‘Lunatic, There I Go’ – An Irishwoman’s Diary on Hanna Greally

Hanna Greally: wrote courageously of her time in St Loman’s psychiatric institution, Mullingar

Hanna Greally: wrote courageously of her time in St Loman’s psychiatric institution, Mullingar

 

Many of us have kept diaries – mine stretches to books and books of repetitive scrawl, rarely entertaining and mostly embarrassing. As in my case, a teenage diary may well be the most mundane of all. Mine features several vital and recurring themes. Namely, what time I woke up, who got the corner piece of cake from the birthday girl of the day, and which boy I now fancied or who might possibly fancy me. The tripartite infrastructure of teenage thinking – sleep, food and vanity.

While I was recording this daily minutiae of my life, incarcerated (as I thought), in a boarding school, Hanna Greally was publicly discussing her life experiences on the couch of the Late Late Show. Hers was a serious and disturbing account of a true incarceration while mine was merely a teenage exaggeration.

Hanna Greally was born in 1925 in Athlone. The eldest of two children, her comfortable middle-class business family were well known in the town.

Hanna, christened Johanna, showed writing talent from an early age and her poems were published in the local paper. Unfortunately, the untimely death of her father took its toll on Hanna’s young mother and the family found themselves with very little means.

Training as a nurse in London during the Blitz, Hanna more than likely suffered greatly as a result of her working environment. At her mother’s illness, she returned home and this was the point in her life where she began her stay in St Loman’s psychiatric institution, Mullingar – then affectionately known as the “Big House”, where she stayed for 18 years.

Hanna was not alone. There are many who know of relatives that were committed to their local “Big House”. Ireland has a frightening record of such incarcerations – no less than 0.7 per cent of the population in 1958, for example.

Legislation seemed to have made it easy for family members to consign relatives to a psychiatric institution with little cause, and in Hanna’s case, it was her mother who did so.

It is not known if Hanna kept a diary while she was in St Loman’s. Nonetheless, once she was released she courageously brought her story into the public domain in her book Birds’ Nest Soup.

It was the publication of this book that gave her temporary celebrity status and brought her to the RTÉ television studios. Since then her story has been featured in both RTÉ radio and TV documentaries made by Mary Owens and Mary Raftery, respectively.

The latest reincarnation of Hanna’s book comes in the form of a stage production which I was fortunate enough to be asked to write as far back as 2013. It seems that longevity is a common feature of Hanna’s story.

At first it was a challenge to find access to Hanna’s voice. Early mornings at my desk, still dark outside, with the events of the book plastered all over the walls seemed like a kind of incarceration itself.

A full team of artists subsequently worked on the play for a fortnight and gradually her voice emerged, clear as a bell, strident, self-assured, demanding of both her freedom and her sanity.

It is that voice that ultimately inspired Floating World Productions’ artistic director Andrea Scott and myself to continue pressing for a production of this play when we could easily have given up.

Ultimately we found that we could not let Hanna Greally go. The play, called Lunatic, There I Go, has been welcomed as part of First Fortnight, Ireland’s Mental Health Arts Festival and is supported by mental health charity Grow.

Our wish would be that the themes of this play would provide a platform to challenge mental health stigma as Hanna so proudly did when she exposed her most vulnerable self in the writing of her book.

You may imagine that keeping a diary has no purpose except to later provide material for a very public self-parody in the Irishwoman’s Diary. And yet, perhaps like Hanna Greally, the sharing of our inner thoughts, our memories and our stories will be much more meaningful than a corner piece of birthday cake and may in fact be an inspiration to others. Keep writing – you never know. Lunatic, There I Go runs at the Civic Theatre, Tallaght, from January 2nd to 6th at 8.15pm (civictheatre.ie). After each performance, there will be a post-show discussion with guest panellists.

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