Edward J Law



In 1718 the first voluntary hospital in the United Kingdom opened in Dublin1, but it was to be another half a century, 1765, before Ireland introduced a system of county hospitals or infirmaries2. That in Kilkenny was founded in 17672. Management was in the hands of governors of whom there were two classes, life and annual, the former had to have made a donation of twenty guineas, the latter three guineas. The subscriptions to 2 September 1767 had raised a total of £566 16s. 0d., with eighteen life governors4. The first surgeon to the infirmary, elected by the governors and governesses, was Thomas Butler the younger, a Kilkenny surgeon6.


From the very earliest days the institution became an object of the charity of the city, a letter in December 17676 encouraged the actors and singers then appearing in the city to hold a benefit night for the hospital. It came off early in the New Year, the ladies being solicited7 to ‘have no drums on that night’: the play raised £31 3s. 9d8. In the nineteenth century it benefited, as did other charitable institutions, from charity sermons9. The local paper in March 176810 carried a letter suggesting a lottery in aid of the establishment. The scheme, involving the sale of 30,000 tickets at 4s.4d. each, was perhaps too grandiose.

The infirmary was built on the outskirts of the town at John's Green and opened 28 November 176711. In the period to 8 April l786 there had been 2,500 admissions. A report shortly after that date noted that it was a spacious house but that there were only five patients and that the housekeeper complained of the poverty of the establishment12. In 1802 the Infirmary had an annual income of £100 from central government, £100 from County Presentments and some £70 from charitable endowments, in addition to income from subscript ions13.

The following figures show a markedly increasing number of patients, particularly in-patients:

  Interns Externs
Year to August 1796



Year to August 1797



Year to August 1798



Year to August 1799



Year to August 1800



To January 1802



the prevailing disorder being ‘low putrid contagious fever’. There were twenty-six beds, though there was space for more had the funds run to it14.

Tighe had noted in 1802 that there was no place of confinement for lunatics except the gaols15. In 1815 the Grand Jury addressed that problem, which had been raised again by the Inspector of Gaols, and ordered the building of a lunatic ward or asylum adjoining the County Inf irmary16.

As with Evans' Charity the lnfirmary appears to have suffered from the defalcations of those in positions of trust. It was reported in 1846 that there was a deficit of £700, and the treasurer was removed17. The institution benefited in more ways than one from the judicial system; in 1834 they were granted the penalties inflicted by the Resident Magistrate18, the previous year donations had included the body of a felon hanged at the County Gaol19. At a time when medical practitioners still had much to learn this offering, or dissection, would be genuinely appreciated.

When, in 1801, the medical gentlemen of the city were asked for their advice on the founding of a dispensary, they countered that a preferable charity would be a House of Recovery20. In addition to the figures given by Tighe, and quoted in connection with the Infirmary, he also made a direct case for a house of recovery21 ‘The prevelance of malignant fevers, strongly requires houses of recovery: these disorders, induced by dirt and bad food, can scarce ever be banished from a village without removing the patient from his house and family’. Clearly fever was a major problem and the suggested establishment would be in the nature of an isolation hospital, and indeed it bore the alternative name of Fever Hospital22. The founding of Fever Hospitals seems to have been pretty general throughout Ireland at this time. That of Waterford is supposed to have been the first, in 179923.

The House of Recovery and Fever Hospital, which cost £1,100 to erect24, funded by a Government loan, was opened 1 March 180325.


Twelve patients were admitted in the first two months of whom five were cured, the disease of three of them became surgical and they were presumably removed to the Infirmary, two remained under cure and the remaining two were convalescent26. In its first ten years 1,024

patients were admitted of whom sixty died, three were still patients and the remainder had been restored to health27. It was particularly noted in 1804 that the institution catered not only for the inhabitants of the city and suburb but also ‘the laborious strangers ... particularly at harvest time’28. It is interesting to note that in the first eighteen months, when medicines cost £45 13s. 9½d., wine for the patients cost £36 13s. 4½d. Whilst other outgoings included expenses of the house-steward, house-keeper and nurses, it appears that the medical attendance was on a voluntary unpaid basis29.

