St. Conal’s marks 150th anniversary
On the 22nd of May 1866 St. Conal’s Hospital first opened its doors as an ‘institution for the mentally ill’ in Donegal.
On last Sunday local historian Hugh Devlin delivered a detailed and very interesting talk in the Letterkenny County Museum, on the exact date marking the 150th anniversary of the historic opening of the hospital.
In his talk Mr Devlin, who previously worked on the nursing staff at St. Conal’s, looked into its background and identified some of the factors that shaped its development up to the present day. It would be very easy, he said, to overlook this important event within the context of the current focus on the revolutionary decade 1914-1924, the First World War, the 1916 Rising, the Battle of the Somme, etc.
“I would argue that the opening of St. Conal’s Hospital has impacted on almost every family throughout the length and breadth of the county in a way that few other events have done so. For this reason, I believe that on this special day it is right to celebrate its opening, to remember those who passed through its doors, the patients and staff alike, to recognise and to acknowledge their being.”
The name St. Conal’s Hospital has been only been its formal identity for 60 years which is a mere 40% of the institution’s lifespan.
“We’re going back to the beginning, a time when the building was first known as the ‘Donegal District Lunatic Asylums’. During that time the language used did not have the negative connotations that it has today. In essence the word “Lunatic” merely referred to someone with a mental illness, and the word “Asylum” referred to a place of refuge, (just as people today seek “political asylum” from persecution). Thus the Lunatic Asylum was a place that the mentally-ill could gain refuge” Mr Devlin said. Prior to the establishment of the “Donegal District Lunatic Asylum” in 1866, there had been provision made for Donegal’s mentally ill in other settings including from 1800 at the Lifford Asylum. When a new gaol was built in Lifford in 1793 the old disused space under the original Court House was used to house the mentally ill. In 1824 the Armagh Lunatic Asylum was opened with 104 beds.
It was the first District Asylum in Ireland. It was built to accommodate the mentally ill from five counties including Donegal. However, due to the distance involved and a strict admission policy, it offered fewer available beds to Donegal than was initially intended. Then in 1829 the Londonderry Lunatic Asylum opened it’s doors with another 104 beds. It was opened with the intention of taking the pressure of Armagh. It was designed to cater for the three Northwest counties of Donegal Derry, and Tyrone. Donegal had an allocation of 35 beds. Within its first year the asylum was full to capacity.
By the early 1840’s it was evident that the accommodation provided by Ireland’s 10 public asylums was totally inadequate. There were now over 2,000 patients occupying accommodation built for 1,200 people. In response the government decided to build a further six new asylums – one of which would be at Omagh to cater for the re-designated area of Counties Tyrone and Fermanagh, leaving the Londonderry asylum to cater for just the two counties of Derry and Donegal. Despite this, the beds vacated by the transfers to Omagh in 1853 quickly filled up again and by January 1855 the Inspector of Lunatic Asylums Dr. John Nugent found the Derry Asylum full.
In addition to the accommodation crises in the Asylums, the Workhouse system were now housing increasing numbers of the mentally ill, while the County’s jails seen an increasing accumulation of patients committed there under the Dangerous Lunatics Act (1837) while awaiting a vacancy in the asylums. For many individuals suffering from mental illness, there was no accommodation to be found.
An RIC report in 1855 estimated that there were 321 mentally ill and described as “at large” in Donegal. Today there would be outrage at the way people with mental health problems were categorized by the RIC who gave the breakdown of that figure as Idiots (166), Epileptic imbeciles (91) and Lunatics (64). The gender breakdown was 194 male and 127 females. Lunatics were people with varied forms of mental illness; Epileptic imbeciles – epileptics whose fits caused “imbecility of the mind and body” and idiots were people who were described as suffering from “idiocy”. Today those people would be classified as having an “intellectual disability”.
The accommodation crises needed a response. So a “Royal Commission of inquiry” was set up by the Government in 1856, to investigate the situation of the mentally ill in Ireland and to make recommendations. It reported in 1858 and amongst its proposals was the extension of nine existent asylums and the building of six new facilities which was to include one in Co. Donegal. The possibility of the county building its own separate asylum now began to gain momentum. By 1859 about 60% of the inpatients in Derry were originally from County Donegal. Finally, the Lord Lieutenant issued an “Order in Council” dated 4th Feb 1860 directing the building of a new Asylum at Letterkenny. In 1861 a 40 acre site was procured on the Kilmacreannan Road outside of Letterkenny. It was intended from the outset that these new six asylums would be the most modern of their time, providing more accommodation, larger grounds, and many more facilities than the earlier asylums had. The architect George Wilkinson was commissioned to design the new asylum. He designed the asylum in a Victorian neo-Georgian style. He incorporated a familiar “long corridor” design into his plan that would skirt the entire rear of the building.
