Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Madness Monday - Londonderry Lunatic Asylum

After writing about the Magdalene Asylums last Monday I started to think about other types of asylums in Ireland, particularly those for people deemed 'mad'. I will focus on the development of an asylum in County Derry, as this is where the Connor family lived.

There was scant specific legislative provision for the mentally ill in Ireland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and while various pieces of legislation in the 1700s established a network of workhouses and houses of industry for the destitute poor, many individuals with mental illness spent significant periods in workhouses which were inadequate and inappropriate for their needs as there was no dedicated asylum accommodation.  

Prior to the 1830s, mental health care in Derry, as in the rest of Ireland and in most of the Western World, was ad hoc at best, unkind and cruel at worst. In Derry, a city growing in population and commercial importance, the early part of the 19th century saw patients with any form of mental illness housed at the city's infirmary - in twelve cells in a shed on the hospital grounds or, in the absence of any other suitable accommodation, in the cells at Lifford Gaol.

Old Derry Asylum
But, in the early part of the century, a new wave of social reformers were campaigning for change and compassion and, in 1821, Parliament passed a law allowing for the foundation of a network of district asylums. These institutions would be, according to reformer John Leslie Foster," the only mode of effectual relief... for the reception of the insane."

Opened in 1829, the Londonderry District Lunatic Asylum, was the fourth of eleven such institutions built in nineteenth century Ireland. Constructed on eight acres of land, the asylum - which still lends its name to the street in modern day Derry (Asylum Street) on which it was built, was an imposing building.

Samuel Lewis' 1837 Topographical Dictionary of Ireland writes of the Derry institution:
 "The lunatic asylum for the counties of Londonderry, Donegal and Tyrone, situated on rising ground to the north of the city, was commenced in June 1827, and opened in 1829; the entire expense, including the purchase of the site and furniture, amounted to 25,678, advanced by Government, and to be repaid by the three counties by installments".
"The facade fronting the river consists of a centre with pavilions from which extend wings with airing sheds, terminating in angular pavilions, all of Dungiven sandstone; above the centre rises a turret, of which the upper part forms an octagonal cupola; in the rear are several commodious airing yards, separated by ranges of brick building, including the domestic offices and workshops; the entire length of the front is 364 feet, the depth of the building, with the airing yards, 190 feet; and the height to the eave, 25 feet. The grounds comprise eight acres, including a plot in front ornamentally planted, and a good garden."
Lewis further notes that, by 1830, it was necessary to extend the Derry Asylum:
"The asylum was originally intended for 104 patients, but has been enlarged so as to admit 150; it is still too small from the cells being partially occupied by incurables, persons afflicted with epilepsy, and idiots."

Thomas Jackson, formerly in charge of the lunatic department of the Dublin House of Industry, was appointed manger of the Armagh District Asylum in 1824, and it is his methods that influenced, and were replicated, in all other Irish asylums, including Derry, where care was overseen by Francis Rogan, M.D.
Restraint cage, patients were placed inside for their safety

Primarily, Jackson saw employment as the sole therapeutic tool.
"The poor lunatic," he wrote to the Irish government in 1827, " when left to himself, without occupation or the busy and active scene of some pleasing employment, soon graduates into a state of incurability or idiocy and is left a burden to himself and to the community."

That emphasis on employment was fully implemented in Derry's asylum.
Writing in 'Derry beyond the walls: social and economic aspects of the growth of Derry', John Hume says of the asylum: "Treatment was simply employment of some sort. Male inmates worked at gardening, weaving, tailoring, shoemaking and carpentry. Women patients occupied themselves at needlework, quilting, knitting or spinning, laundry and assisting servants to clean passages etc."

A glimpse of what life was like, and what happened when you were thought to be insane, is captured in the Belfast News-letter, 25 March 1891 and the case of Rose McKeefry.

Reading this sort of account in the Belfast newspaper bring to mind my great grandmother Mary Connor, who I wrote about in a previous Madness Monday. The 'committal of a lunatic' was so public and so shaming, it is a wonder that anyone survived the process, let alone recovering. 

By 1896 there was talk and plans to build a new Lunatic Asylum in Derry. Reading the newspapers of the time reveal that the 'worthy people' of Derry were against spending more money on 'the lunatics'. Instead it was suggested that they should go into workhouses, which apparently weren't full, or in prisons.  However common sense prevailed and a new Asylum was built.

It may be of interest to glance at the following table of Lunacy in Ireland from M'Comb's Presbyterian Almanac for 1855:

On the authority of the returns collected by the Inspectors of Lunatic Asylums, the total number of individuals affected with lunacy in Ireland may be divided as follows:--
In public and local asylums,
In gaols committed as dangerous,
In central asylum, Dundrum,
In poor-houses,
ln private asylums,
Abroad, unprovided for in public institutions, but some supported by their friends,


I hope this short journey through the Derry Asylum proves of interest. There is a wonderful project based on the Richmond Asylum, Dublin called Out of the Attics by Alan Counihan. Please click on this link to go to the site, you will be moved.

Until next time ...

Home Office: Lunatic Asylums, Ireland: Copies of all Correspondence and Communications between the Home Office and the Irish Government, during the year 1827, on the Subject of Public Lunatic Asylums.
Hume, John, Derry Beyond The Walls: Social and Economic Aspects of the Growth of Derry 1825-1850, Ulster Historical Foundation, 2002.
Lewis, Samuel. Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, 1937
Mauger, Alice. “Confinement of the Higher Orders”: The Social Role of Private Lunatic Asylums in Ireland, c. 1820–60 in J Hist Med Allied Sci. Apr 2012; 67(2): 281–317

1 comment:

  1. Is there any more information on this?