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The History of the RHK

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The founder of the Royal Hospital was James Butler of Kilkenny Castle, who was Duke of Ormonde and Viceroy to King Charles II. Inspired by Les Invalides', then recently opened as Louis XIV's home for his army pensioners, Ormonde obtained a charter from King Charles to create a similar building in Kilmainham. He laid the foundation stone in 1680 and presided over its completion four years later.

The architect for Kilmainham was William Robinson, official State Surveyor General. Of his many other buildings only Marsh's Library, Dublin and Charles Fort, Kinsale, still stand. The Royal Hospital in Chelsea was completed two years later and contains many similarities of style to Kilmainham.

Royal Hospital Kilmainham

Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

The Duke of Ormonde wanted the Royal Hospital to be on a grand scale, classical in layout and continental in style. He needed a home for his pensioner soldiers but equally he wanted a building of distinction that would, he hoped, mark the starting point of Dublin's development into a city of European standing.

The site selected for the Hospital was once part of the Phoenix Park. A large hospital, founded by Strongbow and under the care of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, was sited in this exact place but was demolished in 1670. Dr.Steeven's Hospital, built nearby in 1720, is a small architectural replica of the Royal Hospital. Incidentally, Sir Patrick Dun was the first Medical Officer to the Royal Hospital.

The Royal Hospital remained an old soldiers' home until 1927. In the 19th-century the building had gradually grown in military significance - becoming the residence and headquarters of the Commander in Chief of the army, who combined this role with that of Governor (or Master) of the Hospital. Queen Victoria paid two visits to the building, which was eventually handed over to the Free State in 1922. It was used as Garda Headquarters from 1930 to 1950.

The building comprises a North Wing containing the Master's Quarters, the Great Hall, the Chapel and the Vaulted Cellar with the 19th-century kitchen and the South, East and West Wings which provided accommodation for the pensioners.

There are plans to develop the grounds which contain the following:

  • The early 18th-century garden.
  • Bully's Acre - once Dublin's main cemetery, containing a 10th-century standing stone.
  • The Hospital Burial Ground - the cemetery of the old soldiers.
  • The former stable buildings - a 19th-century building, now Kilmainham Garda Barracks.
  • The West Gateway - the work of Francis Johnston. This structure was formerly a gateway to Guinness’s Brewery and was then moved to the Quays. It became a traffic obstruction and was removed from the Quays and rebuilt in Kilmainham.


In May 1991, the Irish Museum of Modern Art was housed in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. The Museum represents in its permanent and temporary programmes international and Irish art of the 21st-century with associated educational and community programmes.



Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland