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.
Thanks to the presence of the Trench family at Garbally on the edge of the town, the historic centre of Ballinasloe, County Galway has handsomestreets lined with fine stone buildings dating from the late 18th and 19th centuries. Alas, many of them have fallen into poor condition, such as this dwelling on the corner of Duggan Avenue and Church Hill (and therefore at a crucial space facing the St Joseph’s Church of Ireland). Dating from c.1810, more than a decade ago it was cruelly, and crudely, stripped of the original render during an apparent renovation scheme long since abandoned. The building is notable for its carved limestone doorcase and remains of a leaded fanlight. Alas its immediate neighbour is in little better condition and the house directly opposite retains only its ground floor walls. Disappointing to see what could be an enchanting spot in the town allowed to remain in such neglect.
Dating from 1840 and designed by George Papworth, this is the Le Poer Trench Memorial in Ballinasloe, County Galway. An open-sided monument of limestone, above a raised base it comprises a fluted Doric column set on the diagonal of each square column directly behind, the whole supporting a deep frieze above which is set a domed roof with urn finials on top of the projecting corners. In the centre of the base rests a stone coffin, as the memorial was erected to commemorate the Venerable Hon. Charles Le Poer Trench who for many years served as Vicar of Ballinasloe (he was also Archdeacon of Ardagh) and who died in 1839. The Ven.Hon. Charles was a son of the first Earl of Clancarty (of the second creation) and originally, owing to its position atop a high mound, the memorial would have been visible from the family’s seat, Garbally which is located on the outskirts of the town. According to an inscription on one side of the memorial, it was raised thanks to ‘subscribers of all ranks and religious distinctions.’
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’.