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History of St Kevin's: A mental health institution that incarcerated innocent people in filthy conditions

To explore the history of the imposing landmark, TheJournal.ie has delved into Oireachtas, newspaper and online archives and reports.

ST KEVIN’S IN Cork city has been making headlines this week after the iconic building was gutted by a fire on Tuesday night.

The imposing building is infamous among people in Cork who describe it as a chilling and unnerving place with a dark past. It’s a name people remember their parents referencing when they were being scolded as children.

Following this week’s blaze, it’s thought that up to two-thirds of the structure has been destroyed with photos showing that the roof has completely collapsed.

2 fires_90517004 Source: Cork Fire Brigade

The large red-brick building from the late-19th century has a daunting past as a mental health institution and has been left derelict for the past 15 years after closing in 2002.

To explore the history of the imposing landmark, TheJournal.ie has delved into Oireachtas, newspaper and online archives and reports.

Photographer and historian Tarquin Blake of Abandoned Ireland has described how St Kevin’s was built as an annex at the eastern end of Our Lady’s Hospital complex in 1893 and originally accommodated 490 patients.

The people who ended up in it were often victims of misfortune, illness and abandonment.

Reports from the Inspector of Mental Hospitals reveal that the institution was a vermin-infested, dirty, dark confinement where people who were guilty of nothing were incarcerated.

st kevins confidential Source: MichaelP.O'Brien via Flickr

Discussions about the reports in the Seanad from the 1930s paint a damning picture.

In 1934, the Seanad heard that no soap or towels were available and there were no curtains on the windows or seats in the toilets. Senators were also told that the lavatories were dirty. Patients’ own money was used to buy six washing machines for use by 21 female patients in one ward.

In 1935, many patients were in bed when inspectors called at 5.30pm. There were no curtains in the dormitories and sheets of plywood were being used to cover all the broken windows in the bathroom of one male ward which housed 22 patients.

St Kevin's Window Source: MichaelP.O'Brien via Flickr

Some people were incarcerated in units that were roofed like a stall and doors were closed by three farmyard bolts.

In 1936, it was reported that there was no activities during the day and patients just sat around waiting for bedtime, which was somewhere between 5.30pm and 6.30pm.

st kevins dayroom Source: MichaelP.O'Brien via Flickr

The Cork Examiner described it as a “chapter of horrors” in 1937. The inspector said rubbish, litter and toilet rolls were discarded around the exterior of Our Lady’s while connecting corridors and walkways were “dirty beyond description”. Inside walls were peeling and windows were dirty with an opaque matter, while toilets were also dirty with floors sometimes filthy and wet.

A report by the Inspector of Mental Hospitals in 1938 revealed that Our Lady’s cost £10 million to £11 million to run annually. The Inspector stated, “The service provided by the hospital is extremely poor and for the most part appears to provide the worst form of custodial care.”

A report on the hospital in 1939 was described as an “appalling, distressing, disturbing, and offensive document” that confirmed the hospital was “a disgrace”.

The conclusion of the Inspector of Mental Hospitals’ Report stated:

Over the years the conditions inside Our Ladys Hospital and St Kevin’s was condemned and declared a total disgrace. The people incarcerated in the asylum were guilty of nothing. Vulnerable, innocent and harmless. They did not deserve what was done to them. Victims of misfortune, victims of illness and indeed, tragically, of abandonment. They were locked up in a vermin-infested, unsanitary, dirty, dark confinement.

Despite the horrific details of the treatment of patients throughout the 1930s being made public, St Kevin’s facility remained open for psychiatric patients – and was consistently the focus of much controversy.

810 admissions in 1998

Our Lady’s Hospital was a mental health institution built in the 1840s. The complex was made up by a number of major buildings, Our Lady’s – also known as the Grey Building – and St Bridget’s which only closed in the early 1990s. Our Lady’s, St Bridget’s and several smaller buildings were subsequently sold by the former Southern Health Board.

