St Conals Hospital Letterkenny

St. Connell’s lunatic asylum in Letterkenny -- my great Aunt Sarah's home, on and off, for over 40 years -- was exactly what you expected it to be. Gurgling drainpipes, flagstone steps and a black rook or two hopping along the grim Victorian exterior.

Part hospital, part penitentiary, I felt its melancholy and -- young as I was when we first visited her -- I was moved by the gloom of the place. These were the lost souls Dante spoke of, heartbreaking specters who were neither in this world or the next.

I was 10 when I saw her for the first time. She was about 66 years old then, grey haired, wide-eyed and (as I recall) psychotically cheerful.

I noticed that she would steal spoonfuls of butter from a tray when she thought no one was looking. I never said anything about it. What was there to say?

Her remorseless thieving, and the almost hysterical glee with which she undertook it, distinguished her from my less dramatic relatives. It was one of the reasons that I grew to love her. Great Aunt Sarah was a wild card in an era where women were expected to comport themselves at all times.

I had learned that Aunt Sarah had gone to New York in the 1920's and something had happened to her. But no one thought it important or appropriate to share the details with me, then or ever. At the time society and even your relatives would conspire to pretend nothing had happened. In that sense Aunt Sarah had been banished, like a princess in a fairy tale.

Now, walking along the endless corridors looking for Aunt Sarah’s wing accompanied by my aunt Maggie, we were already lost.

Ahead of us we saw two young priests approaching, arm in arm. Sighing with relief, my aunt approached them and asked for directions. But face-to-face you could tell they were under some kind of sedation. They peered at us through a smoky haze like opium addicts. Then they walked away without a word.

That did it for my aunt She took my hand firmly and we accelerated toward the first EXIT sign.

As we progressed a whooping octogenarian ran out of a room in front of us, her long white hair falling in long tresses around her. She looked at us for what seemed like minutes, and then she screamed.

Now I was afraid too. We began to run. Male nurses appeared and ran past us in the opposite direction.

After some terrifying moments we came at last to the canteen near the main entrance and caught our breath.

“Jesus that put the heart across me,” said my aunt, clutching at her chest and almost laughing. We had come to for Aunt Sarah and we were going to leave with her, no matter what.

As my Aunt Maggie talked I grew intrigued by the unexpected appearance of a boy my own age (I was 10 at the time). Blond haired, finely featured, he caught my stare and advanced straight toward me with his arms outstretched.

“I’m a helicopter,” he said, simply. “Are you one too?”

It had never occurred to me that children could get lost in that same maze that claimed adults. Old women, priests, children. Ireland had so many secrets. Circled by so much shame and silence, they could vanish and never be seen again.