Thursday, December 6, 2001

County Home

In 1949 an Interdepartmental Committee was set up to examine the future of the County Homes in Ireland. In its report the Committee found that many of the old workhouses which were still accommodating the chronic sick, the aged, mental defectives, and amenities. However, it was recognised that these old buildings could be refurbished or reconstructed to provide for the aged and chronic sick while mental defectives, unmarried mothers and their children, it suggested, it should be accommodated in separate institutions to be specially provided. The recommendations of the Committee were accepted in the Government White Paper issued in 1951 and funds were in time made to upgrade a number of the County Homes including that at Athy.

Kildare County Council embarked on a scheme of improvement to the County Home to replace the patient accommodation which was then located on the ground floor and first floor of the original workhouse building. The County Architect, Niall Meagher, was responsible for the planning, design and construction of the new St. Vincent’s Hospital, ably assisted by Eric Wallace, a member of the staff in his department. In this they worked closely with the staff of the Department of Health under Architect Cecil Dowdall. The administration of the project and commissioning ,equipping and staffing of the new buildings also involved the Matron, Sr. Dominic, and Kieran Hickey, then a young newly-appointed Staff Officer under whom I worked in the Health Section of Kildare County Council. Work on the construction of the new buildings by Bantile Limited of Banagher commenced on 27th July 1996 and took almost three years to complete. The new hospital, which cost £250,000 contained two Hospital blocks for 100 female patients, three Hospital blocks for 168 male patients and a 14-bed maternity unit with two delivery rooms. A sparkling new fully-equipped kitchen was also included in the building project and this replaced what was, in effect, the old Workhouse kitchen.

The new buildings were occupied on 3 April 1969, 128 years after the Workhouse had first opened. The transfer of 268 of the elderly residents from the old County Home to the brand new spacious hospital ground floor accommodation was a major event for them and, of course, for the staff of St. Vincent’s. It was not without its moments of poignancy and mixed feeling at leaving the familiar surroundings of the old home. The following poem, written at the time by Mrs. Ruth Wiley, aged 90 years, eloquently describes these mixed feelings.


The Sister said “Come all ye, get ready
We are going off today
From an old to a new spot
Not very far away”.
So we gathered up our toothbrush
Just a toothbrush and a brush
And felt that life began anew
With an almighty rush.

New friend, new loungs, new bathrooms too,
Oh, we felt mighty grand;
Just as the Israelites had felt
When they reached the Promised Land.

Yet I think of the many cures
Witnessed in the old block
We have to ask the Lord to bless
Every stone of ancient spot.

In 1971 the newly established Eastern Health Board took over responsibility for St. Vincent’s Hospital. The first visiting committee of the Board under the chairmanship of Councillor Paddy Hickey met in the hospital on 20th May 1971. Like the board of Guardians of old, the representatives of the Eastern Health Board expressed themselves pleased with the conditions in the hospital and the treatment afforded to the patients.

In the following year the Department of Health gave approval for the construction of a new convent building, a nurses’ home and a mortuary. The Sisters of Mercy had retained a presence in the hospital and former workhouse since 1874 and on their first arrival they had occupied rooms at the back of the main building block. Later they moved to the front of the building where they occupied rooms on the first floor and where they remained until they moved into the purpose-built Convent. The contractors for the new development were Messrs M. Turley & Co and, in late 1974, the work was completed and the buildings officially opened on 25 June 1975.

In 1981 Sr. Dominic retired as Matron of St. Vincent’s and was succeeded by Sr. Peg Rice. In her forty-one years in the County Home and later in St. Vincent’s Hospital, Sr. Dominic had witnessed an increase in staff numbers in keeping with the improved quality of care provided for the patients. In the 1940s the County Home employed three religious and three nurses and in 1952 the first attendants were employed. Today, despite a reduction in the number of patients in the hospital compared to fifty years ago, the staff employed include 73 nurses/medical, 97 attendants and 10 administrative and support staff.

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