30 years on... day the North Infirmary was shut

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the closure of the North Infirmary. JIM McKEON mourns the passing of a revered city institution which treated patients for centuries
30 years on... day the North Infirmary was shut
North Infirmary Hospital.

MY father always made me feel special. I loved being with him. He was a 5ft 7im giant, a Leitrim man, with piercing blue eyes and shoulders like the Mountains of Mourne, with an eternal Woodbine hanging from his lower lip.

When I was a young lad he had a saying for everything, the same old saying for almost any predicament. He’d shake his head, scratch his chin and state with great authority: “Some things never change.”

It covered a multitude. This saying summed up perfectly the Irish health service in 1987, except that it was not static. It is hard to believe but in the last 30 years our health service has actually deteriorated. Why? Is it because there are too many chiefs and not enough indians? Are consultants the problem? Is it the poor wages of the nurses? Does anybody know? Does anybody care?

A succession of governments have tackled this problem with a blinding apathy. These so-called leaders of our country don’t seem to care. Thirty years ago our health system was a shambles.

The date November 26, 1987, will never be forgotten. On that day the North Infirmary in Cork city closed down. People thought it could never happen. It was like the death of an old friend.

This celebrated structure, almost 300 years old, touched practically every family in Cork at one time or another. The official excuse given for its closure was that funds were not available.

The North Infirmary, a political football, was kicked into touch, another cold-hearted decision made by yet another cold-hearted government.

It was an iconic building in a legendary area surrounded by a plethora of fascinating mementos of Cork’s colourful past from a religious, historical and political viewpoint. There were the twin towers of the Catholic cathedral and the protestant Shandon steeple standing side by side. Two Cork icons, Jack Lynch and Mother Jones, were born nearby. Rowland’s Lane was named after the Cork mayor who first wore the present chain of office 230 years ago. Annie Moore left from that lane to be the first passenger to arrive at Ellis Island in 1892.

Next door is Lenihan’s, one of the oldest sweet shops around, famous for clove rock, bulls’ eyes and bon bons, favourite treats for countless Cork children.

Directly over it is the remarkable Father O’Flynn’s Loft, the Cork Shakespearean Company. Then we have Firkin Crane, the original Shandon Steeple which was cannon-balled by King William in 1691. The Dominicans took over but then moved to Pope’s Quay.

The unique Cork Butter Market, the envy of Europe, once shipped its produce all over the world. Across the street are the little alms houses and Shandon Steeple. Father Prout, who wrote The Bells of Shandon is buried near the front door.

It is just a short stroll down John Redmond Street to another imposing hotel building with almost 300 years of diverse history behind it. A large stone slab stands symbolically inside the front gate with the inscription NOSOCOMIUM HOC DEO AUSPICE. FUNDATIUM ANNO SALUTIS 1720 (This building is under the protection of God. Founded in 1720). It is a reminder of where it all began and what it once was; the North Infirmary, the first general hospital to be opened in Cork.

Initially, it consisted of a ward of six beds but, like a tiny acorn, it grew into a giant oak. Many famous doctors worked in the North Infirmary. Two spring to mind: Dr Emmet, father of patriot, Robert. Nearby Emmet Place is named after him. Also, Dr C. Y. Pearson, appointed Honourable Surgeon to the King of England, George III.

Down the years, the North Infirmary struggled through many crises, medical and historical. In 1832, the city suffered a severe cholera outbreak and staff responded brilliantly with much help from Fr Prout and Fr. Matthew, who once donated £250 to the cause.

The building was turned into a fever hospital during the great famine in 1847. In World War I, the nuns’ great work was awarded with the Red Cross from King George V. Who will ever forget those nuns with their butterfly headgear?

Although the hospital played a significant part in the history of the city, money, or lack of it, was a constant problem. Through good and bad times it struggled on until the recession of the 1980s brought its death knell. This decision was greeted with disbelief.

Twelve thousand black-edged mortuary cards were distributed and protesters carried posters stating ‘Keep our hospital operating’ and ‘Don’t make our hospital a casualty’. Local elderly people offered to pay fifty pence a week hoping it would help the cause.

It was all in vain. At 4.46 pm on Thursday, November 26, 1987, it was all over.

The last patient, 82-year-old Mary McCarthy, left the building by wheelchair and was driven by ambulance to St Patrick’s Hospital. The Butter Exchange Band and Shandon bells played a duet of Old Lang Syne as two thousand people, each with a lighting candle, looked on while the lights were slowly switched off from the top to the ground floor. Many stood there crying for several hours.

Like much of the area in the shadow of Shandon, the North Infirmary was passed into the realms of memory. If my father was still with us he’d shake his head and say: Some things never change.

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