Thursday, February 25, 2016

Those Places Thursday: The Sligo & Leitrim District Lunatic Asylum

The principal steps in the approach to the Sligo and  Leitrim Lunatic Asylum
Built upon a hilltop in Sligo town, on 30 acres of land, the Sligo and Leitrim Lunatic Asylum, also known as St. Columba’s Hospital, stands as an imposing edifice of imperialist order for all to see.

The asylum was built over a period of five years, from 1848 to 1852, at the height of An Gorta Mór, the Great Famine. Initially accommodation was fitted out for up to 250 inmates. In 1877 two wings were added, one on either side of the original building, along with the two towers which flank the entryway. These additional wings enabled authorities to house up to 500 patients.It is said the asylum was once entirely enclosed by a high wall in order to prevent the escape of inmates.

The large expanse of land on which the asylum was built allowed for the establishment of farms, which grew all of the produce used by the hospital. At the close of the 19th century two places of worship were added — the church and the chapel — one Catholic, one Protestant.

One of the most interesting aspects about the history of this particular asylum is that it was one of the first facilities of its kind in Ireland to embrace new treatment methods. In 1883, when Dr. Joseph Petit took over as the Resident Medical Superintendent, he brought with him a whole host of radical changes. Dr. Petit abolished the use of patient restraints, a practice which continued in asylums all around Ireland. As well, he removed many of the dormitory doors, allowing the patients more freedom of movement.

With the evolution of this 'modern' psychiatric thinking came the idea that interaction with the natural world was therapeutic, so some of the wall, once intended to prevent the escape of patients, was demolished. Thus the most mentally fit inmates were permitted to freely roam the grounds. Some of the male inmates were also allowed to work on the farms.2

Of course, not all was perfect at the asylum. At times overcrowding was a serious problem, as evidenced by the condition of one of the women’s wards, known as ‘The Straw Lodge’. Because there were too many women to accommodate properly, straw was spread across the floors throughout the ward to serve as bedding. Renovations in the 1930s alleviated the problem, with additions creating space in which as many as 1,000 inmates could be held overall. As with many facilities of this kind, some patients were interned for years, left there and never visited by family members, still others died there, from disease or old age, or by their own hand.

Economically the asylum had a positive impact on Sligo town. Because of its sheer size and the number of patients interned within, the hospital was one of the principal employers in the area. If you check the 1901 census records, you will find at least 256 individuals, men and women, employed as 'asylum attendant’, 'asylum clerk’ or ‘asylum nurse’. In 1911 that number is recorded as 242. Still others were employed on the asylum farms. Also, in the wills calendars of the National Archives, you will find a number of wills left by persons who resided in and died in asylums.3

In 1992 St. Columba's, the Sligo & District Lunatic Asylum, closed its doors for the last time. The building was derelict for more than a decade, until an American hotel chain purchased it in 2005. Today it is a Clarion Hotel.

The date marker above the entryway.
The towers added in 1877.
On the right side of the grounds stands the church.
Front view of the church entryway.
On the left side of the grounds stands the chapel.
The approach to the asylum. On a cold and rainy day such as this one,
it must have been an intimidating place to approach.


1. Bell, Kate, editor. Hidden Histories: Political/Historical Perspectives of Sligo. Sligo LEADER Partnership Co., 2013.
2. Ibid
3. National Archives of Ireland:
On the census search page, use the occupation box under 'more search options' to find asylum employees. For calendars of wills & administrations 1858 - 1922 visit (Search is done by name, date and county of death).


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Reconnecting & Making a journey to St. Malachy's Church, Belfast

Although the new year is already six weeks old, things have been off to a bit of a slow start on this blog because I have been somewhat distracted. 2016 is a banner year, both in terms of Irish history and in terms of my Irish family history, so I have been preparing for upcoming events.

As a member of a ‘1916 family’, I have been invited by the Irish government to attend the official State functions in Dublin for the 2016 Commemorations of the 1916 Easter Rising. Also, I have been invited to give a talk on my history work, and will be speaking at St. Paul's Christian Brothers School in Stoneybatter, the school attended by my granduncle Michael Magee. In addition to these events I will be continuing the research for my history projects, and hopefully will also have time for family history research while I'm in Ireland. Suffice to say, I am looking forward to these events with great anticipation.

