On Monday, the Irish Times carried a report noting that Ireland’s Health Service Executive owns hundreds of unused buildings across the state, some of which have been left vacant for decades (see: HSE owns hundreds of unused buildings, figures show (irishtimes.com)). This will not come as news to anyone who is concerned for the welfare of the country’s architectural heritage: the HSE is responsible for many historic sites, and a large number of them have been left not just vacant, but badly neglected, such as the former St Brigid’s Hospital in Ballinasloe, County Galway (above). A vast range of buildings designed by William Murray and opened in 1833, it closed 180 years later and has stood abandoned ever since. The HSE is by no means the only offender in this respect. Columb (originally Wellington) Barracks in Mullingar, County Westmeath provided accommodation for troops from 1819 until 2011, when it closed down: owned by the Department of Defence, the site has since been left largely empty, a prey to vandalism and creeping decay. Last winter – a full decade after the last troops left – the Land Development Agency produced a report on the site, with the promise that further information would follow in due course. No doubt something will eventually happen here, but after 11 years nobody can be accused of rushing into hasty decision-making.
A few points need to be made about both these and many other such premises, the first of which is that they are owned by the people of Ireland: the relevant state bodies in whose care they remain, are supposed to be their custodians. These are national assets, and the abysmal failure to take due care of them is at a cost to everyone else: the more they fall into decay, the less they are worth, to the detriment of all of us. In addition, the two examples shown here, and many more besides, are often close to urban centres and therefore ideally suited to provide ample accommodation for those who unfortunately don’t have it at present. In recent days, for example, it has been reported that a tent village is being prepared for Romanian refugees in Gormanstown, County Meath. This is an extraordinary state of affairs: why should anyone have to sleep in a tent when the HSE, and other agencies, own so many vacant buildings. Furthermore, if the state is supposed to lead by example, what sort of example is set by the likes of the HSE and the Department of Defence? Why should private owners worry about neglecting their property, when state authorities do so on a much larger scale? A reminder: this is a shameful – and shameless – squandering of our assets, and we are the losers as a result.
After the last post about Talbot’s Inch, County Kilkenny, here is another instance of the philanthropy displayed by Ellen, Dowager Countess of Desart: Aut Even Hospital. It dates from 1915 when built as a private hospital (today one of the oldest in Ireland) and follows the style of such facilities typical at the time, having a central two-storey administrative block from which radiate four single storey wings. The architect on this occasion was Albert Murray, then in his mid-60s and more conventional than William Alphonsus Scott who had designed the houses at Talbot’s Inch (it has been suggested that Scott’s drinking habits – W.B. Yeats referred to him as a ‘drunken genius’ – may explain why he did not receive this commission). However, there are some handsome touches, not least the exaggeratedly large entrance arch, within which are a pair of doors, the elaborately carved lower panels coming from the Kilkenny Woodworkers’ Company which had been founded by Lady Desart’s brother-in-law, Captain the Hon Otway Cuffe: a plaque in the entrance hall dedicates the building to his memory. Today, the cottage hospital, now owned by a private group, is engulfed by extensions dating from the 1980s and showing no sympathy for the original block. On the contrary, this looks poorly maintained and, as so often with our architectural heritage, one must fear for its preservation.
In 2005 two doctors bought a former orthopedic hospital in the small County Westmeath village of Coole, with the intention of turning it into a substantial medical facility, borrowing substantial sums of money from Ulster Bank to do so. As sometimes happens, the two partners disagreed over the development of the site, as plans came to include provision not only of a medical centre and ancillary facilities, but also a number of residential units (the entire country was then entering peak-Celtic Tiger era when housing schemes were ubiquitous). One of the pair accordingly exited the scheme, and the other remained involved. Then, as so often happened, in the aftermath of the economic crash, the entire project foundered and in 2012 the property went into receivership. Two years later the original Ulster Bank loan was transferred to a large investment company called Promontoria (Aran) Limited (a subsidiary of the American private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management). In 2017 Promontoria sought to recover some of its money by offering the place for sale. A medical centre still operates from the site.
