St Davnet’s Hospital, Monaghan.

The Cavan and Monaghan Lunatic Asylum and a father’s hope

Jonathan Smyth's latest Times Past column looks at the Cavan and Monaghan District Lunatic Asylum...

A troubled mind may be difficult to understand, unless one has experience of it, or perhaps encountered it in another. A good friend of mine once said, ‘you can see a broken arm, but to see the broken mind takes a whole different level of thought’.

How we treat people and the words we use towards others can have a positive or negative impact on their wellbeing. You never know what difficulty someone might be experiencing at that moment and there is the adage that ‘everyone has a story to tell’ as expressed by Moe the owner of Moe’s bar in the Simpsons.

In the 21st century, it is now acceptable to use kinder words, which have substituted harsher terms, now considered archaic and reflective of a long-forgotten Dickensian era. Occasionally, you may hear people who should know better refer to new terminology as ‘woke’; but I disagree with them. Well, who would like to use yesteryear’s descriptions to describe mental illness today. Nowadays, with our enhanced knowledge of how the mind operates, we realise that it is better to have compassion. Large institutions in the past, like the Asylum, or the workhouse, did not show any shred of sensitivity when they listed people under the categories of ‘lunatics, imbeciles and idiots’. With such horrible labels, is it any wonder that so many people were stigmatised by their illness?


The 19th century facility established in Monaghan Town was officially known as ‘The Cavan and Monaghan District Lunatic Asylum’ and, in April 1869, the Cavan Weekly News announced the opening of the ‘Cavan and Monaghan District Lunatic Asylum’ was to take place on May 1st of that year. They described the building, as one of the best of its kind in Ireland, capable of holding about 300 patients.

The first board of governors were the usual mix of local ‘noblemen and gentlemen’, from the landlord, to the army, doctors and the clergy. They included the Right Honourable the Earl of Dartrey, JP; the Earl of Bective; Lord Farnham; Hon Cavendish Butler, Sir J Young, JP, DL; Sir George Foster; E.P. Shirley, MP; Col Leslie, MP; Wm Foster, Esq, JP; Theophilus Clements, Esq; Capt R. Coote; Mr Adams, Esq; Lord Bishop of Kilmore, Right Rev Dr Donnelly; Right Rev Nicholas Conaty, DD; Andrew Knight Young, Esq, MD, resident physician; and Mr James Whitla, apothecary.

We are informed in the publication, ‘Supreme Court General Term First Department Papers on Appeal’, by Martin H. Brown, of the testimony of Matthew George Rushe, surgeon and apothecary, that before the asylum was built, ‘the lunatics were housed in Monaghan jail’.

Breach of discipline

A record in Hansard, states that on April 29, 1895, during a House of Commons debate, Mr Vesey Knox brought up the issue of discipline at the Lunatic Asylum, where the matter causing concern related to a warder named George King who pleaded guilty to a ‘serious breach of discipline’. It was pointed out to Knox that the power to dismiss any staff member lay with the board of governors and that the warder in question had since gone for and received promotion. Vesey Knox objected to the increase in King’s salary, which then exceeded the pay received by 25 other warders. However, King’s unruly rise through the ranks did actually not impede the prospects of his fellow warders because none of them decided to apply for the position in the first place. Overcrowding was a big problem in that same year and on June 29, 1895, the ‘Lancet’ published a report about the monthly meeting of the board of governors at Cavan and Monaghan Lunatic Asylum where they said it was deemed necessary to apply the ‘speediest and most economic remedy’ to alleviate overcrowding in the institution. It was recommended for the ‘board of control’ to buy the County Monaghan infirmary neighbouring the asylum property. The infirmary building would be capable of accommodating around 70 patients and had an ‘excellent supply of water’.

In 1904, volume 4, of a journal called ‘Architect’, announced that a new building was to be erected costing about £12,000 and therefore provide a solution to the overcrowded conditions at the site.

A father’s hope

In September 1916, a man named Samuel from Cootehill met with a member of the local clergy to prepare his last Will and Testament.

He and his wife Margaret had 10 children who by then were all adults. Two of their sons were off fighting in the Great War; Albert was with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces and Thomas was in the United States Army. Another son, William, like all his other siblings, had completed his early education at the Darley School in Cootehill, but in the 1900s, something affected the young man and he was sent into the asylum in Monaghan. The song ‘Lonesome Tears’ by Beck reminded me of all the tears that William’s mother and father must have shed for their son when they realised he would be a permanent resident in the asylum.

In the Will, his father wrote a lengthy entry in relation to William from which we see the family loved him very much. Samuel stated that should his son ‘regain his reason’ that there would always be a place for him in the family home and that his son should also receive an allowance. Sadly, William did not recover sufficiently to leave the institution and resigned himself to live out the rest of his days inside the gates of the Asylum and died there in 1933. His father Samuel a farmer and former road builder died the following year. He was in his 93rd year.

An exhibition titled ‘World Within Walls’ was displayed from May 2015 to February 2016 at Monaghan County Museum, which told the story of the institution’s beginnings as a District Lunatic Asylum, its renaming as Monaghan Mental Hospital in 1924, up to its present-day role in the provision of Community Services. The place is better known nowadays as St Davnet’s Hospital named after St Davnet, also known as St Dympna, who is the patron Saint of the mentally ill. An article about the exhibition can be read in History Ireland, issue May/June 2015.


Did Bob Bligh really coin the famous greeting: ‘Dr. Livingstone, I presume?’