Political asylum – An Irishman’s Diary on mental health and the Monaghan Soviet

From Peadar O’Donnell to St Dympna

Peadar O’Donnell: led strike at Monaghan Lunatic Asylum and declared a soviet

Peadar O’Donnell: led strike at Monaghan Lunatic Asylum and declared a soviet


Ciarán D’Arcy (An Irishman’s Diary, May 5th) mentioned it only in passing, in connection with the more celebrated version at Limerick. But in fact the short-lived “Monaghan Soviet” of 1919 had the distinction of being Ireland’s first such commune – predating Limerick by two months. It’s also notable for another reason. Unlike communism in general, it was a triumph.

It began when staff at the Monaghan Lunatic Asylum (as it was known), led by the Donegal union organiser Peadar O’Donnell, went on strike for better pay and conditions.

They were working a 93-hour week and, among other impositions, had to remain on the premises between shifts. But the medical superintendent thought they had things easy, pointing out that they “get off every 13th day and every fourth Sunday from 10 o clock”.

So, according to labour historian Anton McCabe’s account, they hoisted the red flag over the building and declared one of the first soviets outside Russia. As armed police descended on the town, they barricaded themselves in.

In the meantime, in the role of acting governor, O’Donnell introduced a 48-hour week, sacked the matron for insubordination, and – he claimed afterwards – had a man found guilty of “defeatism” locked in a padded cell.

The authorities had first offered a pay rise that excluded female staff, but the soviet held out for parity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the women behind the barricades were said to have been even more determined than the men. The inmates too, echoing a well-known phrase, helped with the asylum’s takeover, exchanging clothes with strikers to facilitate the smuggling in of supplies.

By the time the situation was raised in the House of Commons, on February 20th, 1919, the chief secretary was able to tell MPs that staff were back at work, pending a settlement.

But that only encouraged Belfast nationalist MP Joe Devlin to ask one of the pithier supplementary questions in Commons history: “Is the right honourable gentleman aware that the only successfully conducted institutions in Ireland are the lunatic asylums?”

Whatever about the asylum being successfully conducted, the strike certainly was. Workers won a 56-hour week and a pay rise for men and women alike. Also, if they were married, they were henceforth allowed go home after their shifts ended.

Of course it wasn’t just the treatment of staff in mental hospitals that needed reform. In the intervening years, among the more obvious changes, we’ve stopped calling such patients lunatics. From the 1950s onwards, the Monaghan Asylum was known as St Davnet’s Hospital. Today it’s the St Davnet’s “Campus”, with a much-reduced psychiatric facility and a range of other tenants.

In fact, the former asylum’s long evolution is the subject of a just-published book – World Within Walls: From Asylum to Contemporary Mental Health Service. This was the fruit of an oral history project that will also inspire a year-long exhibition in Monaghan County Museum, starting next Thursday. And although the timing seems to have been a happy accident, it so happens that the following day, May 15th, is the feast of the aforementioned St Davnet.

Which in turn explains an imminent festival several hundred miles east of Monaghan, in the Belgian town of Geel. Better known to the English-speaking world as Dympna, the saint seems to have been a mixture of history and legend. In any case, Christian tradition is that she was a seventh-century princess who, in her religious zeal, took a vow of chastity.

Alas, her mad father had designs to the contrary. And when she fled to Ireland to escape his incestuous advances, he followed her to Geel where he decapitated her.

Since the 13th century, at least, she has been venerated in that region as a patron saint of the mentally ill. And since then, too, Geel has been a place of both psychiatric treatment and pilgrimage. At the height of its fame, residents were outnumbered by the patients who lived among them, often as house guests. But in its relaxed attitude to such illnesses, the town was centuries ahead of the rest of the world.

The link with the Irish saint used to be marked by a religious festival every 25 years. From the 1970s, this became a more secular event, with a float-filled parade. It also became more regular – every five years. The latest edition of Dimpnadagen (“Dympna Days”) starts tomorrow and runs until May 24th.