ONE of the biggest demonstrations seen in Limerick during the 20th century took place 25 years ago this month when 20,000 people marched through the streets of Limerick over the Fianna Fail government’s proposal to close acute services at Barringtons’ Hospital.
Founded by the Barrington family for the city’s poor in 1829, at the time of its closure in March 1988, four in five people admitted were public patients.
“It was a very divisive issue because of that. Barringtons’ was a genuinely beloved institution by the ordinary people of Limerick. If you were from the city, you didn’t go to hospital, you went to Barringtons’. Barringtons’ was a synonym for hospital among the poor of Limerick,” recalled Frank Prendergast, the former Labour TD and councillor who was a member of the hospital’s board of governors when the decision to close the hospital was taken.
It had come as a surprise to hospital management. Mr Prendergast recalled that as a TD in 1986, he had taken a call from the Minister for Health Barry Desmond informing him that two adjoining properties had been purchased by the Department to accommodate the hospital’s expansion. But after the change of government the following year, the new plan was to close the hospital in an era of health cuts.
What followed was a political storm which culminated in Fine Gael, Labour, Des O’Malley’s Progressive Democrats, independent Jim Kemmy and the city’s only government TD - Willie O’Dea - combining to defeat the Haughey administration by a single vote in the Dail in February 1988.
Deputy O’Dea returned to Limerick a hero and gave a press conference in Barringtons’ the following morning. While he may have lost influence within Fianna Fail, Frank Prendergast is in no doubt that his stand on Barringtons’ was a key factor in his enduring popularity at the polls - even if the hospital was closed in any event.
“I was in the Dail and can vividly recall Des O’Malley telling Willie O’Dea to vote against the government. He said it was the only thing to do and while he might pay a price within his own party for a while, he would be the most popular man in Limerick,” said Mr Prendergast.
Commenting last month in the wake of Labour’s Colm Keaveney voting against his own party, Deputy O’Dea maintained that the closure of Barringtons’ was a mistake.
And Mr Prendergast is fully in agreement, saying “we wouldn’t have half the problems we have today in the Regional were it not for the closure of Barringtons’ - despite the best efforts of all the staff in the Regional”.
“I wouldn’t at all discredit the idea of the small, efficiently-run local hospital over the big factory hospitals that are favoured today”.
Barringtons’ had 86 beds when it closed in March 1988. Most of its 165 staff were redeployed, with over 20 accepting redundancy.
An improved emergency department at St John’s would open later that year while Barringtons’ reopened fully as a private hospital in 1994.