King’s County Infirmary – its closure in 1921 in an era of change. By Aisling Irwin

King’s County Infirmary was established under the reign of King George III with the passing of the Irish County Infirmaries Act of 1765. This act enabled the creation of infirmaries in thirty Irish counties. During the redevelopment of Tullamore town by the Earl of Charleville, a new infirmary building was erected in 1788 on Church Street and was further extended in 1812.

The County Infirmaries Act was enacted to provide healthcare to the poor which fulfilled the eighteenth century philanthropic ideals of the landed gentry who supported these institutions through donations and subscriptions. King’s County Infirmary was supported by an income consisting of parliamentary funds, grand jury presentments, governor subscriptions, donations, and patient fees. The infirmary was managed by a Board of Governors who paid subscriptions for their position on the board which gave them absolute control over the infirmary including staff appointments and patient admissions. Governors were made up of local gentry and landowners such as the Earl of Rosse, Lord Digby, and prominent business owners such as the Goodbody family.   

While surviving records are limited, the Board meeting minute books provide a colourful insight into the running of an infirmary in late 19th and early 20th century Ireland.  The Infirmary’s Surgeon, Dr James Ridley, was linked to a scandal that pervaded the county in 1887 and 1888. Ridley, who also acted as one of the Tullamore jail physicians was reported to have died by suicide on the morning he was due to give evidence at the inquest into the death of John Mandeville, a national league activist. Mandeville who was imprisoned under the Irish Crimes Act of 1887 was subject to harsh and cruel punishment at the hands of his jailors and died shortly after his release from prison. 

The Infirmary staff also caused scandal on rare occasions. In 1894 the long-serving porter died after a short illness and was replaced by a Mr Hartehall. In July of that year Hartehall was reported as ‘having been under the influence of drink while on duty’. He was not dismissed until December with reason given as his ‘drunkenness, insubordination and inattention to business.’ The infirmary Board, glad to have relieved themselves of the unfit character, replaced Hartehall with Mr D. Dawson in February 1895. Unfortunately the Board were once again unwise in their selection. Dawson was also reported as having been under the influence while on duty. However, he seems to have had a more generous nature than his predecessor as he was reported to have given ‘drink to patients contrary to rule’.  A more scandalous incident was also recorded among the Board minutes though the details are somewhat lacking! In February 1900, Dr George Ridley and a nurse reported the gross misconduct of the cook and two other female servants in having admitted two male patients to their bedroom. They were dismissed immediately by the doctor.

The infirmary in the 1980s as ruin with the former fever tuberculosis hospital in the rear.

During the War of Independence, King’s County Infirmary came under the jurisdiction of the new Sinn Féin majority council, now renamed Offaly County Council. The institution was referred to as the ‘Offaly County Infirmary’ by the Board in later meetings. The Infirmary also had ties to the republican movement. Reverend Burbage, a noted republican and Board member was congratulated at a meeting on the 18 October 1920 for having successfully escaped death after being ‘shot at by the military while travelling from Tullamore to Geashill by motor bicycle on Thursday week last’. 

A change in local political power also meant change for the institutions under their jurisdiction. The decision to close King’s County Infirmary came at a crucial time in Offaly during the Irish War of Independence. The Board meeting minutes reveal the confusion and uncertainty felt by the Board and staff in the months leading to closure and the fruitless attempt made by the remaining board members to hold onto the operations of the institution.

A meeting held on the 21 January 1921 was the first sign of trouble for the infirmary. Attended by the secretary of the Offaly County Council, it was advised that ‘all expenditure should cease with a view of the institution being closed down’. The board were shocked and scrambled to point out the impracticality and impossibility of the order. In an attempt to dissuade the council or at least create a plan for the closure, the registrar compiled a resolution addressed to the Offaly County Council, stating that ‘ the joint committee of management of the Offaly County Infirmary has heard with extreme regret the decision of the county council to close down the institution which had rendered such valuable service to the sick during the past 180 years’.

The infirmary as library, 1942-77

This resolution addressed the need for reasonable notice and a time frame for closure in order to settle staff and financial matters and rehouse critical patients. They proposed that the closure should be deferred to March 31, the end of the financial year. The board also noted that they received no formal notice of closure in writing. Operations were also downsized in anticipation of the county council’s agreement to these terms. Despite a letter to the county council no formal warning of the date of closure was ever received by King’s County Infirmary management.

The months of 1921 passed by with little knowledge regarding the supposed closure of the hospital and so the institution carried on as normal. Once again, in June 1921 the closure was intimated to the committee with rumours of an amalgamation scheme whereby the workhouse hospital would become the new county hospital. While local business owners and people of influence rallied around the institution in an effort to keep it open, the uncertainty about its fate must have had an effect on their spirit. Attendance of the Board dwindled with only two members present at the final meeting, Reverend W. Phelan and Reverend R.J. Craig.

The last meeting of the board on the 25 August 1921 exudes an air of finality. At this meeting the registrar and the surgeon relay to the board that men arrived, unannounced and began carrying away the beds and bedding, to the new central hospital. The men did not confirm who had told them to do this; however, it was assumed by the staff and the Board that it was under direction of Offaly County Council. In a final letter to the county council, Phelan and Craig convey their contempt for the events that have unfolded. They finalise their letter to the council noting that the debt owed by the hospital is now the council’s concern and can be covered with the furniture and furnishing removed without permission.

Following its closure, King’s County Infirmary accommodated the civil guards and then housed the county library until 1977. The façade of the original King’s County Infirmary can still be seen on Church Street, Tullamore, which has now been repurposed into apartments.

County infirmary under reconstruction for apartments.

Aisling Irwin, archivist, catalogued the surviving records of King’s County Infirmary which are held in Offaly Archives. A description of the papers is available here and they are available to consult at Offaly Archives by appointment.