Saturday, 15 June 2019

Irish Medical Responses to Problem Drinking from Institutionalisation to Public Health: Part I

In the first of this two-part series, Dr Alice Mauger, Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland, UCD, looks at the changing approaches of medical practitioners and psychiatrists to problem drinking in Ireland at the turn of the twentieth century.

After over 1,000 days of debate, in October 2018, the Irish government passed the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill. The Act will introduce minimum unit pricing as well as rigorous regulations surrounding advertising, sponsorship, sale and supply. Under this legislation, Ireland may become the first country in the world to attach stark health warnings to alcohol products. Billed as the first time the Irish state has legislated for alcohol as a public health issue, the Act is intended to significantly alter the culture of drinking in Ireland. While unsurprisingly the subject of extensive lobbying from the drinks industry and other stakeholders, the measures have gained overwhelming support from the Irish medical profession. The Bill’s tortuous passage is therefore a reminder of Ireland’s ambivalent and complex relationship with alcohol. This relationship is deeply embedded in Irish politics, culture and society and has a very long historical lineage. 

A ‘Disease Concept’ of Inebriety

Ephraim M. Cosgrave (1853-1928). Courtesy of the
Royal College of Physician of Ireland Heritage Centre
Like their European and American colleagues, by the 1890s many Irish doctors were describing the inability to resist alcohol as a disease. But the belief shared by many that the ‘drunkard’ was to blame for their condition, and therefore deserved punishment, was resilient. 

Perhaps the most ardent Irish medical commentator on alcohol in this period was Ephraim MacDowel Cosgrave, a physician at several Dublin hospitals who would later become president of the Royal College of Physicians (RCPI). For Cosgrave, the creation of institutions specially designed for the ‘control of inebriates’ would be the answer to Ireland’s ‘drink question’.1  

Cosgrave was not alone in promoting this approach. Inebriate homes are said to have originated in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century and by 1870 had begun to appear in Britain. Cosgrave’s stance mirrored British developments, where under the guidance of leading inebriety expert, Dr Norman Shanks Kerr, medical practitioners were canvassing for the system’s expansion. Yet, in Ireland, many doctors continued to recommend alternatives ranging from committal of drunkards to lunatic asylums to their detention at home by physical force.2  

Despite the almost draconian nature of these suggestions, such attitudes did not apparently extend to alcohol itself. Reacting to proposals to further restrict pub opening hours at weekends, in 1895 a contributor to the Dublin Journal of Medical Science declared:

We object to the grandmotherly legislation and coercion. The liberty of the subject is sufficiently restricted already, and the patience with which millions of law-respecting citizens tolerate the curtailment of their personal liberty, lest a weak brother should offend, is a marvellous testimony to our inborn respect for law. Restrictions and pledges cannot create an Utopia.3 

Such claims diverged significantly from the now commonly accepted ‘disease view’ of inebriety, which saw alcohol as an inherently addictive substance, which put anyone who drank at serious risk of losing control over their habit. In Ireland, at least some doctors were openly contesting further restrictions, a fact which lends further weight to traditional portrayals of more permissive popular attitudes towards drunkenness in Ireland. 

Institutions for Inebriates

Painting by patient in St Patrick’s Hospital, Dublin (1905).
Source: E/137 Case Book, Males, St. Patrick’s, p.32.
Calls for inebriate reformatories in Ireland were eventually met in 1898. The Inebriates Act of that year was the first to extend to Ireland and allowed for the committal to state-funded reformatories of anyone who was tried and convicted of drunkenness at least four times in one year. But what medical reformers had been campaigning for – that is the compulsory power to detain non-criminal inebriates – never became law. In Ireland, this Act led to the creation of four specialist institutions. Of these four, only the Lodge Retreat in Belfast accepted non-criminal inmates and these were limited to relatively wealthy (fee-paying) Protestant women with no compulsory power for their detention. The remaining three institutions could only be accessed by those committed through the courts. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, this inebriate system was short-lived, catered for only a small proportion of Ireland’s ‘habitual drunkards’ and by 1920, all but the Lodge Retreat in Belfast had closed.

