National print: Irish history: St Brigid’s Hospital, Galway.


For over ten years, I’ve been researching and writing about the now-infamous St. Brigid’s mental hospital in Co. Galway. Originally built in 1833 to house 200 dangerous, insane criminals, Ballinasloe’s St. Brigid’s had several extensions built over the decades to eventually house over 2,000 patients by 1990. It closed its doors completely in 2013.
St. Brigid herself is celebrated with national St. Brigid’s Day, and last year we were gifted a new St. Brigid’s national bank holiday. Millions tuned in to watch Tommy Tiernan’s Epic West series, where he walked the eerie, ransacked wards of St. Brigid’s, paying reverence to all who spent time there. He surprised us with his touching personal stories of meeting and chatting with patients while he was a young boarder at the nearby Garbally College. The inside of St. Brigid’s hadn’t been shown on RTE since Today Tonight’s damning expose in 1982, when reporter Hilary Orpen delivered a stinging critique. “To enter here is like a descent into hell,” she assessed. The programme showed footage of slumped bodies, stained walls, and sparsely furnished wards. As she narrated, “The dark and squalid accommodation reeks of excrement, and the mentally handicapped sit and rack and moan. They are forgotten people, abandoned here for life, incarcerated here, and have committed no crime; they reside in these conditions due to ‘less than average intelligence’". The tone of the report and the ensuing press coverage highlighted how facilities in St. Brigid’s were widely regarded as inadequate.


Growing up I was always attuned to the folklore of the hospital and was captivated by the mystery surrounding it. I wanted to see inside the buildings for myself, so I set about trying to find someone to get me inside. I quickly discovered I wasn’t alone in my quest. I learned the hospital is legendary among a group of people called Urban Explorers and has earned the moniker "Asylum X." There are many of these individuals and teams around the world who venture inside derelict buildings and record the decay, and their unspoken code sets them apart. True Urbex explorers don’t vandalise or disrupt anything within the buildings, but simply record and share photos of the decay that has occurred naturally over the decades of abandonment.
I spent days trying to trace some of the first of these explorers to visit St. Brigid's—names like Camera Shy and Disco Kitten came up in my research but were no longer active on line, and their trails ran cold. I did manage to contact a photographer @TrueBritishMetal who had visited in 2016. His incredible photos act as a catalogue of a near-pristine, albeit abandoned, hospital, just before vandals and thieves destroyed thousands of pounds' worth of antiques.
One of these remarkable antiques is clearly visible in his photographs. A ten-foot by eight-foot ornate mirror hangs in the main lobby at the centre of the original building's X design. Four main corridors lead out from this spot, and the mirror was the hospital’s proud centrepiece. It dates back to the 1840s and was decorated by Chippendale ‘C swirls’ and a pair of colourful Ho Ho birds, which were typical of that period. If the birds were still intact, they would each span almost three feet in diameter and have colourful, intricate, wooden feathers. Thanks to his photographs, we can see the mirror was still intact as late as 2017, but by 2018, as seen in photographs taken by urbex explorer Brewtal, the mirror was badly damaged. Huge holes appear to be punched through, and parts of the frame are broken off. By 2020, the mirror had all but been decimated. Photographs show it was completely vandalised, with only parts of the frame left in place. Tracing the origin of the mirror, I heard it came from a religious group that was based in another building called The Pines, and was moved to this prominent location within the centre of the hospital for a touch of grandeur, where it is said that every nurse checked their appearance and straightened their hats when passing it. Now, thanks to the urban explorers who photographed it, we can remark on its splendour and mourn its irreparable loss. I sent photographs of the mirror to Dublin antiques dealers John Carroll Antiques Ltd. to gain some expert advice and to see if John could help appraise it. He told us if it were in its original state today, with its gold leaf gilt wood and gesso on carved pine, it would probably have a retail value of €35,000. I thought about what the town of Ballinasloe could do with E35,000 and felt angry about all the valuable antiques and huge areas of beautiful parque flooring that were just left inside to rot not unlike the fate of many of the patients.


