The news that a collection of hitherto largely-unused manuscripts have been acquired by an archive is to be welcomed by any history enthusiast. Recently, such news emerged from the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland (RCPI) when that body launched a cataloguing and preservation project on the records of the Cork Street Fever Hospital, which were donated to the RCPI in 2013. The Wellcome Trust-funded project is scheduled to last twelve months and will facilitate the records being made accessible to researchers. Upon reading about the project on the RCPI Heritage Centre’s blog (http://rcpilibrary.blogspot.ie), I felt some excitement, as I had worked closely with the Cork Street Fever Hospital records for the duration of a one-year Masters in the Social and Cultural History of Medicine (in the School of History and Archives at UCD) and had always hoped for their depositing in an archive. Every Friday for a year, I visited Cherry Orchard Hospital in Dublin, where the Cork Street records were stored, and was consistently amazed at the wealth of material in this collection long neglected by researchers.
The Cork Street Fever Hospital opened on 14 May 1804 following a public campaign by a group of philanthropic Dublin men to establish a specialised hospital to cater for the fever-stricken poor of Dublin city. The timing of the initiative was significant. The turn of the century had seen a particularly acute fever epidemic across Dublin, which impacted greatly on the poorer classes of the city. The establishment of this institution is not to be as a stand-alone development. Fever hospitals had been emerging across Britain and Ireland since the mid-1780s as part of a wider move away from ‘general’ hospitals and towards specialisation in institutional care. The historian M.C. Buer referred to a ‘fever hospital movement’ in this period and it is in this light that the establishment of the Cork Street hospital is to be understood. These early fever hospitals – Limerick (1780), Chester (1784), Belfast (1790s), Manchester (1796), Waterford (1799), Cork (1802), Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1804), Leeds (1804), Cork Street, Dublin (1804), Liverpool (1806) – were established in a context wherein information pertaining to the activities of the founders and managing committees were exchanged between these institutions. For example, the design of the Cork Street hospital was carried out in consultation with fever hospital doctors from Manchester and Liverpool, and it appears that the Manchester hospital served as an administrative model for that in Cork Street.
The location of the new hospital on Cork Street was also significant. Cork Street is located in the Liberties, which lie to the south-west of the medieval city core and where the city’s textile industries were concentrated. The Liberties were largely populated by artisans, small manufacturers and various other categories of the poor and it was for this population, who were susceptible to illness from the city’s regular fever outbreaks, that the Cork Street Fever Hospital was built. The fever hospital remained open until around 1953, when it was moved out to Cherry Orchard (just west of Ballyfermot) and the buildings on Cork Street were retained for use as a welfare home for elderly people. The buildings are still standing and the HSE today operate Bru Chaoimhin care centre at the Cork Street site.
The Cork Street Fever Hospital is an institution of critical importance to the history of modern Dublin. The wealth and range of material in the manuscript sources, now held by the RCPI, is rare for an Irish institution, but a notable absence in the early-nineteenth-century records is (as far as I could see) any patient’s register. Nonetheless, the records of this hospital will provide an insight into so many aspects of Dublin’s history: medical practice; how the poor experienced illness and disease; the role of philanthropy; the evolving role of the state in providing, or at least funding, welfare services.
Jacinta Prunty, Dublin slums, 1800-1925: a study in urban geography (Dublin, 1998); Laurence M. Geary, Medicine and charity in Ireland, 1714-1851 (Dublin, 2004); Eugene Dudley, ‘A silent witness – Cork Street Fever Hospital’ in Dublin Historical Record, lxii, no. 1 (Spring 2009), pp 103-26.