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The Grangegorman neighbourhood has had a long and complex history as an institutional quarter, since the early nineteenth century. The Clock Tower building was constructed as a penitentiary, and the history of the building as a place of incarceration can be traced across more than seventy years, from 1823 to 1897, through the annual reports of the inspectors general of prisons in Ireland. It was utilised first as a fever hospital, however; then as a prison for male and female offenders, a female-only penitentiary, a female convict depot; as a cholera hospital; and finally as an asylum.

Conceived as a penitentiary—a place where both the physical and moral wellbeing of the prisoner could be enhanced—Grangegorman was seen as a way of turning criminals from ‘vice to virtue’ and returning them to society as penitent and reformed characters. This was to be achieved through the ‘separate system’: totally separating the prisoners by day and by night in single cells.

Prior to this, prisons were ‘places of confinement rather than punishment’, where offenders awaited their sentence—physical punishment, banishment or execution.[1] The penal system was harsh, cruel and inhumane. Often men, women and children—tried and untried—were held together in one room with no hygiene facilities or heating, and no access to fresh air or exercise. Corruption among gaolers was rife.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, banishment or transportation of people was a measure utilised by the authorities to rid society of criminals while also providing free labour to the colonies in the West Indies and America. The American War of Independence in 1776 closed off this avenue. Overcrowded gaols forced Britain to find an alternative location for its offenders, leading to the establishment of the Australian penal colonies in New South Wales in 1788 and in Van Diemen’s Land in 1803.

In the eighteenth century, penal reformers like Sir Jeremiah Fitzpatrick and John Howard brought the wretched penal conditions to the attention of the public and the law makers. Legislation was enacted that set out to ensure better architectural design of gaols, with better conditions for the inmates. The welfare of the prisoners, in tandem with their reform through hard work, religious instruction and literacy training, was at the heart of these actions. Consequently, the prisons of the nineteenth century bore little resemblance to what had gone before.

In 1813 the area of Grangegorman was selected for the construction of a penitentiary to hold both male and female prisoners. Richmond Penitentiary was completed in 1816, according to the weathervane atop the Clock Tower building (see Fig. 1). Due to the onset of a fever epidemic, however, the building was used initially as an emergency hospital, but by 1819 it opened its doors to its first criminal inmates. Although described as a penitentiary it never lived up to its name; the construction of the building did not allow for all prisoners to be accommodated in individual cells and so the ‘separate system’, an integral element of a penitentiary, could not be strictly followed. Tensions between the Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland chaplains amid accusations of proselytising led to an enquiry into inmate complaints that they had been mistreated and tortured to convert to Protestantism, resulting in the closure of Richmond Penitentiary 1831. This period of the building’s history has been described as ‘an experiment that failed’.[2]

Fig. 1—The weathervane on top of the Clock Tower, Grangegorman, showing the date 1816. (Photo: J. Kavanagh)

The management of female convicts forms an important aspect of the Grangegorman penal story. Female offenders were championed by Mrs Elizabeth Fry, the Quaker prison reformer. Mrs Fry, in her philanthropic work in England and Scotland, had long been an advocate of female prisoners being cared for by female officers in separate buildings from their male counterparts. In 1827 she visited Ireland and chaired a meeting of the newly formed Hibernian Ladies Society for promoting the improvement of Female Prisoners in Dublin. By 1836 the concept of a penitentiary was again a policy pursued by the authorities, and what was now called the Grangegorman Female Penitentiary—the first all-female prison in the British Isles—was opened, to the delight of the inspectors general who in their 1837 report enthused about this new facility.

The new prison had two roles; first, to cater for those females convicted in the City of Dublin and sentenced to a term of imprisonment ranging from twenty-four hours to two years, for crimes such as larceny, receiving stolen goods, violent assaults, deserting children, vagrancy and drunkenness. Second, to receive female convicts under sentence of transportation to the Australian penal colonies from their respective county gaols prior to embarkation. This aspect of the penitentiary’s history adds a transnational element to its narrative.

The matron of Grangegorman was Mrs Marian Rawlins. Having worked in Cold Bath Fields Penitentiary in England, Mrs Rawlins had been recommended by Mrs Fry to act as the first holder of this office. ‘Governess, Teacher of Works and Schoolmistress’ were the duties ascribed to the matron, and whereas she was ‘wholly responsible for the internal government of the Penitentiary’, a governor, Mr Marques, was appointed as being responsible for the ‘safe Custody of the Prisoners’.[3] This, no doubt was because of the legislation at the time that held that ‘It shall not be lawful for any Woman to be Keeper of any Prison’.[4] Favourable accounts of the all-female prison supervised by female officers continued for many years; the 1842 report of the inspector general of prisons stated that the Grangegorman Female Penitentiary was no longer viewed as ‘an experiment’.

The building was constructed in a fan shape, with the areas between each spoke of the ‘fan’ forming yards and exercise grounds (see Fig. 2). The cells were twelve-feet-three-inches square by eleven feet high to the centre of the ceiling, which was arched. The doors were of very thick wood, secured by massive bolts. Twenty cells were generally allocated for the convicts, along with two-day rooms, totally separated from the other inmates. The building could still not accommodate every prisoner in a separate cell at night.

Fig. 2—Plan of Grangegorman Penitentiary,from Fifty-first Report
of the Inspectors General on the State of the Prisons of Ireland (1872).

The women in Grangegorman Female Penitentiary worked at knitting, sewing, laundry, cooking, domestic duties and cleaning the prison. Contracts were undertaken for providing uniforms and laundry services for private residences, earning a profit for the penitentiary that off-set the running costs of the institution. The prisoners received a share of the profits. In addition, there are accounts of women learning to read and write, which were seen as important skills to have on discharge.

The shortness of sentences, however—twenty-four hours for drunkenness and up to a month for vagrancy—did not allow for the reform of all offenders, as the re-committal figures for these offences attest. Out of a total of 71,314 female inmates in Grangegorman between 1885 and 1895, over 33,500 were committed for drunkenness.[5] Recidivists were highlighted in the annual reports, with examples given of how often prisoners had been committed ranging from 63 to 121 occasions.[6]

The diet of the prisoners as noted in the 1843 annual report consisted of eight ounces of oatmeal in stirabout with milk for breakfast and four pounds of potatoes with buttermilk for dinner.[7] By 1848 the diet had been reduced—breakfast was seven ounces of oat and Indian meal made into stirabout with a pint of milk; dinner was one pound of whole wheaten meal bread and a pint of buttermilk—as a means of discouraging recidivism.[8] It was felt that this worked, as the number of committals to Grangegorman decreased during the years of the Great Famine whereas they had increased in almost every other prison throughout the country.

Religious instruction was given to the prisoners by Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic chaplains. The Sisters of Charity attended the Roman Catholic women on a regular basis. On occasion Rev. Kirby, the Roman Catholic chaplain, accompanied women who had been sentenced to transportation as far as the convict ship, praying with them prior to their departure. Mrs Rawlins was also known to accompany transported women on board ship.

Over 3,200 female convicts, along with hundreds of their free children, were held in the convict section of the penitentiary prior to their transportation to Van Diemen’s Land.[9] The theory behind the Convict Depot was to allow the convicts to be trained in domestic skills, thus affording them better opportunities once they arrived in Van Diemen’s Land. A period of three months was seen as appropriate for this training. In practice, however, not all women received this benefit, as can be seen from the example of the convicts who sailed aboard the Tasmania (2) in 1845.[10] The majority of the 138 convicts spent three months and more in Grangegorman, but more than 30 had arrived into the penitentiary less than one month prior to their embarkation.

