Hospitals and Medical Services: Dublin Hospitals

The basis of Ireland’s civilian hospital system was established in the eighteenth century. It is difficult to assess the immediate effects of developments in social and medical care, for modern medicine was in its infancy and lack of scientific knowledge and antiseptics ensured that hospitals and treatment often produced the reverse effect to that intended. At the beginning of the century the only known hospitals were military ones.

The first known civilian hospital in Ireland was opened in Dublin in 1726 and contained four beds. Then in 1733, under the will of Dr Steevens, who had died in 1717, Dr Steevens’ Hospital was established, providing 40 beds for poor patients to be chosen without distinction of religion or ailment so long as the latter was not infectious. This foundation was expanded during the century; for instance, in 1737, Primate Boulter added a ten-bed ward which he maintained until his death in 1742. A year after Steevens’ Hospital opened, Mercer’s Hospital was founded by Mrs Mary Mercer.

The mid-1740s saw the foundation of the Hospital for Incurables, sponsored by the Charitable Musical Society, and the Lying-in Hospital, the first maternity hospital in the British Isles, was established by Dr Bartholomew Mosse. Other hospitals included Sir Patrick Dun’s, which became the university teaching hospital; St Patrick’s, founded by Swift for the treatment of mental disease; Simpson’s for blind and aged men; and the Lock for the treatment of venereal disease (which was a major scourge in the eighteenth century – in 1792–3 the hospital treated an estimated 2,000 cases).

The number of hospitals established in Dublin and throughout the country in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries indicated a public desire to ameliorate distress, even if only a very small minority benefited from the efforts of devoted individuals. By the end of the century Dublin had ten hospitals. Some of these hospitals received irregular parliamentary grants, but all depended essentially on voluntary subscriptions or charitable fund-raising activities.

The pattern of financing set by Steevens’ Hospital was fairly typical. Its income always fell short of its expenditure, and in 1801 its Governors appealed to parliament for assistance. Throughout the century, it had operated on a mixture of private donation and various types of fund-raising, including a lottery. The Belfast Charitable Society raised some of its initial funds from a lottery. Lotteries were quite a common way of raising funds for charities or for the government purposes. The lottery was conducted stringently: there were two lottery wheels, one with numbered tickets and the other with prizes and blanks. Each number was drawn and concurrently matched against a prize or a blank from the other wheel.

Apart from lotteries, funds for charitable causes were raised in a wide variety of ways, including church collections following charity sermons by noted preachers. Very often people were carried away by the pleas of the preacher and further encouraged to generous giving by the social standing of those taking up the collection. For instance, Dr Drennan reported that one such sermon by Dean Kirwan had raised £418 but ‘the town is thin … one lady took out her purse and not thinking that enough threw a watch with trinkets into the plate which was handed round by Lord Clonmell.’ These public occasions were supplemented by an assortment of individual efforts. De Latocnaye describes the charitable fund-raising in fashionable Dublin at the close of the century:

It was the fashion for people of high style to attend the charity sermons of a famous preacher, Mr Kirwan. It has happened often at these services that the collections have amounted to a thousand or twelve hundred pounds, the money being supplied to the support of schools for orphans. The Dublin ladies carry on little industries, providing the materials at their own charges, and selling the finished products for the benefit of the same schools. In most of the rich houses to which I was admitted I found the ladies occupied in this way.

As the class below the highest is always disposed to imitate its superiors, charity sermons are very frequent over the city.

Concerts were another popular way of raising funds, particularly for hospitals. The most famous event of this type occurred in 1742 when the first performance of Handel’s Messiah was conducted by the composer, who was visiting Dublin in response to the viceregal invitation of the 3rd Duke of Devonshire. The performance was sponsored by the Charitable Musical Society to raise funds for its projected Hospital for Incurables. In 1744, the year in which the hospital opened, Faulkner’s Dublin Journal published the following advertisement explaining how the Society operated:

The Charitable Musical Society in Crow Street on account of the great expense attending the support of the Hospital for Incurables and intending to employ this Year a great number of performers, have thought it proper to raise their subscription to one guinea, each member having the privilege of two tickets for ladies each night. N.B. Every subscriber has a right of a vote in the disposal of the funds of the society.

Concert advertisements often requested ladies to come without hoops in their dresses in order to save room.

Among the most successful social fund-raisers was the Lying-in Hospital. Its buildings were originally designed by Cassels, who was a friend of its founder, Dr Bartholomew Mosse. The Assembly Rooms, whose functions were its principal support, became known as the Rotunda. Adjoining the hospital, they were conveniently situated in Rutland (Parnell) Square at the top of Sackville (O’Connell) Street. They were the social centre of Dublin. At least four famous Dublin architects – Cassels, John Ensor, Gandon and Richard Johnston, the elder brother of Francis Johnston – played a role in their final design and construction, as well as the gentleman architect and MP for Maryborough, Frederick Trench (2108).

The Rotunda itself had a diameter of 80 feet (24.5m) and the ceiling was without a central support. When they were completed in the mid-1780s, it was proudly noted that the Dublin Assembly Rooms had only 20 square feet less space than those at Bath! There were six formal assemblies a year, to which a limited group of subscribers could apply for the 400 tickets. On these occasions there was dancing and card playing, with refreshments of coffee and lemonade, and a supper of plain meats and wine. It was Ireland’s equivalent of Almanacs, and the proprieties were strictly observed.

Apart from these social highlights, the Rotunda provided facilities for other activities. In the 1790s the engraver James Malton declared that:

The entertainments of the Rotunda during the winter form the most elegant amusements of Dublin; it is open every Sunday evening in summer, for the purpose of promenade, when tea and coffee are given in the superb upper room. The receipts of the whole after defraying the incidental expenses go to the support of the hospital.

The irrepressible De Latocnaye, hearing that ‘they have devised in Dublin a rather singular entertainment … it is called a Promenade’, attended one to discover that those present walked in the circular hall until a bell rang, when they all hurried through a door just opened. Groups of friends then settled round tea tables, and ‘Everywhere there reigned a kind of quiet enjoyment.’ He noticed that, although they tended to keep within their own groups, they had more freedom than at private entertainments, as: ‘the good mammas were not very numerous, and those who were present appeared to be absent-minded. The young folk on the other hand were very numerous and making good use of their time – I think perhaps the Promenade attained its object along more lines than one.’