Monday, 11 April 2016

The Cost of Insanity by Alice Mauger

The Cost of Insanity: Public, Voluntary and Private Asylum Care in Nineteenth-Century Ireland

How did Irish medical practitioners and lay people interpret and define mental illness? What behaviours were considered so out of the ordinary that they warranted locking up, in some cases never to return to society? Did exhibiting behaviour that threatened land and property interests, the financial success of the family or even just that which caused embarrassment eclipse familial devotion and render some individuals 'unmanageable'? These questions are addressed in this month's post by Dr Alice Mauger. In 2014, Alice successfully completed her doctoral thesis at the UCD Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland on domestic and institutional provision for the non-pauper insane in Ireland during the nineteenth century.

The Evolution of Asylum Care

Paying patients in the Richmond District Asylum (1885-1900).
Pictures courtesy of the Grangegorman Community Museum
The nineteenth century saw the evolution of asylum care in Ireland. While Jonathan Swift famously left most of his fortune to found Ireland's first lunatic asylum in 1746, it would be 70 years before the government followed his lead. In 1817 it enacted legislation permitting districts throughout Ireland to form asylums and by 1900, twenty-two such hospitals accommodated almost 16,000 patients. Growing demand for care for other social groups prompted the decision, in 1870, to admit some fee-paying patients, charged between £6 and £24 per annum, depending on their means. Out of this 16,000 only around 3% actually paid for their care. Private asylums, meanwhile, charged extremely high fees that were out of reach for the majority of society (usually several hundred pounds per year) and by 1900, thirteen private asylums housed 300 patients. Occupying a sort of middle ground, voluntary asylums, established by philanthropists, offered less expensive accommodation to those who could not afford high private asylum fees (from around £24 to a few hundred pounds). By 1900, these four voluntary asylum had outstripped the thirteen private ones, providing for 400 patients.

The Road to Committal

Advertisement for Farnham House, Private Asylum and
Hospital for the Insane, Finglas Dublin.
Source: Medical Directory (London, 1899), p. 1616.
Families were usually responsible for determining when it was time to commit a patient, where to send them and how much they should pay for their care. Factors such as cost, spending power, standard of accommodation, a hospital's religious ethos and the sort of people confined there all coloured these decisions. Broadly speaking, certain social groups (of the same religion) chose certain asylums.

Once admitted, patients were assessed by the medical authorities who determined a cause for their illness along with a diagnosis. This process was based on the medical certificate obtained prior to committal; evidence supplied by the patient and family; and the medical practitioner's own views. The two primary nineteenth-century diagnoses – mania and melancholia – reveal relatively little about reasons for committal. The causes named, however, were far more colourful and wide-ranging and expose much about contemporary perceptions of the life events or circumstances that led to mental illness and therefore committal. Given causes encompassed a range of 'psychological' factors such as grief, bereavement, business or money anxieties and religion, and physical influences including accidents and injuries, physical illnesses, hereditary and alcohol. These later two were the most frequently employed, demonstrating widespread medical understandings of the physical nature of insanity. However, many patients, families and increasingly asylum doctors, reported that fears about financial stability, land interests and the state of the economy had caused the illness.1 In reality, it was often these anxieties that resulted in committal, especially among those with a degree of resources, such as white-collar workers, shopkeepers and farmers.

The Case of John D

Entries in Casebook 2, c.1898.
Source: St John of God's Hospital,
Patient Records.
Land and property interests certainly featured in the case of John D. In 1891, at the age of 77, John was committed to the Enniscorthy lunatic asylum by this two sons. John's sons provided details of his personal history to the asylum authorities; details which were later transcribed by the asylum's Resident Medical Superintendent, Dr Thomas Drapes, into his case notes. Reportedly a 'healthy old man', the first symptom noticed by John's sons was that he wanted to marry his servant, a girl of twenty:

Says if he doesn't marry her his soul is lost and that he'll burn in hell ... he is very supple and has often tried to take away across the country to get to this girl ... Son says he won't allow bedclothes to be changed or bed made since the girl left, as he says no one can make it but her.2
While John was a patient in the asylum, this girl visited him disguised as his niece. Following this, John's sons told Drapes to prevent any further communication between the pair. They were very much against the proposed marriage, insisting that 'she and her family are a designing lot' and 'all encourage her to get him to marry her'. One son informed Drapes that in his opinion his father would have married '"anything in petticoats" for past two years or so'. Allegedly, the girls he proposed to were 'not at all suitable, and "strealish" in appearance and habits'.