The penitentiary’s registers recorded all the relevant personal details of each prisoner, including date and time of reception of each convict; trade or occupation; any previous convictions; and the names and ages of children who accompanied their mothers. In some instances, children already in workhouses were permitted to join their convict mothers in Grangegorman and proceed on the voyage to Australia. The births of babies within the prison were also entered into the register and, sadly, in some instances their deaths (see Fig. 3).

A small proportion of convicts received a commutation of their sentence, granted by the Lord Lieutenant. In other cases the surgeon superintendents of the convict ships rejected some women on the grounds of unfitness for the voyage due to illness. For others still, death befell them while awaiting a ship.

While most convicts had no occupation or trade on entering Grangegorman, on arrival in Van Diemen’s Land all gave an occupation or trade to the colonial officials: country servant, housemaid, laundress, needle-woman, nurse-maid, plain cook were just some of the occupations recorded.[11] Either the training within the Convict Depot was very effective or the women were advised to give an occupation on arrival in Van Diemen’s Land, thereby enhancing their options for employability.

Fig. 3—Registry of female convicts Grangegorman Depot, July 1850
showing the entry for Mary Wilson, Cavan and the birth and death of her son Henry in the Depot

The sentence of transportation ceased in 1852, and was replaced by terms of penal servitude. The Convict Depot at Grangegorman was closed in 1858 and the female convicts were removed to Mountjoy Female Convict Depot. Grangegorman Female Penitentiary was now just a prison for the City of Dublin offenders. In 1874, however, due to overcrowding in the male prison at Richmond Bridewell, the north wing in Grangegorman was fitted up to accommodate male prisoners serving short sentences. What was initially meant to be a temporary arrangement lasted for ten years, and over 30,000 male prisoners passed through the doors of the prison, now referred to in the reports as the County of the City of Dublin Gaol for Females and for Males.[12]

Within two weeks of receiving a direction from the lord lieutenant for the use of Grangegorman Female Prison as an extension to the Richmond Lunatic Asylum, the prison closed.[13] During the penitentiary’s period as a female prison, well over 350,000 women were incarcerated there. On 27 August 1897 thirty-two prisoners were removed from Grangegorman and accommodated in Mountjoy Prison. After more than seventy years, what had once been referred to as the ‘finest prison in Dublin’ ended its time as a penal institution.[14] A new phase was about to begin.

Research resources and further reading

  • Reports of the Inspectors General on the State of the Prisons of Ireland, 1823–77.
  • Reports of the Inspector of Government Prisons, 1850–52.
  • Reports of Directors of Convict Prisons in Ireland, 1854–58.
  • Reports of the General Prisons Board, Ireland 1879–97.

These reports are available online through TCD, at

Grangegorman Female Prison Registers and Registry of Female Convicts Grangegorman Depot; available on the Find My Past website at:, and on microfilm in the National Archives of Ireland (see NAI PRIS 1/9/7 MFGS51/028, etc.).

  • Patrick Carroll-Burke, Colonial discipline the making of the Irish convict system (Dublin, 2000; Four Courts).
  • Elizabeth Fry, Observations on the visiting, superintendence, and government, of female prisoners (London, 1827; J. and A. Arch).
  • Henry Heaney, ‘Ireland’s penitentiary 1820–31: an experiment that failed’, Studia Hibernica 14 (1974), 28–39.
  • Joan Kavanagh, Wicklow’s historic gaol—Education resource pack, Section 2. (Wicklow, 1998; Wicklow Heritage Project, Wicklow County Council).
  • Joan Kavanagh and Dianne Snowden, Van Diemen’s women: a history of transportation to Tasmania (Dublin, 2015; The History Press Ireland).
  • Rebecca Lawlor, Crime in nineteenth-century Ireland: Grangegorman female penitentiary and Richmond male penitentiary, with reference to juveniles and women, 1836–60. Unpublished MLitt thesis. National University of Ireland, Maynooth, 2012.
  • Oliver MacDonagh, The Inspector General: Sir Jeremiah Fitzpatrick and the politics of social reform, 1783–1802 (London, 1981; Croom Helm).
  • Randall McGowan, ‘The well-ordered prison’ in Norval Morris and David J. Rothman (eds), The Oxford history of the prison, 79–109. (Oxford, 1995; Oxford University Press).
  • Rod Morgan, ‘Howard, John’, in Oxford dictionary of national biography; available at:
  • T. King Moylan, The district of Grangegorman, Part II, Dublin Historical Record 7 (2) (March–May 1945), 55–68.
  • Bláithnaid Nolan, Power, punishment and penance: an archival analysis of the transportation of Irish women from Grangegorman in Dublin to Hobart Town in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) from 1844–1853. Unpublished PhD thesis. University College Dublin, 2013.

1. Sixth Report of the Inspectors General on the State of the Prisons of Ireland (1828), p. 16.
2. Patrick Carroll-Burke, Colonial discipline the making of the Irish convict system (Dublin, 2000; Four Courts Press), p. 21.Henry Heaney, ‘Ireland’s penitentiary 1820-31: an experiment that failed’, Studia Hibernica 14 (1974), pp 28-39.
4. Sixteenth Report of the Inspectors-General on the General State of the Prisons of Ireland (1837), pp 8-9.
5. 7 Geo. IV, c. 74, Prisons (Ireland) Act (1826).
6. Reports of the General Prisons Board, Ireland, 1885-96.
7. Twenty-ninth Report of the Inspectors-General on the General State of the Prisons of Ireland (1850), p. 11.
8. Twenty-second Report of the Inspectors-General on the General State of the Prisons of Ireland (1843), p. 24.
9. Twenty-sixth Report of the Inspectors-General on the General State of the Prisons of Ireland (1848), pp 38, 41.
10. ‘Grangegorman Histories: honouring the past’, History Ireland 5 (September/October 2020), News, vol. 28; available at:
11. Joan Kavanagh and Dianne Snowden, Van Diemen’s women: a history of transportation to Tasmania (Dublin, 2015; The History Press Ireland).
12. Kavanagh and Snowden, Van Diemen’s women. See also, Libraries Tasmania, ‘Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania’, at
13. Fifty-third Report of the Inspectors-General on the General State of the Prisons of Ireland (1874), p. 139.
14. Twentieth Report of the General Prisons Board, Ireland (1897-8), p. 5.
15. Twenty-seventh Report of the Inspectors-General on the General State of the Prisons of Ireland (1848), p. 34.

The history of sport in the Richmond Lunatic Asylum, and its successor the Grangegorman Mental Hospital, in the north inner-city of Dublin, was multi-layered. In the decades immediately after the asylum opened in 1814 sport was not part of the treatment of patients, but, as the nineteenth century progressed, this changed.[1] This essay will examine the nature and extent of that change. It will explore, also, how sport was used in an attempt to present a very particular image of the asylum to the wider world: the Richmond Lunatic Asylum as progressive and compassionate, as an institution where patients were cared for and where they were rehabilitated, or at least treated with dignity.

The essay will also assess the manner in which the asylum developed sporting teams that competed in all manner of local and national competitions. These teams were chosen from among the patients and from the growing numbers of people who worked in the institution; indeed—as was the case with such institutions across the United Kingdom—the sporting opportunities available were one of the attractions of working there.[2] Another aspect of this was that the grounds of the Richmond asylum became a place to play. This was something that transformed the landscape of the institution through the provision of dedicated pitches and other sporting facilities; these facilities saw the asylum eventually function as a venue for sports men and women from outside its walls, as well as for staff and patients. The interlocking relationship between these various aspects of sport created a vibrant sporting culture that evolved in the institution across almost two hundred years.


