On the evening of July 4th last a fisherman on the banks of the Lee raised the alarm as he saw smoke rising from the roof of St. Kevins unit in the former Eglinton Lunatic Asylum, on the Lee Road in Cork City. It was reported that it took six units of the Cork City Fire Brigade to battle the blaze through the night. The fire is the second in four years, with the previous incident causing damage to the St Anne’s Unit in 2013.
The vast complex first caught my attention when I moved to Victoria Cross, Cork City to begin my architectural studies, and it had me instantly intrigued. Throughout my studies I made some mediocre attempts to investigate the complex but was always stopped in my tracks. The complex sits in an interesting section of Cork City, Shanakiel, with Cork City Gaol to the North, and the derelict former Good Sheppard Magdalene Laundry to the North East, which was also subject to extreme fire damage in recent years.
St Kevins is part of Our Lady’s Hospital, which was originally the Eglinton Asylum, named after Right Hon. Earl of Eglinton – Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Originally it was built to accommodate 500 patients, however demand was so significant it was extended further, and finally in 1852 admissions began into the long gothic structure. The hospital was the largest of seven district lunatic asylums commissioned by the Board of Public Works in the late 1840s to supplement the nine establishments erected by Johnston and Murray in 1820-35. In 1845 the Irish Lunatics Asylums Act allowed for appropriating the Lunatic Asylum in the city of Cork to the Purposes of a District Lunatic Asylum. This legislation provided for two new asylums – a criminal one in Dundrum, Dublin, and a 500-bed asylum in Cork. The Eglington Asylum, was originally in three separate blocks and there was a clear change in style from Classical to Gothic.
Local architect William Atkins designed the complex. Originally it was designed as three separate blocks punctuated with towers and gables, sited overlooking the river Lee. Constructed between 1847 and 1852, the blocks were linked by low arcades, which also linked a chapel and refectory hall set behind the main buildings. These were arranged so that the gable of the hall and spire of the chapel were visible from the front. The collection of blocks had six staircase towers and numerous gables. In order to deal with the large demand, in 1861 Atkins linked the main blocks to provide more accommodation – but this gave the building an almost unending facade in the process, the longest facade of any building in the country for years to come, at over 1000 feet. Atkins design made good use of polychromy, where he contrasted Glanmire sandstone with limestone dressings throughout the vast structure. This in turn created a coursed stone, multi gabled elevation allowing for an impressive architectural massing. However it appears it was a clear case of form over function. The elevated site sits overlooking the River Lee and evidently it appears to have been chosen for dramatic effect rather than practicality. The structure sits prominently on a ridge on the site and its position on the site lead to the structure abutting a steep slope to the rear of the building and made provision of exercise yards very difficult. The hospital sits on a vast and intriguing site, which covers some 53 acres and comprises numerous fascinating period buildings, which later included two ‘Hospitals’.
Atkins was also responsible for St Marys Priory in Cork city constructed in 1850. The priory is sited adjacent to the classical St. Mary’s catholic church. The priory appears as a mixture of classical and victorian institutional gothic. It is believed that it may have been a Georgian house, and Atkins went about remodelling it and making several additions. Atkins made use of link structures at the priory also, this time linking his new block to the existing building with the campanile. From 1851 Atkins was also responsible for St. Maries of the Isle Mercy Convent, Sharman Crawford St., Cork, which similar to the priory was constructed in red sandstone with limestone dressings.
As the years went on Our Lady’s Hospital failed to meet with demand repeatedly, and so in 1893 St Kevin’s was built as an annexe, linked by an extensive passageway, the majority of which was underground. This red-brick building also overlooks the River Lee and is visible from a variety of spots around the city. St Kevin’s, like the rest of the complex and former mental hospitals throughout the country, has a sad and complicated history. Quite simply patients were treated like lesser citizens. According to the Inspector of Mental Hospitals in 1940, the patients in the hospital were “vulnerable, innocent and harmless”. The Inspector also stated that patients in the “vermin-infested” hospital were often abandoned, ill or victims of poverty. A report from the Inspector of Mental Hospitals documented in Tarquin Blake’s Abandoned Ireland explains how in a female ward of 28 patients, there was only one toilet between patients and it “had no seat or no curtains”
The primary block of Our Lady’s Hospital closed in the early 1990’s along with the St. Bridget’s Block. In the years to come these blocks were sold to a developer. The main Our Lady’s Block was gradually being converted to apartments, but the block fell foul to the economic downturn and it remains largely incomplete. The remaining area is suffering from major deterioration and conservation problems. Most of the external fabric remains, but the signs of deterioration are clear, such as slipped slates, vegetation growth, broken windows and repeated vandalism. There was significant damage to the unfinished section in 2010, which was also due to a fire. The entire complex clearly requires identification of new uses, in the hopes it would prevent further deterioration of its character.
St Kevin’s, St Dympna’s and St John’s were gradually closed between the years of 2001 and 2009 as the HSE looked towards developing a more community based approach to mental health issues. St Kevin’s has remained in the ownership of the HSE and is now largely gutted due to the extent of the fire. Local residents have been pleading with government bodies to intervene at the complex for years, largely due to the anti social behavior it attracts.
In the midst of a piece of architectural heritage suffering such damage, hopefully it will act as a wake up call. The vast piece of land is crying out for intelligent master planning, design and development, with a scheme for the times we live in.
Hearing Voices: The History of Psychiatry in Ireland, Brendan Kelly, Irish Academic Press, 2016.
Secret Cork, Kieran Mc Carthy, Amberley Publishing Limited, 2017.
Asylums, Mental Health Care and the Irish: 1800-2010, Pauline M. Prior, Irish Academic Press, 2017.
Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, The Society, 1978, the University of California, 10 Jun 2010.
Historic Map – Authors own
Present day Map – Authors own
Photograph’s – Authors own