Children of The Asylum - Feature for THE MAIL, 2022
St Brigid’s Hospital - Forgotten children of the Asylum
I grew up in a small town in Co. Galway. Like a lot of people in rural Ireland, my parents both worked and I was more or less raised by my grandparents. They had spent their working lives as psychiatric nurses in St Brigids hospital, Ballinasloe, , formerly Connaught Lunatic Asylum. Once the largest mental hospital in Europe, it was a vast spread of buildings dating back to 1833. My grandfather’s career started in 1917 and lasted until 1947. He was not exceptional in the town, in fact it was very common to have mothers and daughters, father and sons working alongside each other in the hospital for 30-40 year careers. I grew up hearing tales from ‘the big house’ to the extent that when got a bit older and started asking more questions my mother begged my granny ‘not to be telling any more stories, you’ll give her nightmares’. I eventually left home to go to college in Dublin but would often make the journey home to Ballinasloe by bus for the weekend. The coach was elevated so as it passed the hospital - for the first time in my life I could see beyond the high walls. The place always held a strange fascination for me. The sweep of the drive to the main reception, the elaborate iron gates, the symmetry of the cut limestone made it seem inviting, beautiful. But i knew, even in my late teens the dread that place would have held for so many. I found a poem recently that I had written as a teenager after one visit home from college. i passed the hospital on the bus as usual but this one time I saw a young woman just sitting, staring out the window. I must have only seen her for a second but the vision is with me still. A haunted, lost and lonely looking soul. I wondered for years what her fate was. But just as the ebb of life distracts us all, I soon moved on to ponder other things and focused on making a career and life for myself in Dublin and later London. The architecture of the buildings, the fate of the patients, the stories from my grandparents, the fascination of the industrial machines and medical treatments now long decommissioned all faded into the past until a few years ago when I started to read about the work of an amateur historian from Tuam called Catherine Corless. I was in awe how this seemingly normal woman did so much more than simply lament the local tragedy which happened on her doorstep. She took action and fought to expose injustice and in doing so offering some kind of closure and support to all the people near destroyed by the horrors of St Marys’ Mother and Baby home. What happened in my local mental hospital and hospitals like it all across Ireland was a stain on society and seeing how Catherine Corless managed to smash the hard shell around this near forgotten story and shine new light and hope for many effected by it, gave me the impedance to explore some of the tales I heard spanning back 40 years.
I set out to discover more about St Brigid’s from the people who worked there. I wanted to understand how it was funded, where the patients came from, how they got in there how and they got out, indeed if they got out. I was soon drawn to the many young girls and women who ended up in there simply because they got pregnant. Were babies born in the asylum and was it possible they were left there to grow up within the walls of the hospital because no one wanted to get them out?
In 1956, as recorded in Brendan Kelly's book Hearing Voices: The History of Psychiatry in Ireland, 20,063 people were in public mental health hospitals across Ireland. That same year my town of Ballinasloe had a population of just 5,500 and yet there were over 2,000 resident patients in St Brigid's Hospital. Despite these incredible numbers there’s strong evidence to show that Ireland didn’t in fact deserve the dubious accolade ‘The Mad Irish’ in that at no stage did Ireland have more new patients per capita than any other country. What caused the patient population to grow was the dependency of society on the industry of the hospitals. Brendan Kelly writes “Virtually everyone was a stakeholder in the hospital in one way or another. The communities and families were powerful users and shapers of the system. Most committals were instigated by families rather than doctors or governmental agencies ” So what his detailed book tells us is we had a normal amount of patients getting in, but we had very few getting out. In Ireland, through most of the nineteenth century medical option wasn’t required for committal in Ireland many admissions were certified by justices of the peace, clergymen and courts. Doctors were frequently obliged to admit and ‘treat’ people who they didn’t believe were mentally ill at all. Our hospitals were full to the brim because to be discharged, the law was that your family had to agree to take you back. Sadly it was all too common for a family to refuse to take the family member home and often told the hospital, (many written letters exist in archive) that they only wanted to hear back when the family member had died. The conclusion of Kelly’s book is that ‘the Irish asylum system was a social creation as much as a mental one’. This was certainly true on our street. Our three neighbouring families all had parents who met and married while working in the hospital. My grandparents were no exceptions. They met and courted while they were both psychiatric nurses in the hospital back in the 1920s.