Instead, lunatic asylums became the principal treatment centres for problem drinkers. By 1900, 1 in 10 people admitted to Irish asylums were sent there due to ‘intemperance in drink’. This trend gained increasing attention among psychiatrists, not least because of mounting uncertainty as to whether excessive drinking could actually cause mental illness. Some asylum doctors recognised intemperance as a manifestation of an existing mental disorder, others cited adulterated alcohol as a cause and still more believed that the habitual drunkard produced offspring liable to insanity. This latter claim was to be expected, given that alcohol and degeneration were now strongly linked in discussions of the alleged increase of insanity both in Ireland and overseas.

Given the influx of these cases, the Irish psychiatric community were soon called upon to respond. In 1904, delegates at a conference of the British Medico-Psychological Association in Dublin were confronted with evidence of the ‘disastrous effects everywhere observed’ of drink. Reporting on this event in the association’s official journal, the writer proclaimed:

It may cause some searching of conscience to ask whether our profession as a whole, and particularly our speciality, have up to the present taken a sufficient leading part in the holy war against alcohol. It is high time for our Irish colleagues to make themselves heard upon this subject, when in at least one asylum, one third of the male admissions are attributed chiefly to this cause.4 

This battle cry reverberated with the temperance rhetoric of the day, a movement which boasted strong support from some Irish asylum doctors. Meanwhile, members of the wider medical community showed signs of absorbing, and even propagating, the Nationalist-toned temperance claim that sobriety held the key to Irish independence. In 1904 a reviewer for the Dublin Journal of Medical Science decreed:

One of the heaviest blows which a patriotic Ireland could possibly inflict on its neighbouring British rulers would be given by taking the pledge all round – old and young – and keeping it! Why, we often say to ourselves, do not patriotic politicians utilise this fact?5 

In spite of calls to engage in the ‘holy war against alcohol’, Irish psychiatrists made little comment in the ensuing decades. Soon after, discussion of the links between alcoholism and degeneration became seriously compromised by new scientific studies which found no evidence that alcoholism in a parent gave rise to mental defects in their children.

As will be discussed in the next instalment of this series, after the First World War, there was a shift in focus towards alcohol and later, problem drinkers, with the eventual acceptance of a new ‘disease view’. 

Alice Mauger

Dr Alice Mauger
Dr Alice Mauger is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the UCD Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland in the School of History, University College Dublin. Her research project 'Alcohol Medicine and Irish Society, c. 1890-1970' is funded by the Wellcome Trust. The project explores the evolution of medicine's role in framing and treating alcoholism in Ireland. It aims to make a significant contribution to the medical humanities, exploring historical sources to better understand and contextualise Irish society's relationship with alcohol. Alice was awarded a PhD by UCD in 2014 for her thesis which examined public, voluntary and private asylum care in nineteenth-century Ireland. Prior to this she completed the MA programme on the Social and Cultural History of Medicine at the UCD Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland, UCD. Both her MA and PhD were funded by the Wellcome Trust. 

Alice has published on the history of psychiatry in Ireland including a full-length monograph: The Cost of Insanity in Nineteenth-Century Ireland: Public, Voluntary and Private Asylum Care (Palgrave Macmillan: 2017), which is available via open access and in hardcopy.

1 Ephraim MacDowel Cosgrave, ‘The Control of Inebriates’, Dublin Journal of Medical Science, Vol. XCIII (Jan-Jun 1892), pp.178-85.

2 ‘Section of State Medicine’, Dublin Journal of Medical Science, Vol. XCIII (Jan-Jun 1892), pp.327-328.

3 ‘Review of Norman Kerr, Inebriety: its Etiology, Pathology, Treatment, and Jurisprudence, 3rd edition’, Dublin Journal of Medical Science, Vol. XCIX (Jan-Jun 1895), p.50.

4 ‘Intemperance’, Journal of Mental Science, 50, no. 208 (Jan 1904), pp.117-118, p.117.

