‘World Within Walls’— the history of a Monaghan institution

Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2015), News, Volume 23


Built as the Cavan and Monaghan District Lunatic Asylum and officially opened in 1869, St Davnet’s Hospital has had a powerful presence in the area. Led by medical historian Anne MacLellan, a book on the history of the hospital is currently in production and will be launched in April 2015. Using the rich archival sources on the site, it charts the story of the hospital from its inauguration to the move towards care in the community and the closure of much of the hospital. Weaving together evidence on patient and staff experiences of the hospital with the broader contexts of mental health care, institutional living, and social and medical attitudes towards mental health and illness, this book will contribute to the growing awareness and exploration of psychiatric history in Ireland. It explores issues of diagnosis, treatment and care within the hospital, and includes a chapter on its architectural history by Niamh Nic Ghabhann. Finally, a chapter by Fiona Byrne explores the oral history that has been at the heart of the ‘World Within Walls’ project. This chapter includes the voices and memories of those who worked and lived in and around the hospital as patients, staff and members of the local community. Full consideration has been given throughout to the protection of individual identities through appropriate anonymity while allowing the experiences recorded in the archives to be represented.

While archives, newspaper records and other sources are extremely valuable in understanding the life of the institution, the testimony of those with lived experience of this place is an essential part of the historiography. In order to make the local community aware of the project, and give them opportunities to contribute, two community days have been held. The first took place in May 2014, with the kind support of Monaghan County Museum, and brought together staff, current service-users and members of the community with links to, memories of or interest in the history of the site. Short presentations were made on the project aims, followed by rich discussion over tea and coffee. Two craft sessions also took place, during which all had the opportunity to paint glass tiles; these have been fired and will become part of the project exhibition in 2015.

The second community event was held as part of National Heritage Week in August 2014. With the help of the canteen staff at St Davnet’s, a patient meal from a 1927 menu was served to visitors, who were given an individual case history and segregated according to sex, as would have been the case in the hospital during that period. Following this, over 200 people took part in a guided tour of the buildings, accessing several wards and the Roman Catholic hospital chapel; the tour included contributions from former staff on the history of the hospital and its grounds.

Minute Book

The project team are currently planning an exhibition with Monaghan County Museum for 2015. This will feature objects from the hospital, exploring the building of the asylum in the 1860s and the broader historical context for such institutions, as well as the world of work in the asylum, ideas about diagnosis, heath and illness, treatment and recovery, and daily life for those living in the hospital. These themes reflect the shared lives of patients and staff—whether working on the hospital farm, in the laundry buildings, as gatekeeper, nurses or resident medical superintendent. The exhibition will also be accompanied by an education project for primary and secondary schools, as well as by an on-line resource, using the free open-source software provided by Omeka, and will allow students to carry out research on the history of the site, and on designing spaces and environments for mental health and well-being. The exhibition is part of a wider local history project commissioned and funded by the HSE and delivered by Stair, an Irish public history company, under the guidance of the HSE ‘World Within Walls’ project reference group.

For further information on the ‘World Within Walls’ project, contact project manager Fiona Byrne (byrne.fiona@gmail.com). For information on the ‘World Within Walls’ exhibition, visit the Monaghan County Museum webpage (http://www.monaghan.ie/en/services/museum/). The exhibition will be launched on 14 May 2015.


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