Again the management was by a board of governors, constituted for life on payment of ten guineas and for a year by subscription of one guinea30. The ease of buying a governership and thus becoming immediately eligible to vote was widely abused in Ireland. The salaried posts of physicians and apothecaries to infirmaries, fever hospitals, dispensaries etc. were regarded to some extent as sinecures and were keenly sought for. When elections to these posts were held it was not unusual to find an influx of 'yearly governors' willing to lay out a few guineas to promote the interest of a relative or friend. The Government addressed this abuse to some extent with M O'Brien's Act in the 1830s whereby governors were denied a vote until they had served a year, except of course in the first year of an institution.

In addition to subscriptions the institution benefited from the usual benevolence of the citizens: part of the proceeds of the theatre season31, charity sermons32, testamentary bequests (£20 p.a. from Redmond Lyons in 1811, £200 from John Shearman in 181633 and balls34. There were also presentments from the Grand Jury35 and on occasion from Government. From 1817 to 1819 fever swept Ireland, and early in 1819 the Kilkenny Fever Hospital was the recipient from Government, via the Lord Lieutenant, of £150 bringing central grants to £40036. It is possible that the House of Recovery was first established in James' Green37, but at some time prior to 1819 had removed to the site near Greensbridge close to the ancient churchyard of St. Maul's. In 1819, because of the greatly increased numbers of patients, there was a scheme of rearrangement whereby the Fever Hospital was housed temporarily in the buildings of the House of Correction38, with that establishment being removed to the old Fever Hospital in James' Green39. Tenders were invited in 1847 for a new building to house fifty patients40, presumably at the Greensbridge site for it was still located there in 188441.

Other fever hospitals existed in the county: at Freshford, established c.182842, and Kilmaganny, noted in 182943, as well as Fiddown, Piltown, Inistiogue, Thomastown and Callan, all recorded in a return of 1831-3244.

1807 saw the founding of an Institution for the Relief of Poor Lying-in-women46. It took the form of a repository or shop in which the crafts of the ladies who supported it were offered for sale, with the profits going to the support of the charitable objects. The wares sold were chiefly baby clothes46. The shop, situate in Coal Market opened 28 July47 and continued at least to June 1811 when we find from published accounts that in the four years £75 in cash had been distributed to 280 women in their lying-in, the same number of infants had been provided with two suits of clothes, and blankets worth £11 7s. 6d. had been distributed to the poor48.

There was concern that the institution should not be seen to be encouraging immorality, and recipients, who had to be recommended by subscribers, were restricted to poor married women who had been ascertained to be ‘proper Objects’49. It is not known when the institution ceased to function.

In 1812 a female accoucher arrived in the city, Mrs Ellen Prestwidge, who in announcing her practice noted that she had ‘a diploma from the Medical Gentlemen of the Lying-in Hospital, Dublin’60. It was not until some twenty years later that the city had its own such institution, the Ormonde Lying-in Hospital. This was opened in 1833 by Dr. Robert Grant51, with, we may suppose from its name, some support from the Earl of Ormonde, or his wife.

We shall see that there was friction in relation to the funding and running of the city Dispensary which was extensively reported, if not promoted by, the two local newspapers. The Ki1kenny Journal at the same time52 turned its attention to the Lying-in Hospital ‘we wish particularly to know how the thing called the Ormonde Lying-in Hospital is conducted.’ Dr Grant replied immediately53 and almost received, rather grudgingly, an apology from the 'public guardian' 54.

  • We have looked over the case book, and inquired minutely into the management of the institution, and we have now the very great pleasure of informing Dr.GRANT that the notions

    we entertained on the matter one week since, have been much altered by the information obtained in consequence of our making the Lying In Hospital the subject of a paragraph in our paper. Had we not extracted an explanation from Dr. GRANT, our prejudices (we now confess them to be such) against the institution might have never been dissipated. The institution is a most useful one -deserves support- and its Medical Superintendant is paid in a very trifling manner, compared with the services he renders. Let any of our readers take the same pains that we have done to acquire information on the subject, and they will agree with what we have just written.

    But we assert positively that if the duties of the Kilkenny Dispensary were performed as they ought, Dr. GRANT'S labours would be greatly lightened. However, we speak of that ‘Protestant institution’ fully in another place.

  • The final paragraph of the above relates to the fact that the Kilkenny Dispensary, unlike some others in the county. such as Gcwran, did not attend women in child birth55.

