St Patrick’s Day, and that time I broke into an abandoned insane asylum

Image credit: GaborfromHungary | Morguefile

St. Patrick’s Day always brings back lots of fond (and a few not-so-fond) memories of the year I spent living in Cork. It seems like a whole lifetime ago … and when I think about it, it was more than a third of my life ago, so maybe the way it seems is pretty close to the way it actually is.

I was digging through some old files and came across this little piece I wrote for a travel writing course I took years ago in Toronto. A memory of a memory. It’s been languishing in the ether — hopping from hard drive to USB to hard drive each time I’ve gotten a new computer (so… twice, I think?) — for the past 8 or 9 years, so I thought I’d get it out in the open now. It’s terribly outdated and only half-heartedly fact-checked, but it brought a smile to my face so in honour of St. Pat’s, I’m sharing this wee slice of my former life with all of you.


That time I broke into an abandoned insane asylum

“Breaking into a loony bin is easy – it’s getting out that’s the hard part,” Barry says, grinning impishly at me. I am ankle-deep in mud, staring up at the abandoned building. This is definitely not where I expected to be on a drizzly Saturday afternoon.

Located on the outskirts of Cork City, Eglinton Lunatic Asylum was opened in 1852 and later re-christened Our Lady’s Hospital. It is known for its facade, the longest of any building in Ireland. The asylum gazes forbiddingly over the River Lee, and is especially unnerving from up close. A sense of dread rises in my throat.

Freeing ourselves from the sticky mud, we climb in through a back window and find ourselves in a charred black room with a mangled skeleton of a floor. The smell of charcoal permeates my nostrils. We teeter awkwardly along the exposed beams into a corridor.

Our Lady’s Hospital closed in 1988. Since then, it has provided a different sort of asylum, serving as a haven for lost souls in need of shelter from the endless Irish rain. There is evidence of these recent guests everywhere: Barry and I notice several bathtubs full of empty pint cans, chip bags, and a few other items that we don’t dare examine too closely. Some rooms have been completely gutted by flames, a sinister indication of late-night campfires gone horribly wrong.

As we make our way through the labyrinth of corridors, over shattered stained glass and past broken staircases leading nowhere, I can’t help but equate the asylum itself with the minds of those who must have stayed there: chaotic and in disrepair. The building seems to go on forever and I can easily imagine getting lost inside.

“Don’t worry,” Barry says, sensing my anxiety. “I’ve left a trail of breadcrumbs for us.”

How did Barry get so funny?

We make stops throughout the building so that Barry can take pictures for his college art project. As the camera clicks and buzzes, I am becoming increasingly aware that Barry and I are having vastly different experiences. For me, the asylum is an architectural metaphor for the darkness of the human psyche. For him, it’s a great place to photograph me barefoot in a pile of broken glass. I silently wonder if I should get a tetanus shot later.

When Barry runs out of film, we make our way back through the building and crawl out the way we came in. I feel a brief rush of adrenaline as we exit: the thrill of not having been caught trespassing on private property.

We part ways at the river: Barry is off to the darkroom at University College Cork, and I’m heading home for dinner. Neither of us knows it yet, but we’ll never see one another again.

Swans glide peacefully beside me as I walk alongside the Lee. I think to myself that if I ever write a book about Cork I will call it “Swans Swimming in Sewage” — the city doesn’t yet have a proper drainage system. The swans remind me of the many contrasts of this country: that such beautiful creatures can swim about in filth; that such a huge and imposing building can be frail and melancholy inside; that such a cold, rainy city can be filled with such warm and welcoming people.

Years later, back in Canada, I decide to do some online research about Our Lady’s Hospital, in hopes of finding photos to share with friends who have heard the story far too many times. I find a few pictures, but in the end I am most intrigued by a caption: “Eglinton Asylum. Famous in Cork for being the longest building in Ireland …. Now apartments.”

The renovations began in May 2005. I imagine by now, there are at least one or two Corkonians who’ve set up housekeeping in the erstwhile hospital rooms. It’s difficult to picture anyone coming home to such a sinister-looking building with such an infamous past. As for me, the gloomy Saturday afternoon when I had a brief and chilling glimpse at the asylum’s history will remain with me always.

I smile to myself as I remember Barry’s words before we climbed inside. It was easy enough to move away from Ireland, but leaving it behind would be impossible.

2 Comment

  1. Cassidy says: Reply

    Love it. Sometimes I go back to old stuff I’ve written to find my voice. Funny I was thinking how different this story would be today…Barry pulled out his iPhone and took several pictures–never running out of film. What’s film?!

    1. Jean says: Reply

      Right? I never thought about the technology aspect. He was a Visual Art student, though, so maybe they still teach them to work with film?

      Actually … probably not. Even professional photographers are probably all using super-fancy DSLRs now.

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