HALLOWEEN has just passed and it seems an appropriate time to look behind the doors of Clare’s eeriest building. This week we speak to a Dublin photographer who has photo documented inside the walls of the imposing derelict building. But to truly get a sense of its empty halls, one must first look back through time.
Our Lady’s Hospital as it’s known, is a building entrenched in the pages of the Banner County’s history book.
An old mental asylum, its doors were wide open to anyone deemed a problem to society well into 20th-century Ireland. Many who were unwillingly left in the building on the Gort Road in Ennis remained unvisited for the rest of their days. A nightmarish scenario.
A quick internet search of Our Lady’s Ennis will bring you to clarelibrary.ie, where an article by Jacqui Hayes paints a clear picture of the asylum and its role in Clare society.
Our Lady’s first opened its doors in 1868, then known as Ennis District Lunatic Asylum. By the 1950s, more than 70 years later, not much had changed. Many staff lived and raised their families in the hospital, which was a huge employer and purchaser of local produce at a time when economic activity was scarce in the town. Meanwhile, the custodial approach was in practice inside the building’s enormous grey walls, with terrible overcrowding documented with just inches between patients’ beds in a ward of 70. One nurse described it as a vision from hell. The hospital welcomed the advent of Electric Convulsive Therapy, while drug trials also took place there.
Things did improve over the second half of the 1900s, however a report by the Inspector of Mental Hospitals in 1989 still makes for dismal reading.
“Virtually all patients appeared to be unoccupied during the day … it seemed to us that many patients could have resettled in the community, with varying degrees of support, without too much difficulty,” said the inspector, who added that as late as 1986 there were 600 patients in the hospital. He also criticised that the ‘elderly and mentally handicapped’ were still being admitted to Our Lady’s and raised concerns over conditions in the eight units, highlighting overcrowding and cleanliness.
The building finally closed its doors for the last time in 2002.
Since then, it’s been the planning ground for a four-star hotel and then for a private hospital, neither of which came to fruition. Today the 16.65 acre site is on the property market with a guide price of €1.25m.
A look inside its doors and windows — or at least what’s left of them — reveals a treasure trove of history and a distinct presence of the hive of activity that took place there in the past.
A Dublin photographer who publishes his work online under the moniker ‘Uncharted Ireland’ was one such person to find this out first hand.
Having first seen images online of the exterior, his curiosity got the better of him and he packed his tripod and cameras, and made the long road trip across Ireland hoping to document the interior of this ‘magnificent property’.
On arrival, he was surprised to find how easy this would be. “If you went over there today you could walk straight in,” he says. “It’s completely open at certain points around the building.”
Upon entering the building almost 15 years after it closed, Bill (fake name to protect his identity) found that the alarm was still on. Walking up to the front door, he describes hearing a beeping while a large number of the censors inside were still working.
Bill takes up the story, explaining he arrived in Clare on a piercing cold, blustery night. He paints a picture of a haunting experience.
“The first time I was in there for three hours, it was in the middle of winter — most of the windows are gone. Some windows were banging, the wind was howling through the place. It can be an unsettling thing to do on your own,” he explains.
“It takes a bit of nerve to be in there using a tripod on every shot, spending hours trying to get those photographs. It can be a strange feeling.”
Describing the scene he met, Bill said that the building has been completely stripped down. Among the remnants of the past still standing include whiteboard writing with a daily schedule dated 1995. “That’s about the only thing that’s left intact inside,” he said, “and a few of them murals, Tír na nÓg and that.”
A recreation room where festivities would take place still has ‘Merry Christmas’ scrolled across the stage. “Obviously they would have had happy memories too from the building, which is good,” said Bill.
However he also nods to a grimmer picture of what went on in Our Lady’s, saying that there ‘are cells with different windows and obviously big locks on the doors’.
“I didn’t know anything about the building before i went down to visit, I just said I’d jump in, get the photographs and then start researching and learn a bit more. Only when I put the photos up I researched a bit of history and I saw how big a role it played in the community.
“I’ve been down three times, I was inside twice and I got some aerial shots with a drone.
“There was no problem getting in, the first time it was just an open window, the second time other points had been opened up around the building by, I suppose undesirables causing all sorts of damage. That’s the unfortunate thing I find.”
Bill took up photography as a hobby in the mid-2000s and developed a love for visiting abandoned buildings after visiting the Magazine Fort in Phoenix Park.
“Pictures of old buildings are like time capsules,” he says, adding that it can be particularly sad photographing abandoned homes because there is a ‘presence is left behind, it can leave an uneasy feeling’.
However Bill admits it’s about more than just photographs, he wants to preserve history.
“People around the country are seeing parts of Ireland that you wouldn’t normally see, inside these buildings.
“Possibly I shouldn’t be in some of these places at times but I would never cause any damage — as we say, take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints.
“At least then I have the photographs. It’s not going to take long before these buildings are gone completely.”
He adds, “I don’t know if it comes from my uncle being in an asylum, people ask me ‘why the hell would you want to photograph an asylum’. It’s part of our heritage, part of our history. There were so many people committed for such little reason and all it took was a family member, a priest or a guard and you were gone for life. It’s very very sad.
“I just find the whole thing very interesting.”
To see more of Bill’s work, go to Uncharted Ireland on Facebook.