11 June 2020
The military school in
the Phoenix Park that
became a hospital
Walking along the banks of the River Liffey between Islandbridge and Chapelizod in the early summer sunshine earlier this week, Francis Johnson’s fine classical building at Saint Mary’s Hospital in the Phoenix Park could be seen in a majestic view provided by a break in the trees, looking down on the river valley and out across to the Wicklow Mountains to the south.
Recent figures from the HSE show that during this year’s Covid-19 pandemic, 21 patients have died at the hospital since the start of April. But, despite this sad part in these difficult times, the hospital building has an interesting place in Irish architectural and military history, and also has a link with some of Ireland’s great writers.
The Royal Hibernian Military School was founded by the Hibernian Society, a charity set in Dublin in 1769 after the Seven Years War, and opened in the Phoenix Park as the Hibernian Asylum.
The Hibernian Society petitioned George III for a charter, and a royal charter to open an establishment in the aid of orphans and children of soldiers. King George III granted a Charter of Incorporation on 15 July, and the School Governors held their inaugural meeting on 6 November in Dublin Castle.
The school first opened as the Hibernian Society of the Orphans and Children of Soldiers, with 90 boys and 50 girls in March 1770. The Hibernian Society aimed to help the orphaned children of soldiers who died in war. This was later extended to the destitute families of soldiers leaving Ireland for overseas service.
When a regiment was sent overseas, six families per company were allowed to accompany a battalion. The families were selected by drawing lots, and families left behind had no support of any kind, living in misery and destitution. The burden of destitute military families fell hard on Ireland’s two main garrisons, Dublin and Cork.
The children at the school were in four categories:
• Deceased father
• Deceased mother
• Both parents living (father possibly on foreign service)
The children were in the charge of an Inspector and Inspectress, assisted by the Chaplain and an assistant mistress. The first school chaplain, the Revd Nathaniel Smyth, was also the curate in Chapelizod parish.
The school buildings were erected in 1771 in the Phoenix Park, overlooking Chapelizod in the Liffey valley and with panoramic views of the Wicklow Mountains.
The chapel, designed by Thomas Cooley (1740-1784), was built in 1773, and 30 years later Francis Johnston (1760-1829) designed the extensions to the buildings.
Thomas Cooley trained with the architect and engineer Robert Mylne (1733-1810) while he was building Blackfriars Bridge in London. In 1769, he won the competition to design a new Royal Exchange in Dublin, and the building, now the City Hall, was completed in 1779.
Cooley built several public buildings in Ireland in the neoclassical style, including the Archbishop’s Palace, the Royal School, the gaol and the library in Armagh, the Bishop’s Palace (Clarisford House) in Killaloe, Co Clare, and he did some work on the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham. His Four Courts in Dublin was completed by James Gandon. He also designed Saint Mary’s Church, Newtownbarry (Buncody), Co Wexford.
Francis Johnston’s works in Dublin include the GPO and Nelson’s Pillar, the Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle, Saint George’s Church and Saint Andrew’s Church, Westland Row.
A census in 1785 showed that 1,400 children whose fathers were dead or serving overseas were begging on the streets of Dublin. The military authorities assumed responsibility for the Hibernian School in 1806, and it was renamed the Royal Hibernian Military School.
By 1808, the system and organisation of the school followed closely that of the Duke of York’s Royal Military School, then at Chelsea. By 1816, when the Revd Thomas Philip Le Fanu (1783-1845) was the chaplain, there were 600 children at the school. The numbers had soared due in large part to casualties during the Napoleonic Wars.
Le Fanu, who is probably the best known of the school chaplains, later became Dean of Emly (1826-1845). He was the father of the novelist Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873) – the Phoenix Park and the village and parish church in Chapelizod appear in his stories. The House by the Churchyard (1863), the last of Le Fanu’s Gothic novels, is set in Chapelizod and is cited by James Joyce in Finnegans Wake, also set in Chapelizod.
The longest-serving chaplain at the scool, the Revd Samuel O’Sullivan, who was the school from 1826 to 1851, was a brother of the famed Canon Mortimer ‘Souper’ O’Sullivan, who was Master of Tipperary Grammar School and Dungannon Royal School at the same time. Both brothers were Donnellan Lecturers in Trinity College Dublin in 1851.
The school was coeducational until the girls left for the Drummond School in Chapelizod village in 1853. That year, the school’s first ‘stand of colours’ were presented by the then Prince of Wales.
The school was a feeder for the British Army. In the mid-19th century, children as young as 12 could enlist in the army but generally enlistment began at 14. By the 1900s, 50 per cent of pupils were going straight into the army. By then, of course, the school was not only an orphanage.
Many of the school’s pupils were recognised for their gallantry, including Frederick Jeremiah Edwards who was decorated with the Victoria Cross for bravery in World War I. On the other hand, William Joseph Mellows, an army sergeant, sent his son, also William Joseph Mellows, to the school. The boy grew up to be Liam Mellows (1892-1922), a key figure in the 1916 Rising, the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War.
From 1903 to 1920, the school chaplain was the Rector of Chapelizod, the Revd Amyrald Dancer Purefoy, and his curate, the historian the Revd Robert Henry Murray, was the assistant chaplain.
The last school chaplain, in 1921-1922, the Revd John Francis Cox, later became Assistant Chaplain in Chief in the British Army, and an honorary chaplain to King George VI.
The school campus had expanded by 1922 from three acres to 33. By then, however, talks were taking place about moving the school to Northern Ireland. However, the cost was prohibitive and so the school was moved to Shorncliffe in Folkestone, Kent, in 1922. Having decided not to take on any new students, the RHMS merged with the Duke of York’s Royal Military School in 1924.
A stained-glass window above the ‘minstrel gallery’ in the Duke of York’s school chapel depicts a saluting boy soldier and commemorates the merger of the schools.
The school documents – including admissions registers, board minutes and commandants’ correspondence – moved with them. The school records were stored in London, but they were destroyed by fire during the London blitz of World War II in 1940. The surviving registers were transferred to the National Archives, Kew, in 2003.
Meanwhile, the school premises were taken over by the government of the new Irish Free State, and the buildings were used as a hospital by the Irish Army. In 1948 It was transferred to the Dublin Health Authority in 1948 and became a Chest Hospital; in 1964 it became a facility for older patients and today it provides accommodation for dependent older people, with 198 residential places.