Saturday, June 9, 2012

Irish Lunatic Asylums.

‘I am monarch of all I survey,

I am lord of the fool and the brute,

From the centre all round to the sphere,

My rite there is none to dispute.’

“We're Lost and Everything is Dirty”.

During the early days of the Lunatic Asylums they were the scenes of terrible acts of cruelty, tragedy and death, sanctioned by the church and the state.  In many ways these buildings could be described as castles of despair and the history that surrounds them is enough to make the hair rise on the back of your neck.  It is no wonder that the poor desperate souls that were condemned to live out their lives in these institutions were surrounded by such a feeling of hopelessness and abandonment that their spirits were trapped within those terrifying walls.

In the mid nineteenth century, pauper lunatics were dealt with under the poor law, criminal law or vagrancy law.  They invariably ended up in the workhouse, prison or houses of correction.  In 1808, the County Asylums Act was passed by parliament and it encouraged local magistrates to build county lunatic asylums to house pauper lunatics in their county.  In 1845, this became compulsory.  The Lunacy Act of 1890 widened the role of the Asylums and patients with financial means began to be admitted to them.

However, what was the role of the lunatic asylums?  Before the advent of psychiatric drugs people that were deemed mentally ill were housed in asylums.  They often contained hundreds of patients ranging from people who may have disagreed with powerful members of a family, unmarried girls that had become pregnant (even through rape), disabled people, alcoholics, homeless people, people suffering from depression, full blown psychotics, attempted suicides, children and the elderly all thrown in together.  These places were often huge buildings with hundreds of wards and treatment rooms, some were humane and offered what treatments they thought appropriate, however, there were some that were places of indescribable cruelty with sinister reputations and ‘treatments’ that can only be described as barbaric.

In Clonmel Asylum for example, according to Department of Health files there were lines of naked people, faeces covering the floors, food served up with pitchforks, and people kept like animals.  Not exactly what you might expect to read from official files.  As late as 1958 Ireland led the world in locking up its citizens in mental institutions, at this time it was reported that more than 21,000 people were held behind the walls of these institutions, on a per capita basis it was even ahead of the old Soviet Union.  If you were to compare prison numbers, in the 1950s prisoner numbers rarely exceeded 600, in 1958 the number stood at 369.  However, in Clonmel Asylum alone, 900 patients were locked up, and unlike prisoners these poor unfortunates had no right to a trial, no legal representation, no appeal, and no end to a sentence for which they had committed no crime. Stripped of their rights, their dignity, and their hope they were condemned to suffer for years in conditions that were so bad that even the Department of Health officials were shocked by the abysmally low standards of Clonmel.  However, Clonmel was not unique; the same story was played out across the country.

In 1959 it was decided to send out a circular to the 20 or so institutions medical supervisors or chief psychiatrists to ask how they felt things could be improved.  Six did not bother to reply, and the rest were defensive.  All the more shocking when you consider that these doctors were charged with the well being and treatment of their patients.  According to one senior psychiatrist mental patients had no feelings, were oblivious to their surroundings and led little more that a vegetable existence.  Could it be that it was the environment that they were forced to endure that reduced them to this type of existence?

Some of the treatments were beyond belief, lobotomy and insulin coma therapy was common.  By injecting people with enough insulin to put them into a hypoglycaemic coma it was supposed to cure them of mental illness, and these types of treatments continued into the mid 1900s until they were discredited and eventually abandoned. As for the practice of lobotomy, this left people so damaged that they became incapable of normal independent living, or even using a toilet.

Why did we have so many people in these places anyway? 

The reasons were often related to social conditions rather than medical reasons.  The personal possessions of patients long dead are now being examined by historians.  When these people died thay were buried in unmarked mass graves and their few modest belongings were stored in the attics or damp basements of many of these institutions.  Many of these have now been rescued and are in the process of cataloguing and it is hoped that they will provide a unique social record of a sad time in our history.

However, have attitudes changed regarding mental illness.  Are we still trapped within a system where doctors and psychiatrists are still all powerful?  Where managers control the budgets and the patients have neither any say or control over their lives or their treatment?  We should always remember that patients will remain vulnerable because they are powerless while under the control of the powerful.  It is up to each and every one of us to change our attitudes towards mental illness, depression and suicide.  Unless and until it stops being considered a taboo subject we are all in danger of becoming a fly trapped within a web for who knows when or if it will visit someone within our family or circle of friends.

 Some of the language used in this article was representative of the time and does not reflect modern terminology.
Top Image: I apologise to the person who painted this as I have forgotten their name.  However, if they get in touch with me I would be extremely grateful as I believe it perfectly represents depression, and I would be delighted to put their name to their painting.
Bottom Image: Castlebar District Lunatic Asylum County Mayo.  It is now the home of G.M.I.T. College.  I have just finished my degrees there.  However, I never came across anything unusual (not related to the otherworld anyway).  I'm not going to mention some of the oddities walking the corridors today.


  1. Thank you so much for this.

    Not surprising then that many victims of DV are ending up in these institutions- again- not that there is anything wrong with them, but their torturers are managing to groom doctors etc to believe there is something wrong. Then decent solicitors are having to go and get these victims out and into court- secret courts of course where "ALL WOMEN ARE DEEMED FEEBLE MINDED" and the public is not supposed to know this little "fact". Oh how Eire needs the light of the Sidhe on her now.

  2. After reading this I now know why my relatives and my cousin who is actress singer from Westport, Margaret or Moyra Hastings now living in Dublin, didnt want to communicate with me or my sister.I was only 6yrs when my Irish Gran died. Both my parents were dead so we couldnt find out anything. This was why we got intouch with Irish TV program saying we wanted info and photo to see what our gran looked like.After finding out about this hell hole we would like to know was our Gran Margaret Hastings, put away by this family or the church or both. To say I am angry is an understatement. Was my couin avoiding my questions to hide a familys guilty secret?


  3. I often feel that it is odd that people consider it O.K. and perfectly acceptable to fix a broken leg or arm and yet not to talk about fixing a broken spirit or heart. Mental illness is still treated with a wall of silence, a stigma, the elephant in the room that no one talks about. Why is this ? Every time I read about depression or suicide I realise that it is another life lost and every life lost in this way is a social tragedy. Even today in Irish society there is a high proportion of people who don't want others to know their business and its as if mental illness reflects upon them as a whole and should not be spoke about. Its up to all of us to wake up to the problem and it is only when we admit that there is a problem only then can we find a solution. It is not by locking people up just because they are a little different or need a little help.

    Keep smiling for it is truly a wonderful world even with its faults.


  4. My Great-Grandfather was brought to Castlebar Lunatic Asylum in 1908. I should say "returned" as he had been released, committed a murder and was returned. We have a Newspaper article.My email is Linda@StrongfamiliesStrong I will be visiting July 18-22. Would like to know more-am a therapist in the states.