A new book by Davis and Mary Coakley chronicles the history of the famous Dublin hospital, which started out as a workhouse. It’s now the largest academic teaching hospital in the Republic of Ireland and is also the site of the new National Children’s Hospital.
One of the first things a contemporary visitor to St James’s Hospital will notice is the variety in age and architecture of the buildings on its grounds. These were built in the eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries and connect St James’s Hospital in a tangible way with all the institutions that have occupied the site since the establishment of the City Workhouse in 1703.
The history of these institutions forms one strand of the history and heritage of St James’s Hospital. Another strand is formed by the heritage of the four old and distinguished voluntary hospitals – Mercer’s, Sir Patrick Dun’s, the Royal City of Dublin (also known as Baggot Street Hospital) and Dr Steevens’ – that amalgamated with St James’s Hospital in the 1980s.
A third strand is formed by the historic medical school of Trinity College Dublin, which needed a large, modern teaching hospital for its students. These three interwoven strands form the fabric of this book.
Like a mirror, the history of the various institutions that stood on the St James’s site reflects the challenges faced by successive generations of Dubliners as they struggled to cope with the social, health and political challenges of their times. War and recurrent famine impoverished many Irish people living in rural areas during the seventeenth century. Often they had no option other than begging in order to survive.
A significant number made their way to Dublin, where they joined other starving people begging on the streets. After numerous complaints from harassed citizens, the city assembly decided, in 1697, to build a workhouse on James’s Street, outside the western gate of Dublin, in an attempt to stem the flow of destitute beggars entering the city from the west of Ireland.
The workhouse admitted its first inmates in January 1706, when 124 vagrants were apprehended on the streets of Dublin.
The abandonment of infants left at the doors of wealthy citizens, in churches and on the banks of the canal, was another issue that gave rise to public scandal at the beginning of the eighteenth century. After a number of parish-based solutions failed, legislation was enacted in 1730 obliging the governors to admit all abandoned children to the City Workhouse.
The name of the institution was changed to the Foundling Hospital and Workhouse of the City of Dublin. A revolving basket was placed at the entrance so that infants could be left anonymously at the hospital. Infants were transported to the institution from all over Ireland, and many of them died en route or were moribund on arrival.
Unfortunately, the infants did not receive the necessary standard of care and many died in appalling conditions, giving rise to inquiry after inquiry throughout the eighteenth century.
In 1772, the Irish parliament decided to remove the beggars and vagrants to the House of Industry, which had just been opened on the north side of the city. As a result, the care of abandoned infants became the sole responsibility of the Foundling Hospital and Workhouse and the name was changed to the Foundling Hospital. The hospital continued to admit children until parliament decided to stop all further admissions in 1829.