    It is not clear where the Lying-in Hospital was first opened, but in January 1835 it was noted56 that it had moved to Walkin Street, ‘a more central part of the city’. Up to December l836, something less than four years, 312 cases were attended, either in the institution or externally57. Funding was by subscriptions, charitable donations and a charity ball58. It was probably this reliance on public support which led to the moral restrictions which were in force. Subscribers, in l834, were requested59 to be ‘particular in not recommending any but married women to be received into the House’, however, it was further noted ‘in order that the institution may be made as generally useful as possible, persons not admissible, and those who cannot conveniently leave their families, will be carefully attended at their own houses.’ In cases of doubt Marriage certificates were examined before admission60! The last reference to the institution which has been seen is in March 184161 and it clearly ceased to function in that decade, for early in 1850 the Journal noted62 ’No such institution as a Lying-in Hospital for this city or county.’

    1 Eoin O'Brien 'The Charitable infirmary in Jervis Street: Chronology of a Voluntary Hospital' in Journal of the Irish Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons, vol 13, no 1, p 60.
    2 John F Fleetwood The history of medicine in Ireland, Dublin 1983, p 163.
    3 Finn's Leinster Journal 8.8.1767.
    4 Finn's Leinster Journal 5.9.1767.
    5 Finn's Leinster Journal 30.9.1767.
    6 Finn's Leinster Journal 19.12.1767.
    7 Finn's Leinster Journal 2.1.1768.
    8 Finn's Leinster Journal 27.1.1768.
    9 Leinster Journal 12.10.1805.
    10 Finn's Leinster Journal 12.3.1768.
    11 Finn's Leinster Journal 9.9.1786.
    12 Fleetwood, op cit, p 104.
    13 Tighe, op cit, p 517.
    14 Ibid. p 518.
    15 Ibid. p 519.
    16 Leinster Journal 7.9.1815.
    17 Kilkenny Journal 21.11.1846.
    18 Kilkenny Journal 5.11.1834.
    19 Kilkenny Journal 27.7.1833.
    20 Leinster Journal 11.11.1801.
    21 Tighe, op cit, p 537.
    22 Leinster Journal 4.5.1803.
    23 Richard Lahert 'Some Charitable Institutions of Old Waterford
    in Decies, vol XXVIII, p 48.
    24 Lewis, op cit, p 114.
    25 Leinster Journal 4.5.1803.
    26 Leinster Journal 4.5.1803.
    27 Chronicle 27.3.1813.
    28 Leinster Journal 6.10.1804.
    29 Leinster Journal 6.10.1804.
    30 Leinster Journal 2.7.1803.
    31 Leinster Journal 12.11.1809.
    32 Moderator 16.2.1819.
    33 Public Record Office, Charitable Donations Vols I & II.
    34 Moderator 13.2.1819.
    35 Kilkenny Archaeological Society, Presentments of the Grand Jury at the Summer Assizes, 1816.
    36 Moderator 14.1.1819.
    37 Moderator 1.9.1818.
    38 Moderator 22.6.1819.
    39 Moderator 1.9.1818.
    40 Kilkenny Journal 17.7.1847.
    41 Hogan, op cit, p 227
    42 Report of the Select Committee on the state of the poor in Ireland, 1829, p 705.
    43 Idem.
    44 Parliamentary Papers
    , Return of Fever Hospitals in Ireland receiving public aid, 1831-32 (564) XLV 279.
    45 Leinster Journal 10.6.1807.
    46 Leinster Journal 10.6.1807.
    47 Leinster Journal 5.8.1807.
    48 Kilkenny Journal 26.6.1811.
    49 Leinster Journal 10.6.1807
    50 Leinster Journal 29.8.1812.
    51 Kilkenny Journal 1.1.1834.
    52 Kilkenny Journal 7.12.1836.
    53 Kilkenny Journal 10.12.1836.
    54 Kilkenny Journal 17.12.1836.
    55 Kilkenny Journal 17.12.1836.
    56 Kilkenny Journal 17.1.1835.
    57 Kilkenny Journal 10.12.1836.
    58 Kilkenny Journal 10.12.1836.
    59 Kilkenny Journal 23.7.1834.
    60 Kilkenny Journal 10.12.1836.
    61 Moderator 3.3.1841.
    62 Kilkenny Journal 16.2.1850.