Underlying this narrative were anxieties about John's property. A farmer and a shopkeeper, John was certainly not a pauper. His maintenance in the asylum was £18 per annum and while he was in the asylum, John presented Drapes with a further £16 'to keep for him'. The sons made clear their anxieties about the family business. On one visit they stated that lately, their father 'was not capable of properly doing business in his shop'.

The real motivation for committing John, however, became clear when the patient later informed Drapes that 'he gave his sons up his land, but wished to retain his shop for himself and get a wife to mind it for him'. John also gave what Drapes termed a 'rational explanation' for his romance with the servant girl, explaining that:

the girl had been so spoken of in connection with him that her character had suffered, and that if he did not make her the only reparation he could by marrying her, he would suffer in the next world.3

Just two months after his committal Drapes discharged John. In his notes he wrote that this was 'greatly against the wishes of his sons, but I have not been able to find any distinct evidence of his insanity'.4 By 1901, John, now aged 87, had married a woman of 27, possibly the servant girl. However, ten years later, it was his son who resided at this address with his own wife and six children suggesting that he had ultimately inherited the property.5 The most plausible explanation for this outcome was that John's young wife had not borne him any children, which would have prevented her from being entitled to property rights following his death.


The case of John D adheres comfortably both to contemporary public hysteria over the perceived vulnerability of private patients to wrongful confinement and commonly held representations of the rural Irish.6 Although some historians have emphasised the detrimental impact of issues such as the consolidation of landholdings, emigration, land hunger and Famine memories on emotional familial bonds, historians of psychiatry have identified the 'range of familial emotional contexts' which asylum patients came from.7 Families often sent letters querying treatment, offering advice and enclosing food and money for patients.8

Yet, in cases where property or business interests were at stake, these factors tended to eclipse those of familial devotion. In fact, the high numbers of fee-paying patients who were unable to control their business or function in their profession suggests this was a major reason for committal. While the extent to which John D actually struggled in his shop is difficult to ascertain, it is conceivable that a number of other relatives' claims regarding patients' incapacity to work were genuine.

The association between working life and mental illness speaks volumes about contemporary society's interpretation of insanity and what drove families to commit relatives to asylums. In relation to social status, those unable to maintain their position within their given occupation were defined in terms of this failure. Land disputes and an inability to manage one's affairs threatened to shatter emotional familial bonds. In these cases, families may have viewed committal as a last resort in order to protect their resources or livelihood. After all, in smaller rural towns, relatives would have little control over the actions or interactions of a mentally-ill person positioned behind the shop-counter or at a farmers' market.

Dr Alice Mauger

Dr Alice Mauger was awarded a PhD by University College Dublin in 2014 for her thesis which examined institutions for the non-pauper insane 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. Dr Mauger has published on the history of psychiatry in Ireland and is currently writing a monograph stemming from her doctoral research.
Below you can listen to Alice's talk, entitled 'The Cost of Insanity', given on 4 February 2016 as part of the UCD Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland Seminar Series.

1 Fears of poverty and unemployment among pauper asylum patients are discussed by: Akihito Suzuki, 'Lunacy and labouring men: narratives of male vulnerability in mid-Victorian London' in Roberta Bivins and John V. Pickstone (eds), Medicine, Madness and Social History: Essays in Honour of Roy Porter (Basingstoke, 2007), p. 118; and, Catherine Cox, Negotiating Insanity in the Southeast of Ireland, 1820-1900 (Manchester, 2012), pp 59, 121.
2 Clinical Record Volume No. 3 (Wexford County Council, St Senan's Hospital, Enniscorthy, p. 264)
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Census of Ireland 1901.
6 David Fitzpatrick, 'Marriage in post-Famine Ireland', in Art Cosgrave (ed.), Marriage in Ireland (Dublin, 1985), pp 116-31; Timothy Guinnane, The Vanishing Irish: Households, Migration, and the Rural Economy in Ireland, 1850-1914 (Princeton, 1997).
7 Cox, Negotiating Insanity, pp 108-9; Guinnane, The Vanishing Irish, pp 142-43, 230-35.
8 Oonagh Walsh, 'Lunatic and criminal alliances in nineteenth-century Ireland' in Peter Bartlett and David Wright (eds), Outside the Walls of the Asylum: The History of Care in the Community 1750-2000 (London and New Brunswick, 2001), p. 145.