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Bright new dawn planned for Birr Workhouse

Thursday, 22 March 2018

IT WAS a special day for everyone who attended last week's Birr 20/20 meeting when an exciting new plan was unveiled for the future of Birr Workhouse, a very important building in the town which has suffered from a long period of neglect.

It was an emotionally satisfying moment for all present at the meeting, to see something positive rising from the ashes of failure.

Karen Cross, an architect from Edenderry, addressed the meeting on behalf of a multinational company called Castle Rook and its CEO Candace Lafleur. Karen was introduced to the meeting by Salters Sterling, Cllr John Carroll and Brian Kennedy. She told the meeting about Castle Rook, and what it's planning for Ireland. She said Candace "has had some personal experience of nursing and care homes while she was recuperating, which made her think about how to improve the experience for the patients. She set herself the task of trying to change the care home experience for those suffering from dementia and for the elderly."

 She said Candace was partly inspired by Marie Montessori and her ideals of proper care for the vulnerable. "Candace believes that people should be treated in a proper, humane manner from childhood right up to our last days. She wanted to create a care system where people with dementia could live without drugs; where they could live in larger rooms. The standard nursing home room in Ireland is 24 square metres. Candace and Castle Rook will be creating rooms which are 50 square metres, which will include a bedroom and kitchen. Castle Rook wants to create homes for dementia sufferers where the sufferers can live a drug free, active life; rather than the depressing scene of people sedated with drugs in rooms which could be better. Castle Rook wants to create Care Homes where alzheimer sufferers don't lose their sense of wellbeing and where the standard of care is of the very best."

She said Castle Rook will create 12 Homes in total in Ireland. A home in Oranmore, Galway will be the first and this will be followed by the development of Birr Workhouse. She said Castle Rook is currently in the process of buying the Workhouse, a process which should be completed by the end of April. Following this the company will make an application to the County Council to commence emergency works to make the building safe and watertight. The former men's section of the building was extensively damaged by a fire last August and there are many holes in the roofs.

While the emergency works are underway Castle Rook will apply for a change of use to the premises. It will apply to transform much of the premises into a care facility for dementia sufferers and to transform a section at the front, (formerly part of the women's area), into a museum about the Workhouse. 

She said the cost per week for Nursing Home patients ranges from €700 to €1,500. The cost of care in the Workhouse facility will be about €700 to €800. She said Candace and Castle Rook are not focussed on making profit, but on creating a viable operation which will provide the very best of care. She said the Workhouse facility will also feature a café, creche, daycare facilty and vertical farming. 

"Dementia," she pointed out, "can start as early as a person's 40s and there are people in Ireland who have been institutionalised and they are only in their 40s. In the Birr facility the patients will have a very nice connection with their families. There will be a very nice connection with the local community. Part of the facility will be open to the general public even if they have nobody in the care home.

"In Castle Rook our aim is to give people with dementia a wonderful last phase of life. In our society we respect our children, by and large, and our care of children is good. We are not as good with the care of the elderly and alzheimer sufferers. Castle Rook wants to change that."

Salters Sterling of Birr 20/20 said everyone in the meeting was profoundly moved and "dumbfounded" to hear such good news. "After years of fruitless efforts of trying to get something positive to happen with the workhouse, led by the untiring efforts of Margaret Hogan, it is thrilling to hear this good news now. Castle Rook's proposal seems the ideal outcome for the building. When Birr 20/20 was set up over four years ago we wanted to turn the Workhouse into a place of great friendliness. That is now going to happen. This facility will meet the international, highest benchmark for dementia treatment, a benchmark which so few places are meeting."

 Brian Kennedy, Chairman of Birr Historical Society, also warmly welcomed the news. He said he, Jimmy Shortt, Salters Sterling and Lord Rosse met Karen and Candace in Birr a couple of weeks ago in the County Arms Hotel and were thrilled back then when the proposal was first unveiled to them.

He said Deputy Carol Nolan "did her best to get the state to take the Workhouse over but they showed no interest at all.

"We all feel that this is a win-win proposal for the Workhouse. We realise that it's impractical to preserve the whole Workhouse, and we feel the Care Home with a Museum option is the best solution."

He said the Workhouse opened in 1842 and closed in 1921. After its closure a number of companies operated there including Birr Shoes, the Fenian Gun Factory and Peerage.

He pointed out that there are about 120,000 people per annum visiting Birr Castle. "The Workhouse and its museum could be a significant draw for many of those 120,000 people. It could encourage some of them to stay overnight in Birr rather than just spend a couple of hours in the Castle." He said Barry Loughnane of the County Arms Hotel was also present at the meeting and the Hotel had lots of parking space for coachloads of visitors.

