If it wasn’t for the waves crashing in the distance, the grounds around St Ita’s Hospital on the Portrane Demesne on Sunday evening would have been silent.

Three kilometres outside Donabate, the large campus – which covers 175 acres – is peaceful, with views of the Irish Sea, Howth and as far south as the Poolbeg Stacks.

A private security guard rumbled in a van through the grounds, while a few groups of locals strolled along its paths towards the beach.

The ground floor of the main building is given over to offices for the Health Service Executive (HSE). 

Elsewhere on the site there is an infectious diseases isolation facility, St Joseph’s Intellectual Disability Services, and a building converted into more offices, a training centre, production kitchen and canteen.

But many of the windows of the sprawling red brick hospital are boarded up. Whole wings of the former asylum lie empty.

North-east of the hospital, by Portrane’s round tower, are six white cottages, their paint cracked and doors and windows covered by caution signs and warped wooden planks.

Four hundred metres south of these cottages are three long bungalows decorated in graffiti tags, and walled in. Their doors are sealed with rows of breeze blocks.

Local Social Democrats Councillor Paul Mulville says it is past time that the vacant wings and buildings in the old hospital were renovated, to provide homes for people. In particular, he wants to see homes for nurses, he said.

“The building itself is huge, but a lot of it is just empty, and there is an opportunity there to do it up,” said Mulville, who put forward a motion about the site at the recent Balbriggan, Rush-Lusk, Swords Area Committee.

Fingal County Council owns 14 of the 24 cottages that line the avenue leading up to the hospital, having taken them over from the HSE in July 2022, said a council spokesperson. 

So far, it has done up three of them – counting them as its only completed new-build social homes in the first half of this year. A HSE document suggests that it will transfer over more to the council in the future as and when the cottages and eight nearby two-storey houses fall vacant.

At the recent area committee meeting, councillors backed Mulville’s call for a more ambitious housing plan for the wider site, although not all agreed on who those homes – if they materialise – should be for.

A spokesperson for the HSE, which owns the site, did not respond to queries sent Friday as to its plans for the vacant bits of the hospital, or if it would consider using these for subsidised accommodation.

But a HSE briefing document from July 2022 says that it is working already with the Land Development Agency (LDA) and Fingal County Council on how best to use any extra land and buildings on the St Ita’s Hospital site.

The LDA did not respond to queries as to what plans it has discussed with the HSE or Council around the use of lands or how the out-of-use hospital buildings could be redeveloped.

Rise, decline and salvation

St Ita’s Hospital, now a protected structure, was built between 1880 and 1920, according to the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage.

Known originally as Portrane Lunatic Asylum, St Ita’s was first conceived as an auxiliary building to the Richmond Lunatic Asylum in Grangegorman, wrote historian Annie Ryan in her book, Walls of Silence: Ireland’s Policy Towards People with a Mental Disability.

Grangegorman had severe overcrowding. St Ita’s was the solution, with room for 1,200 patients, according to Ryan.

The hospital was progressive at the turn of the century, says social policy analyst and historian Pauline Conroy. “The purpose of the building at that time was to isolate the patients by placing them on a peninsula.”

Its remoteness and environment were meant to be therapeutic, Conroy says. “They developed this idea, if there was a horizon in front of the patients, they could look out the windows very far and would feel better.”

It was practically a village, self-sufficient in food, she says. “There was a farm, which was a fantastically productive affair that patients could participate in.”

One symptom of its decline was when the farmlands were closed in the 1950s, she says.

St Ita’s in Portrane. Credit: Michael Lanigan

St Ita’s was also overcrowded and up to 200 patients were housed in temporary huts built by hospital’s construction workers, Ryan wrote.

In 1978, RTÉ reported that Ryan, whose 14-year-old son was in the hospital, staged a hunger strike on the grounds with the relatives of other patients, in protest at the state of these huts.

Today, the vast campus is shared with the National Forensic Mental Health Service Hospital, and protected structures like the three-storey Tayleur’s Hall have been repurposed as offices, a kitchen, canteen and training centre.

The HSE is under obligation to maintain and reinstate all of its historical elements, a 2022 briefing document published by the HSE says.

But due to the sheer scale of the required ongoing works to the Victorian hospital, and a lack of identified uses for many of the now vacant buildings, the health executive has struggled to meet this requirement, it says.

Reusing the hospital was put down as an “outstanding action” in Fingal County Council’s development plan for 2023 to 2027. 

The development plan also says there should be a forum for engagement set up, with a view to bringing the historic hospital buildings back into public use.

Room for homes?

Already, Fingal County Council has turned a few of the old buildings around St Ita’s Hospital into social homes.

On Sunday on Portrane Avenue, a street leading up to the main hospital building, a young boy stood at a gate near one of the 24 cottages and eight two-storey houses that line the road. 

His parents were on their doorstep, decorating it with fake spider webs for Halloween.

Half of cottages on their side of the avenue were behind white hoardings. Across the road, five of the single-storey houses were behind similar wooden barriers and steel fences.

Vacant cottages at St Ita’s. Credit: Michael Lanigan.

The council bought 14 of the cottages from the HSE in July 2022, said a council spokesperson.

People have moved into three which were done up, they said. Six are being refurbished and should be done before Christmas. Works on the remaining five are expected to go to tender soon.

The other 18 houses on the avenue are occupied by current and retired staff, and security, a HSE briefing document says.

These, the HSE may transfer to the council should they become vacant in the future, it says.

But there is still a surplus of unused space within the hospital – which is 22,400 square metres in size – that could be used for accommodation, says Mulville, the Social Democrats councillor.

At the Balbriggan, Rush-Lusk, Swords Area Committee meeting on 12 October, he re-opened the discussion around repurposing the vacant wings of the hospital.

In a motion, he asked the council’s chief executive to work with the HSE to provide subsidised nursing accommodation in the vacant bits of the hospital.

Homes could help alleviate the staffing shortage in the National Forensic Hospital, in Portrane, he told the committee. 

“We have a situation whereby we have a huge amount of vacant buildings, a great need for subsidised accommodation for nursing and healthcare staff,” he said.

Derek Cunningham, a spokesperson for the Psychiatric Nurses Association (PNA), says the PNA raised the issue of a need to provide nurses with subsidised accommodation in Portrane five years ago.

The neighbouring National Forensic Hospital was at the planning stages at the time, he says. “But this proposal was not incorporated into the design and build.”

When the previous forensic hospital in Dundrum was sold by the HSE, the PNA suggested that the proceeds of the sale be used to finance accommodation in Portrane, Cunningham says. “This proposal was also not taken up.”

Not developing affordable homes on the site was a huge missed opportunity, he says “and would also have benefitted in the recruitment and retention of nurses for both the NFH and St Ita’s”.

At the area committee meeting, Fianna Fáil Councillor Brigid Manton said there was also a shortage of accommodation for teachers. 

“We really would need to look across the board, not just one particular sector,” she said. “That to me does actually make sense.”

Fine Gael Councillor Tom O’Leary said the site should be looked at for housing. 

“Affordable homes. Cost-rental homes. Whatever. Just collaborate with a housing body,” O’Leary said. “It’s obvious. Why leave them lying in a crisis?”

Mulville suggested that the motion include all healthcare workers and allied staff working in the St Joseph’s Disability Service and National Forensic Hospital.

The amended motion, which was agreed by the committee, will be forwarded to the HSE, said a council report responding to Mulville’s proposal.

Michael Lanigan is a freelance journalist who covers arts and culture for Dublin Inquirer. His work also appears in Vice, Totally Dublin, TheJournal.ie and the Business Post. You can reach him at michael@dublininquirer.com.

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