The History and Heritage of St James’s Hospital, Dublin

By Tom Ryan
‘The History and Heritage of St James’s Hospital’, written by Davis and Mary
Coakley, was launched  by Dr. Thomas Mitchell, Chairman of the Board of St. James’s Hospital in south Dublin, recently.
The history of St James’s Hospital stretches back to 1703 when an act was passed to build a workhouse on its site. Just under thirty years later a foundling hospital was added to the workhouse. The opening chapters discuss this period and the pitiful treatment of abandoned children. When the Foundling Hospital was closed in 1829 the buildings were used to house the South Dublin Union Workhouse.

The workhouse played a crucial role during the Great Famine, giving shelter to thousands of starving people. The buildings of the workhouse were commandeered by the 4th Battalion of the Irish Volunteers during Easter Week 1916. After independence, the South Dublin Union was renamed St. Kevin’s Hospital and became a municipal hospital for the poor of the city.

In 1971, three of the oldest voluntary hospitals in Dublin – Mercer’s, Sir Patrick Dun’s and Baggot Street Hospitals – amalgamated with St. Kevin’s to form St James’s Hospital. Trinity College Dublin was deeply involved in the development and St. James’s Hospital became the largest teaching and research hospital in Ireland.

This book, ‘The History and Heritage of St James’s Hospital’, describes the history of these events and their impact on the city of Dublin. It is a monumental tome with numerous superb photographs and illustrations, and with interesting revelations in relation to some  literary giants such as the poets, Patrick Kavanagh, Thomas Kinsella and James Clarence Mangan and the talented Bronte family, including Emily, author of ‘Wuthering Heights’, whose famous character, Heathcliff, was, it is believed inspired by the story of Welsh Prunty, who almost was sent to the Dublin workhouse in James’s in the early years of the 18th century but for the kind intervention of a cattle dealer named Prunty (later changed to Bronte) and his wife after, he was discovered in the hold of a ship on a journey from Liverpool to Warrenpoint, Co. Down.
Famous historical figures such as Eamonn Ceannt of the 4th Battallion of the Irish Volunteers in 1916, Cathal Brugha, who fought in the South Dublin Union; Margaret Pearse, mother of Padraig and Willie Pearse; Eamonn De Valera; Dr. Noel Browne; the visionary former Health Minister; Frank Duff, founder of the Legion of Mary; Dean Swift of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ renown; Catherine McAuley, founder of the Mercy Order; American writer and humanitarian, Helen Keller, and nurse Margaret Kehoe, who was shot dead during the Rising, having been mistaken for one of the rebels, are all mentioned.

One can only marvel at the incredible and painstaking research that went into this immensely interesting book by the authors who have captured forever a quintessential part of Dublin life against the background of hospital life and turbulent political times spanning a number of centuries. It is, obviously, a labour of great love by the authors who deserve the gratitude of the city of Dublin, historians, the health service and the nation. As a whole, this writer, who worked as a clerical officer in St Kevin’s in 1964 (ISA Section), has a particular interest in this book, which evoked many memories as it will, I feel sure, for many other former staff and patients of this wonderful hospital which has given sterling service to the country over many decades, including during the Famine years when thousands of starving people from city and country were given shelter in the South Dublin Union Workhouse, later renamed St.Kevin’s.  

Meet the authors

Davis Coakley was formerly a consultant physician in St James’s Hospital and professor of medical gerontology in Trinity College, Dublin. He is the author of books on medicine, the history of medicine, and Irish literature. His most recent book was entitled ‘Medicine in Trinity College, Dublin’. Mary Coakley studied English and Italian in University College, Cork. She has co-authored and co-edited with Davis Coakley a number of books including: ‘Wit and wine: literary and artistic Cork in the early 19th century’ (1985) and ‘The Pilgrim Soul: Irish Poets on Ageing’ (1985).
Hardback, 528 pages, full-colour throughout; large format €40.00 Available from Fourcourts Press, 01 4534668