The Richmond Lunatic Asylum initially provided no sport and recreation for its patients. An 1824 report from the inspectors of prisons noted that Richmond was unclean and unpleasant in aspect. In the course of two visits, the inspectors noted how all patients were in their rooms; they deplored the lack of facilities and the fact that access to the garden was extremely restricted.[3] Partly, this absence of recreation and even basic exercise (let alone sport) was a reflection of the overcrowding that was a defining feature of the institution: in 1831, for instance, there were 272 patients resident, but the asylum had just 236 beds. This problem of overcrowding persisted in chronic form through the nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth.[4]

The first meaningful development in respect of exercise for patients at the Richmond Asylum came with the purchase of 16 acres of land from the Earl of Rathdown in 1836. In 1837, a tunnel was built under the road to connect the land with the asylum and 60 male patients were put at work to make a garden. This garden—coupled with the construction of large, open sheds to allow patients to ‘walk and exercise, protected from the rain in winter and the torrid heat of the sun in summer’—allowed convalescent patients some recreational activity.[5] The very ill were not given the same opportunity; the great variation in illnesses experienced by the patients housed in the institution at any one time proved hugely challenging to the creation of an appropriate programme of exercise.

By the second half of the nineteenth century it is clear that many doctors understood—or were coming to understand—the value of exercise, and of recreation in general, as part of treatment for patients in asylums. This was evidenced in the organisation of parties, dances and other forms of entertainment; it is apparent too in the case notes of patients. The realities of the Irish asylum system, however, ensured that this was an uneven experience. This was in part a matter of divergent approaches to finding a balance with the ‘work therapy’ favoured in some regimes, and was conditioned by perceptions of what was appropriate according to class and gender, but it was also a matter of resources.

There were traditions of reading (a library for patients was established at the Richmond Asylum, with a collection of eighteen non-fiction books, in 1844) or playing cards—something that is recorded in the case notes of various patients. There were also isolated references at the Richmond Asylum to patients painting or playing the piano. The most usual form of recreation, however, was to walk in the hospital grounds.[6]

It is not the case that there were no recreational or sporting initiatives; rather that they were not systematic and ordinarily were not pursued with sufficient resources to allow for—as one doctor treating patients at the Richmond Asylum put it—‘curative treatment of the insane’ in the nineteenth century.[7] In short, the mentally ill poor in the public asylum did not enjoy the same access to recreation as those who could afford to pay for private asylum.

In his 1862 book Defects in the moral treatment of insanity in the public lunatic asylums of Ireland, John Blake—a moderate nationalist M.P. and pamphleteer interested in the treatment of mental illness—cited evidence presented to a Royal Commission in Ireland in 1856 about the provision of adequate amusement for patients at Richmond Asylum. Witnesses who spoke to the commission referred to reports and recommendations that proposed significant improvements in the arrangement of recreation, such as billiards, backgammon, chess and draughts, as part of a treatment regime. Some of the witnesses bought such games from their own money, but ‘great improvements are necessary’.[8] Even when resources were committed, things did not run quite as envisioned. For example, a ball-alley was provided but a section of it was then ‘fitted up as a pig-stye for the pigs of the apothecary’.[9]

That ball alley was one of two that were constructed at the asylum in the middle of the nineteenth century, when Samuel Wrigley was in charge. Wrigley told an inquiry in 1857 that the ball courts were used by patients and servants, and that male patients ‘are frequently out playing ball’.[10] This was part of a more concerted effort in the years after the Famine to introduce greater recreational activity for patients. When Dr Joseph Lalor replaced Wrigley and became resident medical superintendent at the Richmond Asylum in 1861, it appears that there was a change of approach; recreation out in the grounds was now firmly encouraged.[11] Lalor wrote in his annual report in 1862 about the provision of football, handball, croquet, darts, bowling and walking for patients. In addition, there were weekly trips to the Phoenix Park, for exercise or to play football, and there was also marching around the Grangegorman grounds in time with the music of the asylum band. While this report most likely exaggerated the place of exercise and sport in the life of the asylum, it nonetheless demonstrates the extent to which it was now at least an aspiration.[12] The western area of the asylum—where the garden for recreation was based—was hugely expanded through the acquisition of more land in the 1860s and it thereafter filled some 57 acres.

Limited advances in the importance attributed to exercise were also evident through the provision of education. There were two national schools—one female, one male—in the Richmond Asylum, governed by a code of rules set down by the state in 1865 for the establishment and regulation of schools in asylums. By 1875 the school-week activities for students included dancing, daily singing classes and the holding of concerts. The closest thing to recreational exercise or sport was ‘marching to music’. A contemporary report noted how ‘a number of patients who marched through the rooms in military order showed how carefully they had been drilled’. This idea of drill was commonplace across the Irish national school system, and for almost all schoolchildren was their only organised physical exercise through the curriculum. Visitors to the schools in the Richmond Asylum on Thursday, 12 August 1875, noted the activities for the day, and as well as formal academic classes, 15 minutes were set aside at 3.45pm for ‘physical exercises, marching, &etc.’ to conclude the school day. These were followed by a rendition of ‘God Save the Queen’.[13]

Programme for the Richmond Asylum Annual Athletic Sports, 1 June 1901.
(National Archives of Ireland Priv 1223/22/16/0007-1. Courtesy of the HSE.)


Sport in the Richmond Lunatic Asylum was about much more than the treatment of patients, however. By the mid-1860s, by which time there were more than 1,000 patients, an annual Sports Day was a vital part of the activities of the asylum. The idea of a formally organised sports day was something that had begun to take hold in Ireland in the 1850s, and by the 1870s it was something that was commonplace in country towns and in the activities of many institutions. The Richmond Lunatic Asylum was one of the first institutions in the country to have its own Sports Day. As was usual at the time, the day generally involved running, jumping and throwing competitions; novelty contests such as three-legged- and sack- races; as well as sideshows and musical entertainment, provided in this instance by bands of the British army. The Irish Times reported in 1872 that the previously mentioned Dr Lalor was ‘one of the first’ to recognise the value of such activities. It noted that the Sports Day was part of the ‘curative process which has been found so strongly beneficial in working upon the mind of the insane’. The newspaper welcomed the event, saying it was a great change from ‘blows and stripes, impalement by a stake, and [being] obliged to subsist on the lowest diet upon which the human frame could be sustained’.[14]

This newspaper article—and many others in this style—evidenced another purpose to the annual Sports Day that extended beyond the provision of useful recreation to and entertainment of patients; the Richmond Asylum was engaged also in acts of propaganda. There was reference to the huge crowds, to the presence of many local benefactors and philanthropists (with up to 1,000 people invited every year), and to the happy appearance of the patients, who were presented as evidence that the approach to care undertaken in the institution was working.[15] By 1882, it was being reported that:

All the inmates evinced the keenest pleasure in the sports, and showed by their appearance the care and judiciousness of their treatment. Indeed, so far as the results yesterday could afford any testimony, the system—known as the non-restraint system—pursued in this institution seems fraught with all that is most beneficial to the insane.[16]

For all that there was an obvious attempt to present a particular face to the public, it is nonetheless also clear that the programme of events was designed for both men and women patients to compete. There was running and walking racing, weight-throwing, handball matches and a wheelbarrow race. Money prizes, as well as neckties, tobacco, brooches and handkerchiefs, were awarded. The sports day concluded with a concert given by patients, and then a dance that lasted until almost midnight.[17]

This series of events was repeated year-after-year until well into the twentieth century. It was funded by subscriptions and saw hundreds of people come again and again to Grangegorman. It was something that gave a focus to activities within the institution for months in advance, and its importance was outlined in 1897 by Dr Conolly Norman, the then resident medical superintendent:

Our annual sports are a great break in the monotony of our lives, and have a very useful influence, bringing us all together in the pursuit of harmless and healthy entertainment, and in showing our friends outside that our work is not all sombre.[18]

For all that this was true, it is difficult to escape Melinda D. Grimsley-Smith’s conclusion:

In the second half of the nineteenth century, more asylums added ball courts, tabletop games, weekly dances, weekly religious worship, occasional concerts, and the like to divert patients’ attention, but for the majority of patients who were physically and mentally able, work was the major feature of their daily routine.[19]

Grangegorman cricket team, circa 1908.
(National Archives of Ireland, Priv 1223/29/93. Courtesy of the HSE.)


