Irish History Circle: Dublin Hospitals

A Presentation to the Irish History Circle  by Deirdre Gillespie.

Delivered in her unavoidable absence by Brian Gillespie.

South Dublin Union Workhouse.

The  Melbourne Irish History Circle’s October meeting looked at the impressive history of Dublin city’s medical institution. Because there are so many, this meeting focused on the 18th century; there was more than enough to fill a fascinating hour and a half with plenty of Q and A from the gathered members at the end.

The earliest hospital in Dublin was founded in 1188 by a Norman who had returned from the Holy Land. Ailread the Palmer erected a monastery at John’s Lane (Thomas Street). This hospital lasted till mid 16th century when Henry VIII dissolved all monasteries. Without notice 155 unfortunate patients were turned out helpless to beg or starve.

In the mid-seventeenth century, the tenements of Dublin were overcrowded as young people flooded into Dublin to escape rural poverty and the impact of the Penal Laws. This period saw the establishment of the Dublin House of Industry Hospitals that provided treatment for the sick, vagrants, lunatics, children, and so on. More and more specialised institutions opened, most of them voluntarily-run.

When Dr. Richard Steevens ( 1653-1710), an eminent physician, decided on his deathbed to leave money for the foundation of a hospital for the curable poor of Dublin, it was an important decision. It was up to his twin sister Grizelda to implement his plan. She drew together leading figures of the city and fundraised for the hospital that would bear her brother’s name. Dr. Steeven’s decision encouraged others to follow suit.

Over the next forty years an astounding number of voluntary charitable institutions sprang up.

In 1718, six Dublin surgeons came together to open a hospital called the Charitable Infirmary which would become the famous Jervois Street hospital that operated until the 1980s.

Jervis St. Hospital

In 1894 it staged a fundraiser ‘Araby’, the name for an oriental fete. The name lived on through the title of one of James Joyce’s short stories in Dubliners.

In 1727, the Foundling Hospital was established which became the South Dublin Union/ St. Kevin’s / St. James over the centuries. The South Dublin Union was occupied in 1916 as a strategic outpost of the rebel forces.

In 1734, as a result of the benefactor Mary Mercer’s will, the Mercer Hospital opened on land formerly used as a house for poor girls. Dean Jonathan Swift was on first Board of Governors.

In 1743, the hospital for the Incurables was established at Donnybrook followed in 1745 by the Lying-In hospital founded by Bartholomew Mosse and known later as


the Rotunda, which is still in operation today.  This maternity hospital has delivered tens of thousands of babies since it opened. It has provided unbroken service to the mothers of Dublin for 273 years…and counting.

In 1746, St. Patrick’s Psychiatric Hospital, James Street opened as a result of Dean Swift’s benevolence is leaving a sum of money in his will. It was one of the very first psychiatric hospitals in the world and became a noted teaching and research centre. Today it is Ireland’s leading not-for-profit mental health organisation with over 700 staff.

In 1753, the Meath Hospital opened in Heytesbury Street specialising in infectious diseases. A significant institution in terms of Ireland’s medical history, it was the oldest university teaching hospital and introduced bedside teaching to the English speaking world. James Clarence Mangan and Brendan Behan spent their last days here and Oliver St.John Gogarty was on the staff from 1911-1939.

In the eighteenth century, well-off citizens did not go to a hospital, preferring to be treated at home. So it was the poor and working class who took the chance with mortality rates horrendously high in these new establishments.

The establishment of new hospitals continued over the nineteenth century with such famous names as St. Patrick Dun’s, Richmond, The Coombe, St. Vincent’s, The Adelaide, Mater, Temple Street and St. Ultan’s to name but some which will be familiar. By the start of the nineteenth century Dublin hospitals were at the forefront of medical innovation and the fight against infectious diseases such as smallpox, TB, cholera, influenza and VD.

The last thirty years has seen seven of Dublin’s oldest hospitals fold into two bright modern establishments necessary for the 21st century. These owe so much to the history of their predecessors.


Deirdre Gillespie

Deirdre has been involved with Irish theatre for many years and has been a strong contributor to the Irish History Circle. Deirdre is also President of the Irish Language Association in Victoria.


Next Month’s Meeting of the Irish History Circle:   The talk is by Felim Deighan and titled ‘Brother in Arms’. It tells the story of three brothers brought up in South Armagh in the early 20th century and what life was like there at the time of partition .One became Gaelic Editor of the Irish Press; one got involved with the physical force side; one joined the British Army.