The core of what became St Joseph’s Orthopaedic hospital dates from 1897 and was developed by Teresa Dease whose family lived close by in a house called Turbotstown (see https://theirishaesthete.com/tag/turbotstown/). The Deases were resolutely Roman Catholic, never wavering from the faith of their forebears even during the years of Penal legislation, yet managing to hold onto their ancestral lands. It was here, on a site adjacent to the church built by her grandfather, that Teresa Dease established what was initially intended to be a school to train young girls for a life in domestic service by teaching them such skills as housekeeping, cookery, needlework and laundry work. However, after a number of years, she closed the school and in 1916 passed responsibility for the building to an order of nuns, the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, who ran the place as an orthopaedic hospital for boys. It continued in operation until 1981, and thereafter the buildings sat empty and deteriorating until acquired in 2005 by the aforementioned pair of doctors. In the aftermath of its closure, and the revelation of widespread abuse in institutions run by religious orders, a great deal of disturbing information emerged about practices in St Joseph’s Hospital although here – as elsewhere – the relevant documentation disappeared, making it difficult for those who deservedly sought recognition and compensation for what they experienced to pursue their claims.
As mentioned, a medical centre operates on part of the site formerly occupied by St Joseph’s Hospital, from a range constructed for this purpose. But the ambition of the intended development is visible in other buildings left incomplete, roads leading nowhere, and in particular the condition of the original property erected in 1897 and, it appears, used as the nuns’ residence. Old photographs show this was formerly linked to other parts of the hospital, in particular a chapel in Hiberno-Romanesque style built in the mid-1930s. This still stands but many of the other extensions were taken down, seemingly at the onset of the redevelopment. The interior of the convent building was completely gutted, with only the old staircase surviving in a partially mangled state. And then the enterprise stalled, and the place was abandoned. And so it has remained ever since; a reminder more than a decade later of how not all Celtic Tiger ambitions were realized.
Boarded up and falling into dereliction: the former administration block of the workhouse in Mullingar, County Westmeath. Many of the other buildings that were part of this complex have since been given fresh purpose by the Health Service Executive (albeit with the introduction of uPVC windows: when will official Ireland ever provide a lead here?). However, this handsome house, which is at the entrance to the site, is in a wastefully poor state, only saved from total ruin by being constructed in sturdy limestone. Dating from 1841 and built in the Tudor-Gothic style to the design of architect George Wilkinson, the building’s present state is a shameful waste of state resources.
The slowly decaying carcase of the former St Brigid’s Hospital in Ballinasloe, County Galway. Opened in 1833, it was originally called the Connacht District Lunatic Asylum, one of more than twenty built across Ireland during the middle decades of the 19th century. Many of them, including this one, were designed by Dublin architect William Murray who drew on the plans and ideas of his cousin, Francis Johnston: he had been responsible for the first such public institution in Ireland, the Richmond Lunatic Asylum (now part of the Dublin Institute of Technology campus) built 1810-14. St Brigid’s design was inspired by ideas developed at the end of the 18th century by philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham about how best to manage inmates in large institutions. He conceived of a building which he called a Panopticon (from the Greek panotes, meaning ‘all seeing’) which was originally circular, those in charge occupying the central section and thus able to observe what was happening around them. The Ballinasloe hospital is a variation on this theme. Here, as was also the case in the slightly earlier Limerick Lunatic Asylum likewise designed by Murray, wings radiate on four sides from a central block which provided accommodation for the governor and other members of staff: access to the wings and their extensions was only possible via the central block, the importance of which is emphasised by the clock tower topped by copper ogee dome. St Brigid’s is vast. At the turn of the last century, for example, it had more than 1,150 inmates and after that date further buildings were constructed on the site. After closing down in 2013, today most of it stands empty and decaying, like so many other historic properties that are the responsibility of the Health Service Executive. The longer the building stands empty and neglected, the more likely it will fall into further decay – or worse be subject to the kind of vandalism from which other similar former institutions have suffered. The state owns St Brigid’s: its present condition sets a poor example of care for what is supposed to be a ‘protected structure’.