Mad nun screeching: St Vincent’s Hospital as Joyce knew it

Portrait V. A: The lane behind the terrace was waterlogged and as he went down it slowly, choosing his steps amid heaps of wet rubbish, he heard a mad nun screeching in the nuns’ madhouse beyond the wall.

Typical commentary from St Vincent’s Asylum admission document (Hospital Collection)

Joyce was living at 8 Royal Terrace (now 8 Inverness Road) in Fairview during the latter part of his time at University College.1 The house at Royal Terrace is one of a number of Joyce houses that provide the backdrop for Joyce’s (not quite) fictional work A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.2 This terrace of houses has at its rear a lane by which Stephen Dedalus in Portrait leaves the house to go to class. The ‘wall’ referred to in the text is a rubble wall which functions as a boundary between the lane and a psychiatric hospital, St Vincent’s Hospital, then known as St Vincent’s Asylum. Today lane, wall and hospital are all largely unchanged from Joyce’s time:

The lane behind the terrace was waterlogged and as he went down it slowly, choosing his steps amid heaps of wet rubbish, he heard a mad nun screeching in the nuns’ madhouse beyond the wall. —Jesus! O Jesus! Jesus! He shook the sound out of his ears by an angry toss of his head and hurried on, stumbling through the mouldering offal, his heart already bitten by an ache of loathing and bitterness. His father’s whistle, his mother’s mutterings, the screech of an unseen maniac were to him now so many voices offending and threatening to humble the pride of his youth. He drove their echoes even out of his heart with an execration; but, as he walked down the avenue and felt the grey morning light falling about him through the dripping trees and smelt the strange wild smell of the wet leaves and bark, his soul was loosed of her miseries.

St Vincent’s Hospital was founded in 1857 by a committee set up to administer the funds left by Francis Magan and his sister, Elizabeth. Francis Magan had been the informant who, through the Sham Squire, had revealed the location of Edward Fitzgerald to Dublin Castle leading to his arrest by Major Sirr.3

The lane between the rear gardens of Royal Terrace (left) and boundary wall of St Vincent's (right) in 1999: camera facing direction Stephen was walking

In Portrait Joyce referred to St Vincent’s as “the nuns’ madhouse”, and to a limited extent only is this accurate. In the hospital’s founding documentation the clear intention was that it should become a psychiatric hospital for the Catholic middle class of both sexes. The hospital was part of the explosion in Catholic institutions in Ireland in the wake of Catholic emancipation. The ‘female side’ was started in 1857, using an early Georgian house on the Richmond Road as its first admission ward; the Vincentian Daughters of Charity (known in Ireland as the French Sisters and easily identified there by their headdress) were asked to take care of the new hospital. The anticipated ‘male side’ was never developed. Two years later, the neighbouring Presentation Sisters convent was added to the hospital, including the chapel that had been built on to the school in 1857.

Topographical view showing proximity of St Vincent’s Hospital

to Joyce’s home at 8 Royal Terrace

St Vincent’s did not admit male patients until many decades after the period in which Portrait is set, and so in Joyce’s time all of the patients were adult females. In Portrait Stephen refers to it as the “nuns’ madhouse beyond the wall”. ‘Nuns’ here could be interpreted as a reference to the Daughters of Charity who ran the hospital, but it is more likely that he was referring to the religious sisters who were resident patients in the hospital.

Daughter of Charity showing headdress

In referring to it as “the nuns’ madhouse” Joyce was reflecting the widely held view in the locality that the hospital was for religious sisters only. Indeed, this idea of the hospital was widespread in Dublin and Ireland and has been repeated to this writer (a doctor there since 1997) many times up to recent years.

A view of St Vincent's Asylum as seen from the direction of Royal Terrace c1920;

the walled garden is to the left (Hospital collection)

In fact, on examining the hospital records and the 1901 census there were about thirty-eight religious sisters resident as inpatients in St Vincent’s at the time Portrait is set. This was out of a total inpatient numbers of between 105 and 110 though the year 1901.4 The sisters came from all over Ireland and from all orders. Occasionally a sister was admitted from England or from the United States. Evidently, the hospital was the accepted destination for Irish religious sisters deemed to be requiring asylum care.

