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.

Endnotes

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 http://www.willcalendars.nationalarchives.ie/search/cwa/home.jsp (Search is done by name, date and county of death).

©irisheyesjgg2016.

12 comments:

  1. Never knew there was one up there. Can you go in the church & chapel?

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    Replies
    1. Hi Bill, thanks very much for your comments. There were plans to fully renovate both the church and the chapel. The church was renovated — in tacky hotel style — and they use it for weddings for paying guests only. The chapel seems to play the role of catchall, as there is a lot of junk in it. Sad, really. Perhaps the new owners will fix it up. The hotel was sold to another major hotelier just a couple of days ago.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  2. I'd not heard of this Asylum. An interesting story, but what a hard life this would have been. Glad they at least tried to make it better than many others. Thanks, Jennifer.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Chris,

      Thanks very much for your comments. I was not familiar with it either, but after reading Sebastian Barry's 'The Secret Scripture' I sought it out. Of late, Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the name of the Father, In America) has been scouting the site for the film version of Barry's novel.

      I feel the same as you; it must have been a very hard life. Many who worked in the hospital still speak very positively about the place, and the ways in which they tried to make life better for the interned.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  3. Jenn, such an interesting history to this hotel. Too bad they didn't turn it into a museum. It's sad to think of all the poor souls who lived their lives out here. Thanks for sharing this.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Charlotte,

      Thanks very much for your comments. I'm with you it would have made a very interesting — and large — museum space. It is sad to think of those who spent their lives in the place.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  4. It's quite horrific to think how easily someone could be declared mentally unfit then left to languish there for their entire life. I can't say it's a hotel I'd want to stay at, now knowing its history. Thanks for sharing the story.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Pauleen,

      Thanks very much for your comments. I feel the same way. When I was researching the history of the institution I came across a story of an elderly gentleman who said "going to the Mental" was the worst thing that could ever happen to someone. Still another said, "You should be very careful putting someone in the asylum, because once it's done to him, it can never be undone". It is quite troubling to note the number of spinsters who ended up in asylums.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  5. This is a beautiful building (and I love the grey skies in the photos, too!). It's good that a new superintendent came along with more modern views and the ability to implement them. I can never come to terms with my feelings about asylums. I have the hope that those who worked there had the best in mind for the inmates, and yet I have this underlying discomfort and sense of horror about asylums.

    Have you seen Christopher Payne's asylum photos or his book, Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals? From the U.S., for course, but there may be similarities to Irish asylums. You can see some of his photos at http://www.chrispaynephoto.com/asylum/.

    It's good they didn't tear they building down (as I'm sure they would have here in the U.S.). I'm sure the inside is beautiful. Maybe it would have been too terrible to make it into a museum about the asylum but I honestly can't imagine spending the night there even if it were a renovated hotel.

    Thanks for sharing this bit of history, Jennifer. Do you know anyone among your ancestors who went there?

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    Replies
    1. Hi Nancy,

      Thanks very much for your comments, and the link to Chris Payne’s photos. I share your ambivalence over asylums, with the hope that patients were well treated and the fear that they were not.

      Unfortunately both the asylum and the church were not sympathetically restored. The decor of the hotel is somewhat tacky inside, and not very well cared for at all. The church currently looks very little like a church inside. The pews were completely torn out, as was the altar. The inside walls were painted bright yellow and there are purple curtains over the windows. It looks like a conference room. Sadly, it seems they did not respect the history of the buildings. Just a few days ago the entire site was sold to another major hotelier for €45 million, so perhaps there may be some positive changes made.

      Payne’s images remind me of Our Lady's Hospital, aka the Cork District Asylum in Sunday's Well, County Cork (the second asylum opened in Ireland, dating to 1789). Our Lady's Hospital still stands although it has long been abandoned.

      I cannot claim an ancestral connection to this asylum; my interest in it was spurred purely by Dublin born Sebastian Barry’s novel ‘The Secret Scripture’.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  6. I stayed in the Sligo Clarion Hotel on Asylum Road several years ago. The place was nicely fitted out with all mod cons, but I slept uneasily. I was aware of the building's previous use in decades gone by. A few week's later, I discovered that my grandfather's sister died there in 1917 as a young lady, although she lived over 30 miles away. The death cert gave no indication of mental health problems, nor do 1901/11 census returns. The cause of death was declared as phthisis [TB]. I am uncertain as to whether the Asylum provided general medical care for the region, as per a modern regional hospital (which is now sited just across the road from St Columba's).

    Regardless, the experience was spooky - but not in a scary way.

    Gerard

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    Replies
    1. Hello Gearoid, and welcome,

      Thank you for sharing what you discovered about your grandaunt. That must have been quite a surprise especially coming on the heels of your having stayed in the hotel.

      According to the Health Services Board of Ireland, the Sligo & Leitrim Asylum did not provide general medical care for the community; however, the HSB does report that during the years from around 1914 pulmonary phthisis (TB) together with heart disease, exhaustion from mania or melancholia and senile decay, made up more than half of all mortality in the asylum system, so it is not surprising to see phthisis as a cause of death. Your grandaunt’s death certificate would not have mentioned mental health issues unless they had been a contributing factor in her death.

      According to the book ‘Medicine, Disease and the State in Ireland, 1650-1940’, the NAI in Dublin has the records of the Sligo Asylum, so you may wish to see if there is an extant record of your grandaunt’s stay which might bring more light to the reason for her being a patient there. All the best to you.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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Cheers, Jennifer

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