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An austere Kildare house which sheltered the dying and wounded

Stories of haunted houses are common in popular folklore and come to the fore at this time of Hallow e’en when tales abound of hauntings and of eerie things going bump in the night. There is no evidence that Firmount House, an austere Victorian pile near Clane, is haunted but certainly its associations with times of suffering and death are enough to send a shiver down the spine. 

Built in the 1870s as a residence Firmount was leased in 1917 from its owner Major Henry by a committee of local worthies who had set about establishing a convalescent home for wounded soldiers who were being repatriated to Ireland from the carnage of the First World War battlefields.

The first intimation of a hospital for Firmount was reported in March 1917 when the Kildare Observer carried a story of a meeting in Naas chaired by the Countess of Mayo from Palmerstown House.  The meeting heard that country houses at Moorefield (Newbridge), Craddockstown (Naas) and Firmount (Clane) were being inspected with a view to opening a convalescent home for Irish soldiers brought back wounded from the war zone. The thousands of wounded returning from the front overwhelmed the capacity of the military hospitals in Ireland and a number of big houses around the country were pressed into service to cope with the never-ending flow of casualities.

For the many Kildare casualties it was eventually agreed to rent Firmount from its owner Major Henry.  The committee furnished the house and when the soldiers were ensconced raised funds for its upkeep and provided entertainment for the patients. One can only imagine the state of psychological and physical shock among the men following their close calls with death on the merciless battlefields of Flanders.

A decade later the world war one casualties had gone from Firmount but it was to find a new use when the Kildare Co Board of Health decided it needed accommodation for the hundreds of victims of TB, a deadly consumptive disease which was stalking the land. After inspection by  Dr. Harbison, the County Medical Officer of Health, Firmount was purchased as the County Sanatorium. TB was a lethal condition and for many unfortunate victims admission to Firmount was a one way journey.  People throughout Kildare spoke in hushed tones of family members or neighbours who had “gone to Firmount”, the very phrase indicating that the sufferer had little or no chance of survival despite the best efforts of the medical staff at the sanatorium.

The last patients had left Firmount by the 1950s but in the following decade the house was to take on another unexpected role which brought it into the frontline of precautions against death and disaster on a grand scale. During what was termed the Cold War episodes such as the Cuban Missile crisis (fifty years ago this month) when the United States and the  Soviet Union came close to triggering a nuclear war prompted Irish authorities to begin rudimentary precautions should Ireland be affected by radioactive clouds from a global nuclear conflagration.

In 1967 the building was handed over by Kildare County Council to the Department of Defence which adapted the building for use as a Civil Defence Headquarters for Counties Dublin and Kildare.  The plan was that in the event of nuclear contamination spreading to Ireland top officials would convene at Firmount to track the radioactive clouds and trigger warning and evacuation plans for the Irish population. 

There was political sensitivity about the plan when a number of national newspapers portrayed Firmount and other control centres as being bunkers to which the elite would retreat while the rest of the population huddled into makeshift nuclear shelters in their back gardens. However there was no bunker at Firmount and the sum total of its nuclear protection was to block up the windows with concrete blocks. Fortunately the nuclear missiles stayed in their silos and Firmount was never put to the test as to whether its role as an emergency control centre would be effective should the real thing occur. 

Although used by Civil Defence for exercises until a few years ago it was deemed surplus to requirements by the Dept of Defence and put up for tender in January 2010. No acceptable tenders were received but another attempt at shifting the building from the State property register was successful earlier this month when Firmount sold at auction. 
There is no evidence that Firmount House is haunted but the the sighs of wounded soldiers or of dying TB patients once accommodated within its walls might well be imagined  on a Hallow e’en night. Series no: 303.


Liam Kenny charts the history of Firmount House, in Clane, in his looking Back series, no. 303

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