Una Mullally: Remembering Kate Millett and her Irish Loony-Bin Trip
The late American feminist was committed to an Irish mental hospital and rescued by friends
US feminist Kate Millett in 1973 at a poetry conference in London. (Photo by Frank Tewkesbury/Evening Standard/Getty Images)
The day Kate Millett died , I was writing up some ideas for feature articles - “Revisit The Loony-Bin Trip,” was one of them. On Thursday morning, I saw online that she had passed away, aged 82, in Paris, a city she visited with her spouse, Sophie Keir, to celebrate their birthdays. Millett’s ideas travelled the world, but her connection with Ireland is especially dark, and reexamining the subject matter of The Loony-Bin Trip is something I had put on the back burner for too long.
Millett’s opus was her PhD thesis turned book, Sexual Politics, which propelled her to international fame, but one of her most startling pieces of writing is her depiction of being committed to an asylum in Ireland against her will, which she documented in the 1990 book The Loony-Bin Trip. In the acknowledgements of that book, Millett wrote that she wouldn’t have been at liberty to write at all were it not for the actress Margaretta D’arcy, “who rescued me from confinement in Ireland” with the help of other members of the women’s movement including Sylvia Meehan, as well as the journalist Nell McCafferty and psychiatrist Ivor Browne.
In 1980, ten years after Millett appeared on the cover of Time magazine, she was in Ireland, meeting various friends and feminists, and voicing her opposition to the treatment of the hunger strikers. She also gave a speech to the Labour Party in Dublin. When she left the capital, things started to go awry. Planning to travel to Galway or Mayo, and also apparently making enquiries about arranging dual citizenship, she made her way to Shannon Airport, where she was effectively arrested and committed to an asylum.
Her recollection of her detainment reads like a dream. A doctor asks her to sign a document, and she is whisked away. But when she gets to the asylum, a place she calls “Our Lady of Clare” - known as Our Lady’s Hospital, but before that, Ennis District Lunatic Asylum - everything snaps into clarity: “It is horrible to see women in their thirties here, but for me it is the older women who hurt the most. Having no hope, likely to die here. Years of institutions now behind them. Unwanted, alienated, cast out so long. Decades of these grey places. Or relegated here just at the end; son and daughter determined to disencumber themselves.”
She was marooned in that massive stone asylum, full of women she called “timeless prisoners”, where the windows would only slide open four inches. Lithium was doled out to her but she hid the pills in her pocket. She tried to escape, but was found on the grounds and captured. When a nurse discovered she wasn’t taking the lithium, they made sure she did, and also forced upon her Prolixin and Thorazine, antipsychotic medications used to treat schizophrenia.
One evening, Millett spotted D’Arcy as if a mirage. D’Arcy had been looking everywhere for her, yet was quickly apprehended by the nurses and turfed out. “Her goodness, the wonder of seeing her, the miracle of her appearance. No one else has ever braved hell for me this way,” Millett wrote, trying to hold in her addled mind that the incident had actually occurred and perhaps freedom was near.
Eventually, another friend, Deirdre McCarten, arrived, detailing a plan for Millett to be transferred to Dublin where it would be easier for her to be discharged since . Transferred to a hospital in Dublin, Nell McCafferty and Maere Rountree awaited her. Dr. Ivor Browne discharghed her.
Millet’s nightmarish experience has the characteristics of a surreal caper, but such incarcerations were not uncommon. What makes it remarkable was how someone so well-known could be banged up in Ireland. We were that good at it. Imagine Caitlin Moran being arrested at an Irish airport today and committed to a mental hospital before busting out with the help of Irish pals?
According to an article in the Clare People, a 1989 report by the Inspector of Mental Hospitals detailed the reality of that asylum in Ennis, “Virtually all patients appeared to be unoccupied during the day… it seemed to us that many patients could have resettled in the community, with varying degrees of support, without too much difficulty.”
Millett got out. Many others didn’t. It’s not as if there was any particular epidemic of mental illness in Ireland necessitating our vast network of asylums. People were routinely locked away in big stone buildings on hills at the edges of towns, their ghosts still wandering the halls.
Ireland remains a country reluctant to delve into these shadows, because it exposes too acutely our lust for wanting to make invisible - and on some level punish - those who do not fit into whatever the warped shape of social “acceptability” of any given era is; women, the mentally or physically disabled, the depressed, the elderly, the inconvenient, the difficult, the radical. There were 600 “patients” in that hospital in 1986. It only closed its doors in 2002.