Friday, 7 April 2017

Alcohol, Medicine and Irish Society, c.1890-1970 by Alice Mauger

Wellcome Trust Medical Humanities Fellowship

A Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Fellowship has been awarded to Dr. Alice Mauger. Her three-year project on ‘Alcohol, Medicine and Irish Society, c.1890-1970’ is being hosted by the UCD Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland (CHOMI). It is mentored by Dr. Lindsey Earner-Byrne, Deputy Head of the School of History, UCD and sponsored by Associate Professor Catherine Cox, Director of UCD CHOMI.

The project explores the evolution of medicine’s role in framing and treating alcoholism in Ireland. It assesses the period from the 1890s, when acceptance of inebriety as a disease led to the creation of the short-lived inebriate reformatories, to the 1970s, when dedicated rehabilitation facilities were formed in response to the rising number of psychiatric patients diagnosed with alcohol-related illnesses.

Until now, the history of medicine has offered little reflection on the relationship between medicine and alcoholism in Ireland. While the ubiquitous “drunken Irish” stereotype, still prevalent today, has been evaluated from several viewpoints, we have yet to discover how international and Irish medical communities interpreted, informed and absorbed this label. By investigating care in asylums and inebriate reformatories, along with medical debates and shifting government policies, the project questions how the exchange of medical, government and lay ideas came to shape understandings and experiences of alcoholism in Irish society.

Still image from the television show, 'Home Truths', featuring a segment
on alcoholism,  RTÉ, 7 December 1966. Image courtesy of the RTÉ Stills Department.


Despite the popularity of temperance and pioneer movements in Ireland since the mid-nineteenth century and high levels of abstinence reported into the 1950s, the Irish have traditionally been viewed as being especially prone to alcoholism. Irish emigrants were persistently portrayed as heavy drinkers, while the emergent Irish nationalist movement sought to associate abstinence with patriotism – some prominent members even claiming that the British encouraged Irish drinking to demoralise the population. In these ways, alcoholism was inextricably linked to theories or fears of Irish degeneration.

This project questions the extent to which enduring stereotypes of the Irish as violent and drunken permeated contemporary medical conceptions of alcoholism, and whether this in turn influenced political and lay interpretations.

Internationally, several works have focussed on shifting medical concepts of addiction. This project situates Irish therapeutic and diagnostic trends alongside those in other western countries, including Britain, America and Australia. It also seeks to inform the extensive literature on the history of psychiatry, particularly degeneracy and ethnicity, and related discourses in Irish social history covering themes such as poverty, violence and the family.


The project aims to make a significant contribution to the medical humanities, exploring historical sources to better understand and contextualise Irish society’s relationship with alcohol. In doing so, it hopes to inform present-day social and cultural concerns.

Keys findings from the project will be presented in a monograph, journal article and a series of posts on the CHOMI blog, as well as papers given at relevant forums.

In 2019, Alice will organise an interdisciplinary workshop on ‘Alcohol, Medicine and Society’ at CHOMI, inviting policy makers and academics from Ireland and overseas. A call for papers for this event will feature on this blog.

Alice has also planned a one-month knowledge exchange to the Centre for History in Public Health in the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to engage with prominent experts on addiction history including Professor Virginia Berridge and Dr. Alex Mold.


Dr Alice Mauger

Dr Alice Mauger is a postdoctoral fellow at the UCD Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland, University College Dublin. She 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. Dr Mauger has published on the history of psychiatry in Ireland and is currently finalising her first monograph: The Cost of Insanity in Nineteenth-Century Ireland: Public, Voluntary and Private Asylum Care.