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The Hospital for the Incurables



by Stephen McCormic

(Author of The Tithe Defaulters)

a unique genealogical resource for the 18th and 19th centuries

The Hospital was founded in 1743 and today, while not in its original location, it is still very much in operation. Given that the hospital has had such a long history it is not surprising that it has an extensive archive. While some of the archival material deals with rather dry but necessary matters, other material deals with what could be called the more human side.

Records of genealogical interest include 

  • the Minute Books of Governors’ meetings (these list 1,373 Governors, 296 patients and many hundreds of suppliers and visitors to the Hospital), 

  • the Patient Registry (there are 3,165 names listed here), 

  • the Candidates Books (the waiting lists, in other words, which name 2,643 applicants), 

  • Application Forms (which give us 269 names and a great deal of other detail besides) and, finally, 

  • a list of Hospital employees (814 employees are named). There are other sources such as Visitors Books, wherein visitors entered their names and addresses and the date of their visit.


A note on names and locations


 From its foundation in 1743 to 1887 it was called the "Hospital for Incurables". In June 1887, with permission from Whitehall, it took the name the "Royal Hospital for Incurables." The word "Incurables" was dropped from the title in 1966, for obvious reasons. It has been the Royal Hospital Donnybrook ever since.


During the years 1743 to 1792 the Hospital had two locations, both in Lazer’s-hill (modern day Townsend Street). It has been located here in Donnybrook since late 1792. In that year the Governors moved patients, coal and furniture, from Townsend Street into what was then called Buckingham Hospital here in Donnybrook. Buckingham Hospital had been bought by the Governors of the Hospital for Incurables six years previously in 1786.

The background to its foundation.

With the monastic confiscations of Henry VIII in the early 16th century, the plain folk of Ireland lost, among other things, their centres of healing and their shelters against life’s vicissitudes. Ireland as a result of these confiscations was, for most of the 16th century and all of the 17th century, without any nationwide centres of healing and help.

We read that the Victorians held cleanliness next to Godliness, but in Georgian Dublin, where our story begins, it was next to impossible, as was staying healthy. With the so-called Georgian Enlightenment, some attempts were made to help the poor and the infirm. The foundation of the Royal Hospital Donnybrook was one such attempt. The fact that it is still operating and indeed, flourishing, is nothing short of miraculous. It is also a testament to the commitment and zeal of its founders and to all of those who have been associated with it over a span of 263 years.

What was the background to its foundation ? There is a poem here in the archives which celebrates the Hospital’s foundation. It is called, "Verses occasioned by seeing proposals for Founding an Hospital for Incurables in Dublin." It was "printed by and for George Faulkner" in 1743.

The poem is important. It helps us understand the meaning of "Incurable" as a description of a person. It also tells us quite clearly why the Hospital was founded. The poem opens with God venting his anger on Ireland. Death "stalks in Triumph o’er the Land" thinning it "with an Iron Hand". The poem gives us abiding descriptions of the earlier patients of the Hospital. They are portrayed as "sad Objects" and as "Incurables". The poet tells us of one particular consequence of having them "infest our Streets". Mothers often recall how, on seeing these sad objects in the streets, the child in the womb either died, or, worse still, they find: "Their wretched Offspring maimed or blind." It was thus important to remove them from public view. For, as the poet says, the Incurables are "shocking to the human Eye."

External records.

There are some external records available for the year of the Hospital’s foundation relevant to it. One of them is the Records of Dublin Corporation (Dublin Assembly Rolls). There is a reference in them to supplying the Hospital for Incurables on Lazers-hill with piped water. The entry concerning this was made on October 21st 1743 and reads as follows:

The directors of the Hospital for Incurables setting forth that they have a house on Lazers–hill to receive and maintain poor persons who are incurable, to be allowed a pipe for the use of the said house Gratis, to be laid at their own expense: Granted that the Petitioners have a branch laid in of three quarters of an inch diameter gratis: during the City’s pleasure the same to be laid at the expense of the Hospital.

So if they paid for the laying of the pipe they could have free water.

Buckingham Hospital1784

The building here in Donnybrook began its recorded life in 1784 under the direction of one of the most important personages in the earlier years of the Hospital’s development, Richard Woodward, Church of Ireland Bishop of Cloyne. John Hobart, Earl of Buckinghamshire, Lord Lieutenant in Ireland, 1777-1780, seems to have been a friend of his. Bishop Woodward corresponded with John Hobart when the latter returned to England. From this correspondence we learn that the Earl founded a "Buckingham Hospital" here in Donnybrook under Woodward’s supervision. It was completed in 1785 but "though partly furnished it was as yet unapplied." One year later (1786), however, it was bought for the Governors of the Hospital for Incurables, Townsend St, by John La Touche, who was at that time Treasurer of what the Hospital’s archives call "Buckingham Smallpox Hospital". However, it lost its identity when it became the new premises of the Hospital for Incurables in late 1792.

The Charter

At a Meeting of the Board of Governors held on the 27th October 1798, it was resolved to apply for a Charter "for the purpose of Incorporating the Governors of this Charity". The request for a Charter was granted by King George III (1799).The Charter outlines the work of the Hospital. It had, "has for many years past been of great and manifest benefit to the Poor, in and near our said City, who are afflicted with disorders declared to be Incurable, by dieting, lodging, clothing and maintaining such poor persons…without Fee or Reward."


