Thursday 19 October 2017

A psychiatric nurse in St. Senan's Hospital for 44 years, author Hugh Kelly dispels the myths of strait jackets and padded cells, and instead hails the power of community spirit in his new book. David Medcalf reports

THE FORBIDDING WALLS were still in place around ' The Mental' when hospital historian Hugo Kelly first entered the place as a trainee psychiatric nurse in July 1960 and there were more than 500 patients on the books at the time. But change was on the way, so that when he retired 44 years later, the hospital was a very different place.

The walls were removed when it was decided in the seventies to improve and widen the main Enniscorthy to Wexford road that runs past the entrance. The trees planted to mark and landscape the boundary are now mature timber. Meanwhile, advances in medicine and changes in medical practice have made St. Senan's Hospital all but redundant.

When pensioner Hugo pays his weekly visit now, there are scarcely fifty patients resident in the majestic red brick old pile. The tradition established in 1868 as ' The Enniscorthy District Lunatic Asylum for the Insane Poor' will cease some time next year when the final ward at what is now known as St. Senan's Psychiatric Hospital is closed forever.

Charge Nurse Kelly is not old enough to remember when the stables were used to shelter the houses of the visiting gentry as they came to attend meetings of the board of management. The old board of local big wigs was abolished in 1899 to be replaced by members of the local authority as Wexford County Council took over the running of the facility, to be succeeded in due course by the Health Board and most recently the HSE.

However, the man from Bellefield has spent much of the past ten years perusing the old records - the minute books, the accounts and admission ledgers. He has details on to his computer, so that he can now track down anyone who was in the care of his predecessors any time between April 1868 when the doors first opened, through to December in 1957. Most of those who followed, he probably knew personally.

Lay people may look at St. Senan's with a shiver of dread but Hugo insists that he never saw a strait jacket in his time there. Nor does he remember any padded cell. What he does recall is a community spirit, illuminated by rich personalities - among both staff and patients. For many years, they all inhabited a world of their own, with their own farm, own butcher, own cobbler, own baker, own laundry, own painters. They even had their own fire brigade equipment on standby in case of emergency. And their own graveyard, of course, for those who had no alternative resting ground.

'I would have a love for the old place,' confesses the author, whose book 'St. Senan's Hospital, The History (18602011)' is launched on the evening of December 6 at Toss Kavanagh's pub in Enniscorthy's Templeshannon . 'I used to get a great kick out of the patients. They were great characters.'

As the psychiatric nursing profession altered, Hugo Kelly resisted any move to have him transferred to any hostel away from headquarters. He muses that he was not the only one to have had such a fondness for a structure that is now beginning to show its age, with water seeping in through the dodgy roof. Institutionalised patients also clung to the security of the familiar wards and corridors.

The book - produced with the backing of Wexford Local Development and priced at €10 - contains many pictures, from the formidably bearded Doctor Thomas Drapes who was in charge for 36 years up to the time of his death in 1919 through to a SIPTU picket line of more recent vintage. He decided not to include photos of the patients, perhaps suggesting that there are still families for whom the stigma of mental illness remains a factor.

The History of St. Senan's Hospital will be officially launched in Toss Kavanagh's pub, Enniscorthy, on Tuesday, December 6 at 7.30pm, and all are welcome to attend.