My great-grandmother Sissy is a figment of my imagination but I know she existed

There’s nothing left of her, only the history of her context and us, now. Becoming acquainted with her through a reading of the psychiatric history of Ireland is jarring

In this extract from her book The Celestial Realm, Molly Hennigan explores intergenerational trauma and the devastating effects of mental ill health...

I was born on St Brigid’s Day and people always ask why I wasn’t called Brigid. I always liked that my birthday was the first of February for this reason and also because it was the start of spring. I still like it for these reasons. But as a child, or even teenager, these things didn’t mean much. They were just conversation pieces. St Brigid wasn’t really celebrated enough for me to find much meaning in sharing my birthday with her day, and a new season went unnoticed when I was shipped back and forth in the same school buses and cars to the same places year-round. For a few months, I knew that it was dark when I went to school and dark again when I came out, but I didn’t care. The warm entrapment of childhood numbed me to the elements since the house I came home to already had the lights on. And, if it didn’t, a taller person was with me and was able to reach for the switch. It never really felt like I came into a dark room as a child.

The psychiatric unit is like that too. All hospitals are, I suppose. Always on. Lights always switched on, heating always going. People always there. Never officially closed. Phil is cooped up in this seasonless, sterile, fluorescent house. The setting sun pokes through the closed blinds in her kitchen, beaming a line across dancing dust particles. But she isn’t there to see it. I visit her in the winter and she says I should probably get on the road soon, it must be so late. It is only around five, late afternoon, getting dark. She has no concept of time, really, or rather, she has an institutionalised concept but not a natural one – it is punctuated and marked by meals she is brought. She has lost her feeling for time and light and seasons. So we don’t talk about winter or summer or longer or shorter evenings. And so we don’t talk about spring being a turning point for that, and it being my birthday, and it being St Brigid’s Day. And so, somehow, we have never spoken either about the fact that her mother, my great-grandmother, known as Sissy, was actually called Brigid.

Sissy died in Grangegorman Mental Hospital. In his work Irish Insanity: 1800–2000, Damien Brennan discusses the secondary functions of asylums in Ireland: “These institutions were often the largest provider of local employment within communities,” he says. “This employment included roles directly related to the care of the insane, such as keeper and nurse but also included roles related to the physical and administrative structure of the asylum such as builders, plumbers, store keepers, book keepers and gardeners.” Maintaining this employment required patients to keep the asylums open; generally, people were committed if they didn’t conform or contribute – economically or practically – to society. A society that was still reeling from the effects of the Famine, trying to pack away any loose ends and hide what looked unseemly. A doddery uncle, a pregnant single woman, postnatal depression, anything. Modelling ourselves on the oppressor – put the outcasts in there, and give the rest of us a job cleaning or building it.


Psychiatric incarcerations

My grandmother was 12 when her mam, Sissy, died. My grandaunt, Vera, was only two. Sissy lived in one of the most notorious asylums in the history of this small country. We had the global lead on psychiatric incarcerations per capita, beating the former Soviet Union even as we were being drained of population after the Famine. “The population of Ireland almost halved between 1841 and 1911, decreasing from 8,175,124 to 4,390,319,” writes Brennan. “This is the same period that saw the institutional residency of the ‘insane’ increase more than seven times, from 3,498 to 24,655.”

Procedures as unthinkable as lobotomies and insulin-induced comas were forms of treatment; the desired outcome was silence

The figures are so staggering they say the only reasonable answer would be an epidemic of mental illness. Rather, the epidemic was of mental conformity to the strict and narrow rules defining what was accepted, what was normal. The line was so narrow and unforgiving it wound back upon itself: it became the sickness. People were incarcerated for all types of reasons – sane people were committed if they were the black sheep of the family; if they had moral standards outside of the social norm, financial disagreements, personal views on arranged marriage. All reasonable, sound and independent thoughts. Sissy had children, was married, fitted the aesthetic. However, the full range of emotions from anger to love to jealousy were also ripe for manipulation in the process of incarceration, so essentially any person experiencing any feeling in any perceived sense of the extreme was fair game. Brennan again: “Insanity was a vague, changing and all-encapsulating concept which could be applied to most social difficulties so as to facilitate and rationalise the admission of a family member to an asylum.”

