Sixteen years ago I was approached by Eddie Matthews of the Eastern Health Board and asked if I would write a history of the local hospital, St. Vincent’s. The publication was to be ready for the 150th anniversary of the hospital’s opening as a workhouse which had predated the Great Famine by just over a year. The opening of Athy Workhouse on 9th January 1844 came just in time to relieve some of the harshest effects of the famine in and around the South Kildare area.
Regrettably when I began my research I was dismayed to find that all of the Workhouse records had been destroyed. The loss of this invaluable original source material was a huge disadvantage and prevented me from giving a detailed account of the institution as I traced its transition from workhouse to County Home to its final transformation as a geriatric hospital.
Kieran Hickey who was a staff officer in Kildare County Council when I was a lowly clerical officer wrote a foreword for the history of the hospital in his capacity as Chief Executive Officer of the Eastern Health Board. He mentioned how St. Vincent’s Hospital ‘now provides caring services for all levels of society. It is right and fitting that the hospital and its current staff, lead by Sr. Peig Matron, Dr. Giles O’Neill Medical Officer and Eddie Matthews Hospital Manager should celebrate what has been achieved and look forward with confidence to the next century and a half.’
I was reminded of what Kieran Hickey wrote sixteen years ago when I heard last week of local concerns regarding the possible closure of St. Vincent’s Hospital. Apparently some sections of the hospital have been closed and further admissions have been curtailed. This could be accounted for by seasonal staff shortages, but around the same time Martin Mansergh T.D. and Minister for State issued a statement regretting the partial closure of hospital services throughout the country. While acknowledging such closures as temporary measures he inferred that other closures were inevitable having regard to the difficulty of upgrading old buildings to meet the exacting requirements of 21st century medical standards.
Alarm bells went off when I heard this explanation for it immediately raised an issue which could weigh heavily against St. Vincent’s Hospital if the ‘health and safety’ brigade were required to make decisions about the Athy hospital.
Many of the buildings housing St. Vincent’s Hospital are old, their history going back to famine times. Therein lies a possible problem if the beaucrats are of a mind to close St. Vincent’s. Not being a county town Athy has none of the services or facilities which neighbouring towns such as Naas, Portlaoise and Carlow have come to expect. St. Vincent’s Hospital is the only local facility offering services on a countywide basis. It is an excellent institution which provides caring services as required for all levels of society in the county. That, more than the age of the building should determine St. Vincent’s Hospital’s future.
St. Vincent’s is part of our history, an important link with our past. It’s early years as a workhouse from where young female inmates were sent to Australia under a State sponsored orphan emigration scheme is the less appealing part of that history. The part played by the Sisters of Mercy in the development of nursing services in the workhouse infirmary is the happier side of its history. The Sisters of Mercy began to visit patients in the infirmary every Sunday soon after they arrived in Athy in 1852. When Elizabeth Silke was appointed Matron of the workhouse in 1867 she was responsible for looking after the female inmates without any nursing assistance. Soon afterwards the Board of Guardians asked the Sisters of Mercy to take charge of the workhouse infirmary. This they did on 24th October 1873. In time their influence extended to the workhouse itself and throughout most of the 20th century the Sisters of Mercy provided from amongst their numbers successive matrons for the County Home as the workhouse was called after 1923 and St. Vincent’s Hospital as it became in the 1960s.
One of the many interesting individuals who worked in Athy Workhouse was Robert Walker who was Master of the workhouse in the last 1870s. He was later Private Secretary to T.P. O’Connor M.P., Irish Parliamentarian and author who represented Liverpool in the British House of Commons. Walker was brother of Mrs. Ann Boylan, one time principal of Barrowhouse National School whose son, Monsignor Patrick Boylan was one of Ireland’s greatest scripture scholars. Monsignor Boylan who was Professor of Eastern Languages in Maynooth College died in November 1974 while he was Parish Priest of Dunlaoghaire.
St. Vincent’s Hospital has served Athy and County Kildare well for the last 166 years. We may be called upon sooner than we think to show our appreciation for this local institution by ensuring that it is not consigned to the pages of history.