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Building of the Month - May 2010

Saint Ita's Hospital, PORTRAINE DEMESNE Td., Portrane, County Dublin

He gave the little wealth he had

To build a house for fools and mad,

And showed by one satiric touch

No nation needed it so much.

Lines on the Death of Dr Swift by Jonathan Swift

Ireland had a leading place in the establishment of lunatic asylums in the nineteenth century.  New developments in psychiatry, which aimed to treat mental illness like any other, lead to the creation of the lunatic asylum as an independent institution, separate from prisons and general hospitals.  Although Saint Patrick's Hospital (1757), or Swift's Hospital, built with funds from the estate of Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), was the first in Ireland, the Richmond Asylum (1810-5), now Saint Brendan's Hospital, Grangegorman, was the first purpose-built public lunatic asylum in the country.  Even before completion, however, it was overcrowded and needed an extension.

As early as 1817, a Select Committee was appointed to evaluate the situation of the mentally disordered and proposed the setting up of a national network of lunatic asylums for the poor.  A Commission of General Control and Correspondence was established, which divided Ireland into districts containing between one and three counties each.  Using an architectural model already developed by William Stark (1770-1814) for the Glasgow Lunatic Asylum (1804), Francis Johnston (1760-1829) and William Murray (1789-1849) proposed two standard building types in a Classical style, mixing the radial and panoptic plans.  These were applied in the 1820s and 1830s to the District Lunatic Asylums at Armagh (1820-5); Ballinasloe (1831-3), County Galway; Belfast (1826-9), County Antrim; Carlow (1829-31); Clonmel (1832-5), County Tipperary; Derry (1825-9); Limerick (1823-6); Maryborough (now Portlaoise) (1831-3), County Laois; and Waterford (1833).

Workhouses, established under the Poor Law Act, 1838, were used to house the pauper insane, but pressure on space and their unsuitability for the treatment of the mentally ill led to a further step in the history of Irish asylums.  In 1843, a House of Lords Committee recommended the establishment of a Central Criminal Lunatic Asylum in Dundrum, the enlargement of existing asylums, and the building of new ones.  This was to lead to a golden age of corridor plan asylums in a Gothic or Tudor style.  Killarney Lunatic Asylum (1847-52), County Kerry, and Mullingar Lunatic Asylum (1847-53), County Westmeath, are good examples of the type.  In 1860, George Wilkinson (1814-90), formerly Architect to the Poor Law Commissioners in Ireland (fl. 1839-55), re-entered the public service as Architect to the Board of Control.  In 1863 orders were given for the construction of six new district asylums in Castlebar (1860-6), County Mayo; Downpatrick (1865-9: Henry Smyth (d. 1894), architect), County Down; Ennis (1863-6: William Fogarty (c.1833-78), principal architect), County Clare; Enniscorthy (1863-6: James Barry Farrell (1810-93) and James Bell (1829-83), joint architects), County Wexford; Letterkenny (1860-5), County Donegal; and Monaghan (1863-7: John McCurdy (c.1824-85), architect).  Local authorities could appoint their own architect or employ Wilkinson at a special fee, an arrangement used at Castlebar and Letterkenny.

With the Richmond Hospital continually overcrowded it was decided, in 1892, to erect an additional asylum for the Dublin region, covering counties Dublin, Louth, and Wicklow.  Portrane House, the early eighteenth-century home of the Evans family surrounded by a 460 acre demesne, was selected as a suitable site.  The grounds also featured a monument erected (1843) by Sophia Evans (née Parnell) (d. 1855) in memory of her husband George Hampden Evans MP (d. 1842), the memorial modelled on the early medieval round tower in Kildare town.  By 1853 the demesne had passed to their extended family and was subsequently purchased by James Considine about 30 years later.

Saint Ita's Hospital, Portrane 01 - Selected Design 

Figure 1: An illustration from Building News (1895) titled "SELECTED DESIGN FOR ASYLUM FOR RICHMOND DISTRICT, PORTRAINE [sic.], CO. DUBLIN: G.C. ASHLIN, R.H.A., Architect"Courtesy of the Irish Architectural Archive

In August 1894 a limited architectural competition was staged to select a suitable design for the asylum.  George Coppinger Ashlin (1837-1921), the partnership of Carroll & Batchelor (formed 1892), and William Kaye-Parry (1853-1932) were the finalists.  Despite its higher estimated price, Ashlin's project, entitled "Aspect" and in a late Gothic Revival style, won the competition on the proviso that its cost would be reduced (fig. 1).  Ashlin's design was ultimately successful as it offered the most space and could be realised with few modifications.  Alfred Ignatius McGloughlin (1863-1940s) collaborated on the project and supervised the construction until a domestic scandal compelled him to leave Ireland for the United States circa 1900.  Begun in 1896, work on the asylum was completed in 1903.

