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Dublin: 4 °C Thursday 24 January, 2019
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Ireland in a Snapshot: Inside our crumbling former asylums, the walls whisper 'forgive me'

Magnificent 19th-century buildings housed the homeless, misfits and the mentally ill. They are shameful relics of the past but we should not forget their story, writes Donal Moloney.

Donal Moloney

EACH WEEKEND, PHOTOGRAPHER and filmmaker Donal Moloney shares an image with TheJournal.ie audience which reflects a small piece of Ireland that resonates with us all. 

Donal writes:

“In 2006 the Irish Government signed up to a policy which would close and sell off its portfolio of psychiatric hospitals.

Among these are some magnificent 19th-century properties which provided shelter to the homeless, the addicts, the mentally ill, the misfits and the simply unwanted for over 150 years.

Sadly these asylums reflected the broader society at the time with its economic struggles and antiquated laws on committal, reaching a peak in 1963 when a reported 20,000 people were quarantined from society.

Referred to as shameful relics of the past, these buildings became vital organs, purifying the life force of society before handing the care of patients back to the community, charities and other psychiatric units.

Many human stories have emerged over the years which afford us a mere glimpse of their experiences within these institutions.

But what of the remains of their former homes? They too have a story to tell, if only one is brave enough to step inside the unfamiliar, the uncomfortable and the unpredictable, long after the last patient has left.

Crossing the threshold of this grand entrance hall is perhaps the most daunting but as most of the artefacts have been removed there is little evidence of her former usage. It is only when one wanders through the echoing wards and endless corridors that a sense of the layout and day-to-day life of the patients and staff can be surmised.

Light floods in from huge windows into the partitioned wards on one side, warming the air and the tone of the many layers of peeling paint which hangs like bunting from the archways along the corridors.

On the back side of the building, many of the windows have been boarded up, making the atmosphere thick, damp and menacing. It is in such a corridor that the cells are to be found.

The ebb and flow of breath moves about the building unchecked as doors open and close, carrying with it the smell of decay as the ideals of care have been outlived. A network of stairwells connects each floor, a blueprint of each other.

The gradual phasing out and closure of the facility becomes apparent though as some rooms are obviously more up to date, while others are left in reckless abandon. The taste of sweet sulphur sits on the tongue as burning oranges and reds, cool turquoise and pink fight for attention in the eye of the observer.

And yet there is a sense of calm apology and forgiveness from within this chaos.

The slow beating heart within her walls has also been critically wounded despite her grandeur and best efforts to welcome thousands of patients, staff and visitors throughout history.

All she ever hoped for was to serve her community as a place of asylum, refuge and healing and perhaps she achieved that for some of her patients.

Closing the door behind us to leave, her voice is once again lowered to a whisper, a catalogue of photos and footage becoming her connection to the outside world. ‘Forgive me’ she utters.”

Check out more of Donal’s work on Facebook here

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Donal Moloney

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