Time for State to acknowledge great wrong of Irish mental hospital system

State needs to establish why so many of its citizens were wrongly locked away


‘All the shame of the era is being dumped on the religious orders.” These words, from a nun involved in managing a Magdalene laundry, broadcast on RTÉ radio’s God Slot , are self-serving and morally evasive. But they’re not entirely wrong. The probability is that, even if the religious orders had never been heard of, Ireland would probably have operated a system of vicious repression. How do we know? Because of the mental hospitals.

Before the motorway bypassed the town, I used to dread driving into Ballinasloe. As you approached the outskirts, you saw the big bell tower of the vast asylum, St Brigid’s. Even heading west for a break, the holiday mood would be shattered and silence would descend on the car until you were well clear of the forbidding walls and could shake the darkness from your head.

It was never called St Brigid’s, of course. In the Irish lexicon, “Ballinasloe” was a euphemism for mental hospitals in the same way “Letterfrack” stood for the industrial school system. At its height, the asylum held well over 1,000 miserable souls. And there were many Ballinasloes – Ireland locked up more of its population as “mentally ill” than anywhere else.

Guinea pigs
I mentioned this here recently and some of the responses I got were sceptical. People should always be sceptical about claims that Ireland is or was exceptional.

Mental hospitals throughout the developed world were terrible places. People who were defined as mentally ill lost their human rights and were subjected to misery, indignity and, at times, vicious cruelty. They were guinea pigs for “treatments” from uncontrolled electroconvulsive therapy to the deliberate induction of comas with insulin. Ireland was certainly not unique in any of this.

But there was nothing – absolutely nothing – like the scale of the Irish system. In a fine chapter in the recent book Asylums, Mental Health Care and the Irish 1800-2010 , Damien Brennan has a statistical table. It shows the number of psychiatric beds per 100,000 people in 1955. A simplified version reads like this: Ireland 710; Soviet Union 617; United States 511; Northern Ireland 440; Scotland 436; Sweden 422; England and Wales 357; Australia 332.

There are really only two possible explanations for these figures. One is that the Irish were much madder than anyone else. Alcoholism, poverty, child abuse, distorted attitudes to sex, the social and familial effects of mass emigration and the bloody weather could indeed all be factors contributing to high levels of mental illness. But were the 26 counties really that much madder than the six? Was Ireland really twice as prone to mental illness as England? And were Irish people really under more psychological pressure than the inhabitants of the Soviet Union who had lived with the daily terror of Stalin’s viciously intrusive tyranny?

The other, far more probable, explanation is that, of the 21,000 people who were incarcerated in Irish mental hospitals when the system was at its largest, perhaps half were not mentally ill even by the standards of the period. At any given time, for most of the history of the State, thousands of people who should not have been in asylums were locked away in abysmal conditions and subjected to appalling “treatments” that had no medical justification.

Which raises a question: why does this form of institutional abuse evoke so much less public anger than that inflicted on the inmates of Magdalene laundries and industrial schools? That question leads to another: what is the primary difference between the mental hospitals and the other institutions?

Most people would probably say the inmates of the mental hospitals were not used as slave labour, but this is not so. As Damien Brennan points out, patients did manual work for which they were paid only nominal wages – on farms but also in industrial units that made packaging for black plastic bags, electrical wiring looms used by a German car manufacturer and “security clips for beer and stout barrels for a major Irish drinks company”.

In truth the major feature distinguishing mental hospitals from the rest of the system of social repression is obvious: they were not run by the Catholic Church. The church is not blameless in that it created the social and moral norms that allowed for this kind of systematic cruelty. But the mental hospital system was overwhelmingly run by the State and local authorities.

In 21st century Ireland it does not offer an outlet for pent-up resentment of church control. It tells us, uncomfortably, about ourselves: our State that sustained the system, our families that used it, our towns that came to regard the asylums as economic assets.

The scale and complexity of the abuse of mental hospitals is such that there is no easy way to address this last part of the system that shaped our society. But there is an obvious way to begin. The State should establish a historical commission to create an official narrative of what happened to so many of its citizens. It is time at least to acknowledge this great wrong and to stop driving on past those grim grey walls.

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