Most especially, I am deeply grateful to be attending the commemoration events to memorialise the life of my paternal granduncle Michael Francis Magee, who at the age of 18 fought as a Section Commander with the Four Courts Garrison during the Easter Rising — ultimately Michael lost his life during the War of Independence — and to pay tribute to my grandmother Anne Magee Geraghty who joined the Cumann na mBan in support of her elder brother.  

The church named in the title of today's post has a special connection to Anne and Michael. St. Malachy's Roman Catholic Church is the site of the baptism of their father, my great-grandfather Patrick Magee. Of course, without Patrick, and their mother Mary Dunne, the lives of Michael and Anne would have never come to pass, and thus would have made no imprint on Irish history. 

Although my GPS app was confused, I was able to find the church, right there at the top of Clarence Street.
St. Malachy's Roman Catholic Church, Alfred Street, Belfast, County Antrim, N. Ireland.
Patrick Magee’s family history mirrors that of many families in Ireland who were forced to follow work, migrating around the country or sometimes further afield to England, Scotland, the Continent and beyond in order to provide a life for their families. 

Shortly before Patrick was born, his father, my 2nd great-grandfather Francis Magee, moved from Drogheda, County Louth to Belfast, County Antrim for work. Accompanying Francis in the move were his wife Elizabeth McNally and their two small children, Mary and Michael. It was in Belfast that my great-grandfather Patrick Magee was born on 9 October 1866. Three days later, on 12 October 1866, in St. Malachy's Church, Patrick was christened by Rev. Father Patrick Clarke. In the church along with Francis and Mary was Patrick's baptismal sponsor Maria Magee, whom I believe was the sister of Francis Magee 1.

The Magee family later returned south, moving back first to Drogheda, where their son John Francis was born in 1869, and then to Dublin City sometime around October of 1870, where their son Francis Joseph was born. 

The building of the church itself is a reflection of breadwinners following work wherever it took them. After winning a competition for the job, architect Thomas Jackson travelled from Waterford, the county of his birth, in order to execute his design for St. Malachy’s. The interior of the building was created by Peter Lundy, who immigrated to the United States, when his business failed shortly after the completion of his work on the church. The altarpiece was created by Italian portrait painter Felice Piccioni, whose family members were refugees to Belfast from Austrian Italy 2.

The foundation stone for the church was laid on 3 November 1841, on the feast day of St. Malachy. Work was completed in 1844 and the church was consecrated by William Crolly, the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland. 

The castle-like features — complete with turrets and arrow slits in the exterior walls — add to the unique design of the T-shaped church. It is said Thomas Jackson’s blueprint was inspired by the galleried chapels he visited in rural Ireland, chapels which were small in size, but configured with a raised area in order to hold a large number of people 3. I was struck by the magnificent detail rendered by the hand of the craftsman in what is a surprisingly narrow space.

The fan-vaulted ceiling and part of the main altar.
The main altar featuring Felice Piccioni's altarpiece.
The fan-vaulted ceiling inside the church is a confection. When I laid eyes on it I thought it was an extraordinary creation for the 1840s. Some have referred to it as an inside-out wedding cake. In fact, the design is far older than 1841. Jackson intentionally created the ceiling as an imitation of the one which stands over Henry VII's chapel in Westminster Abbey.

The three altars lining the longest wall were originally fashioned out of Irish oak, but the wood was replaced with marble during renovations in 1926.

This perspective shows the upper gallery and the narrowness of the church.
Celtic knots woven into the tile in the aisle beneath the low ceiling of the gallery.
In 1868 the largest bell turret in Belfast was added to the church; however, it was removed shortly after its installation. Folklore holds that the bell was removed because its deafening peals disturbed the maturing of the whiskey in the nearby Dunville & Co Distillery warehouse. It had no bell, but the church did have the last word, since it has outlasted the distillery, which closed in 1936.

Although some changes have been made to the church since my great-grandfather and his family lived in Belfast, it was lovely to be seated here and imagine my 2nd great-grandparents, with their little family in tow, bringing their second born son to be christened in this beautiful place.

A statue of St. Malachy, the saint in whose name the church was consecrated.


1. IFHF transcribed this baptismal record and recorded Patrick's sponsor as Mona Magee; however, after viewing the original parish register entry, I believe the name should have been transcribed as Maria.

2. Irish Architectural Archive, The Dictionary of Irish Architects: online via

3. This, along with other details about the design and structure of the church, is from a standing marker on the grounds of the church on which the history of the church is outlined.

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