Sport in the Richmond Asylum was given further impetus by the arrival of Daniel Rambaut as an assistant medical officer in 1893. By then, the modern sporting world with its networks of clubs, associations and governing bodies had emerged as a prominent feature of Irish society. Organised sporting events—whether as part of league or cup competitions, or simply as standalone contests—were becoming increasingly formalised into a calendar of play and were often commercialised. This was a phenomenon that gathered momentum from the 1860s, and by the 1890s it was central to the lives of people all across Ireland, whether in cities or in rural areas, and also encompassed many of the institutions on the island.

The story of this aspect of the organisation of modern sport in the asylum is a reminder too of the importance of the personal interests of key individuals in the operation of institutions. Rambaut was a genuine sporting star. He was an Irish champion hurdler (120 yards) and, more famously, in 1887 was a star player when Ireland defeated England in a rugby match for the first time. He was part of a new generation of rugby players who had replaced ‘old men overladen with the personal heritage and traditions of defeat saturated through them’. The result was a victory that

was a great one. Without going into extravagant metaphors or poetic excursions, it will be hailed with delight by Irishmen all over the globe—from the North Pole to the South Pole, and from the East Pole to the West.[20]

Almost immediately after his arrival at Richmond, Rambaut helped establish teams for soccer and cricket. Later, there were both men’s and women’s hockey teams.[21] These teams appear to have been drawn from among members of staff and they played matches against teams drawn from army regiments and local hospitals and universities. The matches were considered something that ‘would break the monotony of the asylum’ and were in keeping with similar developments in asylums across England.[22] Men who were patients in the asylum also played cricket; this was reported by Dr Conolly Norman in the summer of 1896. He wrote, also, that the fine weather of that summer had in general meant that ‘outdoor amusements of the patients have been carried on very successfully’.[23]

So well organised was the Richmond Asylum cricket club that it was in a position to advertise its calendar of matches for the 1899 season, setting out 17 matches to be played between the end of April and the middle of August against teams from Dublin and Kildare.[24] In 1909 the club was good enough to reach the final of the Junior League Cup.[25] By 1911 the cricket club was playing 35 matches a year, winning 28 of them.[26] In that same year Grangegorman teams were playing in the Leinster Junior Leagues in soccer.[27]

It is during these decades at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth that formal playing pitches with posts appear to have been laid out at Grangegorman, as part of what were now called the ‘recreation grounds’. These grounds included space for exercise (generally walking) that was segregated by gender. The organised sporting aspect of the activity came to a stop with the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. Sporting organisations active in the grounds of the Richmond Lunatic Asylum essentially ceased all competitive activity across Ireland for the duration of the war. The annual Sports Day at the asylum, which by that point had run for 50 years, was also abandoned.[28] The recreation grounds were later used for sport by British army soldiers during the War of Independence, 1919–21. They had not asked for permission. When the management of the Richmond Asylum objected that this was impinging on the capacity of patients, the army used the Defence of the Realm Act to take possession of the land for the recreation of its soldiers; the men who ran asylum could only protest against ‘the invasion by the military of the patients’ football ground’.[29]

St Dympna’s Hurling Club, Grangegorman, 1935.
(National Archives of Ireland, Priv 1223/29/98. Courtesy of the HSE.)


Richmond Asylum was known as Grangegorman Mental Hospital from May 1921, the change in name coinciding with a revolution that ultimately brought the partition of Ireland. After the establishment of the Irish Free State, sport continued to play a significant role in the institution. The Grangegorman Resident Medical Superintendent, John O’Conor Donelan, said in 1924 that ‘games and sports were of the greatest assistance to the insane’.[30] Dedicated funding was provided on an annual basis for miscellaneous sporting expenses, but as late as the 1940s this amounted to just ‘£300 for outdoor sports and pastimes’, out of a total expenditure of £337,826 for the upkeep of the institution.[31]

The annual sports day returned in the decades immediately after independence. In 1927, for example, despite heavy rain, there was a programme of athletics, cycling and novelty events for patients and staff.[32] The sports days were not what they once had been, however. There was a dispute in 1937 that demonstrated the changing nature of the day. An employee of the institution who had brought his children to the Grangegorman Sports Day was denied admission for them. This led to a discussion at a monthly meeting of the Grangegorman Management Committee, during which the resident medical superintendent said that ‘he would not mind the members’ adult friends attending, but he would not like to encourage the presence of children amongst mental patients’.[33]

In sporting terms, the most significant change was the establishment of a club for Gaelic games. The fact that there was no GAA club established before 1920 is revealing about the cultural preferences (and the politics) of those who ran the institution before the establishment of the Irish Free State. There were divisions that continued to echo. In 1931 at a meeting of the management committee discussing the financial estimates for the year, one member, Luke O’Toole, intervened in respect of the £300 voted for the provision of sport for patients. O’Toole, who was then the most important official in the GAA, said that £150 of the £300 should be ‘devoted to the encouragement of Gaelic games’. This brought the counter-argument that there ‘should be no coercion concerning games’. When another committee member, J. Costello (who falsely claimed that he had attended the founding meeting of the GAA in Thurles in 1884) said he had never been to a soccer match or a rugby match and that Gaelic games should get pride of place, Donelan was moved to intervene. He said that

the main object of games in the institution was the provision of entertainment of patients …. He wanted to see games played, but did not care what class of game it was, and was prepared to support every game without distinction.[34]

In the years that followed, despite the divides suggested in this exchange, Gaelic games thrived alongside those that had been played in the asylum before independence. Much later—in 1980— St Brendan’s, the hurling club playing out of Grangegorman, won the Dublin senior hurling championship. Soccer continued to be important, with teams fielded by men who worked in the institution and by others who played for its teams. These clubs—variously known as Grangegorman Football Club (which in its best years played Leinster Senior League), St Brendan’s Football Club (played in League of Ireland B Division during the 1970s) and Brendanville Football Club (played in the Leinster Senior League until its last game in 2013)—played a calendar of matches that drew some of the best players in the city to the grounds at Grangegorman. Other sports also continued to prosper. Men’s and women’s hockey teams competed through the rest of the century, producing players good enough to play for Leinster and Ireland. A cricket team continued to play out of Grangegorman for decades, while the laying down of ‘a new green with sea-washed turf’ saw the institution’s bowling team competed in the Irish Free State League and its successors across the decades.[35]

There was sport also for patients. This was captured in Paul Durcan’s poem ‘Sport’:

On my twenty-first birthday
I was selected to play
For Grangegorman Mental Hospital
In an away game
Against Mullingar Mental Hospital.
I was a patient
In B Wing.

What sporting contests also demonstrated, however, was the manner in which the Grangegorman Mental Hospital—as the Richmond Asylum before it—had created a closed world. For example, requests by various local sports clubs to use the grounds for matches during the middle decades of the twentieth century ‘were always refused’.[36]

Through these decades—year after year—the scale of overcrowding had a crushing effect on the capacity to provide recreation for patients. Although exercise in the grounds (including sport) was something that could be offered to convalescent patients, for those who were seriously ill there was a different approach. It was acknowledged time and again that exercise—even physical drilling and marching—would have benefit for all patients; the reality, however, as was reported in the 1930s, was that ‘until the overcrowding was reduced and a new recreation hall built, the question of introducing drill for demented and imbecile patients would have to remain in abeyance’.[37]

The Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Mental Illness (1966) noted that

properly organised recreational activities should be available in every hospital. It should be clearly recognised that recreation is not provided merely for the amusement and entertainment of patients, but is an important part of their treatment.[38]

This was seen not just as a matter of physical exercise, but also as something that should be regarded as useful for patients, who would engage in the planning and organisation of activities. Moreover, it was not to be confused with the activities of those patients who are ‘observed walking aimlessly around a recreation ground’.[39] Delivery of this ambition, however, was deeply compromised by overcrowding and under-resourcing.