I don’t have much detail about Sissy. She died in a hospital whose records are difficult to obtain. Archival work is being done to preserve the rooms full of patients’ personal belongings – their handbags make it seem as if they were plucked from the street and committed. This is important work, but just speaks to the sheer volume of incarceration and the ease of follow-through upon accusation. Sissy’s belongings might be among them. There could be something in her bag to soothe a teething baby she thought she was going home to, lipstick, a key to a house she thought she would sleep in that night, or at the very least lie awake in with restless children.

Stains of suffering

Sissy is a figment of my imagination. I know she existed and she is part of the reason I am here imagining her, but still, that’s all I can do. There’s nothing left of her; only the history of her context and us, now. Becoming acquainted with her through a reading of the psychiatric history of Ireland is jarring. Her history and our present moment, clashing in theory but meshing in reality. Her baby is being hurt in the same rooms now. Female lineage in Ireland feels like a wet, mucky, bloody rag to cling to. It is steadfast, durable. It is tangible, the evidence exists, the stains of suffering are there, but there is no information. Whose blood is where?

I have Sissy’s long-form death certificate. I can run my fingers along the ink of the writing that says she died at Grangegorman Mental Hospital. I can think of the fact that it was written in the building where she died. I can tell from the dated signature that it was written the day after she died. That she died on 6 October. The signature, qualification and residence of the informant: Katheryn O’Donnell, inmate, Grangegorman Mental Hospital. Inmate. Incarcerated.

The language of mental healthcare in the late 1800s through to the 1940s was designed to “quieten the patient”. Procedures as unthinkable as lobotomies and insulin-induced comas were forms of treatment; the desired outcome was silence. The year Sissy died in Grangegorman was when, according to the Irish Medical Times, lobotomy was introduced there. We talk about silencing Irish women and it is almost always metaphoric, or rather representative, of a particular type of non-hearing. We talk about the female Irish writers whose voices we haven’t heard, whose books we haven’t read, studied or situated appropriately within the canon. We talk about women who were politically active but not remembered justly. Let’s also talk about the women’s voices that were physically silenced. The women whose ability to communicate was severed by drilling into the skull. Men too, of course. Minorities and vulnerable people who were deemed ‘idiots, lunatics and retards’.

Historic travesty

The intersection between these barbaric forms of ‘treatment’ and the Irish habit of incarcerating sane and healthy people into asylums is a monumental historic travesty. Much like the very nature of the procedure, a ‘desired outcome of silence’ has persisted around this particular nadir in Irish history. Brennan details the various causes and recorded numbers for incarceration as noted in the 1837 Inspectors of Lunatic Asylums Report, with 1,639 people incarcerated for moral causes, 2,006 for physical causes, 1,898 for hereditary causes and 4,577 for unknown causes.

There are blocks and pacifiers all around to quieten the voices that try to shed light on historical injustices. Often, we don’t even know what the problems are, and so we cannot begin to address them. This is no accident. But we are the offspring of these injustices, and dissociation is one of the most common things Irish people do. ‘They’ ran the Magdalene laundries, ‘they’ performed lobotomies, ‘they’ killed or left people brain-dead after insulin-induced comas. In Ireland we can say ‘they’ and ‘we’ because ‘they’ are almost always the church or the colonial oppressor. This social habit of repeated, and sometimes justified, blaming has become a tool in keeping this part of our history submerged. But it is not always someone else’s fault. ‘They’ aren’t only the church or the oppressor when it comes to the asylum system in Ireland; institutionalisation persisted after respective colonial and religious holds began to loosen. “Rather than reforming and closing these institutions as symbols of an oppressive colonial legacy,” Brennan writes, “asylums were expanded within the Irish Republic to the extent that Ireland had the highest rate of mental hospital usage internationally.”

We talk about the relationship between State and church in Ireland. We talk about war and oppression and famine: events that changed the fabric of our country; that trampled the system we had, forcing us to start again. Everything has been broken and has begun again, except our asylum system. It lurks. Cold, towering buildings sleeping over towns and villages where we do driving tests and get X-rays and collect children from school and donate to Dogs Trust. These institutions blend into the skyline of Ireland, and have withstood every national catastrophe we have faced.

The Celestial Realm by Molly Hennigan is published by Eriu