EVERYONE in Enniscorthy is aware of St. Senan's. Anyone who travels regularly along the N11 south of the town is familiar with its looming presence. The hospital has been a feature of the landscape for just short of a century and a half. Former staff member Hugo Kelly may have reported for his final shift several years ago but he has remained interested in the place where he worked for more than 40 years. He has assembled extensive research which may some day make a book.
In the meantime, he picks through his files to confirm that the 'Enniscorthy District Lunatic Asylum for the Insane Poor of Mind' opened in 1868. Suggestions that the design drawings were originally intended for a colonial army barracks at Pretoria in South Africa, Hugo Kelly dismisses completely as 'bunkum'. The towers that add a military touch to the structure were included for very practical reasons, to store water and improve the pressure in the pipes.
The first 70 patients were all of Wexford origin but they had been staying at St. Dymphna's in Carlow. They arrived to find a building designed by county surveyor Barry Farrell and his colleague James Bell from the Board of Works, intended to house 280 residents. It was not long before the place was full, after jails and asylums and prisons around Ireland had been emptied of suitable candidates. Indeed, expansion continued for several decades until there was room for close to 600 souls by the start of the 20th century.
Lord Carew and other titled bigwigs dominated the board of governors for many years. The population peaked around 1915 when there were 573 people detained within the walls. The numbers were swollen by the traumatised casualties from the trenches of the Great War. Those spike-topped walls helped encourage a chilling reputation that left the children and adults who lived outside fearful and nervous of 'the mental'.
Behind the boundary defences that would have done justice to a high-security
jail, there certainly were padded cells and strait jackets, as well as an intricate system of locks and keys. However, the self-contained world within was reassuringly complete to many of those who were admitted to quell their demons. The institution had its own church, its own farm, its own graveyard, its own power station (across the river at Kilcarbery), its own tailors, bakers and cobblers.
When Hugo Kelly joined the staff in 1960, there were still 560 patients but already there were signs of change. Drugs originally developed to combat the effects of malaria had proved effective in dealing with depression. There was soon no need to lock so many up in what had become officially known as 'The Mental Hospital' and later St. Senan's Psychiatric Hospital. The forbidding walls – at least at the front of the premises –were demolished to allow widening of the Wexford road along with the Checkpoint Charlie that was the old gate lodge.
An improved N11 was a practical reason for what was a huge psychological shift. Without the walls in place many of the patients and their carers began to migrate. The first hostel to accommodate clients of the service was opened in 1978. There are now about 20 of them, backed up by day care centres in the county's four main towns. Other clients of the mental health service have their own flats and houses or stay with their families.
Where once there were 573 inmates, now there are beds for just 85 patients, a number that has come tumbling down from twice that a couple of years ago. The countdown to complete closure has begun.