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A Cycle on the Celtic Fringe … Part 53

Pulling up Church Street, you pass the grey and slightly forbidding walls of St Brigid’s Hospital. It houses psychiatric patients and has come under threat of closure. The staff have a reputation for providing high quality care and attempts to close all or part of the facilities have been resisted with campaigns and public meetings.

Psychiatric hospitals are often housed in Victorian Buildings whose architects had a very different idea of patient care to today’s practitioners. Across Great Britain they have been disappearing from the map and the memory. At one time the patients entering were being admitted as much to remove them from society as for their own long-term care. The coming of the National Health Service in England and a modern health provision in Ireland, changed both public perceptions and hospital practice. Many of the old buildings have been torn down to make way for new developments. High Royds Mental Hospital, to the north of Leeds is now a housing estate, Storthes Hall Hospital in Huddersfield, which once housed over 3,000 long term patients, is now a student village and second campus for Huddersfield University. Digby Hospital in Exeter is a large Tesco Store and Holloway Sanitorium, as worked in and written about by Bill Bryson in Notes From a Small Island, has been converted into a gated community. The oldest, and perhaps the most notorious was Bethlem Hospital in London, popularly known as Bedlam. The site now houses Liverpool Street Station.

St Brigid’s had been known as the Connacht District Lunatic Asylum. There are few words or phrases so loaded. They summon up cruelty and deprivation. Harsh treatment, danger and imprisonment. We were sometimes threatened with a future of straight jackets and padded cells. The popular perception of the hospital for the mentally ill was not a favourable one even in the 1970s.

The hospital at Ballinasloe was opened in 1833 to house 150 patients. There was a great fear that it would remain half empty and application forms were prepared and advertisements made to attract inmates. “That the Connacht District Lunatic Asylum at Ballinasloe is prepared for the reception of patients, and that printed forms of admission can be had at the asylum.” They were not needed. Ireland during the whole of the nineteenth century was ruled by the British and the British had a way of controlling its own problems which it readily exported to countries under its control. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act gave powers for the destitute, the aged and those unable to fend for themselves to be put into workhouses. In these, the conditions were deliberately set as being worse that the poorest worker could manage. The workhouses quickly filled up and the authorities had problems with those who were difficult to contain. The new Lunatic Asylums were providential to the workhouse boards. Similarly prisons and gaols had problems with over crowding. It wasn’t difficult to transfer the most demanding prisoners into asylums. It was done on a small scale in England, but in Ireland it went further. “Ireland was the only country in this period to make a legal link between insanity and criminality.” (Oonagh Walsh) No proof of insane behaviour was needed in order to be able to detain inmates indefinitely.

There was also a belief among prisoners that they would be better off if they pleaded insanity. That they could use madness as a way of evading sentence. That they would regain their wits once gaol had been avoided and be discharged from the hospital. The reality was very different. “Experience showed that prisoners who feigned insanity begged to be returned to gaol almost immediately.”  (Walsh) Such was the forced association with the mentally ill and the regime of the asylum.

Families were also responsible for a remarkable rise in the numbers of insane people being admitted to the asylums. Families could have members committed, and often did. In many cases it was a last resort but in others there was an element of expediency. Families looking to find a new life in America knew that taking along a difficult member could make getting through the port of entry tricky. It wasn’t uncommon for these poor souls to be left in the care of the asylum authorities while the rest of the family left Ireland for good. It sounds horribly cruel and inhuman. You must ask yourself if it was the people or the times that made them act in such a way.

By 1900 1,165 patients were being cared for in Ballinasloe. Even with continuous building and expansion, it was only designed to hold 840. Numbers kept growing and growing throughout the nineteenth century. Were the people of Ireland going collectively mad? Was there, rather, a social madness,that resulted in huge numbers of people being admitted who should not have been?

Ireland was among the first countries in the world to embrace this means of dealing with the mentally ill. During the century numbers grew and grew leaving the country with one of the fastest proportionate growths in admissions to be recorded anywhere. When you consider that the population of the country fell during this time the figures become even more startling.

There is an elegance to St Brigid’s today. Some of the buildings remain from the days when hospital care was of a very different nature. When the locking away, the protecting of society from the mentally ill, was considered the uppermost priority. If you read certain popular English newspapers after a crime has been committed by someone with a history of mental health problems, then you realise that these wrong-headed ideas are not too far below the surface in our supposed caring welfare state, even in the twenty-first century.

Inside these walls highly trained and motivated staff treat patients according to their needs. Seek cures and a way of being able to continue caring once the patients have been able to return to their homes. We may not all have become enlightened but talk to anyone who works with the mentally ill and you can be pretty sure that you are talking to one of the enlightened ones. The skills, dedication and commitment in the specialist hospitals on both sides of the Irish Sea is a thing of pride. No wonder people protest at possible closures. You don’t look for savings when it condemns people to misery and degradation. You don’t balance your books at the cost of someone else’s needs. The people of Ballinasloe have a facility to be proud of and it grew out of  a British funded asylum of misery.

There were dedicated staff though, even in the nineteenth century. Abandoned people were left there because they had lost everything. Often including their wits (temporarily or permanently). They were denied the help of their families, had their links with their communities cut and having suffered all of this, were then blamed for their fate. These people often ended up in asylums like the one in Ballinasloe. They had nowhere else to turn. They needed “a place of refuge”. British and Irish society had rejected them. They needed, and found, asylum.

I acknowledge my grateful thanks to the article “Tales from the Big House” by Oonagh Walsh in the preparation of this post.