Friday, May 6, 1994

Workhouse celebrates 150 years

Last week in company with hundreds of others I visited St. Vincent's Hospital on the occasion of an Open Day celebrating its 150th Anniversary. A concelebrated Mass in the small Chapel attached to the Hospital was offered up for those past and present who passed through the gates of what was initially a Workhouse, later a County Home and today a Hospital.

As I stood within the narrow confines of the old Chapel images of destitute and hungry families ravaged by the potato famine crowded my memory. Those very walls which stood for 150 years had been witness to tales of misery, hunger and neglect which were the lot of Irish country folk when the Workhouse first opened its doors in 1844.

The corridors which later that same afternoon resounded to happy voices once echoed to the sounds of barefooted women and children whose only future lay within the precincts of the Workhouse. Their pinched starving faces were without laughter, their frightened hearts without hope as they shuffled along corridors which were now echoing to the sounds of people rejoicing and celebrating an Anniversary.

How many sad souls had given up all hope and entered the dreaded Workhouse in Athy we cannot now say. Full records are no longer available and those that exist conceal within their dusty covers painful memories that are now but names in columns. Across the Grand Canal a short distance from the present Hospital a neglected graveyard holds the remains of those who entered the Workhouse, never again to leave it. As in life their deaths were not marked by any ceremony. Their emaciated bodies were hurriedly carted across the road and over the Canal Bridge to be buried without the benefit of clergy in graves which would remain unmarked.

As the carefully prepared prayers were said in the Hospital Chapel, the ghosts of the past no doubt looked down on a world which they did not recognise. The Workhouse which in its early years provided minimum sustenance and care to the needy and the hungry was in time to change and to improve. The admission of the Sisters of Mercy as visitors and later as Nursing Sisters in the Workhouse ensured an overlay of compassion which up to then had been lacking. Improvements and modification to the harsh Workhouse regime gave us the County Home and later St. Vincent's Hospital. The ghosts of poverty and neglect were expurgated by many years of kindness and comfort afforded to the elderly men and women who have used the services of the County Home and St. Vincent's Hospital.

In celebrating 150 years it was a happy coincidence that two of the most enduring elements of the institution’s story played a significant part in those celebrations. The Sisters of Mercy came as nursing sisters to the Workhouse Infirmary in October 1873 and within a year following the death of the first Medical Officer Dr. Thomas Kynsey, a Castledermot man was appointed in his place. He was Dr. P.L. O'Neill, who was to be succeeded in time by his son Dr. Jeremiah, his grandson Dr. Joe and his great-grandson Dr. Giles. Today St. Vincent's Hospital has as Matron Sister Peg, a member of the Sisters of Mercy and Dr. Giles O'Neill as Medical Officer.

As I left the Hospital driving through the main gateways, I looked across the road towards the Workhouse graveyard. What were we celebrating I thought - was it the longevity of a building or a past which for so long remained hidden and unobserved. We had remembered on a Sunday in April 1994 those unremembered people who had gone before us and who once walked through the Workhouse gates in despair and hunger.

May they find the peace they never found on this earth.

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