From 'Dublin Docklands - An Urban Voyage’ by Turtle Bunbury (MPG, 2008).
In 1216, Henry Blund, Archbishop of Dublin, founded the Hospital of Saint James, a hostel for pilgrims and the poor of Dublin, on present day Townsend Street, then known as Lazar’s Hill or Lazy Hill. It stood roughly where Pearse Street Garda Station stands today, right beside the All Hallows Monastery which later became Trinity College. Indeed, this was almost precisely where the first Danish long-ships are said to have landed, an event commemorated by the memorial long stone, or Steyne, created by Cliodhna Cussen.
The Hospital of Saint James was named for the apostle Saint James the Great, also known as Saint Iago, whose remains are said to lie beneath the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in North West Spain. Known as The Way of St James, Santiago was one of the most important Christian pilgrimage destinations of medieval times. Before the River Liffey was contained, the tidal waters came right up to Townsend Street and College Green. Pilgrim ships destined for Santiago apparently berthed alongside this Hospital, then sailed directly to the coast of Galicia and anchored at Ferrol or A Coruña, from where the pilgrims made their way to Santiago overland.
By the mid 13th century, some of these ships were carrying lepers desperate for a miraculous cure. Leprosy has been tormenting mankind since at least 600BC when the Hindu author of Atharva-veda suggested some ritualistic cures for the condition. In the 11th century, the crusading warriors of the Middle East found their makeshift hospitals overrun with persons afflicted with leprous skin conditions. The Order of St. Lazarus of Jerusalem was duly established with the specific purpose of establishing leper hospitals. The first recorded leprosarium was founded in Harbledown near Canterbury in 1084. By the early 13th century, there were some 19,000 such hospices across Europe.
The Hospital of Saint James seems to have evolved into a leper hospice within a short time. Run along strict Augustinian principles, it was a well-run retreat, providing a good diet, clothing and sanitation. Not all lepers could afford such luxury. A rather more downtrodden colony is said to have existed beside the Grand Canal Docks on Misery Hill. Lepers lived in these monastic-type establishments not simply for the good of their health, but also as a form of perpetual quarantine. The only acceptable way to check out of a leper hospice was to perish.
Another word for these quarantine stations was ‘Lazaretto’ and it is from this that Townsend Street took its former name of Lazar Hill, sometimes corrupted to ‘Lazy Hill’. Bound by marshy slobs to the north and meadows and orchards to the south, this gentle slope was the only route between Dublin and Ringsend. The use of the word ‘Lazaretto’ has rather morbid connotations, linked to Jesus Christ’s good friend Saint Lazarus. Roman Catholic tradition holds that Saint Lazarus, who Jesus raised from the dead, was a leper. In the dark, superstitious and utterly frightful Medieval Age, it was widely believed that lepers were simply going through Purgatory on Earth. Thus their suffering was considered more holy than the ordinary person's. The medical opinion of the day held that leprosy was contagious, contracted by eating raw meat and that whiskey was the best medicine. For most people, lepers simply existed in a place somewhere between life and death. They were still alive, but their reality was something rather more ethereal. This perhaps explains why everyone went silent and fled inside whenever the ‘unclean’ were passing up Lazar’s Hill, 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’.
It was not until the introduction of multidrug therapy (MDT) in the early 1980s that leprosy was properly diagnosed. In 2008, the World Health Organization registered 212, 000 people who were disabled because of leprosy.
BRIAN: Who cured you?
EX-LEPER: Jesus did, sir. I was hopping along, minding my own business. All of a sudden, up he comes. Cures me. One minute I'm a leper with a trade, next minute my livelihood's gone. Not so much as a by your leave. 'You're cured mate.' Bloody do-gooder.