    A movement for the establishment of a city dispensary was launched in 1796 by the Lord Bishop of Ossory with support from the Earl of Ormonde. Its objectives were to be the provision of free medical advice and medicines to the sick poor. The medical section was to be under the care of Dr Bradish, and that of surgery under Surgeon Pack1. Initial resistance from the men of the medical faculty was quickly overcome2 and a subscription launched3. However there was a want of generosity; the promised sums totalling under £l00 were considered wholly inadequate4 and the matter appears to have lapsed for five years.

    The Bishop of Ossory5 and the Earl of Ormonde6 were again to the forefront of a renewed attempt to found a dispensary for the relief of the sick poor in 1801. However, the medical gentlemen, asked for their advice, suggested that the best method of relieving the sick poor would be to open a House of Recovery7; we have seen that that institution was opened soon afterwards.

    Whilst it was 1819 before the city had a separate dispensary we may suppose that the other medical establishments had met the want to some degree and indeed we find the House of Recovery or Fever Hospital, as it was also known, serving also as a dispensary in 18079. Certainly it would not have sat well with civic pride to have been outdone by Goresbridge which was advertising for a resident apothecary for its dispensary in 180910. A dispensary had been opened in Dublin in 176711, and one was in existence in Waterford in 178612. The function of the dispensary was to make available to the poor free medicine and medical assistance on an out-patient basis.

    It would appear from the will of Joseph Evans13 that a movement was on foot by 1818 for the establishment of a dispensary as a separate institution, and that it was the endowment of £100 p.a ‘To the Treasurer of a Public Dispensary to be established in the City of Kilkenny, for the gratuitous supply of Medicine to the Poor.’ in his will, which gave the final impetus to the movement.

    The Dispensary, established for the benefit of all the sick poor, became a focus of sectarian strife which was presented at length in the columns of the Kilkenny Journal in 1836-3714. The Protestants had berated the Catholics of the city with not subscribing to an institution which aided many more Catholics than it did Protestants. The Catholics riposted that private subscriptions were matched by grants from the Grand Jury (a system authorised by legislation of 58 Geo. III), and that the great bulk of that money was raised from Catholics. Additionally they felt that the Dispensary was a 'job', with an excessive rent for the house going to the surgeon, and both he and the apothecary being always Protestants.

    The first apothecary was Samuel C. Clifford, and the physician, or surgeon, Nathaniel Alcock15, who was succeeded in the post by his son16. The dispensary itself was located in Blackmill Street at its commencement17, subsequently at James' Street18, and finally in Walkin Street19. The institution must have been of tremendous service, it was reported in 1830 that during the eleven years to that date nearly 40,000 had received medicines or advice20. At that time an apothecary and physician were in daily attendance.

    By 1829 there were sixteen dispensaries in the county besides that of Kilkenny21: Freshford, Johnstown, Kilmacow, Thomastown (noted 181622), Urlingford, Graige [Graiguenamanagh], Ballyraggett, Durrow, Castlecomer, Gowran, Whitechurch, Knocktopher, Callan (founded 181823), Kells & Stoneyford, Kilmaganny (noted 182824) and Inistiogue (noted 182425). We know also that there had been one at Goresbridge (noted in 180926), it may be that this had closed by 1829, if so it had reopened by 183127.

    In addition to the provision of medicine and medical assistance the Kilkenny dispensary had, from its foundation, undertaken vaccination of the children of the poor (a report of the first two months of the institution notes that seven children had been vaccinated28), and indeed its full title was the Kilkenny Dispensary and Cow Pock Institution29. In providing this service it was following an old and worthy tradition: in 1768 the mayor of Kilkenny, who was also the first surgeon of the County Hospital advertised that he would innoculate the children of the poor every morning between seven and eight o'clock at the hospital30, the preparatory medicine being given at his own expense. In 1833 a Mr. Lynch, conducting an apothecaries business in High Street, advertised that he was a corresponding member of the National Vaccine Establishment in London, and vaccinated poor children free of charge31.

