The great essayist, satirist, poet and Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Jonathan Swift, left an endowment in his will for the establishment of a mental hospital for Dublin. Swift, the author of great satirical works such as Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal, died in 1745. His will, which he drew up in 1740, determined that funds be provided to build an asylum close to Dr Steeven’s Hospital near The Liberties.
The new hospital was to form part of a complex of hospitals and services established in the area in the early 18thC, including Dr Steeven’s Hospital, the South City Infirmary and a foundling hospital (for which Swift also campaigned and which in time developed into the modern St James’s Hospital); all at a time when Dublin was particularly noted for medical expertise.
In 1746, the year after his death, the executors of Swift’s will constituted as the Board of Governors, St Patrick’s Hospital under a Royal Charter and leased 1.25 acres of land from Dr Steeven’s Hospital for their new facility. The architect George Semple, known for other work in the city such an earlier Essex (now Grattan) Bridge and the spire of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, was chosen to design the new hospital building. Semple based his design for St Patrick’s Hospital on the famous Bethlehem Asylum Hospital in London, commonly known as ‘Bedlam’, and from which we get the term, with a main administrative front block set off in a u-shape by two wings laid out as cells.
Work began on the hospital in 1750 but proceeded slowly and it wasn’t completed until 1753. However due to financing issues the first patients were only admitted in 1757. The hospital was extended over time, first in 1784 by the well-known architect Thomas Cooley (the designer of Dublin’s Royal Exchange, now City Hall) and again in 1793, acquiring more land from Dr Steeven’s and extending each wing northward. By 1800, the hospital, which was original built to house 48, could accommodate over 150 patients.
While many of those attending were poor, the hospital also accommodated paying patients, known as ‘chamber patients’. During the 19thC efforts were made to improve the hospital and introduce more enlightened ideas of how the mentally ill should be cared for. Gardens were laid out and recreational facilities were developed. Efforts were made to improve comfort and sanitation and bring more light and air into the hospital. By the early 20thC the capacity of the hospital had been reduced to 115, with a greater focus on quality of care. Over the course of the 20thC, new buildings and facilities were introduced, creating the modern healthcare campus that we find today. More recently the hospital has operated as St Patrick’s Mental Health Services, as terms such as asylum have fallen from use.
Swift himself has been declared ‘unsound’ for a period in 1742 and had therefore a greater understanding of mental health and an awareness of its links to physical health. He had felt it important to locate his hospital close to a medical facility, rather than as a distant asylum where people were locked away.
In his precient poem, Verses on the Death of Dr Swift, anticipating his own earthly demise, he wrote:
He gave the little Wealth he had,
To build a House for Fools and Mad:
And shew’d by one satyric Touch,
No Nation wanted it so much:
That Kingdom he hath left his Debtor,
I wish it soon may have a Better.