Hidden stories of abandoned mental hospital revealed
After we published an anonymous account of life in St Ita's psychiatric institution, a photographer and a doctor were among readers to add to its portrait of life there
Last month, after The Irish Times reported on the former St Ita’s psychiatric hospital, several readers got in touch. The article, Isolated from the mainstream: Portrane asylum in the 1950s, featured an account by a former staff member, who had first worked there in 1955, as a clinical clerk, and who had written a 6,500-word memoir of the place in 1981, after he retired. One of the calls was from a photography student, Jack Niewiadomski. He visited the grounds of St Ita’s Hospital, in Portrane, in north Co Dublin, several times last year. He took more than 1,000 photographs, many of them eerie shots of abandoned furniture, bed screens and open windows in vast empty rooms. Some are reproduced here.
Niewiadomski also came across some abandoned documents and photographs of former residents, including a photograph album that must have belonged to a resident. It looks as if it dates from the 1970s, with big red flowers on the front, and pages covered in clear plastic sheets that you peel back to insert your photographs.
A sticker on the cover has a note about a staff member who was to call somebody about the album, presumably to return it to a family member. But either the call was never made or the family did not want the album, because Niewiadomski found it lying in one of the derelict buildings at St Ita’s.
This forgotten album contains about 60 photographs, many of them black and white. Some look as if they were taken in the 1940s and 1950s: the hairstyles, the fashions, the cars. The album starts with several photographs of three young men who might be brothers, as they bear a strong resemblance to each other. They are sitting atop a wall, in a field at a picnic, walking down a road together, at the railing of a ship. Then two of them are standing outside a church with carnations in their buttonholes and the third is standing next to a bride in a long pleated white satin dress.
After that the photographs show the bride and groom dancing, on holiday, beside a car, at the seaside, outside a house, and then with a baby. The same man appears with two toddlers at the beach. There is a switch to colour, and the people now wear bell-bottoms and waistcoats. The man appears on a beach with two teenagers, one holding a lilo. Then the photographs stop.
Is the man who becomes a husband and father the person whom the album belonged to? Is he the person who, for some reason, became a patient at St Ita’s? Why was an arrangement being made to return the album? Was it because the owner had died?
It is now probably impossible to know, as it is to know how long the album was lying abandoned before being found by a Polish photography student last year.
“Residential unit of last resort”
Among the other items that Niewiadomski discovered was a report for St Ita’s Hospital and Community Services dated February 1994 and headed “Recent Developments and Future Plans”. It opens: “The philosophy of care now in place does not any longer regard St Ita’s Hospital as a residential unit of last resort, but rather offers a pro-active intervention model which allows for a multi-disciplinary review of the full range of community-based support.”
In 1994, it says, 221 men and 159 women lived at St Ita’s. Of those, 92 men and 77 women were deemed severely handicapped. There were 129 residents aged over 55. One of them may well have been the owner of the photograph album.
Readers mentioned a graveyard close to the Portrane complex where former residents without family to claim them were buried. There is only one headstone, for everyone buried between 1908 and the 1980s. A local historian, Peadar Bates, estimates that about 3,000 people were interred there.
Robert Love’s account
Robert Love, one of the other readers who got in touch, emailed this story.
“Your piece prompted me to recall an conversation I had outside our house in Portrane perhaps 10 years ago. It was a weekend morning, and my wife noticed an elderly gentleman in the middle of our cul-de-sac, looking at the houses. Assuming he was lost, she went out to offer help. The man, who never gave his age but looked to be in his 80s, told us he’d been born and grown up in the first house on Grey Square. He asked to see inside our home and was thrilled to find it virtually identical to his own childhood one.
“Over a cup of tea and a biscuit he told us that his father had worked in the hospital and recalled playing cricket as a young teenager for the St Ita’s Hospital team. I was familiar with the hospital’s playing field and changing rooms but never realised that the original purpose was for cricket. Still popular elsewhere in north Co Dublin, the sport is no longer played competitively in Portrane, and the facility has long been in the care of a local soccer club.
“The St Ita’s cricket team was a competitive outfit, our visitor told us, and he mentioned one team-mate who lived near him in Red Square and was a mainstay of the Irish international side. Whatever the quality, numbers were small, and on occasion the cricket team would draft in selected patients to complete their selection.
“My new friend recalled one patient in particular, who was a regular feature in the team, and an incident that occurred one weekend when St Ita’s turned out to play against nearby Malahide. We were told this chap never gave any indication that he was unwell, physically or mentally, and was a useful addition. With the game progressing and our man in the outfield, he unexpectedly emitted a howl, apparently without cause, and ran off into trees.
“His shocked team-mates sent a player, my friend, to check on his wellbeing. He found the man deep in the undergrowth with his back to the pitch, sobbing. Initially refusing to come out despite pleas and exhortations, he also refused to say what was wrong. But our narrator persisted, and, relenting, the man was persuaded to tell his story. He explained that, in the middle of the game, he realised to his shock that the new batsman walking on to the pitch was his brother. Joyfully, he’d approached and spoken to him only to have the greeting completely ignored, with his brother walking wordlessly past him to the crease.
“A little later more detail emerged. The cricket recruit explained that he’d been many years in St Ita’s, often looking across from the hospital to Malahide, where he was from, in the distance. He would think of home and wonder what his family was doing, adding that, despite how close Portrane and Malahide were, no one had ever visited him.
“It occurred to me that there were doubtless many, many other residents of St Ita’s Hospital over the years who would also fit the description: abandoned by their families and incarcerated, perhaps without cause, set apart from the rest of society without any hope of seeing them or the outside world again. I thought again about how devastatingly bitter-sweet that encounter with his brother must have been.
“We saw our elderly visitor just once more after that, a year or two later, when he dropped in to say hello and presented my wife with a beautiful bunch of wild flowers he’d picked in the fields around our house. Perhaps, like the hospital residents who were regularly recruited to work in those fields, he is also gone. We must continue to seek out and share their stories.”
The former junior doctor
Garrett Igoe, who was a junior doctor at St Ita's in the 1980s, and now practises in the United States, emailed to say that Portrane had a profound effect on him. Earlier this year he wrote this poem about his time there.
(from a junior doctor 1986)
I pierced your innocent vein with bevel up,
infused a swift sedating rush,
held back healthy curls
from your high brow,
applied the shocking cups.
in that red bricked
sea swept place,
memories eroded, like peeling paint,
decades of wasted afternoons,
one sock black, the other baby blue.
Rattle rattle dum dum dum
your mantra, drowning
shouts from the female side,
charge nurse X doled
out the Major, you told me
you liked the mauve
of Doctor X’s jacket.
On night rounds, I ignored
the scurry of black eyed creatures,
held tight the keys
of twenty four locked wards.
And finally I abandoned you,
left you to go on
showing your tongue
smacking your lips,
rolling your eyes,
Some of Jack Niewiadomski’s photographs of St Ita’s Hospital are on show at Filmbase in Dublin until July 10th, in the St Kevin’s College graduate photography show