He praised the work of Birr 20/20 over the last four years. "They have also done a considerable amount of work regarding the Courthouse, another important building in the town which we don't want to see fall into further decline."

He said there are records relating to the workhouse which are currently housed in Tullamore and it would be nice to bring them back to the proposed museum.

Margaret Hogan warmly welcomed the good news. She said she has "oceans of historical material about the Workhouse" which she could offer Castle Rook and the museum. "I am really delighted to be sitting here, listening to this. Over the last several years I have had a big journey with the Workhouse; a frustrating journey which sometimes reduced me to tears." She pointed out that the history of the Workhouse from 1842 until recent years wasn't just "sad and tragic" but also had some positives. She said some people can focus exclusively on the sad aspect of the building's history and overlook the positive aspects.

Salters Sterling said the Workhouse was a sanctuary for many people in harrowing circumstances. "What Castle Rook is proposing is to also create a sanctuary. So, there is a beautiful symmetry to all of this."

Deputy Carol Nolan congratulated Birr 20/20 and Birr Historical Society for their "trojan work". She said many locals felt "a sense of despair every time we drove past the workhouse and saw its dereliction. It is such good news to hear that an important, harrowing part of our history is going to be preserved."

Bernie Fanneran pointed out that there is nowhere for young people with Acquired Brain Injury to go to.

Karen said one of the 12 care facilities will be for people with autism, and another will be for acquired brain injury patients. She said there will be no age limits in the care facilities.

Salters Sterling commented that two other people also attended the County Arms meeting a couple of weeks ago, a financial manager and a nurse/advisor with Castle Rook. "The nurse/advisor told us that Castle Rook wants to create a calm environment for alzheimer sufferers, an environment where they don't become agitated and don't therefore need to be sedated; an environment which focuses on the importance of exercise and appropriate food. The food will be organic."

 One attendee pointed out that Portumna Workhouse is an impressive place to visit and the Birr Workhouse museum could perhaps take some inspiration from the way it has been set up and run. Another attendee highlighted the other good things in Birr which are interesting for visitors including Birr Theatre & Arts Centre, and the FAN (Famous and Notables) Trail which is a trail of blue plaques highlighting the many people of achievement who lived in Birr.

Karen agreed that the town is very interesting to visit. "It is a beautiful, fascinating town. The Georgian architecture, for example, is so impressive."

She said it will probably be two years before the new facility is open to the public. "Each resident will have a home to call their own including a cooking area, dining area, sleeping area, and couch, making the individual rooms spacious enough to host family and friends comfortably. Residents will not be on a strict schedule, enjoying the freedom to spend their days anyway that suits them. The staff care ratio will be one support worker for every five residents. It will provide employment opportunities for the surrounding community. There will also be museum jobs, café jobs, and jobs maintaining the building and grounds. There is an added aspiration to create many jobs for young people, especially summer jobs in the glasshouse."

Brian Kennedy said the restoration of the building will be sensitively done. "For example the cantilevered stairs will be preserved."

Karen added that the care facility will use the latest technology and ideas. For example Artificial Intelligence robots called "Milo" will be used. Milo can provide the same benefits which a pet dog or cat confers and it will be linked to the alzheimer sufferers by means of a watch-type system which will allow it to communicate to the patient. The robot cat/dog will be able to remind an ageing owner to take their medication or help find their spectacles. It can purr and ask for belly rubs like a real cat, and is designed to help the elderly stem feelings of loneliness, depression and anxiety.


100 of these robots have been ordered from Hong Kong. "Milo will be linked to the residents by a watch. Milo will make suggestions rather than ask questions. People with dementia like a sense of freedom and they will be able to wander at will in sections of the premises. There will be places where they will be able to feel that they are free and wandering at will. Apparently this feeling is very important to them. As well as Milo, residents will also be able to have cats and dogs."

She said that Castle Rook is a Chinese company with offices in Beijing, Canada and Ireland.

"This is such a positive story," said Cllr John Carroll. "I can't see anyone in Birr being against it."

 Tom Enright also warmly welcomed the proposal. "I felt that the previous suggestion some years ago of turning it into a National Diaspora Centre wouldn't work. This is a much better suggestion. This is a fantastic project. Dementia in our society seems to be on the increase. I hope this project won't be held up by red tape or bureacracy and will get all the support it deserves."

Karen said she was "overwhelmed" by such a positive response to the proposal from the people attending the 20/20 meeting.

Salters said Candace "has a modesty and sense of service which is not always evident in wealthy people."

"Candace is a wonderful woman," agreed Karen.

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