5 ‘The Medical Temperance Review’, Dublin Journal of Medical Science, Vol CXVIII (Jul-Dec 1904), p.140.

Monday, 3 June 2019

Abortion and Symphysiotomy in Ireland

In this month's blog post Dr Lynsey Black, Lecturer in Criminology, Department of Law, Maynooth University, considers the legal and historical context of abortion and symphysiotomy in Ireland.

Law and Gender in Modern Ireland

Lynsey Black and Peter Dunne (eds.),
Law and Gender in Modern Ireland: Critique
 and Reform
(Hart Publishing, 2019

We are currently in the midst of a ‘Decade of Centenaries’ in Ireland. For anyone working broadly in the field of gender, it is also clear that we have lived through a decade of reckoning. As editors of the recently published Law and Gender inModern Ireland: Critique and Reform (Hart, 2019), one of the key challenges has been to present the current legal regime in its historical context. As the book started to take shape, it became clear that the intersection of medicine, gender and the law was an essential part of this story. Within the collection, chapters by James Gallen (Dublin City University) and Máiréad Enright (University of Birmingham), which deal with symphysiotomy and abortion respectively, have provided insight into the role that gender ideologies played in medical practice in post-independence Ireland. Their chapters outline the prevailing historical context in which these medical procedures became emblematic of Catholic conservative Ireland, and the contemporary redress and reform which have attempted to resolve these wrongs.

Catholic society

The march of the Archbishops - Bishops etc.,
outside Pro Cathedral, Congress 1932, Dublin City.
Eason Collection, National Library of Ireland.
Law and policy on abortion and symphysiotomy took shape in the decades after independence, years in which the Catholic Church emerged as an imposing character. In this era of nation-building, Catholic social teaching informed the views of many in government, while members of the Catholic hierarchy offered policy contributions on matters integral to the creation of a Catholic society. Such input disproportionately affected the lives of women and girls, as morality, sexuality, and maternity became focal points for concern. These concerns were fundamental to the histories of both abortion and symphysiotomy. Measures enacted conspired to circumscribe women’s role to a narrow template of womanhood that revolved around the idea of woman as ‘child-bearer’.


As Gallen notes, crucial to the project of nation-building was the valorisation of the family based on marriage, and the corresponding demonisation of women who became pregnant outside marriage. Gallen’s exposition of gendered historical abuse underlines the primacy of marital fertility in this abuse. Such ideologies had tangible consequences, in the preference for symphysiotomy over Caesarean sections to preserve female fertility. Symphysiotomy was often preferred as an alternative to Caesarean sections, considered a risk to potential future pregnancies. Symphysiotomy was a surgical procedure, requiring the partial cutting of fibres joining the pubic bone to the pelvis. Gallen outlines figures from the 2012 State-commissioned Walsh Report, which estimated that 1,500 women had undergone the procedure unknowingly from the 1940s to the 1960s. Its revived use in these decades ‘arose from a confluence of legal and religious gendered restrictions on women’s bodily autonomy’ (page 265). The procedure itself exposed women to the risk of health problems, and in many cases was carried out where it was entirely unnecessary, and against the standards of best practice.


The primacy of fertility further influenced the intersection between medicine and the law with regard to the status of abortion, culminating in the insertion into the Constitution of Article 40.3.3in 1983, which created a near-total prohibition on abortion. Through the decades of Ireland’s independence, the legal position on abortion had created the context of unwanted pregnancy and forced birth. As with symphysiotomy, the case of abortion is illustrative of a wider historical failure in Irish law and society to prioritise women’s agency. As Gallen writes in relation to consent for medical procedures, there have often been priorities more highly valued by the Irish state than women’s consent and agency, namely, the preservation of women as child-bearers. Similarly, Enright notes that the Catholic template of motherhood had been one of self-sacrifice, and for decades ‘Irish abortion law has emphasised the protection of prenatal life in ways which efface women’s personhood’ (Enright, page 58).

Historical abuse

Gallen and Enright also elucidate the painstaking efforts to have historical abuse acknowledged and redressed, and to ameliorate and transform the ongoing harm caused by Ireland’s restrictive laws on abortion.