I finally contacted some active urban explorers who were willing to let me tag along on their next visit inside the hospital. They told me they had visited Brigid’s many times and even stayed over night on a couple of occasions, bringing their tent and stove and camping in one of the cells. Phil and Sam are Urbex veterans who bring ‘a mix of scientific and spiritual equipment’ including dowsing rods and spirit boards in the hope of finding paranormal activity. “For us, it's not just about taking photos; we try to get answers from the building and the spirits who are still there. Sometimes we come across trapped souls, and we try to help them. As a building stands for so many years, the tragedies, mistreatment, and emotional everyday happenings are absorbed into the foundations of the building.” Sam explains that she connects with St. Brigid’s on a very personal level. She believes she was a nurse in her past life and gave me a very detailed story about a nurse named Joe. “Joe was 27 years old in 1946, and although she died in childbirth in the hospital, her child survived," she told me. The story is eerily precise and told with such conviction that I hang on every word. As it turned out, it didn’t matter whether I believed it or not; the excursion to Asylum X instantly became one of the strangest experiences of my life.
We met at dawn near the hospital walls and I have to say I was only nervous about the criminal element. I really didn’t want to get arrested on this fleeting visit to my home town. The crew assured me we didn’t actually have to break any lock, and true to their word, we entered the main hospital building through an open door.
On paper, the idea of exploring a dangerously decaying mental asylum would terrify most, but I didn’t feel scared. With every step, I just felt a growing weight of responsibility and sadness for all the patients who spent their lives, often unjustly, within this compound. We headed for the oldest part of the hospital and set up our base in the centre of the X, in the shadow of the skeletal remains of the once-imposing, ostentatious mirror. The floor is littered with splintered and smashed intrepid swirls of gold and black wood; the paint is still miraculously vibrant after all these years; and the scattered remains of the once magnificent Ho Ho birds give us a glimmer of the grandeur it once exuded.
The main building is just two stories over a basement, but Phil warns me the floors are unsound due to water damage from vandals creating holes in almost every surface and thieves stealing the lead and copper piping from the roof and around the building. The team is keen to show me around, but it was heartbreaking to see the extent of the vandalism. 
We all instinctively show a genuine reverence for every little artefact we come across. Phil tells me he has noticed huge changes in the destruction of the buildings over the years, causing the floors to collapse as the building becomes exposed to the elements. But it’s impossible to blame vandals for the careless abandonment of patient records, strewn across the main reception area. In a previous story for this paper I reported on the confidential files I discovered. Forms with handwritten details, including dates of birth and next of kin, with many children’s files dating back to the 1940s. There was a four-year-old girl who had come from the notorious St. Mary’s in Tuam, several files on blind, deaf, and epileptic children who had been sent to Brigid’s when their families couldn’t cope or understand how to deal with their complex needs. In the basement, we found sacks filled with old notebooks ranging from the 1940s to the 1990s, containing detailed medical histories and lists of patients' possessions, painting a desperate picture. Michael P. came with a wrist watch and a suit; Mary C. had a savings book; and Maura H. had knickers, a slip, a jumper, and a skirt. It was devastating to witness such disregard for patient confidentiality.
As we continue on past the row of single cells, I notice myself joining in with my new paranormal friends, silently asking the spirits to tell me their tales so I can share them.
Time passed at breakneck speed, and five hours into the experience, we entered a room, and Phil set up a circle of chairs and held out the dowsing rods. Sam confidently starts to ask the spirits questions, and it all feels strangely odd but powerful. I have never taken part in anything like this before, and I remember feeling uncomfortable, mostly because I was imagining how ridiculous it might seem to people in the outside world. The rods seem to be gravitating in my direction, constantly turning towards me. "Spirits, are you happy Sara is here to tell your story?” The rods swing wildly in my direction. After a few minutes, I become very cold and start to cry. No one is more surprised than me. I feel winded and breathless, overwhelmed by some kind of sadness which I can only try to describe it as an external sorrow, like it came from the buildings around me. Simultaneously, Phil states that energy had left in the rods.
I want to say it was just my own emotional investment that bubbled over, but the other three people in the room felt the strong energy shift. We have a video of the moment it happened, and I’ve watched it several times, and I can only conclude that it would be very hard to orchestrate it all. Phil notices the rods' loss of energy just as I feel the surge. I can’t explain away what happened to me among these strangers in that decaying hospital room, but it felt like a spiritual communication, which I’m still trying to process.
A couple of weeks later, on a sunny afternoon back home in London, I headed out to walk my dogs. While I’m rummaging in my pockets, I drop some money on the road just as I pass two cheery, weather-beaten councilmen working on a gardening job. They call after me to let me know I dropped my wallet, and as I’m thanking them, I immediately recognise their strong Irish accents. “Where are you guys from?” I ask. ‘Connemara’ they say, and I tell them I’m a fellow Galwegian from Ballinasloe. Straight away, in unison, with a knowing nod in my direction, they say, ‘Oh! The mad house'.
As I stand in the Shoreditch sunshine, listening to their vivid stories of a time long gone, I can’t help feeling St. Brigid’s hospital won’t let me forget it and the stories yet to be told, wherever I am in the world, and now with a national St. Brigid's bank holiday, maybe the nation will take time to remember all the souls who spent their lives there too.
Please contact if you have any stories you would like to share about St. Brigid’s Hospital.