When artist Alan Counihan was a little boy, his mother would take him and his sister to St. Brendan’s and St. Ita’s psychiatric hospitals while she carried out anesthetics for patients undergoing electro-compulsive therapy.

Alan and his sister would be told to wait in the car but - being children - they would get out of the car and run around the grounds. Alan got glimpses into a mysterious other-world and the people that inhabited it.   

In the 1950s, Ireland had one of the biggest per capita populations of psychiatric institutions in the world. In February 2013 St. Brendan’s Mental Hospital at Grangegorman finally closed after 199 years.

During the making of a TV documentary called Behind the Walls by Mary Raftery, piles of old possessions were discovered– the remnants and echoes of people’s lives.

When Alan first heard about abandoned personal effects, he was compelled to investigate further. Why were people’s possessions left in such a deplorable state? Why had people not reclaimed them? And why, now that much of the hospital was being demolished to make way for a new university, were they destined for a skip?

He took a selection of the possessions back to his studio in Kilkenny. These were the possessions that each person brought with them as they entered into the hospital. When a person was admitted to the hospital, their possessions would be removed for safe-keeping. A label would be attached to women’s handbag and the contents listed. Men would place their belongings into a little canvas bag which would have a label attached to it.

The idea was that when a person was better and could leave the hospital, they could then reclaim their belongings. If somebody died, their relatives could claim the possessions.

In every handbag, Alan found a set of rosary beads. Often he found the keys to the front door – a key that was destined never to be used again. People brought cutlery with them to the hospital. They brought photographs and letters and reminders of home and of loved ones.

Last year Alan’s Personal Effects: A History of Possession exhibition went on display in the former ‘Long Stores’ in Grangegorman. In a dark room, handbags were hung upside down, lit from underneath with keys, rosary beads and silver cutlery tumbling down, suspended in the air.

In the cold and dilapidated Long Stores, waiting for visitors to the exhibition Alan said he sometimes felt like a patient hoping for a visitor.

In this documentary Alan speaks to people who can tell him what life was like inside the hospital. Former psychiatric nurses, the hospital Chaplain and patients themselves reveal the true nature of life inside the building that, in its day, was known by many names - The Grange, Brendan's, The Mental, The Puzzle Factory.

Produced by Alan Counihan and Nicoline Greer.

Narrated by Keelin Shanley.  

Sound supervision by Mark McGrath. 

Readings by Pat McGrath, Nicola Moore and Louise Denvir. 

First broadcast: September 5th, 2015 on RTÉ Radio 1 at 1pm

An Irish radio documentary from RTÉ Radio 1, Ireland - Documentary on One - the home of Irish radio documentaries