The moat on the south side of Trim castle was filled by a river called the Leper Stream. There was a leper hospital at Duleek and another at the bridge of Drogheda Hugh de Lacy’s time. There were also leper hospitals at Kells and Ratoath.
The Leper Hospital was at the Maudlins – the word maudlin comes from Mary Magdalene and means sickly with eyes swollen with tears and is associated with St. Mary Magdalen who was sorry for her past sinful life.
Leprosy, a disease of the skin, reached Ireland by 550 AD but the disease grew enormously during the Crusades. Some suggest that it was the Vikings introduced the disease. Ireland had 54 leper hospitals in the medieval period. There was one in St. Stephen’s Green and another at Leopardstown.
The Leper hospital was a monastery for sufferers of leprosy. Some considered that suffering from leprosy was the equivalent of going through purgatory on earth. Lepers were seen as being between life and death. The half dead. one man tolling a bell and another carrying a 40-foot white pole to keep everyone at a safe distance. Hence the expression: ‘I wouldn’t touch him with a forty foot pole’.
The earliest known reference to the leper hospital in Trim dates to 1335 and it seems that it was closely associated with the chapel in Trim Castle. The ground plan of the church of St. Mary Magdalene consists of a nave and chancel with a chancel arch between them. In the chancel area there is a sculpture of a female figure that may well represent St. Mary Magdalen. In the fifteenth century it ceased to function and the property was taken over by the Franciscans.
Later the cemetery was used as a burial ground for the poor who died in the nearby workhouse. No gravestones were erected over these poor people. As recently as the 1960s patients in the old county home in Trim were interred in the Maudlins Cemetery and locals can vividly recall seeing these corpses being wheeled down in a handcart. At a meeting of the Trim Urban District Council in 1968 the practise of wheeling corpses on trollies was decried by Councillor C A Reilly supported by Councillor Paddy Doran.
There are two old headstones in the cemetery belonging to parishioners – one belonging to John Flinn who died in 1770 and another to Ann Kennedy who died in 1757.
In 1976 a local committee erected a bronze sculpture of “Our Lady of Trim” and today this statue with arms outstretched in greeting, welcomes all who visit the town.
We don’t have leprosy in Ireland now or do we? In 2013 the first recorded case of leprosy in modern times was reported to the health authorities in the Irish Republic.. A Brazilian man in his 30s walked into a GP clinic in Co Meath. Dr Connor Gallagher said it was a case that “one might have expected to encounter in the Middle Ages – not in a busy surgery in County Meath”. The man, who has been working in Ireland for a number of years, was suffering a recurrence of the disease contracted in his home country a decade earlier A second Irish case was notified a few months later..
While leprosy has been eliminated in Ireland an Irish scientist Vincent C. Brady came up with a vaccine against leprosy in the 1950s. He was working at Trinity College trying to find a cure for tuberculosis and instead he came up with a cure for leprosy instead. Barry, a native of Sunday’s Well in Cork city, is credited with the development of the compound used in drugs that have helped to cure about 15 million people.