- by Jacqui Hayes
Interviews with former staff and current staff give an insight into the daily workings of the hospital. From these, a history of the institution from the 1940s to its closure has emerged. The recollections describe the poor conditions of the 1940s, conditions which had changed very little since the hospital opened, and the almost continuous changes and improvements in the following decades.
Interviews were conducted with staff who lived in the hospital, who worked on the farm and with children of staff who grew up in Our Lady’s Hospital.
The women’s history project is documented through conversation on the daily
lives of women in Clare, centring on childhood and education, marriage, childbirth,
economic and social circumstances. Interviews were conducted with women from urban
and rural backgrounds, including with a woman who lived on Coney Island off Ballynacally,
a schoolteacher, a member of the Travelling community and a member of a religious
community. A way of life has been captured which will be preserved for future
Clare Mental Health Services, on behalf of the Mid Western Health Board,
placed the archives of Our Lady’s Hospital in Clare County Archives on the closure
of the hospital in March, 2002.
The collection has now been fully catalogued by Clare County Archives.This collection will now be available to the public subject to closure periods imposed on certain categories of records to protect the privacy of individuals.
The presentation of the descriptive list of Our Lady’s Hospital Collection to Clare Mental Health Services marks the final chapter in the history of Our Lady’s Hospital.
Our Lady’s first opened its doors in 1868 and was then known as Ennis District
Lunatic Asylum. For 134 years it continued to operate on the same site as a mental
hospital and indeed until the 1950s very little changed in the manner in which
it was run.
The hospital was one of the largest public buildings in Clare and was both a large employer and purchaser of goods from local suppliers.It played an important role in the economic life of Ennis, especially in earlier years when jobs were scarce and pensionable positions were highly prized.
The collection is of value to local historians studying the economic and social history of the county.
The collection also holds a large volume of patient admissions forms and
with only a 3% loss, these provide a valuable insight into the causes of admission
to mental hospitals for nearly a century and a half.
These are an important source for medical history and the changes in the treatment of the mentally ill.
The collection is large and took time to fully list. When the hospital was
closing, no one knew what to do with the records. There were few precedents and
until the establishment of Clare County Archive, there was no place of deposit
for the records.
Fortunately they had a protector in the guise of Eddie Lough, a member of the nursing staff whose interest in local history had led him to the realisation that nobody had ever written anything about the hospital, and that the records in the basement, along with newspaper articles, contained much of this history.
As a result of his canvassing, Clare County Archives were approached and arrangements were put in place to work on and preserve the collection.
The interviewing process was unusual in that the final part of the interview involved descending into the bowels of the hospital where the old kitchen used to be to assess the reaction of the candidates to the task in hand.
They were faced with a sight of complete disarray, massive amounts of records, very strange smells, and lots of dust.
Mary Kearney rose to the occasion and in the process became an expert on the collection, absorbing archival guidance so that under her care the collection moved to Clare County Archives in a transformed state.
The final listing and arrangement has now been completed and the collection will now be accessible for research.
As large institutions such as Our Lady’s Hospital close and become a part
of history, it is to be hoped that they will follow the example set in Clare and
provide for the preservation of the records and their ongoing accessibility at
It may be hard to believe, but the entire collection will not be open until
2110 so it is a major investment and commitment on behalf of Clare County Archives
and Clare County Council to provide for the collection’s maintenance over this
project also involved talking to staff who worked in a variety of positions,
administrators, and doctors, nurses and tradesmen who could recall the changes
and improvements that occurred over the years.
The hospital had changed very little from its opening to the 1940s and 1950s but after this change was rapid. Interviews with staff who worked in the hospital in the 1940s are extremely valuable as they are almost describing the hospital form its earliest days. The custodial approach was in practice and the hospital was highly routinised.It was terribly overcrowded with only inches between patient beds and up to 70 beds in a ward.There were no drug therapies available and highly disturbed patients simply had to be restrained.
Male nurses describe the female ward as much tidier and cleaner in appearance than the male side of the hospital, with curtains on the window, but claimed that the male wards were “more relaxed”. The hospital was highly segregated and no males worked in the female wards and vice versa. The project involved interviewing a domestic cleaner who spoke about being the first woman to work in the male hospital. Another retired nurse spoke about how intimidating it was for him as a male member of staff to begin working in the female wards in the 1980s. One nurse who worked in the female side of the hospital in the 1950s before she married, and who returned to nursing in 1970s, described amazing changes that had taken place in the interval in patient care as patients received three and four-course meals and wore their own clothes.
hospital was a home to a number of families, the Resident Medical Superintendent’s
family, the gatekeeper’s family, the Land Steward and some other doctors. A
Anumber of drug trials took place including vitamin therapy for schizophrenia.
children recall very fondly their early days growing up in the hospital, their
interaction with patients, the dining hall, the almost Dickensian kitchens with
huge vats with sheep heads and cabbage heads; the lovely bread baked in the
hospital, the film shows, Christmas, and the patients that almost reared them.
They recall their mother’s efforts to entertain eminent visitors to the hospital
and theirs father’s efforts to de-institutionalise the building and bring about
staff recall the difficult introduction of rehabilitation and normalisation
in a context where routine had fostered institutional behaviour.
Women’s Oral History Archive was prompted by developments in the past decade
in women’s history and women’s studies. The
whole area of women’s daily lives at the individual level has been largely ignored.
advantage of an oral history project is that the human experience is documented
from the individual’s experience and, from this level, it can be built up to
form a composite picture which is always qualified by the unusual and the personal.
The interviews illustrate a changing way of life.
In the 1940s, the interviewees recall nobody had money, but in rural
woman talked about her days as a public health nurse who, in all her career
as a midwife delivering babies in rural outposts, never lost a baby. Another
woman talked about her life as a schoolteacher, recalling also the political
fervour of 1930s
I would like to thank those who participated in both the recordings and the women who told me their life stories. I did not carry out all the interviews myself and want to thank the interviewers who gave of their time to the project including Eleanor Feely from the Arts Office, the staff of Clarecastle Daycare Centre and the staff of the Raheen Daycare Centre, Scariff, and the Heritage Council for the funding provided for the project.
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