Survivors of symphsiotomy

In the case of symphysiotomy, on foot of the 2012 Walsh Report, in 2014 the Surgical Symphysiotomy Ex Gratia PaymentScheme was established, administered by Judge Maureen Harding Clark. Gallen highlights the efforts of the various groups that brought historical gendered abuse into the political foreground. Organisations such as Survivors of Symphysiotomy compiled victim-survivor testimony, often carrying out their own research where no such efforts were forthcoming from successive Irish governments.

Repeal of the 8th Amendment

A mural outside the Bernard Shaw pub in Portobello Dublin
depicting Savita Halappanavar and calling for a yes vote
in Ireland's referendum to remove the 8th Amendment.
Photo by Zcbeaton, Creative Commons Licence.
Enright too overviews the legal twists and turns which, in May 2018, finally led to the removal of Article 40.3.3 from the Constitution, replaced with the 36th Amendment. The 36th Amendment removes the constitutional ban on abortion and replaces it with a statement of the government’s capacity to pass legislation on abortion. As Enright notes, the legislation proposed in the wake of the May referendum has caused a dramatic change to constitutional law on pregnancy in Ireland. Like the recognition grudgingly given to victim-survivors of symphysiotomy, Enright discusses the necessary and transformative effect of activism in the reform of abortion law, overviewing the grass-roots campaign to remove the 8th Amendment. Crucially, State recognition builds slowly from public awareness, and public disquiet.

Continuing concerns

As the authors note, gains made in this area are hard-won, and achieved against official obfuscation and denials of harm or responsibility. Crucially, any gains achieved cannot be taken-for-granted. In his chapter, Gallen emphasises how the State was, and remains, resistant to many of the arguments made by victim-survivors. Gallen outlines how the redress schemes falls short of international best practice in many regards, and is highly critical of the judgemental tone of many of its reports. Similarly, as the debate on the Regulation of Termination of Bill makes its way through the Oireachtas, the danger that the hopes of real reform could be stifled are very evident. Crucially, the intersections between legal and medical regimes remain a point of vulnerability felt particularly by women. Indeed, as recent developments regarding CervicalCheck have shown, the dangers of gendered medical mistreatment continue to be a real concern in Ireland. Although Law and Gender in Modern Ireland outlines many of the positive reforms in recent years, it does so with a note of caution.

Lynsey Black

Dr Lynsey Black

Dr Lynsey Black is a Lecturer in Criminology, Department of Law, Maynooth University. Lynsey researches in the areas of gender and punishment, the death penalty, and historical criminology. She completed her PhD in the School of Law at Trinity College Dublin in 2016. Her doctoral work examined the cases of women sentenced to death in independent Ireland. From 2016 to 2018, Lynsey was an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellow at the Sutherland School of Law, University College Dublin.

Her IRC-funded project took a comparative approach to capital punishment in Ireland and Scotland from 1864 to 1914. Recent collaborations include a public engagement and knowledge exchange project undertaken with Dr Lizzie Seal (University of Sussex) and Dr Florence Seemungal (University of the West Indies/University of Oxford) along with the United Nations Development Programme in Barbados. This ongoing collaboration is focused on reform of the death penalty regimes in Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Lynsey has published recently in Law and History Review and the Social History of Medicine, and is editor of the collection, Law and Gender in Modern Ireland: Critique and Reform (Hart Publishing, 2019).

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Lecturer/Assistant Professor in the History of Medicine

Lecturer/Assistant Professor in the History of Medicine (Modern)

