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Folk, fables and foibles the guidebook forgot to mention
  • Fergus Manor

13. Asylum seekers ...

Updated: Aug 15, 2021

It occurred to me that people walking or driving into Ennis from Ardilaun may have noticed, set back from the road on the left, a building that has all the hallmarks of having been important at some time in the recent past.

If you turn left opposite Vaughan’s Garden Centre or, a little further towards town (opposite the National School), into Orchard Grove, you can get relatively close up and personal to what was an important Ennis and County Clare institution.

Indeed it was literally an institution as, for over 130 years from 1868, this impressive building was Ennis Asylum, give or take a name change or two and some add-ons in the intervening years.

The first turn left leads to a fenced-off view of the back of the building while Orchard Grove leads to a more accessible view of the front. Indeed, and taking care to avoid the little presents some dog-walkers have kindly (and inconsiderately) left for you, you can walk around the front of the building which, even in decay, has a certain austere charm.

The hospital was one of many built in Ireland in the mid-19th century to accommodate, as a House of Lords Committee put it, ‘the lunatic poor in Ireland’. Hitherto these ‘lunatic poor’ had been largely housed in prisons and workhouses but the Committee’s report emphasized, “the necessity of increasing the accommodation for pauper lunatics in Ireland, and of providing for the cases of epilepsy, idiocy and chronic disease, by an increased number of the district Asylums”.

The Asylum at Ennis was one of that ‘increased number’.

It goes without saying that, despite the good intentions, many such institutions soon became overcrowded and, inevitably, this led to the expansion of a number of asylums, including what was now called Ennis Mental Hospital where work was completed in the early 1930s.

As the renamed Our Lady’s Hospital, the introduction of deinstitutionalisation policies in the 1980s heralded an inevitable period of decline and the building finally released its last patient in 2002.

What is left is the shell of a building that served the wider Clare community for over 130 years and now awaits some new purpose. It was most recently sold for redevelopment but at the time of writing still there is no information on the imminent arrival of a local dignitary wearing a hard hat and wielding a virginal spade.

On the other hand, a number of photographers interested in the archaeology of abandoned buildings, both industrial and institutional, have recorded what time, the elements and vandalism have done to sites such as this. None is better than a team of Belfast-based photographers, known collectively as, who visited the erstwhile Ennis Asylum in 2020.

Below is a selection of their photographs ... and this is where you’ll find more, lots more, under the heading ‘Mental Maze’. They are not only astonishing but also a reflection of the passion and vision of the team and their one driving principle: ‘take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints’.

It should be noted that entry to the building is neither advised nor appropriate. The team were given special permission to do so and were expected to observe strict safety procedures, including appropriate attire. In terms of the fragility of the building, the photographs themselves speak volumes.

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