When sheep’s heads were on the menu at Castlebar Hospital

On a chilly day in March 1788, John Howard rode into Castlebar on horseback. When he arrived in Dublin days earlier, he noted, ‘I shall set out next week for Connaught and other remote parts of this country, which indeed are more barbarous than the wilds of Russia’.

Howard, a Calvinist, was a remarkable man. He was educated and widely travelled, practised philanthropy, and established himself as one of the most influential advocates for prison reform in the late eighteenth century. While in Castlebar, Howard visited the Protestant Charter School for Girls, the Infirmary on the Green and the Gaol, on what is now the Castle St – Ellison St corner, opposite Parsons. Howard’s accounts of these institutions are the best sources we have for life and death in these places in the late eighteenth century.

Howard found the Infirmary to be an old and ruinous house, very dirty; the windows were closed with straw. A single room functioned as a kitchen, turf-house, washhouse, and nurse’s lodging. The patients were given water-pottage, one pint of milk a day, and one sheep’s head boiled for soup on three days of the week. There were no sanitary conveniences. Howard found the Gaol equally shocking with no communal area or water supply. As many as forty-two prisoners were confined in a single cell measuring twenty-one feet by seventeen. Before leaving Castlebar, Howard visited the Gaol on the Green, then under construction. He left the authorities with a damming assessment of their new prison.

My research has led me to wander the roads near the first roundabout you encounter as you enter Castlebar from the south, searching for remnants of a building erected in the area in 1768. Back then, the structure stood alone and was one of the first visible buildings on the left as you entered Castlebar. It is marked on the Taylor & Skinner Map of 1777 – ‘Char. School.’ The place-name and the name and use of the structure changed over time – Castlebar Charter School for Girls, Castlebar Asylum, the Upper Prison, the Bridewell and finally, the Old Bridewell. The area was variously known as Charter House Park, Mad House Hill, and Ludden’s Hill. The building is shown on the 1838 Osi Map proximate to the car showroom that is today near the roundabout.

In 1768, the Incorporated Society for Promoting Protestant Schools had a Charter School built at Castlebar. The purpose of the school was to take young children from ‘Popish’ parents and educate them in the true religion. In the late eighteenth century, conditions at the all-girl school were so bad that the master and matron (Mr and Mrs John King ) were the subjects of stinging criticism by leading humanitarians and reform advocates, including John Howard. Mrs King rebuffed Sir Jeremiah Fitzpatrick, Inspector General of Prisons, when he challenged her by telling him she had ‘powerful friends.’ After the Battle of Castlebar in 1798, it was necessary to board up the windows on the lower floor of the three-story building to protect the occupants. During the decades when the Kings were in charge, the school and the many girls were kept in a filthy state. They suffered from many ailments, including colds, sore eyes, and skin conditions; lice infested their bodies, clothing, and bedding.

When the school closed in 1812, Denis Browne had it converted to an asylum, a house of industry and a bridewell. For a time, the asylum worked well, but as the number of women prisoners and debtors grew, everyone suffered terrible degradation and cruelty. In 1829, those suffering from mental disorders were removed from the building and locked in old farm sheds to the rear. Later they were kept in sheds behind Castlebar Courthouse.

The asylum and prison closed in 1835, and the building is long gone. However, a detailed history has survived, including a list of twenty-five inmates held there in 1829 – the most precious record discovered in my search for the history of the building that once stood on Mad House Hill. In 1790, John Howard died of typhus contracted on a gaol visit at Kherson in southern Ukraine.


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