Tapping into the memories of Cork hospital

The closure of the old Orthopaedic Hospital in Gurranabraher in recent years prompted many reflections and memories of the landmark facility. Community Health Worker with the Cork North Community Work Department, Joanne McNamara, explains how those memories have now been captured.
Tapping into the memories of Cork hospital
Nurses reunion at St Marys Orthopaedic Hospital Gurranabraher in 1980.

“WE were never allowed near the Orthopaedic. The fear of God was put into us about the Orthopaedic. There was a family living there, it was a little house outside the gate, and you’d see the light on there by night. That was the only light you’d see round the whole of the Orthopaedic by night was the light in the house in front. The family was living in there. But we were never up there by night anyway. We would have been not allowed to play up there, the fear of God was put into us. So I don’t know where I got the idea that they were in there chopping legs and hands off! [laughs].”

Breda McNamara, who grew up under the shadow of ‘the Orthopaedic’, as St Mary’s Orthopaedic Hospital in Gurranabraher was known, humorously remembers her childhood impressions of the hospital, which opened first in 1955.

As she got older, ‘the orthopaedic’ became a more open place and the fearsome myths of her childhood were washed away.

Breda’s memories were recorded as part of the Memories of the Orthopaedic Oral History Project, a collaboration between the Cork Folklore Project and the Cork North Community Work Department, Cork Kerry Community Healthcare, HSE.

The project focused on a cohort of interviewees, who were associated with St Mary’s Orthopaedic Hospital as either former staff, patients, or surgeons, or locals who grew up near the hospital in Gurranabraher.

With the removal of orthopaedic services in 2011 and the announcement of a new Health Campus at the site, we felt it would be important to capture a sense of the hospital’s unique story.

In order to do this effectively, we decided to partner with the Cork Folklore Project, who, since they were founded in 1996, have earned a reputation as one of the leading folklore collection bodies in the country.

‘The Orthopaedic’

St Mary’s Orthopaedic Hospital, or ‘the Orthopaedic’, has been a landmark in the social memory and landscape of Cork city, since it opened in November, 1955.

Originally planned as a fever hospital, it instead provided the first orthopaedic service outside of Dublin.

A polio outbreak, ever evolving equipment and patients prioritising farming over treatment, presented some of the challenges for its management over the following half century.

When the first artificial hip replacement in Ireland was conducted at the facility in 1970, the hospital was spoken about across the globe.

However, the story of ‘the Orthopaedic’ is a profoundly Cork one, a fact reinforced by the personal connections and stories captured as part of the Memories of the Orthopaedic Collection.

One of the people I had the pleasure of recording was former Matron Maura O’Connell.

Having spent a number of decades at the hospital, she was witness to significant development there:

“Then, as the years went on, orthopaedic surgery changed substantially, like the first, I remember well the first total hip replacement … I remember the lady. She was quiet. She was a quiet young woman. She would have been very active if she hadn’t hip problems. I always remember she had a scissors gait (a form of gait abnormality) and the one thing she wanted to do was to be able to go dancing and the transport would be the back of the motorbike with her husband. And she achieved it! So t’was great, she was the first. She had one hip done first and then some months later she had the second one done and she was very proud of being able to wear Cuban heel shoes!”

We also decided to commission the publication of a history of the orthopaedic and contracted oral historian and author Dr Tomás Mac Conmara, who has produced The Ministry of Healing, St Mary’s Orthopaedic Hospital Cork: An Oral and Historical Record.

The booklet briefly explores the foundation of ‘the Orthopaedic’ as a development originally intended to respond to a growing fever concern in the city, to its reshaped focus as a facility concentrated on orthopaedics.

The early days of the hospital are examined, including the charged episode of a polio epidemic in the hospital’s first year in operation.

Some of the key personalities who lent their support to the endeavour are placed in the foreground, as are the many frustrations and challenges of dealing with long stay patients in a complex originally constructed for a different purpose.

The booklet also charts the hospital’s parallel evolution to unprecedented development in modern healthcare and underlines its primacy as the first hospital in Ireland to undertake an artificial hip replacement operation in 1970.

The Memories of the Orthopaedic Collection and The Ministry of Healing publication will both be launched at the Cork Folklore Project Outreach Hub in the North Cathedral Visitor Centre on Thursday, April 12, at 12.45pm.

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