Oral history project launched with records of Our Lady’s Hospital

- by Jacqui Hayes
Clare County Archives has launched the Clare County Oral History project after it was presented with the completed list of the Our Lady’s Hospital Collection by the Mayor of Clare, Richard Nagle. The project began in July 2002 and is jointly funded by the Heritage Council and Clare County Council. The project has created two oral history collections, a Women’s Oral History Archive and an Oral History Archive of Our Lady’s Hospital.

The recordings recall the many changes that occurred in the management of the hospital and care of patients. 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 generations.

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 Mid Western Health Board drew up a legal agreement with Clare County Council covering the transfer of the records to the Clare County Archives and the Board provided funding to employ an archives assistant to work with the Archives Service on the collection.They were lucky to employ Mary Kearney. 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.

I want to thank everyone who assisted the archive service in the process, the staff of Clare County Archives, Sinead Armstrong, Anne Ryan and Deirdre Marrinan, Mary Kearney, Eddie Lough, Noel Crowley, Mary Ryan and The Mid-Western Health Board.

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 local level.
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 period.
The archive collection had been moved to Clare County Archives when it became clear that a substantial number of former and current staff held clear memories of working in the hospital and would be able to cast light on aspects of the hospital’s history which cannot be interpreted from the documentary archive. This is how the idea of an Oral History collection was born and expanded to include a Women’s History project and successfully received Heritage Council funding.

The 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. Many of these recalled the almost family atmosphere which prevailed in the hospital which meant that many staff really enjoyed working there and missed the hospital greatly on their retirement and on its closure. They speak fondly of the practical jokes they played to break the routine and in their own quarters known as ‘the soldiers home’. They recall the social life they enjoyed playing tennis, hurling and football and their involvement in the dramatic society. Many of the nurses met their future spouses in the hospital and recall climbing the wall it they were too late to enter by the gate.

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. One former charge nurse recalled his impressions of the day room on his first day of work in a disturbed ward as a vision from hell, which frightened him terribly. Another charge nurse recalls in great detail a very similar picture, while both soon became quite used to it. Another nurse recalled the advent of drug therapy describing Largactyl as a wonder drug’, which allowed some previously chronic patients to go home. These were also the days of Electric Convulsive Therapy without anaesthetic, and insulin therapy, both of which methods are described in the interviews.

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. 

The 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. The recollections of a number of people who grew up the hospital were recorded. The late Dr Patrick Power was RMS from 1957 to 1982 and was described by a current member of staff who worked with him as an ‘icon’. He reduced the height of the walls, brought the public in for annual rose shows and open days and, under his watch, transformed the hospital to a stage where it was regarded as one of the best in the country. A number of drug trials took place including vitamin therapy for schizophrenia. As part of the project, interviews were conducted with his wife and four of his children, two of whom are psychiatrists. Dr. Power’s wife spoke about arriving to the hospital, her initial impressions, rearing a family in a mental hospital and the patients who, as part of their rehabilitation worked in her home, often taking charge of the house.

Their 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 improvements. One of his sons recalled an incident when his father locked the members of the Visiting Committee into a toilet which the committee thought was of an adequate standard and did not require improvements, for ten minutes. On emerging, they apparently were convinced of the need for the provision of better services. The children also outline the sense that they had that other school friends felt that they lived in a place apart and were afraid to visit. 

Current staff recall the difficult introduction of rehabilitation and normalisation in a context where routine had fostered institutional behaviour. They recall their first realisation that the hospital would close and their feelings and views on closure, some positive and some negative. It is extremely important that these recordings were captured and preserved as they have undoubtedly created an important historical record of an institution, which in the future will be difficult to grasp and which greatly enrich the documentary archive. The interviews give an insight into daily life in the hospital and while some of them are unflattering to the hospital, they must be understood within contemporary values, economic circumstances and knowledge of mental illness. These accounts are balanced with recollections of an excellent social life, tennis tournaments, hurling and football teams, drama groups, annual staff dances and trips to Lahinch with the patients. A community atmosphere certainly prevailed and former staff on the whole have a very strong attachment to the hospital and fond memories.

The 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. The lives that women lead have changed enormously within living memory and I thought it was important to document these experiences.  I spoke to women who spoke about their childhoods, their education and working lives, social conditions, marriage and childbirth. Interviews were conducted with women from urban and rural backgrounds including women who worked as a schoolteacher, a clerical officer in the health services in the 1940’s and a public health nurse. Interviews were conducted with women who reared large families in the 1940’s and 1950’s who described their difficulties and their joys. Interviews were also held with a member of a religious community who talked about the spiritual life, describing the process of change that emanated from Vatican Two. Another woman spoke about her family’s pub, shop and undertakers trade, describing the difficulty in organising a horse drawn hearse in icy conditions. A member of the Travelling community talked about her childhood, living in tents built by the family, her father’s work as a tinsmith and farm labourer and her marriage. 

The 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 Ireland there was generally plenty of food. They remember the scourge of TB and the fear of contracting it; and one woman, who worked in her first position at 18 years of age in the Board of Health, described the arrival of the first County medical Officer of Health from Wales in the 1940s. She recalled the circular she typed for him, directing people on the hygienic way to manage a sanitary bucket to prevent disease from flies.

One 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 Ireland when Fianna Fail came to power and the Economic War. Many of the women I spoke to worked very hard, rearing children and running a farm. 

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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