Donal Hickey in Examiner >

For the first time in 160 years, an imposing building which dominates Killarney, Co Kerry, and which once had more than 1,000 residents, was unoccupied last night.

The final group of seven patients yesterday left one of the country’s oldest psychiatric institutions, St Finan’s Hospital, amid hopes that traditional ways of dealing with, and attitudes towards, mental illness are also very much in the past.

The huge Victorian-era building on 30 acres overlooks Fitzgerald Stadium and has commanding views of the surrounding lakes and mountains.

Its closure has been planned for many years and conditions have been strongly criticised by the Inspector of Mental Hospitals and the Mental Health Commission. (Examiner >)

In 2003, for example, inspector Dermot Walsh said conditions were “quite unacceptable”, especially in the male wards, the last of which — St Peter’s — shut yesterday.

The Mental Health Commission had called for the hospital’s closure in 2009. It had indicated St Finan’s registration as an approved centre for mental health services would not be renewed after Apr 2014.

The former patients of St Peter’s have been transferred to another building within the hospital grounds — the standalone O’Connor unit, a more modern facility where 31 beds are used by psycho-geriatric and long-stay patients with enduring mental illness.

The closure of the O’Connor unit is planned for 2014 by which time an alternative mental health centre is expected to be completed in the nearby grounds of Killarney’s former Isolation Hospital.

St Finan’s has been in operation since 1852, when the first patients were admitted to the then Killarney District Lunatic Asylum.

Designed by well-known architect Thomas Deane, the grandeur of the building soon attracted attention. A report in The British Daily News compared the elegance of the “new palace” to the grim poverty of the Killarney peasantry in the post-Famine years.

“To build such an establishment in such a place was like giving a splendid waistcoat to a man without a shirt,” the report proclaimed.

The hospital had 135 patients and there was an initial problem of unfilled beds, as well as problems with dampness and water streaking down the walls, which continued for years.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, St Finan’s patient population sometimes exceeded 1,000 and the hospital was also a major local employer.

Legendary head psychiatrist Dr Eamon O’Sullivan, the trainer of All-Ireland-winning Kerry football teams, made a key contribution to the development of occupational therapy and rehabilitation programmes from 1925-62.

Under the programmes, able male patients played a huge part in the construction of Fitzgerald Stadium in the 1930s. A plaque in the stadium acknowledges their contribution. The hospital farm and gardens were also better developed and garden produce used for hospital consumption.

The hospital had a deep-rooted sporting tradition, especially in rowing and Gaelic football, with staff forming many championship-winning crews and teams. Several All-Ireland-winning Kerry footballers were staff members.

The 1960s saw the slow emergence of a more enlightened attitude to mental illness. In 1961, a school of nursing was established in the hospital, followed by the opening of outpatient clinics which helped reintegrate patients back into the community.

The inpatient population gradually decreased from the early 1960s, when it reached 1,100, following the introduction of new ways of treating mental illness and a focus on rehabilitation in the community.

For several years, many patients have lived among the community in Killarney. Hostels and daycare facilities have opened in towns around the county while acute admissions have been taking place in the mental health unit in Kerry General Hospital in Tralee since 1992.

Cormac Williams of the Psychiatric Nurses’ Association yesterday said the closure of the old building was long overdue.

“The most regrettable aspect of the closure was the final demise of the Victorian hospital was caused by cutbacks, retirements, and the recession rather that any meaningful movement to a comprehensive community-based mental health service in line with the 2006 report A Vision for Change,” he said.

The next item on the agenda will centre on the future of the conservation-listed building. As it commands a prime position in Killarney, the possibility of converting it into a top-class hotel, apartment complex, or leisure centre was being freely mentioned during the Celtic Tiger era.

However, the cost of a necessary refurbishment of such an old building is seen by many developers as prohibitive.

Local voluntary organisations and politicians have been calling for several years to retain the building in public ownership. Such calls are now certain to be more strident, with complete closure of the hospital campus due in less than two years.

Killarney community activist Michael Gleeson yesterday said it would be a perfect location for a town hall and for other civic services such as a one-stop-shop for people accessing local authorities, as well as a centre for the arts.

“But there are many other creative functions that could be served and serviced in the building.

“In order that the theme of health and wellbeing would continue, part of the building could serve as a place where people would gather for mutual support and positive recreation.

“Inevitably, cost would present a serious challenge, but the building was built to serve the needs of our county and maybe, just maybe, the HSE would take that into consideration when the time comes to dispose of the property.”

Killarney Town Council has unsuccessfully sought hospital land for housing while voluntary organisations including the Irish Wheelchair Association and the MS Society, have also failed in attempts to get land there for a purpose-built centre.

The HSE, meanwhile, said it had been working towards the closure for some years, adding that the wards had been closed on a phased basis and appropriate, alternative accommodation provided for the residents.

A spokesman said the O’Connor unit would continue to provide services until a replacement unit is constructed. Funding has been approved for a 40-bed replacement facility and a technical advisory team has been appointed. A contractor is due to be appointed by Apr 2013.

It is also proposed to transfer the St Finan’s catering department and general administration to other, more suitable accommodation in the Killarney area in the very near future, according to the HSE.

Plans are also progressing on a new close observation unit at Kerry General Hospital: planning has been approved and tender documents are being drawn up. It is anticipated that the unit will be completed by the middle of next year.

Yesterday, however, marked the end of an era and an historic milestone for mental health services in the South-West.

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