Remembering a building that left an indelible mark on Limerick society

Tusla Child and Family Agency standing on the former St Joseph's site.

WITH Heritage Week currently underway, heralding the glorious sites and sights across Limerick city, we remember one building that left an indelible mark on society.

When the bell rang at nightfall in Limerick’s House of Industry, the destitute, the sick and deserted women and children who resided there would go to their wards and be locked in until morning.

Residents ate bread and milk for breakfast, after which those able to do so would work tirelessly. After work, sour milk with potatoes would be served for dinner – except to residents who misbehaved, they were detained and had their food withheld.

In 1772, the workhouse opened to support poor and sick women and children in the surrounding areas, as well as the ‘lunatic poor’ and those with physical disabilities – many coming from surrounding counties.

Because cells had been constructed with stone floors – without any heating or ventilation – they were exposed throughout winter. As a result, patients often had to get their limbs amputated.

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To relieve patients of their morbid surroundings, Thomas Spring Rice founded the Limerick District Lunatic Asylum in Mulgrave Street in 1827.

The institution was the second of 22 district asylums to open in Ireland, initially serving Limerick as well as Clare and Kerry.

The “moral treatment of insanity” – which involved curing illness through social conditioning – was the asylum’s guiding principle. At the time, this was a progressive approach.

Designed by architect William Murray, the building’s walls were initially 8 ft 6 high, to keep society out and create a safe haven for the sick. Although with time, the walls became higher to keep the patients in.

Built to house 150 patients, the asylum quickly became crowded. By 1940, 885 people resided there.

In 1923, the facility was renamed Limerick District Mental Hospital. Over the years, things improved and advancements in psychiatric medicine resulted in better patient care and, ultimately, a shift away from long-term institutional care.

In 1959, the asylum was once again renamed to St Joseph’s Hospital, accommodating 900 patients and 400 staff members.

In the following years, admissions started to decline. With new approaches to treatment and better training, institutions like St Joseph’s were no longer needed. In 2013, the hospital closed down, bringing to an end nearly 200 years of institutional care.

A blend of old and new, Tusla Child and Family Agency transformed the historic building while maintaining its historic integrity. It is only fitting that Tusla continue to support vulnerable people in society on the site where St Joseph’s once stood.