Contributor: Matthew Campbell
When St Patrick’s Choral Society first performed, it was on an old and highly inadequate stage in the Canon’s Hall, situated in Irish Street Downpatrick (no longer in existence). In early 1980 the musical group moved to Downpatrick Leisure Centre as this venue had a large multi-purpose hall with an equally large stage. The capacity of this hall could exceed 500 persons and hosted a variety of events from concerts, musicals and even sporting events. Both venues served their purpose adequately and certainly did not detract from the group’s success.
The society changed venues once again in 2001 when they moved to The Great Hall auditorium situated in the Downshire Hospital Estate, Ardglass road Downpatrick.
The Downshire Hospital, or ‘County Down Lunatic Asylum’ as it was originally named, opened in 1969 and was one of the final phases of district asylums constructed in a programme that had been on-going since 1820. The design of this grand building was overseen by the Government Board of Works architect, J. H. Owen, however a second local architect, Henry Smyth, was also employed to oversee the detailed design and supervision of the building project.
The Down Recorder at the time described it as nothing less than colossal, measuring nearly one thousand feet across the main frontage. It had the capacity for 333 patients (Kelly, A Grand Old Lady, 2012).
At the heart of this grand building was the Great Hall. Originally the hall served as a multipurpose venue for patient day activities and meals as well as conferences, however the hall went through a significant period of refurbishment in 1998 with the intention of preserving it as the only interior surviving from the Victorian asylum. The regeneration scheme cost over £750,000 to complete which involved removing the suspended ceiling that had been installed in 1969, and exposing the original roof trusses which are integral to the halls iconic look now. The inclusion of a high vaulted ceiling also greatly enhanced the natural acoustics of the hall. The plan to open this hall to the public as a prime entertainment venue in the area was a complete success and the renovation has brought a variety of cultural, musical, social and educational activities to Downshire. In the past two decades the hall has hosted, pantomimes, musicals, concerts, rallies, exhibitions and even banquets. The hall is now ‘home to St Patrick’s Choral Society who are continuing the strong entertainment tradition associated with the venue. (Kelly, 2012)
As the years have moved on, the hospital has closed down ward by ward (mostly due to lack of funds for the upkeep of such a large building). The construction of the new Down Hospital on an adjacent site meant that many services were transferred to the new building and the old Victorian site began to become obsolete. The building is now owned by the South Eastern Health & Social Care Trust who still use it regularly to host training days and other staff organised activities. Some of the newer wards were also converted into office spaces and are still in use today.
In 2013 the Newry, Mourne & Down District Council (originally named Down District Council before a merger in 2013) moved its council buildings onto the site with the construction of a new civic centre. Shortly after this move, the local PSNI and fire services also moved to a newly built headquarters on this site revitalising the estate.
However, through a century of change and re-development, the iconic Great Hall still stands at the heart of the magnificent building and remains as just a small reminder of the history enclosed inside this once asylum.
Dr Sean Kelly, A Grand Old Lady, (published by South Eastern Health and Social Services Trust, Dundonald, 2012)