The original Richmond Asylum building, closed for some decades. photographs: bryan o'brien
The belongings of a female patient, including glasses and false teeth. photographs: bryan o'brien
St Brendan's patients will move to the new 54-bed Phoenix Care Centre on North Circular Road in the coming weeks
The official opening of nurses' accommodation in the 1960s.
Rosary beads and other personal belongings of patients and staff
The 199-year-old St Brendan’s psychiatric hospital, in Dublin’s north inner city, is about to say goodbye to its last patient, before being redeveloped as the Dublin Institute of Technology campus
In the dimly room are hundreds of boxes, stacked high towards the ceiling, containing the remnants of people’s lives. In one is a black-and-white photograph of a man in uniform, a picture of the Virgin Mary and a form guide for horse racing. There are hand-written letters, postcards and jaunty get-well-soon cards.
“I am very sorry I cannot say ‘yes’ to your request to come home just now,” reads one letter, sent from Dún Laoghaire in the 1960s. “Will you try and content yourself where you are for a while longer? You see, I would not be able to look after you [the way] you would need to be looked after.”
Another box tells another story. There are small family photographs. One is of a stern-looking father with a large moustache. Another is of a vulnerable-looking younger woman, her hands clasped. Inside the pages of a prayer book, which sits beside rosary beads and make-up, is a handwritten note. “To Kathleen, wishing you a happy exams, from Nellie and Mattie.”
These are some of the unclaimed personal possessions of hundreds of patients at St Brendan’s psychiatric hospital at Grangegorman, off the North Circular Road in Dublin. Most date from the 1950s and 1960s, when more than 20,000 people were living behind the high walls of mental hospitals. The State led the world in locking people up, with in-patient admission rates that were multiples of other countries’.
The story of St Brendan’s, Ireland’s first public psychiatric hospital, reflects much of our troubled history. The buildings and its records are a dusty time capsule, providing a disturbing insight into how society used the institution to dump social problems and to hide away those who didn’t “fit in”.
While doctors and other staff tried to provide humane care, overcrowding and unsanitary conditions meant institutions such as this became places of containment rather than treatment or recovery. There was one road in but often no way out.
Next week, Grangegorman’s troubled history will draw to a close, and a new chapter will begin on the site. The Phoenix Care Centre will open on the edge of the Grangegorman campus, 199 years to the day since St Brendan’s admitted its first patient.
The new unit, with 54 beds – compared to the old 2,000-bed psychiatric hospital – will include en-suite bathrooms, courtyards and light-filled spaces. It is a hopeful marker for a more enlightened approach to treatment of mental ill health.
The remainder of the sprawling 30-hectare property will be redeveloped as a campus for Dublin Institute of Technology, ultimately bringing more than 20,000 students and staff to the area.
Despite St Brendan’s bleak reputation, the hospital was established on foot of a wave of sensitivity towards the needs of the mentally ill.
In postrevolutionary France, Philippe Pinel struck the chains off his patients at an asylum, convinced a more humanitarian approach would be more effective than restraint and control. This “moral management” philosophy had much in common with what we now consider key aspects of mental-health treatment: a good doctor-patient relationship, a therapeutic environment, good diet, exercise and an occupation.
Richmond Asylum, as St Brendan’s was formerly known, was established on these principles. It was the beginning of a frenzied period of asylum-building that resulted in large-scale institutions being established in towns and cities around the country. In reality, most asylums quickly became overcrowded, dirty and unmanageable.