Michael O'Sullivan and Theresa O’Sullivan

Interviewees’ brother William O’Sullivan right of picture at Heatherside Sanatorium. Left of picture is Irish poet Seán O’ Riordan. Photo courtesy of Michael O’Sullivan.


Michael O'Sullivan and Theresa O’Sullivan




Michael and Theresa are husband and wife and live on Fairhill on the north side of Cork city. Michael is 87 years old and Theresa is 85 years old. In this interview they both talk about their experiences of TB in Cork during the 1940s and the 1950s. In particular Michael talks about 3 siblings that contracted TB and spent time in sanatoriums. His brother spent 4 years at Heatherside Sanatorium in north Cork before being transferred to St. Finbarr’s hospital for a further 3 years. Two of Michael’s sisters spent between 2-4 years at Sarsfield Court sanatorium. Michael talks about visiting his sisters but not his brother because of distance and lack of transport. To this end he did not see his brother for 7 years. Michael talks about the emotions experienced when his brother came home. Michael talks about visiting his sister at Sarsfield sanatorium on his wedding day with his wife and talks about the car breaking down en route. Michael also talks about learning that he had TB when a chest x-ray in circa 2018 revealed scarring on his lungs reminiscent of TB. Theresa talks about her cousin Elsie who spent time in Mount Desert Sanatorium. Theresa talks about how Elsie would help to lay out the dead in the mortuary. Theresa also talks about the many young girls that died of TB at the sanatorium. During the interview the girls are referred to as country girls which Theresa explains was a term used to describe the daughters of farmers. Theresa talks about the girls catching TB from cattle on the farm. Theresa also talks about a friend called John who spent time at Sarsfields Court sanatorium with TB. When John was released home he was never able to work again due to a weak chest as a result of recurring chest infections. Michael and Theresa discuss family, community and societal attitudes towards TB. They talk about what people were told about TB and how they believed TB was transmitted. They talk about visiting the sanatoriums and the lack of social restrictions that they observed there. They talk about how fresh air was considered a treatment for TB and how the patients spent a lot of time outdoors. Michael and Theresa talk about the popularity of smoking and describe how some would find relief from breathing difficulties through smoking. Michael and Theresa conclude their interview with a discussion on the current Covid 19 pandemic and discuss the differences and similarities with the TB pandemic of the 1940s and the 1950s.






Cork Folklore Project


Cork Folklore Project









Fair Hill, Cork City

Time Summary

Start Time

Question/General Theme

Topics in Summary


Intro to family history

Brother and sisters in sanatoriums for TB. Brother for 7 years, sisters for circa 2-4 years. Michael was told about 2 years ago after a chest x-ray that he probably had TB, but he was not aware of it.



Visiting sister in sanatorium on interviewees wedding day


What ages were brother and sisters when they had TB

Brother 17, sisters in 20s, 30s.


What symptoms?

Coughing up blood, constant cough


How was TB diagnosed?

Doctor and x-ray


What hospital?

North Infirmary


What Medications?

Bottle with pink/purple liquid, used for everything.


How were they transferred to sanatorium



Did you know how TB was transmitted?

No, was told it wasn’t contagious.


Did family talk about TB?

No too embarrassed, shame, linked to poverty


Were you aware of others in community with TB?

No there was a stigma surrounding it.


Did you wear masks, or clean the house?

No masks, but lots of scrubbing with ‘Jeyes Fluid’


What sounds would be heard in the house?

Coughing, wheezing.


Did people with TB look different?

Ghastly, Lethargic



Brother would go hunting ferrets, get cold and wet, maybe made him susceptible to TB.


Did doctors visit house?

Yes, didn’t wear masks


Would people have gathered in groups outside, inside?

Yes churches, cinemas and sporting events would be packed.


Did priests talk about TB at mass?

No never mentioned it, maybe out of fear.


What about the radio?

Yes, Noel Browne TD minister for health. Brother had great respect for him and all that he did.


Was visiting allowed at sanatorium?

Yes, but only outside. Interviewees remember visiting sister on their wedding day


Did your parents visit?

Yes, regularly, by taxi.



When interviewees visited on their wedding day, the car broke down on the way.



They had photographs taken on their wedding say at the sanatorium.


Did you visit your brother?