St Kevin’s, St Ann’s, St Dympna’s and St John’s closed between 2001 and 2009. These buildings and a number of smaller buildings remain in HSE ownership.

Report of the Inspector of Mental Hospitals from 1999 described how inpatient care was provided at Our Lady’s Hospital and St Anne’s 46-bed acute unit.

Twenty beds were provided in St Kevin’s long-stay psychiatric unit and a further 40 beds were provided in the intensive care unit at St Kevin’s Block, Our Lady’s Hospital.

st kevins sign Source: MichaelP.O'Brien via Flickr

One-hundred-and-six patients were in the hospital and acute unit on 31 December 1998. About 25% of patients had been hospitalised for more than five years, 11% for between one and five years, 51% for between three and twelve months and 13% for less than three months.

Fifty-eight patients were prescribed electroconvulsive therapy ECT in 1998.

The report also stated that the ”physical conditions in the intensive care units in St Kevin’s were most unsatisfactory“.

Fifty-five accidents to patients and seven accidents to staff were recorded. There were seven recorded assaults on staff, two of which were deemed serious.

There were 810 admissions to inpatient care during 1998 and 228 were first admissions. Seven patients had their temporary orders extended during the year and 12 patients became new long-stay patients in 1998.  There were 820 discharges and four deaths in the same year.

st kevins Source: MichaelP.O'Brien via Flickr

The opening of a new mental health unit at Mercy University Hospital was a priority in 1998 and the report stated that referrals to St Anne’s Unit would cease once the acute unit in the Mercy Hospital opened.

Plans for St Kevin’s

Locals reacted to the news of the fire this week by saying it was a shame the 200-year-old building was left derelict for so long and that no restorative work was done to re-purpose it.

In 2007, the then-Health Minister Mary Harney revealed that €6,000 a week was being spent on security for the building. She noted that €1,590.975 was spent between 2002 and 2007.

However nothing has happened the building despite the expense of security.

st kevins building Source: MichaelP.O'Brien via Flickr

The HSE has said that the site has been offered to other government departments with a view to making it available for sale on the open market. However, it confirmed that the building has not been put up for sale.

A spokesperson told TheJournal.ie:

The HSE has recently engaged with an estate agent to discuss the potential of bringing the campus to the open market. A property valuation is being prepared by an estate agent, should the property be put on the open market, in the event that other state agencies are not interested in acquiring the campus.

During the week local councillors told this website that accommodation for homeless families or students could be two of several options to explore.

Discussions about the building have been ongoing for years. Speaking in 2013, Fine Gael TD Brian Hayes told a Seanad debate that the HSE “seeks value for money in deciding whether to sell or redevelop properties and this is often a complex and difficult balancing act”.

He said the HSE property committee rejects any proposal that does not meet the requirements and does not achieve value for money. He added:

The topography of the Shanakiel campus and the presence of rights of way make its disposal difficult and a particularly complex undertaking.

He said the HSE “continuously reviews vacant property with a view to refurbishing, rebuilding or redeveloping properties, such as the remaining Shanakiel campus”.

Security

The building was previously owned by the former Southern Health Board, before the HSE took it over during its establishment in 2005.

The HSE has defended the security it had in place at St Kevin’s saying rigorous security measures were “reviewed and updated continuously”.

st kevins warning Source: MichaelP.O'Brien via Flickr

In a statement it said, “The HSE have a contract in place with an external security company who provide twice daily security patrols.

To prevent unwanted access into the buildings on the campus, the HSE arranged the installation of 235 fixed panel shutters, to accessible windows and doors on lower floors of the campus buildings.

“A CCTV system is installed on the perimeter of the site and is monitored on a 24/7 basis.”

They added that maintenance teams carried out weekly inspections of the site and carried out repairs as and when needed.

Security has now been stepped up at the site with a spokesperson telling this website, “A continuous security presence has been placed on the site and will remain in place for the immediate future. An exclusion zone will be created around St. Kevin’s building with the use of Heras fencing.”

Read: Firefighters bring massive fire at derelict Cork city building under control>

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