University College Dublin - UCD College of Arts & Humanities

School: UCD School of History
UCD School of History seeks to appoint a Lecturer/Assistant Professor in the History of Medicine (Modern). Any research specialization will be considered, but the School has a preference for candidates with a research area that stretches beyond Irish history.
You will have a PhD in a relevant area, a track-record of high-quality research, demonstrated by publications. A proven ability to attract external funding and undergraduate/postgrduate teaching experience. Preference may be given to candidates with research and teaching interests that complement and reinforce existing strengths within the School.
The appointment is a two-stage process, with UCD nominating the preferred candidate for consideration by the Wellcome Trust for a University Award. This candidate, on nomination to the Wellcome Trust, will produce a funding application, outlining a major research project with high quality outputs to be conducted within the University Award period. No appointment will be made without a successful application for a Wellcome Trust University award.
95 Lecturer/Assistant Professor (above the bar) Salary Scale: €52,325 - €82,267 per annum
Appointment will be made on scale and in accordance with the Department of Finance guidelines
Closing Date: 17:00hrs (local Irish Time) on 20 April 2018
Applications must be submitted by the closing date and time specified. Any applications which are still in progress at the closing time of 17:00hrs (Local Irish Time) on the specified closing date will be cancelled automatically by the system. UCD do not accept late applications.
Prior to application, further information (including application procedure) should be obtained from the UCD Job Vacancies website:
Note: Hours of work for academic staff are those as prescribed under Public Service Agreements. For further information please follow link below:

Monday, 6 November 2017

When Does The Air Matter? by Janet Greenlees

Air Quality and the Working Environment

In this month's blog post Dr Janet Greenlees, Senior Lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University, looks at  the history of industrial air quality and considers how it has variously been considered a worker's health, community health, and economic concern.

When Does Air Matter?

Men and women weaving at the White Oak Mill in Greensboro, NC, 1909.
Courtesy of the National Museum of American History.
When do people think about the air quality inside buildings? Similar to other health issues, the honest answer probably would be when either they or someone they care about is affected by the poor air they breathe on a regular basis. That being the case, the air quality in working environments could only then be of concern to a relatively small number of people with any improvements sought by labour and their representatives or employers seeking to increase productivity. However, sometimes public health concerns about air quality can apply to both the community and the working environment. How then, is the public health discourse negotiated when the needs of industry can be affected? And, why do certain health issues attract public or political interest and intervention, while others do not? A simple answer might be that the only health issues to attract widespread public interest are those which can affect large numbers of people, such as contagious diseases. However, a closer look suggests regional and national variations regarding responses to public health concerns, even when the same issues and industries cross special boundaries.

An Air Laden with Dust and Dirt

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, cotton cloth manufacturing grew rapidly in New England, America and Lancashire, Great Britain. Both industries subsequently declined, albeit at different rates. Cotton manufacturing was also an industry where men and women worked alongside each other, performing the same tasks for the same rates of pay and experiencing the same workplace health hazards. The air these men, women and sometimes children breathed was laden with dust and dirt, factory ventilation was poor and concerns were raised about the spread of contagious diseases in such environments, particularly tuberculosis. In addition, the noise from the machines was horrendous, particularly in the weaving rooms, and could cause hearing loss and in some cases, deafness. While since the earliest cotton factories, workers had been aware that inhaling dust and dirt made them feel unwell and the noise was uncomfortably loud, it was the late nineteenth century before the workplace became entwined with public health reform, starting with fears about tuberculosis contagion. Public and much scientific belief held that the tubercle bacilli attached itself to dust and quickly spread disease throughout the mill. In the progressive state of Massachusetts, the leading cotton cloth manufacturing state, these fears about TB contagion secured both a legislative ban of a particular technology, the suction shuttle, and selective employer cooperation at improving ventilation. In contrast, and despite widespread belief that England led the way with factory regulation, the tuberculosis risk in the Lancashire mills was debated, but economic concerns prevented both regulation and industrial reform.