No too far away (Doneraile).


What did you see at the sanatoriums?

People sitting about talking, in their night gowns, dressing gowns, seemed happy, some played Pitch and Putt



The patients were involved in craft making, dolls, leather objects. Interviewee still has leather wallet that his brother made him at Heatherside Sanatorium


Did someone teach them these crafts?

Not sure, but think someone came to sanatoriums to teach them.



All the windows were open, lots of fresh air


Do you have an idea of how many patients were at sanatorium?

No but both genders, no children.


Was there a special diet?

No but they were well fed


It must have been difficult for parents with children at sanatorium?



Did parents ever talk about it?

No, they never talked, we were not told anything.


Do you remember the day your brother came home?

Yes remember him coming through the door, he had put on a lot of weight, didn’t recognise him, everyone was nervous.


Was he different?



Did your brother go back to work?

Yes as chef in Savoy Cinema Cork, and also worked in a confectioners in Gerald Griffin Street Cork


Are there similarities with Covid 19?

Yes, people are scared and avoiding each other



Reminded of Polio in 1950s


Theresa what are your experiences of TB?

Cousin Elsie was in Mount Desert Sanatorium. Theresa’s father would take her to visit Elsie, talks about country girls dying of TB at sanatorium. Elsie worked in mortuary, she was then transferred to St. Finbarr’s hospital



Theresa’s friend brother John was in Sarsfield’s Court sanatorium for 2 years. He never worked again after he came home, was weak and had bad chest.


What ages were they?

Elsie was 18, John in his 30s.


What do you mean by country girls?

Farmers daughters, usually from Cork and Kerry


Do you remember how the buildings looked?

There were wards and the main hospital, lots of fresh air, open windows, people sitting around talking.


Did they ever talk about the food?

No they never discussed food.


How long were they there?

About 2 years


Did Elsie lay out/prepare the dead of her own accord?

Yes of her own accord.


Do you remember anything about the wards, rooms?

Some patients were in rooms of 2 beds, some in ward with 4-6 beds.


Did your parents ever talk about TB?

No never


Do you see a comparison with Covid 19? (Theresa).

There were no masks, but you did avoid people if they coughed, you got out of the way fast, but we were told it wasn’t contagious. Sensitisation was never mentioned.


Did people cover their mouths when they coughed?



Were patients allowed to leave the sanatorium?

No, they were confined to the grounds, a lot of the time they were dressed, in suits and ties etc. Reading books


What about exercise?

There was no talk of exercise.



Interviewees mention a pink ointment that was often used for various illnesses, but can’t recall its name.


Were there any visible markings caused by TB?

Could be hunched up from coughing.


Did you see nurses at the sanatoriums?

Yes, dressed in white, no masks, gloves or aprons.


Was music played?

Yes people came in to play music, but can’t remember who.


Any advice for younger people today and Covid 19?

Not to smoke. Everybody smoked in 1940’s and 50s, no warnings of danger. Woodbines cigarettes.


Did they smoke in the sanatoriums?




People got relief from smoking. There were very few that didn’t smoke, Theresa’s father smoked to get relief from dust inhaled in his job as a shoemaker. Michael’s father worked in a flour mill and he would get relief from the inhaled flour by smoking.


Did the sisters that had TB smoke?

No another sister did and she never contracted TB


When did you find out that you might have had TB as a child? (Michael).

2 years ago. I was spitting up blood, had x-ray and doctor said lungs were scarred from TB. But I didn’t know I had TB. I had Pleurisy in the 1950s with the same symptoms.


Do you think people had TB and didn’t know it?

Yes, some were afraid to go to the doctor, others didn’t wasn’t to go to doctor because they could end up in a sanatorium



I wonder what bloated my brother in the sanatorium. He was very heavy when he came out.


Maybe because he wasn’t very active there?



Is there anything that comes to mind before we finish the interview?

We are lucky to have survived this long, I haven’t been sick a day in my life (Michael jokingly). We are after our Covid vaccine now and we are not doing too badly.

53: 34

Thank you for doing this interview

Thank You, we didn’t get your name (Michael jokingly).


Cork Folklore Project, “Michael O'Sullivan and Theresa O’Sullivan,” accessed July 17, 2024, https://corkfolklore.org/archivecatalolgue/document/288.