Changing attitudes, changing times at the former Donegal District Lunatic Asylum

Changing attitudes, changing times at the former Donegal District Lunatic Asylum

Changing attitudes, changing times at the former Donegal District Lunatic Asylum


It was the subject of a major strike action in 1924 which saw the entire staff sacked and replaced; the plans used to design it were based on a military hospital in Calcutta; and in an era when poverty ravaged Donegal it housed and fed many an individual who otherwise would have been residing in the grimmest of conditions with the poorest of diets.

At its peak, St. Conal's Hospital - once known as the Donegal District Lunatic Asylum - in Letterkenny had around 800 patients; now the resident population stands at none.

But its history continues to fascinate and since its construction in the mid 1800's, the building dominates the landscape and provides facilities for a number of H.S.E. departments and initiatives.

Not too far away from it, the Donegal County Museum on the town's High Road hosted a talk on the facility and its beginnings by psychiatric nurse, John G. Kelly on Tuesday lunchtime. Well versed to address his subject, he has been employed in St. Conal's since 1978.

His talk coincided with a special exhibition on St. Conal's, ‘A World Apart'. which opened last month and runs until the middle of February.

Being the county town, Lifford would have been the prime choice for the new Donegal asylum but for whatever reason the people of the area weren't enthusiastic despite the fact that around 500 jobs were going to be provided. Consequently in 1862, building work began in Letterkenny with the choice of actual location a deliberate one. At the time mental hospitals were constructed on the edge of towns and away from primary routes. Knocknamona fitted the bill on both counts.

The original asylum was completed in 1866 at a cost of around 30,000 euro or 1.9 million in today's monetary terms. The plans were based on a military college in Calcutta and it was initially built to house 300 people. In its formative years, a Board of Governors was appointed to manage it.

Quite apart from providing accomodation for the "idiots, lunatics and vagrants" as they were termed at the time, the asylum represented a "huge boost" for the locality given that it was a major employer.

Advertising notices for staff dictated that they had to be between the ages of 22 and 36 and had to be able to read and write. Male and female wages differed, a situation that existed right up to the early seventies.

A wall encircled the building while a gate house was also built. With the asylum gender divided, it was a serious offence for males to stray into the female wing or vice versa. The only exception to the rules were the doctors, all of whom were male.

Those in charge didn't like to spend too much money. "Mary Harney is not a new invention in the health services," quipped Mr.Kelly. Consequently they attempted to keep the wages down and extract as many hours as they could from the employees.

In 1906, the authorities decided to buy some additional land with well over 100 acres involved. A farm was sited in the area with a Mr. Gallagher appointed to oversee it. It helped provide milk, meat and poultry, going close to satisfying the substantial needs of the asylum.

In the 1800's Trade Unions had begun to emerge on the scene and a number of strikes resulted at the Mental Asylum including short-lives actions in both 1911 and 1913 and a longer one in 1919, each of them linked to terms and conditions.

But an acrimonious strike in 1924 led to the entire staff being sacked and replaced. The Board of Governors brought in substitute staff to work including employees from Dublin. None of the original staff who went on strike ever returned to work there.

The most important people, however, at the Donegal District Lunatic Asylum were the patients, most of whom lived there for their entire lives. "There were some people who went in and never came out because they died and were buried in the grounds."

Still it offered much more than most of them would have been used to, Mr. Kelly maintained. The average residence in the 1870's or 1880's was lit with a rush lamp, had no sanitation and was damp while the daily diet never contained meat. And austere as the asylum looked, it provided heat and light and was dry. And there was also the food.

Mr. Kelly said he had spoken with a man who entered the hospital in the 1930's and had never eaten meat until he did so. "They lost a lot, their freedom and liberty and their dignity. But they also had light, heat, clothes and were dry."

The day itself was "quite dull" - breakfast served at 7.a.m. and the remainder a "fairly monotonous" experience for the patients.

But that was to change with the introduction of craft making and a range of work activities which helped improve the quality of life.

It didn't alter the perception of those on the outside of the huge walls. People were afraid of mental illness, fed by generations of fear. It was up to the authorities to get them to realise that things weren't as bad as they might have seemed and consequently concerts and an annual Spring Show were organised to attract people into the grounds.

The Mental Treatment Act of 1945 allowed some patients to go home and also introduced the concept of an outpatients clinic. Meanwhile, all the asylums in the country were inspected under new regulations which ensured conditions did not fall below standards.

Another development as far as the Letterkenny asylum was concerned was the building of a place of residence in the grounds of St. Conal's. "It was lavish even by Anglo-Irish Bank standards," the psychiatric nurse pointed out.

It featured two staircases so that the Resident Medical Superintendent wouldn't have to to meet staff on his way down the stairs for breakfast and there was also a bowling green and superbly appointed gardens. Today, the red brick building acts as a Day Hospital.

By the 1880's, the asylum building was unable to accommodate the numbers therein and two further wings were built. The so-called New Building was added in 1904 - ironically the only unit not in use today - and it was believed to be the first such construction to be wired for electricity in the county.

With a school of nursing established, the quality of life continued to improve for the patients. "Most of the residents had a positive experience," Mr. Kelly indicated.

"It's hard to believe when you look up there now that 145 years ago there was nothing there but a green field. It's a building that will still be standing when the NAMA buildings are gone!"

In the early 1980's the numbers of patients began to wind down and towards the end of 2010, the resident population had been reduced to nil from a peak at one time of around 800.

If you have a story or want to send a photo or video to us please contact the Donegal Live editorial team any time. To contact Donegal Democrat and Donegal People's Press, email To contact Donegal Post, email To contact Inish Times, email

More News

Buy the e-paper of the Donegal Democrat, Donegal People's Press, Donegal Post and Inish Times here for instant access to Donegal's premier news titles.

Keep up with the latest news from Donegal with our daily newsletter featuring the most important stories of the day delivered to your inbox every evening at 5pm.