Roisin Ingle


On . . . small moments

This magazine is all about the big moments that defined the year that's almost gone. But sometimes reflecting on the small moments can be just as illuminating.

The most diverting book that landed on my desk this year is called Climbing Mountains in our Minds. It's an astonishing collection of poetry, prose, photographs and archive material that preserves the memories of former inhabitants at St Senan's psychiatric hospital in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford. The dilapidated Victorian facility, which opened in the 1860s, will close for good in March.

This book is full of significant small moments from voices that would otherwise have remained unheard. My heart broke a bit reading it, but mostly I was just glad that the book, published by Wexford Co Council, is in the world.

This is the kind of writing that stops you in your tracks. An anonymous author describes a drive to the "old and ugly" hospital referred to by ignorant people as "the nuthouse". Everything had been getting on top of him and that morning his brother had found him on his knees checking the electric blankets that had not been turned on since last winter and counting to 10 while he performed this ritual. As they drove towards the hospital "menacing voices told me to cop on and get a grip, that this was all my fault and that I was weak and pathetic".

"My dear old mother sat beside me, muffled up in a headscarf with layers of warm vests and other clothing, reminding me of an onion. She held my hand and I could feel her bony body as she leant over and put her arm around me. She was the best Valium I ever had . . ."

This next excerpt was crafted by a person who says he was admitted to the hospital when he was 17. "A lively teenager" who "liked a good laugh". "Mammy brought me in at night time. We came up the driveway and I seen the building . . . and then they took me into a bad ward . . . Sick patients in it. Some of the faces very cross . . . Sore people. I felt fairly confused to be there among them. They were too sick to be nice and they needed assistance. Going round with a nappy hanging off them, they'd bang doors and slap you in the face."

Another one, by Tom Lawlor, is called Three Christmasses not at Home. He writes about the Bishop coming to say mass in the hospital chapel. "The hospital was quieter that day. Nice sweets laid on. Nice chocolates. Maybe the odd can of beer. A real Christmas tree on the ward and crepe paper decorations. Myself, thinking of the fire lit at home."

In Leaving the Ward behind Me, Tommy Lambert writes about escaping the chaotic ward for the quiet confines of the hospital chapel. "Leave behind the hum and buzz . . . scrubbing of tables and scraping of chairs. Mops. Mop buckets. Disinfectant. Ones farting. Dinner smells. Stew probably. Trifle. I liked the smell of coffee. Left it all behind for an evergreen scent and the smell of varnish on wooden pews."

EC recalls his first time going to the hospital in 1995 and seeing a doctor who "wasn't very nice to me. Asking too many bloody questions". He goes on to say that it's easier to come to hospital now. "There's not as much pressure and people are more open-minded. You're allowed to bring your car and go home in it. I would advise people to come in now rather than doing away with themselves because there is a lot of help available . . . sometimes they still have to ask too many questions. Overall now the system is much better. It's good to be alive today."

I read this book thinking of my father who spent time in psychiatric institutions before he died. I wondered what he would have to say about his experiences there. The book gives voice to him and to all the others who never get a chance to speak about their small moments in mental institutions.

For me, the title of the book neatly sums up the challenges we all face, even if they are in wildly different circumstances than the ones described here.

Climbing Mountains in our Minds, edited by Sylvia Cullen with photographs by Rory Nolan, is available from the Killagoley Training and Activation Centre at St Senan's Hospital in Enniscorthy and costs €10. All money raised goes towards the Arts Ability Creative Writing programme. Phone 053-924 3200 for more details.