‘We branded people lunatics and locked them away’
The Horror of existence in Ireland’s old mental hospitals – where people slept three to a bed, and floors were covered in faeces – will be exposed in a new documentary to air tonight in Ireland.
Campaigning journalist Mary Raftery, whose 1999 States of Fear documentary exposed widespread abuse in industrial schools, turned her attention to the mental health system for her new work, ‘Behind The Walls.’
Calling Ireland’s crumbling mental institutions “huge monuments to insanity”, she spoke to survivors and examined medical records to expose the appalling conditions and brutal treatments endured by many patients.
One doctor in Cork devised a “swinging seat” which shook patients around at hundreds of revolutions a minute, making them violently sick.
His design was copied all over the world in the early part of the twentieth century – which also saw the introduction of invasive surgical treatments for mental illness, Raftery says.
In the 1920s and 1930s, you had the development of lobotomy. There was also insulin coma therapy, where they pumped people full of insulin to put them into a hypoglycaemic coma. And they would very often kill them; there was a very high death rate and a very high brain damage rate.
There were no trials for these, no evidence base. They just had huge populations on which to experiment.
The team making the two-part documentary, which begins tonight on RTÉ One, also spoke to people who were incarcerated in Ireland’s institutions in recent decades. In a shocking parallel to the clerical child abuse scandals, female patients at one hospital were sexually abused by their psychiatrist, Raftery said.
A number of other staff members and hospital managers were told, but no action was taken. There were also numerous reports of horrific conditions:
One man who was in Our Lady’s in Cork talked about how in the male wards, there were two to three men in each bed every night. There just weren’t enough beds, so they slept on top of each other. Lots of patients had no clothes, so they just wandered around naked – in the dark a lot of the time.
Another thing we uncovered was described by a historian as the most damning document he had ever read about an institution in Ireland. It was a 1958 report on St Luke’s hospital in Clonmel, which described the patients all stripped at 6pm, then herded up to bed, naked, at half past six.
Women with no sanitary towels, faeces all over the place, food ladled out with garden forks.
At one stage, Ireland had locked up more of its population in mental hospitals than anywhere else in the world. Raftery said the vast number of committals was driven upward by social factors such as the tradition, begun after the Famine, of handing down the family farm to the eldest son alone rather than subdividing it between all a family’s children. In an Ireland with very little employment, this left large numbers of younger siblings without any income. It was also combined with the lowest marriage rate in Europe – until the 1960s, three-quarters of men and two-thirds of women under 45 were unmarried.
What we created for ourselves was a society in which it was impossible for large numbers of people to live. They couldn’t have a family; they didn’t have any employment prospects. They were in dire straits. Now it wouldn’t be the case that everybody who was locked up was sane, but who could be sane unless you had the opportunities, or unless you left?
There was a very significant number of people driven to despair.
Until the 1940s, there were laws in place – the Dangerous Lunatics and Dangerous Idiots Acts – which meant all a person had to do was tell a court a relative of theirs was insane, and he or she would be committed.
All you had to do was go to court and claim that your relative was a dangerous lunatic, and the judge would say ‘Fine.’ There was one woman who wanted her brother out of the way, because her fiancé said he wouldn’t marry her unless she had clear title to the farm. So she had him committed.
Raftery’s previous documentary States Of Fear caused an uproar when it was broadcast in 1999, with then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern eventually having to apologise on behalf of the State for the abuses carried out in industrial schools.
According to Raftery, there are chilling parallels between the industrial school system and the mental institutions.
It’s another manifestation of our addiction to locking people away. It’s the removal by society of anything awkward. Particularly at the family level. The smallest units within society made extensive use of these institutions, much as they did with the industrial schools, and the Magdalene laundries – because the main people who put women into Magdalene laundries were families.
The one huge difference is that the schools were run by the Catholic Church, where the psychiatric hospitals were run by the State. We’ve absolutely nobody but ourselves to blame for the appalling conditions, and the way that people’s lives were destroyed. We can’t turn around and blame the Church for this one.
I don’t think we’ve fully realised just how vicious a society we created in this country.