By Paula Redmond
The Rotunda Hospital, Dublin was founded by Dr. Bartholomew Mosse in 1757. Originally known as ‘The Lying-in-Hospital’, it is the oldest continually operating maternity hospital in the world and was the first in the British Isles.
Dr. Mosse was the son of the Rector of Maryborough (now Porlaoise) and was born in 1712. He specialised in obstetrics and worked in Europe before returning home to Dublin. Mosse married in 1734, but his wife and infant son died shortly after birth in 1737.
At the time most women gave birth at home, and for poorer women this was often in unsanitary conditions. Mosse was convinced that the high mortality rate amongst women and infants following birth was due to the unavailability of a hospital where they could stay and recuperate afterwards.
After working for a time as a surgeon in Mercer’s Hospital, Dublin, Mosse opened his own ‘lying-in-hospital’ in George’s Lane in an old vacant theatre. Initially the hospital consisted of just six beds but grew as funding was raised.
His vision for a purposely-built maternity hospital was supported by many wealthy patrons who gave Mosse funding to buy the site where the Rotunda stands today. The building of the hospital was funded by grants, donations and money raised through lotteries.
The building consists of the original hospital section and rounded reception rooms, the Round Room and Assembly Hall, which give the building its name. Mosse believed these rooms could be used for functions, such as balls and meetings, to raise funds for the hospital.
Mosse died in 1759 before his plans for the building were completed, but his successor, Sir Fielding Ould, oversaw them.
Some of the social rooms are no longer part of the hospital. The Assembly Hall later became the Gate Theatre, with another part of the Assembly Rooms used as The Town and Country Club disco in the 1960s and 1970. The Round Room became the Ambassador Cinema – now the Ambassador Event Centre.
In an attempt to stop the spread of contagious diseases – as often witnessed in other hospitals of the time – the hospital building itself was constructed of small wards. A chapel is located on the first floor directly above the entrance. It was intended that this ornate chapel would attract wealthy patronage to the hospital.
The plasterwork was completed by stuccador Bartholomew Cramillion and includes angels, cherubs, figures of Faith, Hope and Charity and the Lamb of God. It was themed on the Biblical psalm “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity”.
Mosse had intended for the Italian painter, Cipriani to adorn the ceiling with nativity scenes but this was never completed.
The building has many Irish republican connections. The Round Room was used by the United Irishmen and Napper Tandy for meetings. It was also the first meeting place of the Irish Volunteers. Over the years many involved in the republican movement worked in the hospital, including Dr. Kathleen Lynn and Bridget Lyons Thornton.
Lynn worked as the chief medical officer with the Irish Citizens Army in 1916. Lyons Thornton was involved in the 1916 Rising and later became the first female commissioned officer in the Free State Army. 1916 supporter, Cumann na mBan and Gaelic League member, Albinia Brodrick (known also as Gobnait Ní Bhruadair) trained as a midwife in the hospital in 1905. Paediatrician and Cumann na mBan member Dorothy Stopford Price also trained in the hospital. Her grandfather, Evory Kennedy, had been master of the Rotunda in the 1830s. She is also noted as being the first person to administer the BCG vaccine in Ireland.
During the 1916 Rising the hospital was occupied by the British army. It was in the gardens of the hospital – following their surrender – that the leaders of the Rising were gathered together before being marched away to prison. Mary O’Shea was a trainee in the hospital during the Rising. She later wrote a memoir recounting her time in the hospital during Easter 1916.
The hospital contributed greatly to reducing the mortality rate amongst mothers and infants. It also pioneered many new medical procedures. The aforementioned Evory Kennedy was an obstetrician in the hospital. He was the first person to recognise the importance of monitoring foetal heart rate in 1833.
The first caesarean section in Ireland was performed in the hospital under the supervision of Dr. Arthur Macan in 1889. One of the original ‘nightingale nurses’, Sara E. Hampson became the First Lady Superintendent of the Hospital in 1891.
The hospital still has a reputation for outstanding and pioneering work as a maternity hospital. It is also a training hospital affiliated with Trinity College.