hidden him in her asylum at least once (and probably more) when he was on the run. Ada was adamantly against the Anglo-Irish treaty but when she spoke out against it, she was gracious to her opponents saying, “I credit the supporters of the Treaty with being as honest as I am, but I have a sound objection to it.” She was one of the few politicians who also made sure to voice her dismay at the idea of the partition of Ireland. The other female deputies agreed. When many men dismissed the women’s Anti-Treaty opinions as being vengeful and emotional, Ada English was quick to call them out. She retorted that “it was a most unworthy thing for any man to say here. I can say this more freely because, I thank my god, I have no dead men to throw in my teeth as the reason for holding the opinions I hold.” Ultimately, despite her eloquent protests and those of many other strong women, the Anglo-Irish treaty was ratified by the Dáil. Dr. English lost her seat in the next election and supported the Anti-Treaty side in the Irish Civil War.
Ada English remained a Nationalist and a community activist for the rest of her life but when the Civil War ended, she returned to her medical career. She did offer employment at the hospital to any R.I.C. officer who could be convinced to leave the force, but she left most of the political world behind and focused on psychiatry again. The asylum population in Ireland had exploded and the doctor continued to be a groundbreaking administrator and an advocate for them all. She would often take a patient with her to drive her horse and carriage through the country roads of Ireland, turning a lovely drive into a therapeutic field trip for both the doctor and her charge.
Dr. Ada English passed away on this day in 1944, and much of her story went with her. She died quietly in Ballinasloe and didn’t leave journals or a memoir behind, nor did she have a family of her own. Shortly after her death most of her belongings were sold or given away. Dr. English has mostly disappeared from the history books in the years since but her contributions to both the Nationalist movement and mental health still echo today. This exceptional woman should be honored and remembered for both her devotion to Ireland and to many of its most vulnerable and volatile people.