Worker Fatigue and Factory Ventilation

The Boott Cotton Mill of Lowells, Massachusetts.
Courtesy of the Lowell Museum Collection.
During the early twentieth century new health concerns arose, firstly surrounding the importance ventilation and following the Great War, fatigue. Fatigue was not simply related to long hours of labour but also to working in poorly ventilated factories. In Massachusetts cotton towns, ventilation became a public health campaign with improvements introduced in many public buildings, including schools and government buildings and extending into workplaces. Some (but not all) employers accepted the notion that a healthy worker was a more productive worker. Ventilation attracted considerable British debate and scientific interest, but while some communities sought to improve factory ventilation and legislation imposed air quality standards on the cotton mills, in reality, employers remained able to operate as they saw fit. Factory air quality was secondary to the needs of industry. The Great War turned scientific, political and medical interest to fatigue research, particularly in Britain. Textile workers were included in the research; however, industrial decline meant political and scientific interest in operative fatigue quickly faded. The same was true in New England. During the 1920s, most of the cotton manufacturing industry shifted to the southern states. Remaining northern firms were more concerned about economic survival than the air quality in the mill. Worker and community concern about mill air quality also declined as jobs took priority. Indeed, wider economic concerns were increasingly influencing the public health agendas of both countries.

Cotton Dust Inhalation

Nevertheless, scientific and medical interest about occupationally specific health concerns was growing, particularly surrounding cotton dust inhalation. However, the physical symptoms of respiratory damage caused by dust inhalation mirrored those of respiratory diseases common to many textile towns, including bronchitis and pneumonia, namely, tightness of the chest, dyspnea and coughing. Therefore, doctors found it very difficult to identify cases of byssinosis, the respiratory disease caused by prolonged cotton or flax dust inhalation. While public concern grew surrounding the widespread dust found in urban environments, such concerns were not transferred to factory dust. There, dust remained an occupationally specific hazard about which middle class social and political reformers had little interest. This was only reinforced by the ambiguity surrounding diagnosis. For workers, dust was an everyday reality that was simply part of the job and unions sought compensation rather than reform. Britain was first to introduce byssinosis compensation for selected male workers in 1941, although it was the 1970s before compensation was extended to all affected workers. By this time, cotton manufacturing had virtually disappeared from the country. Despite individual American doctors and scientists recognizing byssinosis cases, it was 1969 before the federal government introduced compensation for byssinosis sufferers. Instead, public health concerns about dust remained confined to the urban living environment and, when combined with the ambiguity surrounding diagnosis, many workers were left to suffer on their own.

Interior of a Lancashire Cotton Mill with Mill
Workers at their Machines, Lancashire, c. 1890.

Managing the Health Impact of the Working Environment 

Lastly, noise, but not internal industrial noise, briefly became a public concern. Community concerns about specific urban noises increased as the twentieth century progressed. Societies were formed to tackle ‘unnecessary noise.’ However, the continuous crashing of metal-tipped shuttles against metal loom frames in the mills which caused hearing loss in many workers was ignored. Instead, communities, medics and even operatives accepted that hearing loss was a risk attributable to certain jobs, including weaving. Weavers adopted coping strategies to manage the noise, including sign language and lip reading. Indeed, despite the fact that other air quality issues had attracted public interest and industrial reform, operatives regularly found themselves needing to adopt coping strategies to manage the health consequences caused by working in confined spaces with poor air quality. Other strategies included taking unpaid time off, patent medicines, cooperative strategies, switching firms to where conditions were better and exiting the industry. Air quality at work was important to workers, but managing the health impact from the working environment comprised only one part of their decision-making surrounding work, health and community. Similarly, at different times, certain aspects of air quality became community health concerns. Only at certain times did the two environments entwine.

Janet Greenlees

Dr Janet Greenlees
Janet Greenlees is a Senior Lecturer in History at Glasgow Caledonian University, based in the Centre for the Social History of Health andHealthcare. Her research interests include women and work, public health and the working environment and maternal health and she has published on all these topics. The intersection of health in the community and work environment described above is explored in greater detail in her book: When the Air became Important: A Social History of the Working Environment in New England and Lancashire, 1860-1960 (Rutgers: Rutgers University Press, forthcoming 2018). For more on gender and workers’ responses to poor air quality at work, see ‘Workplace Health and Gender among CottonWorkers in America and Britain, c. 1880s-1940s’, International Review of Social History, 61, 3 (2016), 459-83.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Dr Sinead McCann: Receives Two Arts Council Awards

We're delighted to announce that Dr Sinead McCann of the UCD Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland (CHOMI) has received two prestigious funding awards from the Arts Council of Ireland for her projects 'Health Inside' and 'The Trial'.

