Professional and local interests had stake in keeping aslyums, says major study
Mental institutions ‘can’t be blamed on the church; it was a State-run project’
Dr Damien Brennan: “There was a harshness and dehumanising aspect that was very much like the Magdalene laundry”
Medical professionals and local communities protecting their economic interests played a major role in the incarceration of tens of thousands of people in asylums, according to a study into what’s depicted as the forgotten scandal of Ireland’s institutional past.
Its author, Dr Damien Brennan, said there were strong parallels between the operation of Ireland’s mental hospitals and the Magdalene laundries but the former “can’t be blamed on the church; it was a State-run project. We did it as communities, as societies”.
In his book Irish Insanity: 1800-2000, the culmination of 10 years of research launched in Dublin last night, he seeks to explain why Ireland in the 1950s had the world’s highest rate of mental hospital residency.
Dr Brennan, assistant professor at the school of nursing and midwifery, Trinity College Dublin, argues it “had little to do with the mental state of the admitted individuals”. Rather, it was driven by factors such as law, economics and vested interests, including the creation of a medical treatment hierarchy that “continues today”.
“The staff had a stake in this. The medics and nurses had their professional interests in this. Economically, it became very important, and it became a snowballing institutional development,” said Dr Brennan, whose PhD work on the subject informed the late Mary Raftery’s Behind the Walls documentary series.
“These are the largest institutions of confinement in our State, much bigger than all of the others added together. But they haven’t attracted the same scrutiny or critical review as those institutions which worked as church-State partnerships.”
Dr Brennan, who worked as a mental health nurse in St Loman’s, Grangegorman and Portrane, said he had no knowledge of physical beatings or sexual abuse in hospitals but “there was a harshness and dehumanising aspect that was very much like the Magdalene laundry”.
“I think there is a reluctance to take this on,” he continued. “People who spent three months in a laundry are getting redress – and I don’t want to bring it back to money – but why aren’t psychiatric hospitals even of interest post the McAleese report?
“I know patients who spent 30, 40, sometimes 50 years in these places, and we haven’t even conceptualised how they might have been damaged by the institutions.”
He pointed out the McAleese report examined about 10,000 women who went through the laundries, whereas more than double that could be found in asylums on any one night in the 1950s, making this “the biggest story regarding institutional settings” in Irish history.