In the latter decades of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, the development of community-based mental health services diminished the number of patients living in Grangegorman Mental Hospital. In the 1940s there had been more than 2,000 patients in Grangegorman at any one time; by the mid-1980s that had fallen to under 1,000 and the number continued to fall into the new millennium. By the time the last patients in the hospital were transferred to the Phoenix Care Centre and the site ceased to function as a mental hospital in 2013, the place of sport had been transformed. The cricket and hockey clubs were gone; the GAA club had slipped down the divisions in Dublin; and the sporting infrastructure in the site had fallen into decay.

The old ball alleys were demolished, as was the pavilion used by the cricket and hockey teams. The GAA and soccer pitches were torn up to be remade for the students who would soon be arriving from the constituent colleges of the Dublin Institute of Technology (later renamed the Technological University of Dublin). What remained were the trees that had been sown around the walkways that had been used for more than a century for exercise by patients and staff. New pitches—some grass, others artificial turf—were set out around the old recreation grounds, tennis courts were built, and an all-weather surface for basketball was constructed. Two table-tennis tables were installed on the stone passageway through the middle of the expanding campus. A modern gym was fitted out in buildings once used to house patients. It was a reminder of the centrality of sport and sporting practices to modern Ireland.

When the Richmond Lunatic Asylum opened at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the organisation of sport was slowly assuming its modern form. This was a process that coincided with the development of the asylum system in Ireland. During the nineteenth century—and especially in its latter decades—sport became part of the life of the Richmond Lunatic Asylum and of many patients and members of staff; it influenced the landscape of the asylum. This process continued through the twentieth century as the number of patients in Grangegorman continued to grow, before declining precipitously in the last decades of that century. Sport—as part of a revised, broader approach to recreation and exercise—became fundamental to the story of the institution.

[1] The institution was variously known as the Richmond Lunatic Asylum, the Richmond District Lunatic Asylum, Grangegorman Mental Hospital and St Brendan’s Mental Hospital.

[2] Steven Cherry and Roger Munting, ‘“Exercise is the thing”? Sport and the asylum c. 1850–1950’, International Journal of the History of Sport 22 (1) (2005), pp 42–58.

[3] Joseph Reynolds, Grangegorman: psychiatric care in Dublin since 1815 (Dublin, 1992; Institute of Public Administration), p. 39.

[4] Reynolds, Grangegorman: psychiatric care, p. 47. See, also, E. Margaret Crawford, ‘A mystery malady in an Irish asylum: the Richmond epidemic of the late nineteenth century’, in Pauline M. Prior (ed.), Asylums, mental health care and the Irish, 1800–2010 (Dublin, 2012; Irish Academic Press), pp 185–204.

[5]Reynolds, Grangegorman: psychiatric care, p. 53.

[6] Alice Mauger, The cost of insanity in nineteenth-century Ireland: public, voluntary and private asylum care (London, 2018; Palgrave Macmillan), pp 195–8.

[7] John Blake, Defects in the moral treatment of insanity in the public lunatic asylums of Ireland (Waterford, 1862; The Citizen), pp 20–21.

[8] Blake, Defects in the moral treatment of insanity, pp 20–23.

[9] Blake, Defects in the moral treatment of insanity, pp 20–22.

[10] Reynolds, Grangegorman: psychiatric care, p. 113.

[11] Brendan Kelly, Grangegorman histories: inside the asylum (Forthcoming; Dublin: Royal Irish Academy).

[12] Reynolds, Grangegorman: psychiatric care, p. 136.

[13] D. Hack Tuke, ‘On the Richmond Asylum Schools’, Journal of Mental Science, 21 (95) (1875), pp 467–74

[14] Anon., ‘Richmond District Lunatic Asylum’, The Irish Times, 23 August 1872, p. 5.

[15] . Anon., ‘Richmond District Lunatic Asylum’, The Irish Times, 23 Aug. 1872, p. 5.

[16] Anon., ‘Annual sports at Richmond Asylum’, The Irish Times, 8 September 1882, p. 7.

[17] Anon., ‘Richmond District Lunatic Asylum’, The Irish Times, 23 August 1872, p. 5.

[18] Anon., ‘Richmond Asylum Sports’, The Irish Times, 12 June 1897, p. 9.

[19] Melinda D. Grimsley-Smith, Politics, professionalization and poverty: lunatic asylums for the poor in Ireland, 1817-1920. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis. University of Notre Dame, 2011.

[20] Anon., ‘Rugby’, Sport, 12 February 1887, p. 2.

[21] Anon., ‘Hockey’, The Irish Times, 3 December 1909, p. 4 and 16 April 1927, p. 17.

[22] Cherry and Munting, ‘”Exercise is the thing”?’ pp 42-58 and Aidan Collins, ‘Daniel Frederick Rambaut: “Rugbanian” and innovative Resident Medical Superintendent’, Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine 34 (2017), pp 75-8.

[23] National Archives of Ireland, Richmond District Asylum Minute Books, ‘Report of Dr. Conolly Norman, 1896’, pp 99-101.

[24] Anon., ‘Richmond Asylum’, The Irish Times, 22 April 1899, p. 5.

[25] ‘Notes on Sport’, The Irish Times, 11 September 1909, p. 23.

[26] Anon., ‘Cricket’, The Irish Times, 21 September 1911, p.5.

[27] Anon., ‘Sport’, The Irish Times, 23 September 1911, p. 21.

[28] Reynolds, Grangegorman: psychiatric care, p. 223.

[29] Reynolds, Grangegorman: psychiatric care, p. 223.

[30] Anon., ‘From day to day’, The Anglo-Celt, 27 December 1924, p. 3.

[31] Anon., ‘Mental Hospital upkeep estimated at £337,826’, The Irish Times. 7 January 1946, p. 6. It should be noted that this £300 does not include the amount of money spent on the daily upkeep pf the grounds and facilities.

[32] Anon., ‘Grangegorman Mental Home. Rain curtails annual sports programme’, Sunday Independent, 14 August 1927, p. 13.

[33] Anon., ‘Grangegorman’, Drogheda Independent, 26 June 1937, p. 13.

[34] Anon., ‘Grangegorman Hospital estimate of £208,504’, The Irish Times, 5 February 1931, p. 8.

[35] Anon., ‘Bowling: the Free State League’, The Irish Times, 16 January 1936, p. 11.

[36] Reynolds, Grangegorman: psychiatric care, p. 22.

[37] Reynods, Grangegorman: psychiatric care, p. 258.

[38] Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Mental Illness (Dublin, 1966; Stationery Office), p. 89.

[39] Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Mental Illness (1966), p. 97.

Artcile opening image: Grangegorman soccer team, 1909–10. (National Archives of Ireland, Priv1223/29/96. Courtesy of the HSE.)

The revitalised Grangegorman campus, with its many young and eager students, is an uplifting and poignant sight, given its historical role in the treatment of those mentally and physically challenged. Part of the Grangegorman legacy is often unheralded—its role in the treatment of soldiers suffering from trauma as a result of World War One. Just as wider mental challenges were often unexplored at the time, the soldiers’ trauma was then also relatively unacknowledged.