Pictured from left to right: Dr Sinead McCann (UCD CHOMI), Dr Orlaith McBride
(Director, Arts Council of Ireland), and Associate Professor Catherine Cox (Director,
 UCD CHOMI). Photograph taken at the announcement of the recipients of the Arts
Council of Ireland's Open Call programme awards, July 2017.

Sinead, a noted Irish visual artist, received these awards in her role as a Public Engagement Officer on the Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator Award project, Prisoners, Medical Care and Entitlement to Health in England and Ireland, 1850–2000. This project is led by co-Principal Investigators Associate Professor Catherine Cox, Director of UCD CHOMI, and Professor Hilary Marland, Director of the Centre for the History of Medicine, University of Warwick.

Inside Health: Thinking about Prisoners' Right to Healthcare

Health Inside: Thinking about Prisoners' Right to Healthcare is a new public art project, due for exhibition in June 2018, which will focus on health and welfare provision in Irish and English prisons. The project is funded by the Arts Council of Ireland under its Open Call programme. The Open Call programme funds one-off ambitious artistic projects by some of Ireland's leading artists and arts organisations.

For further details see:

The Trial

The Trial is the working title for a new visual art project due for public exhibition in April 2018. It will focus on health and welfare provision in Irish prisons and access to healthcare following release from prison. 

The project is funded by the Arts Council of Ireland under its Arts Participation Project Award scheme. The project will be led by Dr Sinead McCann, who will work collaboratively with historian Dr Holly Dunbar (UCD CHOMI), film-maker Mary Caffrey, and participants from the Bridge Project. The Bridge Project is a community-based organisation providing training and support programmes for high-risk violent ex-offenders in the greater Dublin Area. In April 2018, the team will produce a visual arts installation for public exhibition in Kilmainham Gaol Museum's Old Court Room.

For further details see:

Friday, 23 June 2017

An Tobar: a Two-day Workshop on Sacred Springs and Holy Wells

Waterford Museum of Treasures, 26-27th June 2017

For further details please see: Holy Wells and Sacred Springs

This two-day workshop brings together scholars from across the world and from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines, all working on aspects of holy wells and sacred water. Most commonly a spring (but sometimes a pond, an entire lake, or even a hollow in a rock or tree where dew and rain collects), a holy well can possess miraculous healing qualities and is associated with supernatural beings, for example, being dedicated to a saint in Europe, associated with fertility goddesses in Africa, or the abode of boon-granting dragons in China. Water is sacred around the globe because water is life, and our critical need for water means hallowed wells and springs are found cross-culturally. 

The social significance of sacred water bodies and their associated traditions is now an emerging subject of study. One area where Irish scholars in particular are making great advances is the medical and curative dimension to these sites. These papers represent exciting new research taking place across Ireland into the various ways holy wells and their landscapes have played and continue to play a role in approaches to health and wellbeing. 

Healing Waters and Therapeutic Landscapes 

North Leinster Holy Wells: A Medical Geography – Ronan Foley, Maynooth University 

One of the primary reputations of holy wells is their function as curative sites. Medical/health geographers are equally interested in the idea of therapeutic landscapes, places or spaces with established reputations for health and healing. With increased access to spatial information on the location of holy wells, and a parallel development in the mapping of folklore sources about specific cures, it has become possible for the first time to create a medical geography of holy wells in Ireland. Sources vary from traveller’s accounts and local historical sources to material from the Schools Collection and more recent surveys and ethnographic site visits. This paper describes the spatial distributions of specific cures in North Leinster as a representative location and considers the extent to which some wells had quite specific named curative powers, while others were panaceal. In addition, the location of the different cures across time and space will complement ongoing work at Trinity College Dublin on scientific testing of the waters to see if local geographical conditions can in part explain their distribution. Finally, the use of GIS and other geo-spatial mapping approaches identify the ongoing ways in which holy wells databases can be developed to promote the preservation of their narrative histories and ongoing curative performances. 

