The inspiration for this book came from a paper entitled “The History of the Route Hospital” delivered by Dr. C. Burns to the Viking Surgeons’ Club in September 1987. It soon became obvious that it was impossible to do justice to such an important subject during the course of a lecture lasting only one hour. Dr. Bums was bitten by the local history ’bug’ and this fascinating book is the end result of his labour and scholarship.
I call it a fascinating book because once the reader has embarked on the historical odyssey starting from the passing of the Poor Law in 1838, it is impossible to put the book down. Dr. Burns tells the story with considerable skill and it is almost as if he had lived through the entire period of which he writes. I think this stems from the fact that he has spent a lifetime as a General Practitioner in Ballymoney and has absorbed so much of the town’s medical history. He has first-hand knowledge of all the characters in the saga from the time he came to Ballymoney (1947) until the present day.
The reader is taken through the hard times of the Great Famine of 1845 to 1848; although he claims that the famine was not so serious in Co. Antrim as in other parts of Ireland because of the discovery of a blight-free potato called the ‘Doeback’, we find the Master of the Workhouse, Robert Bogle reporting to the Board of Guardians on 13th October 1845 that one-third of the potatoes had rotted on account of the blight which was by now so prevalent. It was not until February 1848 that the Board of Guardians, as a result of pressure from the Poor Law Commissioners, decided to install wooden floors in the workhouse and to provide footwear for the children, who up to this time had gone bare-footed. We are made to witness the cruelty of those in command in the workhouse and the brutal punishments they meted out to the poor unfortunates in their charge. At the same time we are made aware of the kindness and sympathy of the medical officers and nurses who tried so hard to bring some comfort to the lives of the poor.
In the book the ugly duckling — the Ballymoney Workhouse — becomes the beautiful swan — the Route Hospital, with its official opening by a distinguished medical consultant, Dame Louise Mcllroy, a native of Ballycastle. Like so many of our hospitals the Route was well-supported by local voluntary effort but the proposed amalgamation and centralisation of hospital services promulgated by the Hawnt Report of 1965 signalled the disappearance of the hospital management committees and the voluntary concept. Dr. Burns suggests that the success story of the Route Hospital in the halcyon days of the Northern Ireland Hospitals Authority begins to lose its lustre after the reorganisation of 1973 and the introduction of Health and Social Services Boards.
At the present time every sector of the Health and Social Services in Northern Ireland is under review including the Route Hospital and Dr. Bums is not over- optimistic about the future in his closing paragraph:
“Down the years the Workhouse and then the Route Hospital have been a central institution in our small town and surrounding rich farming community. Today it gives employment to over 200 people, which is a major factor in the economic infrastructure of Ballymoney. It has always been a friendly hospital, probably because it is relatively small and the staff are part of the community as well as of the hospital.
The dark clouds of uncertainty are again looming omimously over the Route. Whatever is to be its future it has had an honourable past.”
Dr. Bums is to be congratulated for his researches and, in particular, for the unusual photographs which he has managed to unearth. The book is well-illustrated with excellent black and white photographs and the reproduction and type is of the usual high standard which we have come to expect from Impact Printing. I have no doubt that this book will have a wide readership not only at home but more especially abroad, where apart from its medical and historical content, it will be treasured for the wealth of genealogical material it contains; mention is made of more than one hundred members of the Board of Guardians and the dates of their election, more than eighty doctors who served in the area, as well as nurses, members of Hospital Management Committees, building contractors, traders etc — in fact a microcosm of life in Ballymoney over the past one hundred and fifty years.