St. Vincent’s Hospital is in the news again. It’s the Damocles sword of closure hanging over it which brings it to our attention. The threat to the future of the building which was erected as a Workhouse a few years before the onset of the Great Famine has been ever present since the H.S.E. came into existence.
I can remember a time when the Health Services were operated on a county basis, with day to day control of the services in this area exercised by Kildare County Council. The Hospital, renamed St. Vincent’s after its Workhouse days came to an end, was then in the careful and sympathetic control of the Sisters of Mercy.
The Sisters, who first arrived in Athy in 1851 in response to an appeal by the Ballitore-born Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Cullen, took charge of the Workhouse Hospital on 24th October 1873. The first Sister Superior of the Union Hospital as it was then called was Sister Mary Vincent Bermingham who was appointed Superioress of Athy’s Mercy Convent 15 years later.
The Hospital flourished under the guidance of the Sisters of Mercy and when the first Free State Government came into power the Sisters of Mercy were formally assigned to run the institution which we now know as St. Vincent’s.
Many members of the Sisters of Mercy order have worked in the Workhouse and St. Vincent’s Hospital since 1873. We can all remember some of them and particularly recall matrons such as Sr. Peig Rice and St. Dominic McHugh.
The masters of the Workhouse, as they were once called, included Robert Walker, uncle of the famous clergyman Monsignor Patrick Boylan of Barrowhouse. Walker later became Private Secretary to the Irish Parliamentary party member and renowned journalist/author T.P. O’Connor.
In 1949 an interdepartmental committee was set up to examine the future of county homes throughout the country. It was recommended that a number of those institutions, including Athy, would be refurbished and extended to provide accommodation for the aged and chronic sick. Niall Meagher, who was then the County Architect, designed and planned the extensions to the old Workhouse building, which extensions were constructed by Bantile Limited of Banagher. The work which started in July 1966 took almost 3 years to complete, at a cost of £250,000.00. The new buildings contained two blocks for 100 female patients, three blocks for 168 male patients and a 14 bed maternity unit. The maternity unit was closed in October 1986 and the 268 beds have been reduced over the years so that following the most recent reductions there will be only 120 beds.
In 1985 the National Council for the Elderly published a report ‘Institutional Care for the Elderly’ which was followed three years later by a Government Policy Report on services for the elderly entitled ‘The Years Ahead’. Both of these reports commented favourably on the services available at St. Vincent’s Hospital but it would seem that because of the ongoing financial difficulties being experienced by the H.S.E. that the accommodation in St. Vincent’s is being scaled down and may eventually be listed for closure.
Such an eventuality would have a devastating effect on Athy given the very substantial employment the Hospital gives, particularly for female workers. In addition the non availability of local accommodation for the aged and chronic sick would be an extremely severe drawback for the local community.
When the Eastern Health Board published in 1994 my short history of St. Vincent’s Hospital I began the narrative of the Workhouse story by quoting an unidentified correspondent of the Athy Literary Magazine. He wrote disparagingly in March 1838 of the ‘spiritless and inert beings that form the more elevated circle here in Athy.’ ‘There is not a town in Ireland’ he continued ‘so completely neglected.’ He invited his readers ‘to visit us through our weekdays and ramble through our deserted streets to see the able bodied labourers at our corners, hoards of beggars at our doors, disease and famine in the hovels of the poor.’
That was one dispirited description of Athy in 1838, the year in which the Poor Relief Act was passed which led to the siting of the Workhouse in Athy. We are experiencing hard times but nothing on the scale of those unfortunate people who in 1838 had yet to face five years of famine in the following decade.
Our local community must stand up and ensure that our geriatric hospital remains in place.