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'It was far from a lunatic asylum'


DIRECTOR Jim Sheridan's appeal for information about the former St Columba's Hospital has evoked many memories for one Maugherow woman.

DIRECTOR Jim Sheridan's appeal for information about the former St Columba's Hospital has evoked many memories for one Maugherow woman.

Kathleen Walsh worked as a nurse there on two occasions.

She cycled from her home in Raughley to enter St Columba's as an 18-year-old psychiatric nursing student in July, 1948.

Kathleen left in 1962 when she got married.

At that time there was a ban on married women working in the Civil Service.

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She returned to St Columba's in 1974 and stayed until her retirement in 1989.

Kathleen responded to Sheridan's call for information by saying: "There were a lot of misconceptions about St Columba's.

"I hate to hear it referred to as a lunatic asylum. It was far from it. I had many very happy days there.

"I met some of the finest and best people. The residents were very well cared for."

Leading filmmaker Sheridan visited The Sligo Champion recently to talk about his new movie 'The Secret Scripture'.

It will be centred on the award-winning novel by Sebastian Barry.

Barry – whose mother is from Sligo – based the novel on the relationship between a 100-year-old woman who has been in a psychiatric hospital for half her life, and the psychiatrist who tried to understand why she is there.

Kathleen revealed: "Ironically, I can remember one woman who entered St Columba's as a 17-year-old, and celebrated her 100th birthday there.

"For many, it became their home, but they too were happy."

Jim Sheridan stayed in the Clarion Hotel – the former St Columba's building – as part of his research for the film.

Kathleen said: "I'm delighted the building is being considered as a filming location. It will give St Columba's the sort of lift it never got in the past.

"It is without question a very spectacular building and it had fabulous grounds."

Kathleen can still vividly remember her first night in St Columba's.

She said: "We were 'live-in' student nurses. I never slept a wink that night. But, it was the start of a good career for me."

Kathleen worked in all the female wards. She can recall a time when St Columba's was a thriving, self-sufficient hospital and a big employer in the region.

Kathleen said: "There was a large farm and the residents worked on it. It was amazing to look out and see the cattle grazing in the fields and all the vegetables growing.

"There was a dairy and a butcher. I also remember the tailor, shoemaker, seam mistress and the laundry.

"There was a shop and a big kitchen and dining hall, full of people. The boiler room heated the hospital and there were big open fireplaces in each of the wards."

Kathleen also has fond memories of the regular card games with the residents and the "big treat" of trips to Duffy's Circus in the Fairgreen.

She added: "The hospital dance was another great occasion."

So too was the scramble for a coveted pass from the Matron to attend dances in Sligo's Town Hall and other venues on a Sunday.

Kathleen said: "The Matron was always waiting for us when we got back. When we were off duty we had to 'sign out'."

Kathleen also revealed the nurses were not allowed use the front entrance.

She said: "We called it the 'Holy Ground'. You dare not go there, unless you were called by a Matron or Doctor. We went in and out of the side of the building.

"That's just the way it was."

Kathleen said the work was hard, but very enjoyable. "We scrubbed floors, long before there were ward assistants, etc. Hygiene was always hectic.

"The collars of our uniform were so stiff with starch we would put cotton wool under them to stop our necks becoming red raw.

"Overall though, St Columba's was a great place. There was always a caring environment and it will be tremendous if that is recognised in a film. I'll certainly help Jim Sheridan in any way I can."

Another Sligo woman, Maura Togher, is also assisting with Jim Sheridan's research.

Her parents worked there in the 1950's, 60's and 70's.

They died recently, both aged almost 98.

Maura said: "There were about 1,200 residents back in the day. Hazelwood House was also used when there were big numbers.

"They were treated kindly and staff got to know them well. Patients got pocket money and spent it in the little tuck shop.

"Lots of patients smoked and were given a few cigarettes each day.

"They smoked inside in those days. I think they got a little whiskey or bottle of stout at weekend nights."