Dr Ronan Foley is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Geography at Maynooth University, Ireland. He has written extensively in the broad area of therapeutic landscapes, including Healing Waters: Therapeutic Landscapes in Historic and Contemporary Ireland (2010). He is currently the PI on an Irish Environmental Protection Agency project on Green/Blue Spaces and Health & an advisory partner on an ESRC project at the University of Exeter on Sensing Nature. 

Tobair beannaithe agus ‘an leigheas’: Holy Wells and ‘the cure’ in 20th Century Ireland – Carol Barron, Dublin City University 

The Schools Manuscript Collection of 1937-38, housed in the Folklore Department in UCD is believed to be the largest single medical folklore collection in Europe, and offers us a unique insight into the believes, practices and rituals surrounding ‘the cure’ and Holy wells in 20th Century Ireland. This paper examines a subsection of over 7,500 ‘cures’ sampled from the Schools Manuscript Collection from each barony of each of the 26 counties of Ireland, of which over 250 ‘cures’ are specific to Holy wells. This shared socio-cultural phenomenon is critically examined from a folkloristic/anthropological perspective, focusing on the specific disease states and their cultural importance to the health of Irish society at the time of recording and through history. 

Dr Carol Barron is a lecturer in the Department of Nursing and Human Sciences at Dublin City University. She received her PhD in Anthropology from NUI Maynooth and her research focusses on child health. In particular, she has conducted extensive investigation into the use of Irish folk cures.

Well-being: Holy Wells as Emergent Therapeutic Spaces – Richard Scriven, University College Cork

Applying the concept of therapeutic landscapes to holy wells, this paper examines these sites as spaces of wellbeing that are forged through the interactions of people and place. Holy wells can be appreciated as sources of health offering spiritual and emotional support to individuals and communities. These experiences are generated in the meeting of bodies and practices, location and materials, and beliefs and emotions. Within these processes, well-being emerges with the site rather than being taking from it: there is a ‘taking place’ of health and wellbeing. Drawing on my fieldwork at holy wells across Munster, I explore the practices and meanings that contribute to the creation of these spaces of wellbeing and offer speculations on further engagements with this arena. 

Dr Richard Scriven is an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Geography, UCC. His research examines pilgrimage in contemporary Ireland as a socio-cultural phenomenon. 

Holy Wells: The Evidence from Ulster – Finbar McCormick, Queen’s University 

The experience of attending holy wells was composed of two main components, health and penance. While the curative nature of the wells is generally emphasised, the great majority of those who attended sites were not suffering for sickness or disability, - “every face beaming with the glow of health” as one observer noted. The main aim was to ensure the maintenance of good health for the coming year. This aspect of the ritual often involved washing or bathing in the well’s waters something that has for the most part disappeared in modern holy well rituals. The earliest place-name evidence for holy wells in Ulster and elsewhere, dating to the early Medieval period, indicates their association with health. It is likely that the penitential aspect of the wells is a later development. This paper considers a chronology for understanding the layered meanings of holy well rituals in Ulster. 

Dr Finbar McCormick teaches Archaeology at Queen’s University Belfast and has recently been researching and excavating Struell wells in County Sown. Struell contains the most extensive set of buildings associated with a holy well in Ireland and can be documented back to the early Medieval period.

Further Details

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Disorder Contained: Theatre Performances, Coventry, Dublin, Belfast

A Theatrical Examination of Madness, Prison and Solitary Confinement

Disorder Contained: A theatrical examination of madness, prison and solitary confinement is a major public engagement activity for the Wellcome Trust funded project Prisoners, Medical Care and Entitlement to Health in England and Ireland 1850-2000. It draws on the work of Associate Professor Catherine Cox (UCD) and Professor Hilary Marland (Warwick) and forms the final part of The Asylum Trilogy exploring various aspects of the history of mental health.

The production, created with Talking Birds and to be performed in Coventry, Dublin, Belfast, and London during 2017, will be accompanied by Expert Panel Discussions as well as Post-show Artistic Conversations which will be recorded along with the performance.

Book Tickets

See Also