Anyone who has spent any time doing archival research will have (hopefully) had those special ‘eureka’ moments. Whether you’ve stumbled on the perfect document or an unexpected box of chloroform capsules—that’s a story for another post—there are those moments where you find something that is exactly what your research needed and reminds you why you love what you do. Today’s post is kind of about one of those moments. It’s also kind of an archival review and kind of a history of a place. It is based on my experience doing research at the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin—or as I like to call it “Thesis Gets Real.”
The hospital, initially the Dublin Lying-in Hospital, was founded in 1745 by the Irish surgeon Bartholoew Mosse (1712-1759), who was appalled by the conditions in which women in Dublin gave birth. For nearly 300 years it has been one of Ireland’s foremost maternity hospitals. It was the first midwifery training hospital in the UK and Ireland, which is why I ended up there for research.
Most of the records are closed files in the National Archives, but the hospital library still has some annual reports that I wanted to look at. So I arranged to meet the extremely helpful librarian. The library is housed in a part of the hospital that only staff can access so she told me to go to the main reception and they would call her to come get me. On my first morning I was asked to sit in the waiting room. Of course this is still an active maternity hospital, so sitting in the waiting room meant a room full of heavily pregnant women, several of whom were in labour. Although we had never met, the librarian recognised me immediately as I stood out as the only non-pregnant woman in a crowded room. Not quite the usual archival experience.
During the days I spent at the Rotunda I found myself thinking the whole situation was kind of surreal. Here I was reading annual reports while just metres away babies were being born and the life of the hospital continued. I ate my lunch in the staff cafeteria surrounded by midwives and all I could think was this is why I love my thesis.
On my final day of research the librarian took me on a tour of the hospital. The original 18th century building is still in use, but over the centuries the hospital has expanded, each addition the sign of a different era. Many of the function rooms were far grander than we associate with hospitals today, but by far the most impressive is the chapel (opened 1762). Complete with gorgeous stained glass, heraldic paintings, and carvings in the alcoves of the ceiling, the chapel is a work of art. It speaks to the rich history of the hospital.
The research I did at the Rotunda was useful, but the overall experience was absolutely fantastic. It might even be more fantastic than the time I found a box of chloroform capsules…
Feature Image: “Back of the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin (1890s)”