A Poor Example


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’.