It’s almost Hallowe’en. It passes most of us by since we don’t deal with the supernatural. For us, bodies are alive or dead…there is no ‘undead’ category. There are few occupations that are as concerned with the physical as the physician’s. Even outside medicine, modern life just does not accommodate the paranormal.
Electricity saw many ghosts die in Ireland; the artificial light had banished the spaces and the shadows that spectres need to flourish in and our busy lives rid us of the quiet time that the mind needs to conjure them up. People in a hurry don’t have time to be afraid of things that go bump in the night.
It’s not that I’m not busy, it’s just that I’m busy having an out-of-body experience. I’m not doing my usual GP work at the moment but rather I’m looking across into the other dimension: hospital medicine. Besides, the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear, as the name suggests, has vestiges of a bygone era – it isn’t hard to feel surrounded by ghosts here.
The porters are quick to disseminate the ghost stories to new staff. One of the SHOs told me that on a night he was rostered he was cornered on his way to his room by a porter. He asked him whether he had met the ghost on the upper floor yet. The SHO didn’t really want to hear about this, but he was told the tale anyway.
The story was that a young nun, working and living in the hospital many years ago, had a concealed pregnancy and ultimately died in childbirth, alone, in the very room that is now reserved for the ENT SHO on-call. Spooky stuff, although the Eye and Ear was never actually staffed by nuns. No need to call Ghostbusters just yet. The building is obviously full of history. Is everyone too busy to invent some credible ghosts?
Maybe the forefathers then? The Eye and Ear is an amalgamation of two hospitals, one of which was St Mark’s Ophthalmic Hospital, founded by Sir William Wilde, whose bronze bust is on display in the entrance to the hospital.
Outside of the world of medicine, Sir William is best known for being the father of Oscar Wilde. Many of Oscar’s stories borrow elements from the folklore collected by his parents. Sir William would often accept folk tales in lieu of payment from his patients who were often very poor. I’m sure many doctors have been told tall tales by patients reluctant to pay bills, but few have been enterprising enough to consider compiling a compendium.
In my rummaging around the archives I found a particularly gruesome tale associated with Sir William that he took great trouble to hide. Prior to his marriage, William Wilde had two daughters born out of wedlock, Emily and Mary, who were sent to live with a relative in Monaghan.
The girls were well liked in the locality and a ball was held in their honour on Hallowe’en night in 1871. The party was a great success and after the guests had left the host gallantly offered to take the younger sister for one more turn about the floor.
As he swept her around the room, they strayed too close to the large, open fireplace and her crinoline skirt caught fire. Her sister ran to her aid but was also engulfed in the conflagration. The host wrapped both girls in his coat and rolled them down the fourteen steps of his house, the flames were put out but it was too late. Both girls had died from the injuries within three weeks.
Sir William was able to ensure that no press coverage of the sad event or inquest took place, though local oral tradition in the parish of Drumsnat reports that his sobs of grief could be heard on the streets.
A very sad story but I doubt if their ghosts would be bothered to travel up from Monaghan to visit the Eye and Ear.
In one last desperate bid to find some credible, local ghosts I went back to the source of this whole thing, the porter’s desk, “I’m looking for some ghost stories, what have you got for me?” “Ah, you want the night porter”.
“Well, then there’s the ghost of a child who died in theatre. You can hear them crying in the operating room on certain moonless nights.” It sounded pretty generic but it still made me shudder. At that, I decided I should probably get back to work.