Seeking Asylum



After Monday’s post about Skiddy’s Almshouses in Cork, here is a similar institution in Kilkenny city: St James’s Asylum. This dates from 1803 when established by James Switzer (then spelled Switsir), a Quaker builder responsible for constructing the nearby military barracks on land provided by the Earl of Ormond; seemingly, when he had completed this job, there was sufficient material left over to erect the almshouse. A charity was accordingly established by Act of Parliament, and the relevant deeds stated that there were to be 20 beneficiaries, all female, twelve Protestant and eight Roman Catholic. Furthermore, the residents were to be ‘decent and respectable persons, the widows or daughters of respectable persons resident in the county or city of Kilkenny or county of Carlow for ten years or more.’ To ensure decent respectability, none of the women who secured placed could ever have been a servant, ‘or the widow or daughter or niece of a servant.’ Today run by a charity, the building is of fifteen bays and two storeys with a central pedimented three-bay breakfront. Unfortunately, during a renovation of the premises, uPVC windows were installed to replace the six-over-six timber sash older models. Two other features are notable, the first being a large statue of the asylum’s founder looming over the garden from his recessed stone niche; the figure here was carved by Benjamin Schrowder, otherwise known for having assisted Edward Smyth in carving the emblematic keystones on the Custom House, Dublin. And then there is the splendid stone gateway which would not be out of place at the entrance to a country house, not least because the pedimented outer sections suggest a pair of identical lodges.


Alms and the Man



On May 28th 1584, Stephen Skiddy, a Cork wine merchant, made his will in which he left a bequest for the establishment of an almshouse in the city, leaving provision that out of certain rents, the Vintners of the City of London would annually pay the sum of £24 to be distributed among the property’s residents, who could either Catholic or Protestant: this payment began (and has continued ever since) following the death of Skiddy’s death in 1606. Initially, the almshouse occupied a site close to the city’s North Gate Bridge, but at the beginning of the 18th century a decision was taken to move to higher ground, the old location being considered ‘too narrow & incommodious for want of good air.’ This move was probably encouraged by a further bequest made in 1717 by one Roger Bettridge. Work began in 1718 and was completed the following year.





The site chosen for the new development of Skiddy’s Almshouses was one of a number of religious and charitable foundations in this part of the city and was constructed immediately adjacent to the Green Coat Hospital School, so-called because that was the colour of the pupils’ uniform. Founded in 1715, the school was primarily the brainchild of the Rev Henry Maule, then rector of the adjacent St Anne’s church (he would subsequently rise through the ranks of the Church of Ireland, eventually becoming Bishop of Meath). A charity school, it was intended to provide forty poor children – 20 boys and 20 girls between the ages of seven and 12 – with an elementary education of reading, writing and arithmetic combined with appropriate vocational training in areas such as spinning and weaving. As the print above shows, the building was U-shaped with two three-bay wings coming forward to create a courtyard, closed with gates: the statue of a boy stood on top of one gatepost, of a girl on the other. Popularly known as ‘Bob’ and ‘Joan’, both were made of lead and clad in green coats: these figures are today kept in the tower of St Anne’s. The school operated over the next two centuries, and when Samuel Lewis published his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland in 1837, a parliamentary grant meant the number of pupils had increased to 40 boys and 28 girls. Towards the end of the 19th century, the Green Coat School was amalgamated with other parochial schools by the City of Cork Church School Board but continued to function as a primary school for girls, as well as location for a Sunday school. Unfortunately the building was demolished in 1955. A budget hostel now occupies the site.





Skiddy’s Almshouse was constructed directly to the rear of the Green Coat School and might have suffered the same fate as that building. In 1963 the charity’s trustees opened new accommodation on the southern outskirts of the city, and sold the old almshouses to the nearby North Infirmary Hospital, then run by an order of nuns. The hospital proposed to demolish the old property and erect a block for nurses’ accommodation on the site. This caused sufficient outrage that a new organisation, the Cork Preservation Society, was established to fight for the survival of Skiddy’s Almshouses. The campaign was sufficiently successful that the CPS was able to embark on a restoration of the building, overseen by architect Frank Murphy and completed in 1975: in that year, it won the RIAI National Award for Architecture and a Europa Nostra Medal. In 2000, the CPS sold the almshouses to a charity, the Social Housing Development Company which embarked on a second restoration, converting the building into 14 social housing units, six with two bedrooms and eight with one bedroom. This continues to the present. Today Skiddy’s Almshouses is Cork city’s oldest inhabited building, and proof that there is absolutely no need to demolish old housing stock, which can be refurbished to meet present day requirements. Incidentally, the North Infirmary Hospital, which in the 1960s wanted to demolish the almshouses, was closed twenty years later and that building, after lying vacant for some time, is now an hotel.


In Demand



Born in Killough, County Down, during the first half of the 19th century Charles Shiel became a highly successful merchant based in Liverpool until he retired to Ireland ten years before his death in 1861. He and his wife had no children, so he established a charity to provide accommodation in almshouses, specifying that ‘the inmates are, from time to time as vacancies occur, to be chosen without reference to religious creed from among the most deserving of such applicants.’ There are five groups of Shiels’ Almshouses around the country, with 126 of them in total, all still serving their original purpose. Those shown here are in Dungannon, County Tyrone. designed in 1867 in a loosely Gothic idiom by the firm of Lanyon, Lynn & Lanyon, constructed of local sandstone rubble with red sandstone for detailing, and green slate bands. Very well maintained, each of the houses is two storey and has a small yard to the rear, with the whole group set in landscaped grounds. Understandably, there is high demand for these residences.