Top honour as Limerick woman is immortalised in the world of NHS nursing history

Fintan Walsh


Fintan Walsh

Ainna says she is ‘humbled’ by the accolade of being among the top 70 nurses in NHS history Picture: Michael Cowhey

Ainna says she is ‘humbled’ by the accolade of being among the top 70 nurses in NHS history Picture: Michael Cowhey

WHEN AINNA Fawcett-Henesy discovered she was considered one of the most influential nurses in the history of the United Kingdom, there was no ornate invitation or a decorated, trumpet fanfare.

Instead, she was in her kitchen on Summerville Avenue with her husband Clive, perusing a PDF document that highlighted 70 top nurses to celebrate the 70th birthday of the National Health Service.

“I know her, I don’t know her,” she said, glancing through a history of faces. And then: “Clive! Clive! Is that me?”

It had been 20 years since the South Circular Road native had served the NHS, and she was now being recognised for her work as a chief nurse, policy advisor, political influencer, and adept negotiator throughout her many roles, namely the World Health Organisation’s regional officer for nursing and midwifery.

But her rise to the troposphere would not have happened if she had been offered a job at the Regional Hospital Limerick after finishing secondary school at Scoil Carmel. Truth be told, Ainna didn’t quite make the cut when she wanted to be one of 14 trainee nurses in Dooradoyle back in 1965.

“My father was disgusted,” she says in her pristine kitchen, sitting next to a stack of framed honorary awards from various universities.

Back then, from a parent’s point of view, enrolling to be a nurse was as coveted as being a nun or a priest. Her father Sean Carey, married to Kathleen, ran a popular store in Ballinacurra.

She described this moment as “a mixed blessing”, knowing that her strict father would pull a few strings.

‘You cannot be a prophet in your own land’ is a biblical phrase that rings true for a lot of Limerick folk, who leave Shannonside to attain success elsewhere.

After all, St Munchin has us cursed, as the old legend says all Limerick natives are born unfortunate while strangers always prosper.

And so Ainna’s father went to Coventry to visit uncle Jack, the city’s alderman at the time, who linked in with a local matron to secure a springboard for her career.

“When I got there, I was scared. I was petrified. It was moving to a totally different culture, where Irish people were not popular people. You had signs on windows: ‘No Irish need apply’,” she says.

Thankfully there was a whole cohort of Irish nurses in Coventry, and she “loved every second of working on the wards”.

While she enjoyed her ward rounds, she fell in love with the idea of becoming a public health nurse after spending a day in the community with a nurse.

“I was just fascinated how this woman [a public health nurse] could move into complex families and negotiate with them.”

After completing her training to become a public health nurse at the Royal College of Nursing in London, Ainna then moved into the complex underbelly of a local community, exposed to a world of drugs, prostitution, child abuse and even murder.

“When you stood out the door and you saw a guy, you knew he was a pimp. And when you go into the room, there would be one of our clients, sitting or in the bed, but that was the job. And if you had a special relationship, they didn’t care; they just invited you in. ‘Ah, it’s only Carey, let her in, she’s no problem,’ and that’s a trust thing,” she recounts.

Child abuse became a phenomenon on the nurses’ radar in the 1960s. Nurses, she says, were frightened they would miss symptoms of abuse in children, especially in cases where the child was murdered.

“I remember going around to one house and there was a little boy. And the mother said: ‘That father beat his little arse black and blue last night’,” she recalls. When she visited the boy at school, she saw the bruising and the boy was taken away. “The next thing I got these poison pen letters from them [parents]: ‘You will die tonight.’”

She says she had to be subpoenaed a number of times to give evidence in trials where children were murdered by their parents.

“That was tough and I found that quite hard. Could I have done anything to stop that child dying? You know you can’t because you can’t be there 24 hours a day.”

These experiences helped to forge Ainna’s ability as a skilled negotiator, and in 1980 she was appointed an advisor on primary healthcare at the Royal College of Nursing, where she excelled in working with governments to implement the right policies.

And on her last day in 1988, the Royal College implemented a game-changing policy she had proposed—to set up the first ever training programme for nurse practitioners and nurse prescribing.

Ainna then took on the role of chief nurse and director of quality at Ealing Health Authority, serving 250,000 people. It was not long after this she was appointed director nursing and quality in the South-East Thames region, covering a massive population of 3.5 million.

In her role, she put together a talented, multi-racial team. One member of her team, Karlene Davis, would later become the first black director general of the Royal College of Midwives, honoured with an Order of the British Empire, and join Ainna on the top 70 list. And when Ainna messaged Dame Karlene Davis to congratulate her, she replied: “But who do I have to thank for it?”

In 1995, Ainna became the head of nursing and midwifery at the World Health Organisation, wielding an influence never seen before. During her 10-year tenure, she convened the first ever European ministerial on nursing and developed the first ever European strategy on nursing, to name just a few of her notable achievements.

On a daily basis, though based out of Copenhagen, Ainna was in an airplane to one of 52 countries, working with various ministries. But in 2005, a breast cancer diagnosis forced her into early retirement at age 58.

Both her parents died from cancer in their early 60s, she says. 

“It was the one thing I never wanted to get. I said, this can’t be happening to me. I was so devastated by the cancer diagnosis that I didn’t even notice that I had given up my job,” a candid Ainna says, adding that her treatment went well and that she was “very lucky”.

There is a youthful chirp in Ainna’s tone. She turned 72 very recently.

“I am a young 72,” she declares. “We have no children, and that does make a difference.”

What about pets? Dogs, cats?

“No, I have a husband,” she quips.

And after completing her Masters in Creative Writing at University of Limerick, under the tutelage of Dr Joseph O’Connor, Ainna is now in the final stages of completing an exciting memoir.

Ainna says she was humbled by the accolade of being one of the most influential NHS nurses over its 70-year history. In fact, she is the only woman from the Republic of Ireland on the list of eminent names.

“Little ol’ me from Limerick and I had been gone from there for 20 years, and there I am that I haven’t been forgotten. It is really humbling that you had that kind of impact.”

Proud of her achievements, Ainna smiles: “Wait until you read my memoir.”