    1 Finn's Leinster Journal 1.10.1796.
    2 Finn's Leinster Journal 5.10.1796.
    3 Finn's Leinster Journal 8.10.1796.
    4 Finn's Leinster Journal 7.12.1796.
    5 Leinster Journal 7.11.1801.
    6 Leinster Journal
    7 Leinster Journal
    8 Leinster Journal 5.3.1803.
    9 Leinster Journal 15.6.1807.
    10 Leinster Journal 11.10.1809.
    11 Fleetwood, op cit, pp 83-84.
    12 Richard Lahert 'Some Charitable Institutions of Old Waterford' in Decies, vol XXVIII, p 49.
    13 Moderator 11.8.1818.
    14 Kilkenny Journal 17.12.1836; 24.12.1836 and 4.1.1837.15 Moderator 9.12.1819.
    16 Kilkenny Moderator 24.12.1836.
    17 Moderator 10.8.1819.
    18 Kilkenny Journal 16.9.1843.
    19 George Henry Bassett, Kilkenny city and county guide and directory
    , Dublin 1884, p 93.
    20 Kilkenny Journal 20.6.1830.
    21 Report of the Select Committee on the state of the poor in Ireland, 1829 p 676.
    22 Public Record Office, Charitable Donations Vol II.
    23 Moderator 10.4.1819.
    24 Moderator 26.12.1819.
    25 Kilkenny Journal 11.12.1830.
    26 Leinster Journal
    27 Kilkenny Journal 29.6.1831.
    28 Moderator 9.12.1819.
    29 Leinster Journal 5.8.1820.
    30 Finn's Leinster Journal 26.3.1776.
    31 Kilkenny Journal 15.5.1833.


    The charitable institutions of the city of Kilkenny may be considered in two classes: those founded to meet a long-term need, and those which came into being to meet a particular need. Of the former some have a continuous existence from their founding to the present day a period which can be measured in centuries.

    There were two essentials for such continuity: funding and need. From the evidence of the charities which have survived (Ormonde Poor House, Switsir's Alms Houses and Evans' Asylum) it would seem that the only unmet need which has continued into the era of the welfare state is that of housing. The reason that these charities were able to endure must be looked for in their funding: Switsir's and Evans' both had a perpetual endowment and the Ormonde Poor House had the support of an important and wealthy family who made the city their home through many generations.

    The other needs which were being met by charities in the period under consideration were eventually subsumed in state provision: the health service; unemployment benefit; community care; old age pension etc.

    Not a few of the charities of the first half of the nineteenth century came into being through a wave of public feeling, an immediate response to a crisis in the city, for example the soup kitchens and fuel, bedding and clothing funds, and fell into abeyance almost as quickly as they had emerged.

    There was a good deal of ill-feeling on the grounds of religion; an inability to put sectarian matters aside and unite in meeting the needs of all the poor. There were always those ready to highlight the religious divisions, particularly the two local newspapers who were ever ready to denounce the real or imagined shortcomings of the opposition. Others were equally biased on the subject of class: one commentator in 1830 recorded1 ‘farmers are a very good class of people. It is they who practically maintain the poor of Ireland. They get very scant maintenance from "big people"; for it is in distant countries, or abroad, that devlish class spend their time, squandering their rents." There was more truth, certainly in relation to Kilkenny city, in his further statement ‘The artisans too and the shopkeepers or merchants are good at giving alms to God's poor.’

    1 Michael McGrath, ed., The diary of Humphrey O'Sullivan, London 1936, Pt III. p 291.



    A Magdalen asylum, a home for penitent females, reformed prostitutes, was founded in Black Mill Street in the first quarter of 18431. The moving figure behind the asylum was Rev. Robert O'Shee. A year after its establishment the asylum was housing six or seven girls, who, under the care of a matron, undertook washing and needlework2. Shortly afterwards an assistant matron was being sought3.

    The last notice which has come to my attention is in January 1846 when Dr. Cane gave a donation of £25 for the asylum through Rev, Robert O'Shee4. It would appear to have closed by January 1847 when the premises were hired to ease overcrowding in the workhouse5.

    1 Journal 22 Mar. 1843.
    2 Journal 17 Jan. 1844.
    3 Journal 6 Apr. 1844.
    4 Journal 3 Jan. 1846.
    5 Journal 21 Jan. 1847.



    Right: Statue of James Switsir, 1804, by Benjamin Schrowder, statuary, Dublin: in grounds of Switsir's alms houses.



    I am indebted to Kilkenny Archaeological Society for access to their extensive holdings of Kilkenny newspapers without which this work would not have been possible.

    I am grateful to Kilkenny County Library, whose holdings of local newspapers on microfilm complement those of Kilkenny Archaeological Society, and for the cheerful willingness of their staff.



    Page revised 22 June 2001