From 1771 to 1799 fifty governors were elected. While from 1800 to 1900, 1,323 governors were elected, (316 of these were female). The first female Governor elected was the Hon. Miss Southwell, who was elected on October 17th 1865. All of these Governors are listed in the archives. It is important to remember that they were Governors of a voluntary Hospital which admitted patients for life. Patients, in other words, did not go there for a short time to be cured of an illness. The Hospital was costly to run because its diet was generous. It also clothed the patients and provided "stimulants" ( beer, wine, brandy and whiskey). Many Governors used their own money to finance the Hospital. The Hospital had always relied on charitable donations, bequests, various types of fund raising, including Charity Sermons and in particular, on voluntary service.

The Patients

In 1844 the Governors made a public appeal for funds. Part of their appeal made the point that the Hospital was too well hidden from public view. It was "hid, as it were, in a corner & in a peculiarly healthful & secluded situation, it has never effectually met the public eye as to elicit Public sympathy." They pointed out that the Hospital was intended for those who are "permanently ill, from every variety of incurable Malady …(they) are received within its walls, are nursed & tended with unremitting care & tenderness, it receives those who are rejected from every other sanatary (sic) Institution & is the last refuge on this side of the grave for suffering Mortality combined with poverty." (patient database held by the author)

Recording Patient Detail

It is only when the 2nd Minute Book begins to record the name of every patient in the Hospital, which practice began in 1797, and even more important, when the Patient Registry was opened on January 1st, 1817 that we begin to get a reliable record of Patients in terms of their admissions, deaths, resignations and dismissals. For example, in 1797 there were 19 male and 15 female patients in the Hospital. The total number of patients in the Hospital rises steadily from this date (with some reversals) until it finally reaches a total of 100 for the first time in 1864. The total passed 200 in 1894.

Those who were admitted

By the end of 1900, 1,589 Catholics, 1,062 Protestants and two Jews had been admitted. Not all Patients had their religion recorded. Between April 1771 and the end of 1900 there were 1,565 male patients and 1,603 female patients admitted. We do not have the figures for admissions for the period from the Ho spital’s opening in 1743 to April 1771 as the first Minute Book remains lost (it has been lost since 1805). What did the patients suffer from and were they all in fact incurable? The main diseases recorded are cancer, paralysis, consumption and heart disease. But there were scores of other diseases recorded, there was even one called "exotic" and another, "Tic Dolorease".

Faraway Places

Some patients came from the other side of the Earth. In November 1829, an East Indian, with neither hands nor feet, entered the Boardroom for his examination hoping to gain admission. He was told that he need not appear again at the Board (the Governors would waive that rule) and "that his case would be considered at the next vacancy". It was and he was admitted on the 7th February 1830. He died on the 16th June 1841. His name was James Francis and his occupation was given as "servant". He was admitted by reason of his double disability.

George Hippi was a fourteen year old Australian Aborigine. He was a Protestant and a servant in 6, Harrington Street. He suffered from Consumption. He was admitted to the Hospital on October 19th 1869. Unfortunately, George died very shortly afterwards, on December 12th 1869.


Candidates for admission had to fill out an application form. We have the application form for Catherine Lawler who was admitted on August 16th 1859. It is the oldest surviving application form. It serves to indicate the genealogical importance of hospital records.

The Form of Application consists of one large blue sheet . It tells us the following. Catherine was a servant. She was 21. She was under the care of J. Gordon at the Whitworth Medical Hospital, North Brunswick Street. Her complaint was chronic rheumatism. Three former employers signed for her. They were: William S. Burton, 17, North Richmond Street, J. Alexander Scott, Baymount, Clontarf and Nicholas Walsh, 42, Ushers Quay. The Roman Catholic Chaplain of the Church at the House of Industry stated that Catherine had attended divine service there. The priest’s name was J. Faulkner. Catherine signed her own name and the witnesses to her signature were Eliza Balf and Anna Toussaint. Francis Bessonnett, Governor of the Hospital for Incurables, also signed his name. Dr Croker examined her and confirmed her complaint. Catherine died in the Hospital on October 9th 1916. She was 57 years in the Hospital. There are 269 Application Forms available up to the end of 1900


James Adams, "Licensed Appraiser and Auctioneer, 17, Merrion Row, Dublin", undertook an Inventory of the Hospital, both inside and out, from August 5th to August 16th , 1898. It is an entirely fitting way to end this article. Combined with the plans that we have of the Hospital at that time, the Inventory allows us to recreate the Hospital as it was in August 1898. It runs to two hundred and seventy one pages of a notebook with on average, twelve entries per page. In the linen store there was a "Roll of American Oil baize" and among other things "576 Blankets".

The bleakest of entries is that for "The Dead House". It reads as follows 

5 elm coffins
1 Bier (ashe)
2 Rail top tables with loose marble tops for holding coffins
Gas Bracket


Current Status:
Awaiting Publication

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Eneclann  is Ireland's leading genealogical research and publishing company, specialising in new and rare historical records. The company was founded in 1998. Based at the Enterprise Centre in Trinity College, Dublin, Eneclann has brought together the specialist skills of professional historians, genealogists, archivists, software developers and publishers, to provide historical data and research services of the highest standard. Clicking on the title line will bring you to their web site to get copies of their CD-ROMs and to order their full research services.        




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Last Updated on 8 May  2009