Patient record (extract) (Hospital collection)

The average age of the sisters is noticeably clustered, with all of the sisters being between thirty and seventy-one years of age (the average is fifty). At this time there were non-religious patients under thirty years old and over seventy are inpatients, so the constricted range might indicate a greater willingness on the part of the various orders to care for a fellow sister in the early and late stages of illness. “Chronic mania” (analogous to the modern diagnosis of schizophrenia) and “recurrent mania” (bipolar disorder) are the main diagnoses with “melancholia”, “monomania”, “dementia”, and “acute mania” also featuring.5 Interestingly, the diagnosis of “religious excitability” occurs in the records, but not in the census, and the patients’ records do quite frequently refer to religiosity to the point of illness. This, of course, is the type of patient that Joyce was imagining.6

St Vincent’s Hospital

The putative location of Joyce’s ‘mad nun’ is worth examining. The hospital at this time was a series of contiguous buildings of different eras and use, in linear form on an east-west axis. The closest hospital building to Royal Terrace was the chapel, with the next structure being the Daughters of Charity residence. The patient-care areas were the buildings most distant from 8 Royal Terrace. The hospital, however, did have an extensive walled garden with a covered walkway, and it is my speculation that in order for Stephen to hear the mad nun clearly she was most likely to have been taking a morning walk in the walled garden to the south of the main hospital buildings.7 The cast-iron pillars from this walkway are still extant. It is also quite likely that hearing the screaming/shouting from the Asylum was a regular occurrence for the Joyces when they lived at Royal Terrace.

Cast iron columns from covered walkway in the walled garden

St Vincent’s features in Joseph Strick’s film adaptation of Joyce’s novel, but rather more dramatically than the scene in the book. Stephen (played by Bosco Hogan) is shown walking down a lane underneath a wall of the hospital, in which there is a nun reaching out though a barred window an exclaiming “Jesus! O Jesus! Jesus!”, as in the novel. So far as I can ascertain the hospital never had barred windows, except one at basement level in one building (to keep Dubliners out more than in).

Patients tend the garden c1910. The crouching nun is most likely a patient. Note the headdress of the ‘French Sisters’ (Hospital collection)

One other point may be of interest to Joyceans. The hospital chapel has a plaque to Julia Anna Conmee and her daughter, Catherine Julia Conmee: Julia Conmee was from the same family as everybody’s favourite Jesuit, Fr John Conmee.

Aidan Collins

Unless otherwise stated, all images are photographs taken by or original documents in the possession of the author.


1 The Joyce family lived at Royal Terrace from May 1900 until Autumn 1901. In 1899 they had also lived in a house close to the entrance of the hospital with a front door onto Convent Avenue but an address at 225 Richmond Road. See James Joyce’s Dublin Houses by Vivien Igoe.

2 See Terence Killeen “Archaeologists hope to uncover secrets at James Joyce’s house in Fairview”, in Irish Times 22 February 2013, p. 4.

3 I have addressed the Magan legacy at length in St Vincent’s Hospital Fairview 1857-2007 (Albertine Kennedy: 2007).

4 According to the 1901 census there were Daughters of Charity and many other maids/attendants caring for the patients in St Vincent’s. This census also records the Joyce family living at Royal Terrace, and includes both Stanislaus and James as having both Irish and English.

5 In modern nosology “mania” means “an affective illness with mood elation as its main component”. In 1901 mania was “an illness characterised by delusions”.

6 In 1859 a difficulty arose between the Daughters of Charity and the Presentation Sisters about the very phenomenon described by Joyce in Portrait. Patients’ loud screaming was interfering with the Presentation Sisters and their school and they complained to the local hierarchy. Archbishop Paul Cullen issued a verdict which led to the teaching order moving their school to Terenure and the nursing order expanding their operation into the school building.

7 See drawing from architects W. H. Byrne and Son to illustrate the proximity of the laneway to St Vincent’s; also Bruce Bidwell and Linda Heffer, The Joycean Way (Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1981).