At the time, the trauma was known as ‘shell shock’; now it is more collectively referred to as PTSD—Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Symptoms included disturbing flashbacks, nightmares, acute nervousness and exceptional and intense deliriums. Treatment focused on the effect of trench warfare and exposure to constant, high-explosive shelling. World War One was, after all, an intense, close-quarters conflict, involving a level of mechanised combat never before seen.

The European battlefront. Soldiers suffered more trauma because they were confined to trenches
and subject to constant shelling.(Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, London)

Almost 200,000 Irishmen fought in World War One, an estimated 40,000 of whom were killed and many more wounded and psychologically damaged. The treatment of physical injury was obviously considerable and took place mainly in hospitals in Britain, but also in Ireland. In Dublin, physical care was provided to the war wounded in hospitals such as the Adelaide and in Drumcondra, and in the military care facilities at the King George V (now St Bricin’s Military Hospital) and Leopardstown Park hospitals. Patients suffering psychological trauma were treated at Richmond War Hospital, a facility on the grounds of the Richmond District Asylum located at Grangegorman. Between 1916 and 1919, it treated 368 patients, of whom about half were reported as having recovered following their treatment.

In the context of the number of killed and wounded, the contribution of Grangegorman in terms of those treated was numerically quite small. The treatment provided at the Richmond War Hospital was, however, vital and pioneering, and it contributed notably to the further development of this very important area of health care.

Sir Gordon Morgan Holmes, Dublin-born psychiatrist, who was a pioneer in
the treatment of shell shock.(Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London)

The facility was overseen by Gordon Holmes, a pioneering British neurologist, originally from Dublin, who had worked in the war zone and whose efforts deepened the understanding of PTSD.[1] Holmes’s medical role in the army was an important one, for it was neurologists who initially attended the nervous patient—not psychiatrists, who worked in the asylums with the psychotic and organically impaired. This changed as the awareness of shell shock grew.

Despite the limitations on its resources, Richmond District Asylum, and the Richmond War Hospital, was regarded as ‘a generally forward-looking institution that pointed the way for future reform of Ireland’s asylum system and, along with the other war hospitals, brought significant changes to the practice of psychiatry’.[2] According to the Resident Medical Superintendent at Grangegorman, over half of the patients at Richmond War Hospital ‘were successfully treated and enabled to return to their homes without the blemish of having been certified insane’.

Obviously, in what was a more macho era, a certain stigma attached to PTSD, which probably added to the soldiers’ trauma. The army was also initially unwilling to acknowledge the impact of PTSD, for fear that it would demoralise the fighting troops. This official reluctance changed, however, with the prospect of having ‘disturbed’ soldiers ‘behind the lines’, creating instability, and so the soldiers were sent to facilities such as the Richmond War Hospital for treatment.

By today’s standards, the symptoms might seem predictable and entirely comprehensible; the case histories of soldiers admitted include descriptions of anxiety, fatigue, neuralgia, headache and depressed mood. There was also actual loss of speech or hearing, although treatment was applied to reverse these conditions. Hallucinations of sight and hearing were sometimes present, but most of the soldiers were quite conscious of the hallucinations, and realised that they were abnormal, and were, therefore, not to be regarded as ordinarily insane patients suffering from hallucinatory state.

A Royal Engineers tunnelling crew in World War One.
(Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, London)

The treatments provided at the Richmond War Hospital might seem rudimentary and often primitive by modern standards, but they were a big step on from the existing treatment, which was effectively none, apart from what was ‘self-administered’ by the patient through the use of alcohol or hard physical exertion as an escape. War neurosis was regarded as attributable, at least in part, to unconscious psychological conflict in the soldier’s mind. Hospital treatments, therefore, were more psychological in tone.

As psychiatrist Brendan Kelly outlines in his 2015 article on shell shock, treatments included hypnosis and abreaction, which involved soldiers re-experiencing or re-living traumatic memories in an effort to purge them of their emotional impact.[3] In all cases there was a strong emphasis on prompt treatment, cognitive re-structuring of traumatic experiences (that is, thinking differently about the past) and collaboration with the therapist in the search for a cure.

Many of these therapies have certain similarities with current cognitive and behavioural approaches to PTSD, focusing on altering patterns of thought and behaviour in order to reduce symptoms. There were, however, other approaches to the management of shell shock that certain authorities viewed as being equally effective as—if not more effective than—approaches based on discipline, hypnosis, re-experiencing or abreaction. These included, most notably, approaches based primarily on rest and less intrusive forms of therapy.

One case reported on by Kelly recorded at the Richmond War Hospital involved Private VW, who had apparently been ‘blown out of a trench’ at the Battle of Arras in 1917, and since then ‘his speech has been affected’. Private VW’s ‘tongue [was] tremulous. Speech stammering and hesitating’. Mentally, he ‘has headache every now and again and suffers from noises in his head at times’, and he had also complained of ‘visions’ and ‘insomnia’.[4] Rest and treatment, however, had a positive effect. Later, Private VW ‘states he had no voices in his head since he came here and that he is feeling much better’. Two weeks later, Private VW was ‘bright and cheerful and is looking much stronger. He states he is feeling very much better’. This improvement was sustained, and one month after admission Private VW continued ‘to improve. He states he is now feeling all right in every way except that he is not physically strong. Sleeps and eats well’. Two months after admission, Private VW was ‘discharged and sent to his home’. [5]

Another case involved Lieutenant ST, a single, 19-year-old lieutenant admitted from the King George V Hospital. On admission, he had a cough and his ‘tongue and limbs are tremulous’. Mentally, Lieutenant ST was ‘dull and depressed and his memory is confused. He complains of pains and noises in his head and insomnia. He is unable to give a collected account of himself. He cannot give many particulars of his service. He, however, states that he served at Salonika and in France and came home suffering from shell shock’.[6]

On his first night at the Richmond War Hospital, Lieutenant ST ‘remained quiet and slept well during the night’. One week after admission, Lieutenant ST was ‘somewhat brighter and more cheerful but his memory is still confused’. Two weeks after admission, he was still ‘improving gradually. He states he is feeling much better and that his head is much less troublesome’. One week later, Lieutenant ST was ‘transferred to Belfast War Hospital’, which also dealt with soldiers for mental and psychological problems.[7]

After the war, the War Office’s committee of enquiry into shell shock addressed the issue of treatment in a comprehensive report (1922), drawing attention to the importance of rest in preventing shell shock in the first instance, including the need for frequent leave and immediate rest in cases showing initial symptoms of nervous breakdown. Morale depended chiefly on a sense of security and comfort, the report said. ‘Officers should be assiduous in their concern for their men. Removal from the front and visits home lessen the incidence of “shell-shock”’. In its final recommendations the committee warned against the indiscriminate use of therapies based on discipline, hypnosis, re-experiencing or abreaction. There was instead a strong emphasis on the curative properties of simple ‘rest of mind and body’.[8]

A soldier recuperates at Leopardstown Hospital in south Dublin, which also treated post-traumatic stress. (Courtesy of Leopardstown Hospital archive)

In this context, the treatment of PTSD at the Richmond War Hospital in Grangegorman was laudatory and humane. It was also consistent with the considerable help and assistance given by the British authorities to veterans, quite in contrast with the hands-off approach of the new Irish state. The concept of post-traumatic stress was then in its infancy, however, and veterans were expected to just ‘get on with it’, which, in fairness, many did, and it should be acknowledged that many veterans did resume their civilian lives without any apparent problems. But this was to mask what was going on below the surface.

