Cork fire: A history of Our Lady’s Hospital: ‘They deserve our best. They have got our worst’

Our Lady’s Hospital on the Lee Road in Cork City was built as a mental health institution on the northern slopes overlooking the River Lee in the 1840s.

St Kevin’s, the imposing red-brick building to the east of the hospital campus, was designed by architect William Hill and built between 1895 and 1899 to help accommodate up to 1,400 mental health patients on the campus.

It had an appalling reputation, as evidenced by Seanad debates on reports by the inspector of mental hospitals.

This newspaper carried several articles on Seanad debates from the late 1930s, based these reports.

The transcript of one Seanad debate from 1940 reads: “The people in Our Lady’s Hospital are guilty of nothing. They are vulnerable, innocent and, in the old Irish phrase, in the area of the country that the Minister comes from and that I have close connections with, they would be described as ‘harmless’.

“They do not deserve what is being done to them.

“They are victims of misfortune; they are victims of illness and indeed, tragically, of abandonment. They deserve our best. They have got our worst.

“Instead we lock them up in a vermin-infested (not my conclusion, but the inspector’s conclusion) unsanitary (not my conclusion but the inspector’s conclusion) dirty, dark confinement. It is a disgrace.

“When you consider that we make them all, old age pensioners, pay for it. We take most of their income, the best part of £40 a week from them. They pay for that confinement, that locking up in dirty unsanitary conditions. We have to and must make very fundamental choices.

“It is a disgrace that people have been paid large salaries, salaries twice and three times the average industrial wage to manage such an institution of confinement. Those people have failed to discharge their duties. They should resign or be sacked. They are unfit for their job. They are a disgrace to their profession and they should be dispensed with.”

The conditions of the buildings meant they were not fit for purpose and their closure began on a phased basis from the early 1990s.

Our Lady’s, also known as ‘the grey building’, and St Bridget’s unit, closed in the early 1990s. Our Lady’s, St Bridget’s and a number of smaller buildings were subsequently sold by the former Southern Health Board.

St Kevin’s closed in 2002, while St Ann’s, St Dympna’s and St John’s closed between 2001 and 2009.

Between 2002 and 2007, the Ctate spent €1.59m on security at the site — the equivalent of €300,000 a year, or nearly €6,000 a week.

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