Saint Ita's Hospital, Portrane 02 - Portrane Asylum, Donabate 

Figure 2: A drawing titled "PORTRANE ASYLUM, DONABATE: Ground Plan" showing the Permanent Asylum and the Temporary Asylum erected around the eighteenth-century Portrane House.  Courtesy of the Irish Architectural Archive

Although designed to accommodate 1,200 patients it was anticipated as early as 1895 that the issue of overcrowding would eventually emerge.  In 1896, thirty women were accommodated in the original Portrane House, which later served as a residence for the Medical Superintendant prior to its demolition in the late twentieth century.  From 1897 a number of temporary buildings were erected, housing up to 400 patients and continuing in use until recent years (fig. 2).

Saint Ita's Hospital, Portrane 03 - New Lunatic Asylum 

Figure 3: An illustration from Building News (1900) titled "NEW LUNATIC ASYLUM PORTRANE Co. DUBLIN G.C. ASHLIN RHA PRIBA ARCHITECT" showing the ground floor plan and an artist's impression of the completed asylum.  The symmetry of the composition is readily apparent with a central core comprising the Administration Block, Kitchen and Dining Hall flanked by the designated "Female Side" and "Male Side".  Patients were further segregated according to the nature of their illness with separate blocks labelled Chronic Patients, Semi-Acute Patients, Recent and Acute Patients, and Infirmary.  Each of the blocks was connected by an octagonal corridor.  Courtesy of the Irish Architectural Archive

Saint Ita's Hospital was to prove Ashlin's largest secular commission.  It was also the most expensive building supported by the British Government in Ireland.  The difficulty of site access and the importation of construction materials, including slate from Antwerp, no doubt contributed to the cost, although some of the brick was supplied by the local Portmarnock Brick Company.  The complexity of the plan also added to the cost (fig. 3): it belongs to a new generation of asylums built on an echelon or broad-arrow plan, a formula first developed at Gloucester (1879).  An octagonal corridor connects a series of independent pavilion buildings, allowing each of them a clear southerly view on the sea.  This plan type has nothing to do with that of a prison – rather than locking up and throwing away the key, the health of a patient was to be achieved through the sensation of space and the opening towards nature.

The symmetry of the plan is a familiar feature reflecting the then-standard practice of institutional segregation of the sexes.  A central Administration Block separated two zones designated as the "Female Side" and the "Male Side".  Within each "side" the patients were further separated into four categories depending on the acuteness of their illness.

Saint Ita's Hospital, Portrane 04 - Administration Block 

Figure 4: A view of the villa-like Administration Block which, according to Jeremy Williams, illustrates the 'valiant attempt by Ashlin to counterbalance institutionalism by giving a domestic scale to the kernel of the scheme'

Saint Ita's Hospital, Portrane 05 - Catholic Chapel Saint Ita's Hospital, Portrane 06 - Protestant Chapel

Figures 5-6: The rigid symmetry of the asylum is disturbed only by the chapels flanking the Administration Block: the Catholic chapel, the larger, shows a single-cell "barn" plan form, the Protestant chapel a nave-with-chancel footprint, the two united by the common construction in a vibrant red brick with red sandstone dressings, and the handsome "North Windows"

Only the two chapels break the symmetry of the entrance front: Saint Dympna's Catholic Chapel seating 800 patients and the Church of Ireland chapel seating 250 (figs. 4-6).

Occupying the centre of the octagon are the common spaces – the dining room, the kitchen and stores – either side of which are situated the attendants' and nurses' quarters.  An impressive clock tower doubled as a water tank in the event of a fire (fig. 7).  Bold architectural statements, typified by the tower, stand in marked contrast to the utilitarian design of the outlying service ranges and, in particular, the handball alley, one of the few recreational facilities in the grounds (fig. 8).

Saint Ita's Hospital, Portrane 07 - Clock Tower Saint Ita's Hospital, Portrane 08 - Handball Alley

Figures 7-8: A detail of the impressive clock tower, doubling as a water tower in the event of a fire, which, coupled with a nearby chimney, looms over the hospital as an eye-catching landmark.  Nearby, the handball alley, in the shadow of the Evans Memorial "Round Tower" (1843), shows a stark yet functional design aesthetic

At Portrane, Ashlin managed to combine an ambitious architectural programme with a human scale, a significant achievement in the evolution of lunatic asylums before the advent of the modern psychiatry.

Ophélie Ferlier, Student Curator from the French Institut National du Patrimoine


Bates, Peadar, Donabate and Portrane: A History (Dublin: Self Published, 2001)

O'Dwyer, Frederick, Irish Hospital Architecture: A Pictorial History (Dublin: Department of Health and Children, 1997)

Reuber, Markus, "Moral Management and the "Unseen Eye": Public Lunatic Asylums in Ireland 1800-1845" in Jones, Greta and Malcolm, Elizabeth, Medicine, Disease and the State in Ireland 1650-1940 (Cork: Cork University Press, 1999)

Williams, Jeremy, A Companion Guide to Architecture in Ireland 1837-1921 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1994)

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