In my own project, the Lion and the Shamrock, there is a section called Personal Stories, in which the descendants of soldiers from World War One are interviewed. A recurring finding is that veterans often simply didn’t talk about their war-time experiences, or referred to them obliquely for fear of reactivating the trauma. In other cases, they just drank and smoked incessantly afterwards, to deal with the impact. Or not ‘deal’ with it, more likely: an extraordinary amount of experience was bottled up, for understandable reasons. For many, however, the aftermath was an ongoing nightmare—literally so, for it was often at night that the worst anxieties occurred.[9]

This trauma added to what was already a difficult transition to civilian life for many Irish veterans, much more so than after other conflicts. This was because of a sense of waste about a long war which, by 1918, seemed pointless and unnecessary. Additionally in Ireland, the political landscape had completely changed after the 1916 Rising and with the prospect of Irish Independence, and veterans who had fought in the British army were officially shunned. The great political changes meant that, having been sent off on their military adventure like conquering heroes, they no longer felt welcome on returning home.

The Richmond War Hospital today; now part of the TU Dublin Grangeorman campus, and a gym for students. (Photo by the author)

It is to the great credit of the then authorities at Grangegorman that they engaged in treating the trauma experienced by soldiers of World War One. It is also consistent with the hospital’s long-term history in dealing with mental health, and with the military. Today, a small road adjoining Grangegorman at Rathdown Road is named Marne Villas, in remembrance of the great World War One battle and of the men who suffered there.

1 A.D. MacLeod, ‘Shell shock, Gordon Holmes and the Great War’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 97 (2) (February 2004), 86–9.

[2] Brendan D. Kelly, ‘He lost himself completely’: shell shock and its treatment at Dublin’s Richmond War Hospital, 1916–1919’ (Dublin, 2014; Liffey Press).

[3] Brendan D. Kelly ‘Shell Shock in Ireland, The Richmond War Hospital, Dublin (1916-19)’, History of Psychiatry 2015, Vol. 26(1), 53

[4] Case-history drawn from: National Archives of Ireland (NAI), Richmond War Hospital Case Book (1918–1919), BR/PRIV 1223, Richmond War Hospital. The names, regiments, precise admission dates and other identifying details relating to the soldiers are not presented, in order to preserve anonymity.

[5] NAI, Richmond War Hospital Case Book (1918–1919).

[6] NAI, Richmond War Hospital Case Book (1918–1919).

[7] Kelly ‘Shell Shock in Ireland’, 51-52.

[8] British National Archives, UK War Office, WO 32/4748, Report of the Committee of Enquiry into Causation and Prevention of ‘Shell-Shock’ (1922); available online at: (last accessed 26 October 2022).

[9] More details are available at the Personal Stories section of The Lion and the Shamrock: the legacy of history, families and the military project website. See, for example, the entry for ‘John Coyle—Chain smoking veteran who never spoke of war’, which can be accessed at: (last accessed 26 October 2022).

An early nineteenth-century traveller in search of information on Grangegorman would almost certainly have turned to the recently published An historical guide to the city of Dublin by G.N. Wright. There, the traveller would have learned that Grangegorman was a manor (it would not become a parish until 1829) that lay in the neighbourhood of Glasnevin and Mountjoy Square; that the lord of the manor, though not the owner of the land, was the dean of Christ Church cathedral; and that the manorial courts were still held by the seneschal in a private house on Dorset Street, at the corner of North Circular Road. The population of the manor was 6,035 within the Circular Road and 6,072 outside it, all housed in 1,277 houses (1). This rather bland description conceals the fact that the urban landscape of Grangegorman was unusual. Rather than a vista of spreading suburban housing in a rapidly growing city, Grangegorman was composed of large, open spaces with a scatter of institutional buildings and more densely packed houses along a few central streets. That unusual landscape was the product of almost 200 years of evolution that contributed to make Grangegorman a unique place.


The most important factor in shaping Grangegorman in the early middle ages was its grant to the cathedral of the Holy Trinity [Christ Church] by Sitric Silkbeard, the Scandinavian ruler of Dublin, on the foundation of the cathedral in 1030; the grant is recorded in a later charter that was transcribed in the sixteenth century.(2) It is not known what area this Grangegorman covered but it was certainly smaller than the later manor: the property was augmented by a grant from Hugh Hussey, lord of Galtrim, who had been given the surrounding land in c. 1185. The result was a new unit: the manor of Grangegorman with its manorial courts and other legal attributes. It is difficult to be sure exactly what the area of the manor was, but it seems very likely that when the new parish of Grangegorman was created in 1829 it followed, roughly, the boundaries of the manor that was then still in existence. Despite a dispute with Richard Tyrell, lord of the manor of Castleknock, in the late 1180s, Grangegorman remained under the control of Holy Trinity until the sixteenth century.(3)

The extent of the parish of Grangegorman as created in 1829.
The parish boundary probably coincides closely with the medieval manorial boundary.

The evidence for the appearance of Grangegorman before 1400 is rather patchy. Only one account roll that sheds some light on the manor has survived in the Christ Church archive. Part of the explanation for this is the destruction of the Christ Church archive, but much was never preserved in the cathedral because the manor was run as a self-contained unit with its own seneschal, bailiff, sergeant, courts and records (although the prior of Holy Trinity visited and stayed on a number of occasions), and these records have not survived. Of the 800 acres that was recorded as the extent of the manor in the seventeenth century, rather less than half was under cultivation in the late 1320s, and this would shrink slightly in the 1340s. The remainder was under pasture or woodland. The main crop of the manor was wheat, grown on south facing, well-drained slopes, with a much smaller crop of oats. Of the wheat, roughly one-third was used for seed, one-third was sent to Holy Trinity and one-third was consumed on the manor. The oat crop was used mainly for malting, a task often carried out by women, with a small proportion used as fodder for horses.(4) There are few mentions of livestock (and those refer mainly to ploughing) in the surviving accounts but cattle and sheep must have existed, if only to provide manure for the arable activity, and pigs, ‘as stock’ were mentioned in 1346.

The land was managed directly by Holy Trinity priory as one demesne and worked by the inhabitants. Some of these were free tenants who held some land for which they paid a cash rent. A rental from 1326 names four of these men. Much more common were the cottiers—seventeen being named in the rental—who held a cottage and perhaps some land for which they paid in labour services to the manor; ploughing, sowing or reaping or carting at harvest.(5) They included three ploughmen, a plough driver, two carters, a lime burner and a thrasher. The centre of this manor was a large enclosure or farmyard, probably ditched and fortified, with an entrance gate, dominated by a large barn to hold grain. There were almost certainly other agricultural buildings in this enclosure, together with a house for the manorial officials.

A late medieval world

Southern Grangegorman in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

The topography of Grangegorman comes into clearer focus in the fifteenth and sixteenth century.. A survey of the manor, probably made in the late sixteenth century, divided it into three parts: the lands to the west of Stoneybatter (or ‘the way to Cabragh’), the lands to the east of Stoneybatter and the northern third of the manor.(6) The land to the west of Stoneybatter would seem to have been mainly arable as this was described in the riding of the franchises of Dublin in 1488 as the ‘tylling land’, and in 1603 as ‘the arable land of Grangegorman’.(7) On John Rocque’s map of Dublin in 1756 this part of the manor is shown as neatly laid out in strips, which may be at least partial survivals from the medieval arrangement whereby large open fields were worked in strips.

Extract from John Rocque, An exact survey of the city and suburbs of Dublin (Dublin, 1756),
showing possible relic layout of medieval strips in Grangegorman to the west of Stoneybatter.

The land to the east of Stoneybatter, in contrast, appears to have been used mainly for grazing, and a large part was occupied by the ‘Great Orchard’ or (as it would become) the ‘Dean’s Orchard’, which was partly wooded and was still so in 1811.)

The third part of the manor, the northern part (roughly from Cabra Road northwards), was occupied by Salcock Wood, rather over 50 acres of woodland.(8) This was an important resource that provided both shrubby wood and furze for firewood—important as turf was not available locally—and more substantial timber for building and agricultural tools. The woodland cover was dense enough to allow it to be used for hunting and, according to a later account, in 1573 the earl of Desmond escaped from custody in Dublin on the pretext of hunting at Grangegorman.(9) Salcock Wood was leased to a series of individuals who were expected to manage it, and unauthorised cutting of timber was a serious offence.(10) Nevertheless, by the early eighteenth century it was almost cut out.

