Rewind - The Royal Hospital/Irish Museum of Modern Art

By Sean Heffernan

For this week’s Rewind we will take a longer walk as we head out of the Phoenix Park, walk past the Sancton Wood designed Heuston Station, and on up Military Road to The Royal Hospital in Kilmainham.

It was built in 1684 by Sir William Robinson, who was appointed ‘Official Surveyor of Ireland’ by the then Lord Lieutenant James Butler.

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He was born in England, and arrived here in 1670 after succeeding John Morton who passed away the year before.

Among the other notable buildings he has designed are Charles Fort in Kinsale, The West Front of Trinity College and St. Michan’s Church of Ireland on Church Street.

It is the sister building to the more famous known hospital in the London borough of Chelsea, a building whose inhabitants have become famously known as the “Chelsea Pensioners”.

William Butler was born in London in 1610, and 23 years later he came to live in Ireland and offer his services to the Lord Deputy Thomas Wentworth.

In 1641, during what was known as “The Catholic Rebellion” Butler was appointed a Lieutenant General in the English Army where he oversaw the crushing of uprisings in Kilrush and New Ross among other places.

When the Westminster Parliament - also known as “The Roundheads” - and supporters of the King – also known as “The Cavaliers”, clashed in the English Civil War, the First Duke of Ormonde rallied both Protestant and Catholic’s in Ireland to support Charles II in his battle against Oliver Cromwell.

After “Old Ironsides” defeated the Monarchist allies in Ireland, Butler fled to France and became an adviser of the exiled King.

Two years after the Monarchy was restored in 1662, he was made Lord Lieutenant of Ireland a position he lost in 1669, but regained for a second stint in 1677.

It was during this second stint that the Royal Hospital was built as a retirement home for Irish soldiers who fought in the British army.

A Priory that was founded by the infamous Norman ruler Strongbow stood on the site from 1174 until 1530, when it was shut during the dissolution of Monasteries ordered by Henry VIII in his battle with the Catholic church.

Another famous architect of the era, the Armagh born Francis Johnston designed the Richmond Tower at the end of the avenue, and is also known as the man who converted the former Irish Parliament in College Green to The Bank of Ireland building.

The building was completed about 40 years after The Thirty Years War, and the English Civil War in an era where most people were lucky to live past 40, but generally passed away before then.

Thus quite a few of the ex-soldiers who ended up living their last days in this Kilmainham building were actually rather young folk who had become disabled due to injury at war.

The original entrance to the hospital had to be removed in 1844 as the road leading to Kinsgbridge (now Heuston Station) needed widening due to congestion.

The hospital was originally designed to house 400 inhabitants but at one stage it was said to house 2,500 which gives you a glimpse as to the brutality of war back then, with shocking numbers of soldiers losing their lives or being permanently injured on the battlefield.

Fast forward to 1922, when the building was handed over to the Irish Free State, and it was actually one of the buildings that was considered for the home of the Irish Parliament before Leinster House was chosen.

It instead became the first Headquarters of An Garda Siochana from 1930 to the 1950’s, before the states police force moved to The Phoenix Park.

From then until 1980 the building an it’s grounds fell into quite a state of disrepair, when Taoiseach Charlie Haughey approved plans to renovate it. And after around £3M of work, it was finally reopened three years later.

In 1991 it became the home of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), and it has played a key role in showcasing the work of up and coming Irish artists and designers, helping many to get their big break and become worldwide household names in the process.

It has also been the setting for many music concerts including The Forbidden Fruit Festival, and a memorable performance by the late great Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, whose famously dulcet tones had many in tears on the night.

The museum in The Royal Hospital is currently undergoing another major renovation and will be open sometime next year.

No doubt a bigger and better experience awaits those who once more make a walk down Military Road and walk through the great gates, up the avenue adorned with a bounty of beautiful flowers on both sides.

I wonder how many ghosts the builders have greeted as they go about their work inside those hallowed halls?  

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