The building was of a symmetrical design reflecting the then-standard practice of institutional segregation of the sexes. The three story portions of the building were designed to provide the accommodation for patients, comprising accommodation 150 male patients and 150 female patients. To the rear of these accommodation blocks were the “airing courts”, one at each side of the house. In the centre portion of the rear was a utility yard for servicing the laundry kitchen and stores areas. In the centre was a clock tower positioned so as to be seen from the rear windows of the hospital.
The Asylum was constructed by the building firm of Mathew McClelland of Derry, whose family were from Letterkenny. Construction began in the summer of 1862 and it took three years to bring it to completion. Around the perimeter of the site a large wall was erected that enclosed the entire site. Access to the grounds could only be made by arrangement, through a large set of gates. Behind this was the gatehouse, the residence of the gatekeeper, who ensured that nothing would pass through the gates without permission. The estimated cost at the time for new Asylum was £37,900
In early February 1866 the contractors handed the new facility over to the Board of Commissioners, and the local Board of Governors whose Chairperson was Sir James Stewart from Ramelton. The “Donegal District Lunatic Asylum” finally opened its doors for the reception of patients on Tuesday 22nd May 1866. Exactly 150 years ago on Sunday past. There was no official opening ceremony or fanfare involved. In fact this event went without any notice or mention within the local or regional newspapers. On that day the new Asylum received the transfer of twenty patients from the Gaol in Lifford by “Warrant of the Lord Lieutenant”. This number comprised of ten male and ten female patients who had been admitted to the Gaol as “dangerous lunatics”.
The first patient to be admitted was a young nineteen year old female from the Finn Valley area. She was described as being single and a “congenital idiot” and noted to be suffering from “mania” for the previous six months. The second female registered was a twenty-four year old married woman from the west of the county also suffering from “mania” for the previous six months. In all, these ten women were aged between nineteen and fifty-four years old. Five of them were recorded as being single, four recorded as married, and one whose marital status was not recorded. Their occupations were given as; “servant”, “wife of baker”, “farmer’s daughter”, “labourer’s wife”, “seamstress”, and “pauper”. The form of mental illness they presented with was recorded as mania, melancholy, and idiot. The duration of time from which they suffered illness was recorded as being between three weeks and three years. The supposed causes of their illness were given as shown.
The ten male patients were admitted next. The first of these was a thirty-one year old man from the Finn Valley area who was said to have been suffering from melancholia for more than two years. The second male admitted was a twenty-year-old single man from the south of the county who was said to be suffering from idiocy. His occupation was recorded as “unknown”, and he was said to be suffering from a mental illness for the previous two years and nine months. The ages of the ten male admissions were given as ranging between sixteen years and sixty-four years old. With regard to their marital status five were recorded as being single, two as married, and three whose status was not recorded. They came from mixed occupations that were recorded as; “pauper”, “labourer”, “student”, “farmer”, “farmer’s son”, and “fisherman”. The form of mental illness which they suffered from was recorded as mania, dementia, epilepsy (two), melancholy (two), and idiocy (four). The duration of their illness is recorded as ranging from seven months to six years, and the supposed causes of their illness were given as shown.
Included within this group was a young sixteen-year-old boy, admitted in poor physical health. He was described as a “pauper”. He died two weeks later and became the first death at the new Asylum. As the facility had no graveyard in these early years its most probable he was buried in Cornwall graveyard. In conformity with the Privy Council regulations that governed asylums, these patients would have had their personal details recorded on admission, had their personal clothing removed, would have been given a warm bath and dressed in asylum issued garments. There could be little doubt that the environment into which they were admitted was a vast improvement on the overcrowded and punitive atmosphere from which they came.
These admissions from Lifford Gaol would continue on a phased basis over the following months until all 58 of the mentally-ill prisoners who were residing there were transferred to the new asylum. The transfer of patients who were originally from County Donegal and resident in the Londonderry District Asylum began on 20th September 1866 and continued over the following nine weeks in small groups on a regular basis. Overall, there were 109 patients transferred from the Londonderry Asylum before the end of the year.
Hugh Develin says the story of St. Conal’s is a complex one. Many factors, he says, have combined to Influence the hospital’s development down through the years. Factors such as Political, Administrative, Legislative, Social, Professional, Medical, Financial, and Environmental developments and improvements have combined to impact on the lives of those who have both inhabited the hospital, or those who worked within it.
“I believe that it is only proper and right that we should gather today, on this feast day of St. Conal, and on the 150th anniversary of the day on which the hospital first opened its doors.
We remember those who spent many years of their lives there through no fault of their own, those who found refuge and recovered from their illnesses, and the many of those who died there. We remember the people who worked in St. Conal’s throughout this time, who give loyal and dedicated service to the hospital. One member of staff served in the hospital for in excess of 50 years, while some families give service over a number of generations” Mr Devlin. He thanked Judith McCarthy and the staff of the County Museum for the use of their facility which was specially opened on Sunday to host the talk on the 150th anniversary of the opening of the institution on the 22nd of May 1866.