‘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.