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CENTENARY OF HOSPITAL BORN IN CONTROVERSY

Centenary of hospital born in controversy

Feelings ran so high in the Celbridge area in 1912 against plans to build a hospital for infectious diseases that a number of local men attacked the new building and pulled down a ward under construction. Such was the controversial origin of the Peamount health care campus  which this month marks the centenary of its establishment in June 1912 by Lady Aberdeen, a tireless campaigner against the menace of tuberculosis (TB) which was ravaging through the Irish population. Wife of the Lord Lieutenant in Ireland she was a woman ahead of her time in terms of mobilising women generally in pursuit of better health and social conditions. She turned her considerable energies towards the scourge of TB which each year in the early 1900s was killing some 12,000 people. While medical science sought a treatment there was an emerging theory that sufferers should be brought to special hospitals known as “sanatoria” which would be located in areas well away from populated centres. The medical thinking was that by removing TB victims to sanatoria it would help stop the spread of this contagious condition.

Lady Aberdeen had in 1907 founded the Women’s National Health Association to bring practical help to communities in the battle against TB. Local committees of the WHNA – including active committees in Naas and Newbridge -- funded public health nurse schemes for their localities and held classes on hygiene and disease prevention. A notable initiative of the WHNA was an education unit in a horse-drawn caravan called Éire that toured parish halls with literature and displays to educate the public about disease prevention.

However Lady Aberdeen realised that while education might help prevent the spread of the disease more critical intervention was needed if the contagious spread of the diseases was to be controlled. After much fund raising she signed a contract on 21 June 1912 to purchase Peamount House and lands located just over the Dublin/Kildare county boundary east of Celbridge as the site for a large sanatorium. The move triggered an almost hysterical reaction among some landowners and public representatives in the Celbridge area.  Motions were passed at the meetings of the Celbridge Board of Guardians and at the Petty Sessions (a local court) protesting against the establishment of a sanatorium at Peamount. There was fear that the sanatorium would become a festering ground for TB which would spread to the surrounding localities of  Celbridge, Rathcoole, Saggart, Clondalkin, Newcastle, Leixlip.

Among the public representatives who spoke out against the sanatorium was Captain Connolly of Celbridge who told the Kildare Observer of July 1912 that “the health of the inhabitants would be seriously endangered, statistics going to show in England in the districts where sanatoria existed tuberculosis increased at such at such an alarming rate as to point to the danger of these institutions becoming nurseries of the disease.” However this criticism was answered by an expert in tuberculosis, a Dr. Flanagan, who said that there was more danger of being infected from being in a railway carriage, a tram car or a public house than there was living in the neighbourhood of a sanatorium.

But the locals -- faced with the primeval fear of an infectious disease stalking their locality – were in no mood to accept such reassurances and some decided to take the law into their own hands.Soon after the property was purchased by Lady Aberdeen in late June 1912 workmen had moved on to the site to build wards to accommodate the TB patients. Peamount House itself was to be the nursing home while the wards would be sleeping accommodation for the TB patients. Work was proceeding well when on a Sunday in July a gang of fifty entered the site and began to demolish one of the newly built wards. The site foreman Thomas Wood was roused from his Sunday afternoon slumber and ran out of his hut to be met with the sight of fifty men with pick-axes, sledge-hammers and ropes, setting about to wreck one of the wards under construction. The men were in the act of pulling down the frame of the ward by fixing a rope to the central beam and a group of about twenty were pulling away until they dragged the whole construction to the ground. The foreman ran back to his hut, fetched his shot-gun, and fired ten shots into the air to try and scatter the mob. However the mob continued to tear down the ward destroying the work of two weeks’ of building. 

Wood reported the incident to Lucan police and in the ensuing investigation three men from Hazelhatch and one, a member of Celbridge Rural District Councillor, were brought before the courts. It became a notorious episode with questions on the Peamount controversy ending up in the House of Commons in London in July of 1912.

However Lady Aberdeen persisted with her vision of providing a first-class sanatorium and Peamount went on to serve the new Irish State well into the twentieth century as a sanatorium deploying the latest medical expertise in the battle against TB. It was not until the early 1960s that TB was reduced to a minimal level and in 1962 the description “Sanatorium” was dropped from Peamount Healthcare’s title.  Today Peamount has over 400 staff delivering in-patient and out-patient support across a range of disciplines including respiratory rehabilitation services, neurological and intellectual disabilities, and day care services for elderly people in the Celbridge, Newcastle, Rathcoole and Saggart catchment areas. Once viewed with alarm, the hospital at Peamount is now a long-cherished place of expert support and treatment for the populations of north Kildare and west Dublin. Series no: 286.

The Sanatorium at Peamount had a controversial beginning, writes Liam Kenny in his Looking Back series of 19 June 2012. Our thanks to Liam


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