A glimpse of the manor is provided by a rental of 1496–7 that suggests that the older forms of tenure had disappeared and most tenants now held their own farms either directly from the manor or as subtenants from a few larger tenants, such as John Russell. Houses, at least a dozen, had begun to grow up along the southern edge of the manor where it met Oxmantown Green. What these houses looked like is unclear, but one lease of 1485 stipulated that the house to be built on the plot had to have mud walls and a straw roof. The centre of the manor remained the enclosed farmyard that was described in a lease of 1560 as having a barn, kiln, sheepfold and cowhouse.(11)

Changing control

The open landscape of the eastern part of the manor of Grangegorman, from Thomas Campbell, City of Dublin
surveyed by Mr Thomas Campbell under the direction of Major Taylor ([Dublin], 1811).

In the early sixteenth century, rather than working the land itself, Holy Trinity had taken to leasing the entire manor to one man, as in 1543 when it leased Grangegorman to Mathew King.(12) Holy Trinity or Christ Church remained the lord of the manor, however, and it held the manorial courts into the nineteenth century. Sometime before 1557 the royal adventurer and later secretary of Lord Deputy Sidney, Francis Agard, had acquired a lease of the manor of Grangegorman from Christ Church cathedral. In 1560 he used his influence to have that converted into a series of fee farm grants of the manor.(13) Agard died in 1577 and was buried in Christ Church and the property passed to his son-in-law Henry Harrington. On his death the property seems to have reverted to the Agard family and a John Agard held it in 1640. This meant that the manor now acquired a resident landlord who required a house. Agard constructed one on the site of the old barn in the manorial centre; parts of this still survive in Stanhope Street and were revealed in excavations in 2014. It was clearly a substantial structure valued at £40 in the 1650s, though curiously it does not appear in the hearth money rolls of the 1660s.(14)

In the late 1640s the land passed out of the direct control of the Agard family and at the Restoration the manor was partitioned into two parts, roughly east and west of a line following Stoneybatter and continuing northward to the edge of the manor. In the 1670s the western portion was sold to Sir John Temple, extending his estate at Palmerstown and Kilmainham eastward, and that family, as Lords Palmerston, continued as ground landlords into the nineteenth century. The eastern division, comprising some 250 acres, was sold in 1668 by Charles Agard to the Stanley family and this in turn was sold to the Monck family (who were related to the Stanleys by marriage) in 1737.(15) The Monck family shortly after acquired a house at Charleville in Wicklow and left Grangegorman, abandoning the house there.(16)

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century the manor remained an important source of grain production for the city. The civil survey of the 1650s, for instance, recorded that of the 800 acres of Grangegorman, 500 were devoted to arable, 200 to pasture and 100 to meadow.(17) A windmill, probably for grinding grain, existed in the south-west corner of the lands by the late sixteenth century and continued in use into the eighteenth century.(18) There was also an unofficial local market at Grangegorman selling food to the city.(19) It is clear that by this stage the manor was divided up into individual rent-paying farms and in the 1640s some farmers reported substantial losses of cattle in the wars of those years.(20) However, many of these farms were small. A survey of 1788 of the Monck portion of the manor revealed the average size of the forty-nine holdings to be only five acres, with only four holdings being greater than ten acres.(21) The smaller plots were concentrated nearest to Stoneybatter while those to the north and west were somewhat larger. Plots of this size were not viable as farms and might best be seen as rural retreats for the inhabitants of an expanding city.

In the years after 1660 suburban Dublin on the north side of the River Liffey expanded dramatically. Oxmantown Green, which had marked the southern boundary of the manor, was built over, leaving only a small fragment of the earlier open space. Yet this desire for expansion never spread into Grangegorman. By the time of Rocque’s map of 1756 a cluster of houses had developed in the older holdings of Sharpe’s Park and Russell’s Park, but little else. Thomas Campbell’s map of 1811 shows yet more housing along Stoney Batter, Aughrim Street and Prussia Street, much encouraged by the Monck family, but large areas of the manor were still empty with trees still prominent in the formers Dean’s Orchard.

This open aspect may well have survived the eighteenth century because of the rise of the recreational role of the manor rather than its agricultural potential. The Church of Ireland clergyman Nathaniel Burton in 1845, remembering the late eighteenth century, wrote that many ‘tired of the bustle of the city’ retired to rural retreats at Grangegorman ‘amidst decaying woodlands and increasing orchards. Cabra lane [now Prussia Street] became a desirable and fashionable retreat’, renowned for its ‘genuine milk and dairy air’.(22) It was this open aspect, however, that made it attractive for the development of the new institutions that did so much to shape Grangegorman in the nineteenth century.


  1. G.N. Wright, A historical guide to the city of Dublin (2nd edn.; Dublin, 1825), p. 116.
  2. Charles MacNeill (ed.), Calendar of Archbishop Alen’s register (Dublin, 1950), p. 28.
  3. M.J. McEnery and Raymond Refaussé (eds), Christ Church deeds (Dublin, 2001), nos 195, 469.
  4. Margaret Murphy and Michael Potterton, The Dublin region in the middle ages (Dublin, 2010), pp 308, 314, 414.
  5. James Mills (ed.), Account roll of the priory of Holy Trinity, Dublin, 1337–1346 (reprint, Dublin 1996), pp 192-4; H.J. Lawlor,’A calendar of the Liber Niger and Liber Albus of Christ Church, Dublin’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 27 (1908–9), pp 49, 50.
  6. Representative Church Body Library, MS C6/1/26/1 no. 2.
  7. J.T. Gilbert and Lady Gilbert (eds), Calendar of the ancient records of Dublin (19 vols, Dublin, 1889–1944), vol. i, pp 196, 494.
  8. Representative Church Body Library, MS C6/1/26/1 no. 3.
  9. James Ware, The antiquities and history of Ireland (Dublin, 1705), p. 17.
  10. Christ Church deeds, nos 1105, 1179, 1195.
  11. Christ Church deeds, nos 1072, 1105,1114, 1180, 1268, 1275, 1545.
  12. Representative Church Body Library, MS C6/1/26/1 no. 2.
  13. James Morrin (ed.) Calendar of the patent and close rolls of chancery in Ireland: Henry VIII to 18th Elizabeth (Dublin, 1861), p. 433; Christ Church deeds, nos 1250, 1266–9, 1311–2, 1421–2.
  14. See (accessed 22 February 2022); R.C. Simington (ed.), The civil survey, vol. vii, county of Dublin (Dublin, 1945), p. 179. For the house on the site of the barn, see Gilbert (ed.), Calendar of the ancient records, vol. i, p. 197.
  15. Elizabeth Batt, The Moncks and Charleville House (Dublin, 1979).
  16. National Library of Ireland, MS 26899, ff 1–5, University of Southhampton Library, Broadlands papers, BR 137/23, 24; BR 151/1–5.
  17. Simington (ed.), Civil survey, vol. vii, county of Dublin, p. 179.
  18. Representative Church Body Library, MS C6/1/26/1 no. 2; Christ Church deeds, no. 578.
  19. Gilbert (ed.), Calendar of the ancient records, vol. iv, p. 512.
  20. For instance, see Aidan Clarke et. al. (eds), 1641 depositions: vol. iv, Dublin (Dublin, 2017), nos 496, 521.
  21. National Library of Ireland, MS 26887.
  22. Nathaniel Burton, Oxmantown and its environs (Dublin, 1845), p. 3.

Raymond Gillespie, MRIA
Professor of History, Maynooth University