Misery in Ireland's 'massive mausoleums of madness'
Dermot Walsh, in his characteristically informative chapter on mental-health services between 1959 and 2010, notes that in the aftermath of the report, research was undertaken in an attempt to understand this extraordinary use of mental hospitals. This research concluded that whatever the reason might be, it was not that the Irish were particularly prone to lunacy.
Standard explanations for the growth and demise of asylums in other countries have only limited applicability in the Irish case, argues Damien Brennan. He writes that the institutional treatment of mental illness became deeply embedded at the personal and societal level, which resulted in the high rates of confinement.
In her chapter on the Inspectorate in Lunacy, the body that oversaw Irish asylums, from 1845 to 1921, Pauline Prior, the editor of this impressive book, makes a similar point, namely that the high rate of confinement reflected the availability of institutional beds rather than the incidence of mental illness in Ireland.
Not only did the asylums in Ireland contain comparatively high numbers of inmates, but, as Elizabeth Malcolm notes on her chapter on Irish immigrants in Australia and Angela McCarthy in her chapter on New Zealand, in both Australian and New Zealand asylums towards the end of the 19th century the largest ethnic group were Irish-born. This is attributable in part, Malcolm argues, to the facts that Irish migrants to Australia were already familiar with the asylum system in Ireland and that many of the policemen and doctors involved in the committal process were Irish.
Labour history also features in this collection, with Anton McCabe and Ciaran Mulholland’s account of Monaghan Asylum, where on January 29th, 1919, under the tutelage of the republican socialist Peadar O’Donnell, the asylum attendants embarked on strike action and raised the red flag over the building. Their assessment that the strike changed the face of the asylum system forever is somewhat overstated, as evidenced by the report into conditions for attendants and patients alike in Clonmel some 40 years later.
Other chapters in the book focus on particular incidents in the history of psychiatric confinement in Ireland, such as the treatment of tuberculosis in the Central Mental Hospital in the 19th century and the outbreak of what appeared to be beri-beri in the Richmond Asylum (Grangegorman) between 1894 and 1898.
The editor of this volume is careful to note in her introduction that it is “far from being a comprehensive account of the history of Irish mental health services”, and rather provides an introduction to aspects of this history. Ranging from detailed case studies of various aspects of asylum life, including poetry and prose written by patients, and a helpful chronology of mental-health legislation from 1800 to 2010, this edited collection extends our knowledge of the “mad doctors” and the institutions they ran.
A detailed history of these services, particularly for the 20th century, is still to be written. Whoever takes on this task will face a serious impediment in the unavailability of primary archival material on the operation of what Andrew Scull, the foremost historian of lunacy, evocatively described as these “massive mausoleums of madness”.