With its rounded name and huge dome centre – somehow befitting of a maternity hospital – The Rotunda sits in the centre of Dublin’s north inner city, closing off the top of O’Connell Street.

An end, containing so many beginnings. Surrounded by shops, theatres and the Garden of Remembrance, it has long been at the heart of Dublin’s history, quietly getting on with the ordinary business of life throughout famines, protests and revolution.

Founded in 1745 by Bartholomew Mosse, the Rotunda is the oldest, continuously-running maternity hospital in the world. 9000 babies are born here every year while all about them the cogs of the city whirr and roll. The new Luas line will pass the doors of the hospital that were once attended by horse-drawn ambulances.

Mosse’s ambition to build a dedicated maternity hospital in Dublin had both public and private motivations. He wished to provide medical care and shelter to penniless mothers of Dublin after encountering unspeakable conditions in the course of his practice in the aftermath of the 1739 famine. Few people in Ireland at the time had any midwifery training and Fellows of the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland were even penalised if they practised. Mosse sought to change all that.

adorn the ceiling and altar with extravagant plasterwork depicting saints and cherubs, all themed around the Biblical psalm

He also had heart-wrenching reasons of his own for such an ambitious project; he had lost his first wife and their newborn son after complications in labour.

After this tragedy, Mosse left Ireland to serve for a time as a doctor with the British Army and while away, received training in ‘La Charite’, a Ward of Hotel-Dieu in Paris dedicated to midwifery. On his return, he received a midwife’s license and embarked on his plan, aided greatly by his second marriage to a wealthy heiress which elevated his standing in society.

Opulent ceiling decoration in the Pillar Room.

The extensive Rotunda building we know and love today comprises two separate complexes, the hospital itself and the rounded reception rooms for which the hospital is named. The original site of Mosse’s hospital, however, was on George’s Lane in a small theatre called “The New Booth”, which Mosse purchased after it was shut down in scandalous circumstances. This first ‘lying-in’ hospital of its kind in the world, it had only ten beds, but in its first year 190 babies were born, and just one mother died. The hospital could not meet demand, and it was clear that a larger site was needed.

These days, the only remaining patch of green near the Rotunda is the Garden of Remembrance, but that site was once the place where the bustling city gave way to sprawling countryside. Mosse had his eye on four acres there, described at the time as ‘a piece of waste ground, with a pool in the hollow, and a few cabins on the slopes.’

His friend, architect Richard Cassels, who had also designed Leinster House and Russborough House, was brought on board and fundraising ambitions were very much on both of their minds.

During the Easter Rising, through battles and barricades, Dublin women made their way up Moore Street and Capel Street on foot to reach the sanctity of the hospital

The hospital would be surrounded by pleasure gardens inspired by London’s Vauxhall Gardens; a striking country house façade would be built to appeal to the elite, and concert halls built for fundraising. In the hospital itself, small wards were built to avoid the epidemics that thrived in larger ones.

Then the small matter of the hospital chapel. Mosse realised this would need to be particularly opulent if he was to lure the wealthy Protestants of the city there to worship. He commissioned the famous stuccodor, Bartholomew Cramillion, to adorn the ceiling and altar with extravagant plasterwork depicting saints and cherubs, all themed around the Biblical psalm, “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” The privileged classes flocked to the chapel and filled the coffers of the hospital.

The chapel still functions today and is non-denominational but not easily accessed, securely nestled as it is amongst the babies in the post-natal care unit.

Venetian window in the Rotunda chapel.

The banquets and concerts that took place in the social rooms continued to support the hospital into the twentieth century when its stone-faced façade oversaw some of O’Connell Street’s more riotous scenes.

During the Easter Rising, through battles and barricades, Dublin women made their way up Moore Street and Capel Street on foot to reach the sanctity of the hospital. Neither social standing nor religion mattered there, a rare attitude in Irish society at that time.

Many devoted nationalists had worked inside the hospital and aided the Republican movement, Dr Kathleen Lynn and Bridget Lyons Thornton amongst them. Mary McDonald, latterly a prominent figure in the Irish Countrywomen’s Association, was a midwife in the Rotunda at the time of the Rising when the hospital was occupied by British military. Staff were ordered to carry on with their work. “We saw snipers at work from the top of the houses of Parnell Square. We saw all the prisoners collected into the lawn in front of the hospital and marched away to prison,” she wrote.

The assassination of Captain Percival Lea-Wilson of the Royal Irish Constabulary was said to be ordered by Michael Collins specifically because of his abuse of republican prisoners held in the Rotunda Gardens after the 1916 surrender. Inside the hospital was not without its own sadness. The infant mortality rate in 1916 was 160 per 1000 births compared to today’s 3 per 1000 births.

Some of the Rotunda’s finer social rooms are no longer part of the hospital. The Rotunda Assembly Hall is occupied by the Ambassador Theatre, and the Supper Rooms are part of The Gate Theatre, but a bust of Mosse continues to take pride of place in the hospital’s lobby. Many great Masters were to follow him, each bringing their own advancements. In 1833, Evory Kennedy was the first obstetrician to recognise the importance of monitoring foetal heart rate. In 1889, Arthur Macan supervised the first Caesarean there. Sara E Hampson, one of the original Nightingale nurses, was the First Lady Superintendent of the Hospital in 1891. She oversaw the development of a separate nurses’ quarters, and her portrait still adorns the wall of the hospital. The hospital itself continues to be recognised as one of the pioneer teaching hospitals of its kind in the world today.

Catherine Conroy is a Dublin writer, regularly contributing to The Irish Times, and dabbling in fiction in The Dublin Review. Her novel continues to wait patiently in a drawer.

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