The HSE has confirmed to Gript that it is currently exploring the possibility of housing Ukrainian refugees at St. Loman’s Hospital in Mullingar.
The HSE confirmed reports to local paper, The Westmeath Topic, this week, and later to Gript. In a written statement to the paper, the health service said they had been contacted by Westmeath County Council who “suggested the idea”.
The HSE said they are currently enquiring whether it would be feasible to house refugees at St. Loman’s.
In a statement sent to Gript, a spokesperson for the health service said:
“The St Loman’s former psychiatric hospital building due to its age and condition is not readily compatible for the provision of modern healthcare services and its future use is being considered.”
It continued: “Westmeath County Council assessed St. Loman’s Hospital, as part of a larger list of properties that it assessed for suitability for accommodation of Ukrainian Refugees.
“St Loman’s was withdrawn from further consideration due to the condition of the building, its suitability for conversion to accommodation, the costs and timelines involved.”
However, it added:
“The Council is assessing the suitability of St. Brigid’s, which is within the St Loman’s complex, and its overall suitability will be evaluated by the Council in light of other options being considered. The HSE is awaiting confirmation from the council as to whether or not it is feasible/ viable to provide accommodation for Ukrainian Refugees at this location.”
The former psychiatric hospital was opened in 1855 to service three counties – Longford, Westmeath and Meath – after it was built to initially accommodate 300 patients on a 25-acre site. At its peak, St Loman’s had 650 staff and 1,300 patients, however, the hospital started going into decline after the introduction of deinstitutionalisation in the late 1980s.
In 2007, after a damning report by the Inspector of Mental Health Services on conditions at the hospital, calls for its immediate closure were made.
The hospital closed its doors in December 2013 following the relocation of St. Edna’s Ward – the last remaining ward in the original gothic building, to a new building on campus.
However, multiple services still remain operational on a new building located within the sprawling campus, St Edna’s Unit and an Admissions Unit.
This includes a new regional ambulance service, services for children and adolescents, and an acute psychiatric unit located on the campus. The Irish Wheelchair Association have their Westmeath Headquarters located on the site as well.
Speaking to Gript, local Independent Councillor Mick Dollard said he had been informed at a local council meeting last Monday that the former St. Bridget’s Ward at St Loman’s is the area which is being considered for housing Ukrainian refugees — which aligns with the statement given by the HSE.
Cllr Dollard, who worked for 40 years as a psychiatric nurse at St Loman’s before becoming a councillor full time, has in-depth knowledge of the site.
“St Bridget’s block – the block which both the HSE and Westmeath County Council are looking at — comprises three floors. It would have been constructed at a later date, after the main building in 1856,” he said.
“The HSE uses this block for psychological services for children and adolescents, and right beside it, we have St Loman’s GAA pitch which was also constructed on the old campus.”
Speaking to Gript, Cllr Dollard said he was in favour of the use of the former hospital for housing Ukrainian refugees short-term. However, he admitted that some local constituents have concerns about proposals.
“I would have no objections about St Loman’s campus being used to house Ukrainians fleeing a war situation,” he told Gript. “I don’t believe the vast majority of people would object to it, either, quite frankly”.
“Most fair-minded people would recognise our own history, and to my knowledge, all the public reps in Westmeath are in favour of the Ukraine people being accommodated here, if in fact, that happens.”
Cllr Dollard said it remains to be seen whether the hospital will be used because it is under the ownership of the HSE.
“I’m of the view that it would be suitable to accommodate people,” he said.
However, he said his first choice for the use of St Loman’s in the long-term would be for outreach education.
“I would love to see outreach education taking place at the main building [long-term],” he said. He pointed to a former psychiatric hospital in Monaghan being converted to a further education headquarters, and another in Sligo which has been converted into a hotel.
“It’s an ideal site which would accommodate a lot of people from Mullingar and further beyond, and it’s easily accessible with no problem with parking,” he said.
Commenting on the appropriateness of the site, he said that local constituents have voiced concerns about immigration into the area.
“I spend a lot of time talking to people on the ground,” the former nurse and peace commissioner said. “The biggest problem local people have is when they see all male refugees coming in, and they ask, ‘Where are the women and the children?’
“There is a differentiation between people fleeing a war and those coming here with no paper trail. It is understandable that people are wondering what is going to happen in the medium to long term,” he told Gript.
“In the context of people being housed in St Loman’s, we have only been advised that it is people from Ukraine who are coming here. Most fair minded people would accept that these are people who are fleeing from a war situation in their own country, and who would be entitled to work.”
The former Labour councillor admitted that he himself has concerns.
“I have major concerns about people who are coming into Ireland with no paper trail and we don’t know who they are. In situations where it’s all men, we have to ask, where are all the women and children?” he said.
The health service told the Westmeath Topic that any transfer of the building to other parties would be compliant with both its own and government protocols.
Asked by the Westmeath Topic if it could confirm the potential capacity of the former hospital for housing refugees – or how much of the building would be used for that purpose – the HSE said it could not confirm.
Gript has also contacted Westmeath County Council for comment.