The headquarters of Mayo County Council – Aras an Chontae – stands today on what was, for almost two centuries, the Mayo County Infirmary. The latter institution had been built under government grant from London, but its running and maintenance were a charge on the local landed gentry or, generally, on the voluntary efforts of local fundraising bodies.
Operational from the mid 1700s, the infirmary was eventually replaced by what is now Mayo University Hospital, itself opened in 1938 on what was the county jail. Its opening in October of that year by then Minister for Justice, PJ Ruttledge, was not, however, without incident.
Shortly before the official opening, the nearly complete building was broken into under cover of darkness and, in a mystery which was to remain unsolved, a pointed act of anti-imperialism was carried out.
The background to the incident was that, in the old infirmary, there had long been erected a series of monumental tablets bearing the names of the founder members of the facility’s committee, stretching far back before native government. These members were, naturally, of the old landlord class or Church of Ireland clergy, among them Lord Sligo, the Earl of Lucan, Sir Richard O’Donel of Newport and George Glendinning of Westport. These tablets had been taken down, transferred to and re-erected in the foyer of the yet-to-be-opened county hospital.
However, it seems that local nationalist sympathy was offended by the idea of the despised landlord class being so honoured. After gaining entry, intruders prised the tablets from the wall, took them outside and smashed them. It was never fully explained how, even under the eyes of the night watchman, the raiding gang were neither seen nor heard.
When it closed in 1938, the infirmary had been under the supervision of the highly admired Dr Anthony McBride, brother of Major John McBride, who served there for 33 years. He had succeeded the equally admired Dr O’Malley Knott, a native of Sligo who had managed to run the institution on a shoestring budget for many years. The infirmary catered for up to 1,000 patients a year, but the conditions were rudimentary.
Dr Knott’s staff consisted of a matron and two nurses, but his most reliable aide was the hall porter, a man named Tom McGowan, a native of Killasser. Tom was often called from his bed to assist Dr Knott in his duties, to the extent that over time the hall porter became quite expert in treating minor medical conditions. His talents, and his helpful and obliging demeanour, earned him the sobriquet of ‘Doctor Tom’ with the townspeople, among whom he was a firm and popular favourite.
But few were aware of the tragic back story to Tom’s life. As a young man, he had emigrated to the English midlands where he led a hard-working, sober, diligent life. However, when a drunken brawl close to his lodgings led to the death of a man, Tom McGowan – even though he was miles away at the time – was called in for questioning. To his horror, seven witnesses swore that he was the perpetrator and, at Lincoln Assizes, he was sentenced to 15 years penal servitude. He had served ten years of the sentence when a deathbed confession by the real killer was relayed to the Home Secretary and, in due course, the innocent Mayo man was released and pardoned to return home to a post at the Mayo County Infirmary.
The injustice of what had befallen him failed to quench his kindness and generosity. And he never spoke of the wrong he had endured.