Castleknock College Union

Thomas McNamara, CM, SVC President 1864-67

founding of St John of God Hospital

Nov 4, 2007
Thomas McNamara, CM, SVC President 1864-67 -


We know of Thomas McNamara, CM, as the founder of the College, and indeed the main building is named after him, but a recently discovered letter has revealed his role in the founding of a large number of Dublin medical institutions.

St Vincents's Hospital, Fairview – An Illustrated History 1857-2007.

Fr Thomas McNamara played a role in the founding of St John of God Hospital and that he was solely or partly responsible for the founding of a large number of Dublin medical institutions. These include the Mater Misericordiae Hospital and St Vincent’s Hospital in Fairview, as well as the School for the Deaf in Cabra and Castleknock College.

His influence also brought schools to Swords, Co. Dublin and Dingle, Co. Kerry.

Furthermore, it was when he was the administrator at Phibsborough that the edifice that is St Peter’s was built. A fine gothic structure, it would have been bigger had Fr McNamara had his way — he was forced to dismantle a large tower under subpoena, with the resulting materials being used to build the Arthur Conan Doyle pub.

In 1868, he was appointed rector of the Irish College in Paris. He maintained this role for 20 years and experienced the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian war.

Recently, it has been discovered that this Vincentian priest had a major role in the foundation of another well-known Irish hospital — St John of God Hospital in Stillorgan, Co. Dublin. This was not previously known. While researching the archive held at St Vincent’s Hospital, Fairview, Dr Aidan Collins, a psychiatrist at the hospital, came upon a letter from Fr McNamara dated September 19, 1880, and written by him as rector of the Irish College. The letter is on the writing paper of the College des Irlandais at 5, Rue des Irlandais in Paris, and is addressed to Dr Thomas Fitzpatrick, the visiting physician at St Vincent’s Hospital. That hospital had been set up by McNamara, Fitzpatrick and others in 1857 and placed under the care of the (Vincentian) Daughters of Charity.

Fr McNamara wrote:

A day or two before coming away, I met with Dr [Francis] Cruise, and had a long talk with him about the long-wished-for asylum for gentlemen afflicted with mental disease, which would provide at the same time for poor priests in the same way as Richmond House provides for nuns.

As a result of our conversation, I visited next day the house of the Brothers of St John of God at Sandymount and by recommendation of the Brother Superior there, I laid the project before the Brother Provincial here in Paris since my return. He entertained the proposal very encouragingly and submitted it to his council, who agreed with him to send instructions to the Brother Superior at Sandymount to look out for a suitable place about Dublin to begin the good work.

I have written to the Archbishop of Dublin to enlist his sympathy and support, and I write to you to tell you that a project for which you and I are long hoping for is, I trust, about to be realised. You will, I know, give a helping hand to the good work. The good brothers, being strangers in the country, will require encouragement and advice. Having seen the great good effected by your department over which you preside, and which with God’s blessing has prospered so happily under your direction, you will, I am sure, divine comfort from seeing the other department equally prosperous.

At this distance, I can only pray that God almighty will bless the good undertaking and all who bind their efforts towards its advancement.

The St John of God Hospital commenced caring for the mentally unwell soon after this letter was written. It illustrates how these types of institutions — now so familiar in Ireland — came to be set up during the period of post-emancipation Catholic philanthropy. Fr McNamara’s tenacity and political abilities are evident. It is of note that the Dr Cruise mentioned is the polymath Sir Francis Cruise, well-known author, Mater physician and pioneer of endoscopy.

At a lunch at St John of God’s last November, St Vincent’s Hospital handed McNamara’s letter over to the care of the Brothers of St John Of God.