What Temple Street Hospital means to me

Historian and archivist Barry Kennerk, author of Temple Street Children’s Hospital – An Illustrated History, writes about what motivated him to put pen to paper


Temple Street Children’s Hospital is now a household name in Ireland. At the time of writing, it stands as the only remaining children’s institution in the heart of Dublin city. It was founded just 20 years after Great Ormond Street Hospital in London and it continues to maintain a proud tradition in caring for sick children from all over the country.

I have had the privilege of working as office manager for the national paediatric neurosurgical team for a number of years and, like many of my colleagues, I first came to know the hospital as a patient. I have a vivid memory of being rushed there as a toddler in the late 1970s when I put my hand on a burning log in my granny’s fireplace. The visit left a blurred impression of hard tiles, nurses and lights. Later, during the mid-1990s, I started my first summer job as a kitchen porter, swabbing down the terracotta-tiled floors. Since then, I have filled many other roles on either a casual or full-time basis. I remember the meningitis scare during the mid-1990s when I could hardly leave the desk in A&E and the street was crammed with travelling people’s vans. Equally, I have witnessed the strength of that same community fill the chapel as they prayed for the recovery of a sick child – the most powerful affirmation of faith imaginable.

As father to two girls, I have also seen the hospital from a parent’s perspective – an anxious drive to A&E in the early hours; sweating in a lead apron while a fractured arm or chest is being X-rayed, the worry waiting for test results to come through.

When the hospital first opened at nearby Buckingham Street in 1872, it catered for some of Dublin city’s poorest children. According to an early account, some were so hungry that they cried at the sight of food – a familiar sight today in many famine-stricken parts of the world. Conditions that are now rare in Ireland were commonplace then: rickets, tuberculosis and fevers of all types, while children struggled to cope with a sooty fog that settled on the chest. What has not changed, of course, is the worry that every parent feels or the care that a sick child receives when they come through our doors.

When researching this book, I interviewed more than 60 past patients and staff, some of whom have since passed away. For many, recounting their time at Temple Street was a cathartic experience. There is the story, for instance, of Veronica Healy (87), who was admitted with rheumatic fever during the 1930s. She needed to be kept in isolation for a long period of time but when her mother came to take her home, a taxi was out of the question. Too weak to walk, she was pushed all the way home to Cabra in a pram.

Another of the interviewees is my own father (74), now retired, who worked at Temple Street as a maintenance manager for more than 20 years. While trawling through our old ward registers, I was surprised to discover that he had been admitted to St. Michael’s baby ward in 1940 with broncho-pneumonia – no doubt a consequence of Dublin’s tenement conditions. Previously, the treatment of choice for bronchial babies had been little more than brandy and oxygen but Dad was one of the first children to benefit from new medicine (sulphonamides).

Between times, I scanned almost 200 photographs and investigated the hospital’s attics and crawl spaces, lofts and basements. Among the more intriguing items I discovered was a four-page, hand-written account of how the hospital coped during Easter Week 1916. It revealed how adults as well as children were treated and how the nuns struggled in the absence of medical staff and essential supplies.

Today, Temple Street continues to maintain an international reputation. Its Georgian rooms are home to world-class health professionals, ground-breaking national specialties and some cutting-edge equipment. At the same time, the demand on its services has grown almost exponentially. In 1914, the hospital welcomed approximately 20,000 children into its newly-built outpatient department; 650 children were operated on and 1,200 were admitted.

At the end of this year, as outpatients celebrates a centenary of continuous use, approximately 68,000 children will have attended clinics, 6,000 operations will have been carried out and a further 12,000 will have been admitted. On top of that, the accident and emergency department has become one of the busiest in Europe.

Temple Street, which started life caring for Dublin’s children, has now become a national centre that embraces airway management, paediatric ophthalmology, craniofacial surgery, inherited metabolic disorders and national newborn screening.

At the time of writing, the hospital has built on most of the open space. Wards and offices tower over the A&E laneway like a ziggurat and, as a result, construction has become very specialised. The projects team works on an increasingly confined site, which means that new services need to be planned carefully. With little exaggeration, there may be a Kango hammer in use on one side of a wall while a scalpel is deployed on the other. In recent years, the hospital campus has begun to spread out into houses on nearby Gardiner Row, Frederick Street and Dorset Street.

Several years of setbacks in planning the new National Paediatric Hospital have inevitably resulted in disillusionment but hospital staff remain as committed those in their care as they ever were.

Life at Temple Street is multi-faceted – too varied perhaps for a complete history to be written and our new book makes no such pretence. Every day, the building plays mute witness to the miraculous and the tragic. Its doors are kept open by a diverse team that includes not just doctors and nurses but maintenance personnel, household staff, porters and allied health professionals.

As the Children’s Hospital closes for the last time, the event will be tinged with some sadness. Its staff may have become attached to their old house – after all, they have spent a lot of time under its eaves as patients, employees and parents, but Temple Street has never really been about the building. In the end, it is the people and more importantly the children who depend on them who matter.

Temple Street Hospital: An Illustrated History by Dr Barry Kennerk is published by New Island, priced €24.99

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