Remembering Dr Winnie, 1917 – 1982
Our main feature this week comes from Penny Kavanagh, nee Ward, of Co. Kilkenny. Penny has written a reflective piece on her aunt, Dr. Winnie White, for the Heritage Group’s forthcoming book on the histories of Cappoquin’s women, and we are delighted to reproduce it here as a taste of things to come.
When I was asked to write this piece, two thoughts came to mind instantly – utter fear and trepidation that I would not do this remarkable woman justice and a feeling of great privilege and pride at being asked to write it.
Winifred Agnes White, affectionately known as Dr. Winnie was born on April 14th l917. At the time the family were living in the Dispensary House at Mill Street in Cappoquin where Winnie’s father William was Dispensary Doctor, having been appointed in 1914. Winnie was the youngest of seven - Tommy, Cissy, Tiny, William, Lulu and Sheila. Young William died at three months.
During the 1920s the family moved to Kilderriheen House and the quite renowned Nursing Home was established. Dervla Murphy, the famous travel writer, was born in Derriheen and mentioned the fact in her first book “Wheels within Wheels”. I do remember hearing stories about the nursing home but the only thing I can really remember is Cissy telling me that one of her jobs was to make sure that there were warmed blankets ready for the newborns.
Careers in medicine seemed to run in the White family as our great grandfather had practised in Kilsheelan, Co.Tipperary as did our grand uncle Johnny. Our grandfather William White and uncle Tommie White were doctors and both served in the British Army Medical Service.
We probably don’t fully appreciate the achievement it was for Winnie, a young woman from a small rural town in west Waterford to go to university and qualify as a doctor in the Ireland of the 1940’s.
Winnie went to primary school in the Mercy Convent in Cappoquin and after that to Loreto Fermoy as a boarder. After secondary school she studied Medicine in University College Cork as had her father and brother before her. Winnie joined her father’s practice and although she was never Dispensary Doctor in Cappoquin she had an extensive private practice, stretching from Tallow to Ardmore and Ballymacarbery. When she was appointed to Whitechurch Dispensary this extended the area she covered even further.
I lived in Derriheen until I was seven and so saw the comings and goings to the house. There were really no such things as appointments in those days, people came and went at will and if she was in well and good and if not they waited or came back later! Winnie’s surgery was in a room we called the Library and next door was the old surgery which had been my grandfather’s surgery.
My mother looked after the administrative side of the practice; my abiding memory of this is that when trying to get a hospital bed for a patient she had to claim that everyone was at least five years younger than they actually were! We used to go on the house calls with Winnie; she had had a succession of Volkswagen Beetles and I am not quite sure how you would describe her driving, but her car did have a most distinctive sound and really announced that she was not too far away. The cars were kept in pristine running order by Sargent's Garage. There were certain houses we visited and you knew there would be a long wait in the car. At night time we had a system whereby if a call had come in while she was out, the light in the porch would be left on and she knew to come straight to the house before continuing on to her next patient. My grandmother had planted hundreds and hundreds of daffodils in the grounds of Derriheen and in the spring there would be a constant stream of people asking permission to pick a bunch of daffodils to bring home. This was no problem at all, the same applied to the Autumn with the apples and pears in the orchard. I think lots of people of my age will remember the wonderful birthday parties we had as children in Derriheen too.
In the early sixties, Derriheen was sold to John Murphy, owner of the Bacon Factory, and so ended an era. Winnie moved into the Bank House on Cook St., which was of course much more convenient for the patients. For years delivering babies at home was the preference for most women, and even though we were young and really did not fully understand the full implications we knew that if Winnie was on a “maternity” case she would be gone for quite some time. On one such call she delivered twins in a house that was on fire.
Her last time to deliver a baby was in the Bank House on a Sunday evening, it would have been in the early 70s, Winnie was at evening Mass in St. Mary’s Church and my mother was minding the house. There was a frantic knocking at the door and a young man with a very worried expression on his face was outside, his wife in the car in labour. They were on route to Ardkeen but the baby decided it was time to arrive, so the next person that passed the door was despatched to the Church to get Winnie. In the meantime the lady was helped into the surgery and made as comfortable as possible. Mrs. Foley from the Railway Bar, a midwife who had delivered countless babies with Winnie, was also called, and so in due course the baby was safely delivered. I think it was a boy' mother and baby were brought by ambulance to Waterford, and about a week later the new little family called to the Bank House on their way home.
One of the unique things about Winnie's practice was the fact that she looked after the entire community in Mount Mellery Abbey – unique in the fact that she was the only woman allowed inside the enclosure. We loved going to Mellery with her, lengthy visits but we could get out of the car and go to the Bead Shop and we often had tea and brown bread in the Guest House. Winnie also looked after the Sisters in Glencairn Abbey.
Winnie had great faith and travelled to Lourdes every year and volunteered as a helper with the sick pilgrims. She also went to Lough Derg every year, at that time the Prior was Monsignor Conor Ward who happened to be my father’s uncle. The 'real Monsignor' as he is called in the family, was a very formidable man and very strict with the penitents, and I don’t think there were any allowances made for the fact that there was a very tenuous family connection.
Winnie was a very generous and kind person, as an aunt you could not have asked for better. She loved her style and to my recollection always wore a hat, a nice straw one in the summer and a sturdy felt hat in the winter. She was the first person I ever saw wearing prescription sunglasses; the frames were black and white and had a very distinctive shape. She loved going on shopping trips. We regularly went to Cork and part of the day would be tea in Thompsons, and high tea in the Metropole Hotel before we came home. When it came to grand nieces and nephews she was equally kind and full of fun. I recall a day in the Bank House when we were visiting and had had tea, Winnie and my daughter Julie (then about 4) spent quite some time taking the teabags out of the teapot and putting them back in again, untold pleasure for a 4 year old.
Winnie enjoyed listening to music and had what was called a pick up (record player) so she introduced us to the sonorous tones of Paul Robeson,and his rendition of Old Man River was a definite favourite. She also liked Bridie Gallagher and we regularly sang The Boys from the County Armagh while out in the car; another one was Are You Right There Michael Are You Right? a Percy French composition sung by Brendan O’Dowda who had been at school in Dundalk with my Dad - a very small world indeed.
Winnie died in the County and City Infirmary in Waterford on January 3rd l982 after a short illness. There were huge attendances on both days at her funeral, and a measure of the respect, esteem and affection in which she was held was shown when her coffin was carried the entire journey from St. Mary’s Church to St. Declan’s Cemetery by relays of pall bearers, and, as with her father before her, her grave was lined with heather. There was a genuine feeling of loss not just to her family but to the entire area.
It has been said that the appointment of her father Dr.William White made a huge difference to the lives of the people of Cappoquin for almost 40 years, I think it is safe to say that his legacy lived on in his daughter, Dr.Winnie. There is a lovely plaque remembering them near the gates of Derriheen, a fitting tribute.