There’s no doubt the hospital was a power house of industry. It gave education and nursing qualifications to thousands of people, it supported local building contractors to build and mend the vast spread of ageing hospital buildings and garage owners as they serviced the hospital horses, then cars. Local farmers supplied food and milk, grain and turf. Of course, the patients were a captivated workforce in themselves. Anyone who was able would work. Locals all fondly mention how patients infiltrated the town and their homes working as domestics and farm hands. Some took good care of them and they became like family, of course some were gravely taken advantage of. Some patients would head off for the summer with local farmers (often working for the families who had them committed) to cut turf in the bog to return to the hospital for the winter. It was their kind of normal. They would often be paid in pints and fags. No records kept, it was a cheap labour industry. Of course most of the patients didn’t mind the work. It must have been better than staring at the dank walls inside the big house for the summer. They probably jumped at the chance to experience some kind of normal and enjoy a pint ‘outside’ even if it was a form of slave labour.
I started to consolidate all my information and photos and in order to get others to share too, the obvious choice was to set up a Facebook page. I was acutely aware of the delicate balance that needed to be maintained with each post I created. Some people know the darkness that most certainly occurred behind the walls of all Irish institutions and other good solid people spent decades working in the hospital doing all they could to help these patients. So respecting that both worlds co exists was a crucial part to moving forward with my story. There can be no blame game here. There were no evil nuns running the show like in St Mary’s Tuam. Brigid’s and many other mental hospitals were state run so as a society we can only look back and claim the past as our own. Looking at a 1900’s problem with 2020 eyes is unfair to the all the good people who were doing their very best to help others. Having said that, the inhumanity that was shown in a lot of instances in the not so distant past is mind blowing.
After I shared some of the photos and a bit of history about the hospital on Facebook I could see many other people were interested in its history and I even had some requests from people asking me to find relatives who had been patients there - some as far a field as America. But many were simply dismayed by its current state of dereliction. As new people joined, they shared stories and photos and expressed condemnation for the way the building has been left to rot.
We couldn’t begin to understand what it must have felt to be locked up for decades. We hear the word institutionalised but it’s impossible to truly understand what it must feel like. The reality may have hit a lot to people when HSE made the decision to close down Brigid’s in 2013. Some of the long term patients couldn’t cope with the concept of ‘getting out’ and sadly many made their way to the local river and ended their lives. I spoke to a nurse who was there during the last couple of years and she said patients were begging not to be moved. Some had been there 40 years and felt they would have no chance of surviving elsewhere. Their entire community and family lay behind those walls. It was inconceivable and utterly terrifying to them to be moved on.
But the hospital closed its doors in 2013 and left the vast halls, thousands of beds, kitchenware, curtains on the windows, pictures, clocks and mirrors on the walls and most disturbingly, detailed patient records strewn on the floors. Private records with details of patients who had been deposited as far back as the 1940’s and left there, never to get out. I heard about the documents and wanted to see them first hand so I decided to enter the derelict hospital to locate them.
Before Our Lady’s Hospital Ennis closed 20 years ago, a past employee Eddie Lough salvaged its extensive paper archives. Almost in identical fashion to Brigid’s, they were strewn haphazardly through the vast and damp basement and without his far-sighted intervention, much of the hospital’s archive would have disintegrated into the damp of the rotting hospital. Nothing had been done to record or preserve these documents so in 1995 he managed to preserve the records legally. In his own free time he sorted through the papers and like me he found minute books, ward books, admission and discharge books, committal forms, account books, and many other documents, some going back a century or more. “I managed to get a room cleaned out, and get shelving in it. In about 1998, I put a sign on the door saying “Archive Room”. Once I had done that, the papers couldn’t be dumped.” I had to go a very different route because i didn’t have the kind of time Lough had. The records I had seen were fading by the day. Many were already destroyed by the seeping damp of the building and there was no safe room I could commandeer to use as an archive room as the hospital was falling down round our ears and vandals were stripping the site of anything vaguely valuable leaving it susceptible to even more flooding. I reasoned that these records could also be a fire hazard if Ballinasloe ever got a dry spell! The loose papers and the black sacks of notes and information had to be taken out of the rotting building if we were to glean anything from our past treatment of mental illness and maybe help some people find closure about their relatives. I collected them up, double bagged them and decided I was willing to be arrested in my efforts to get them to safety. I hoped Catherine Corless wouldn’t disapprove
What was astounding was the amount of children among the discarded records. At first glance I saw a girl of four, a boy of nine and young teenage boy of 15. In the 1970s i read that a six year old was sent from a children’s home in Cork. He’d be my age now.
It’s no secret that special needs or children with learning difficulties (LD) were sent to mental hospitals all around Ireland and Brigids was no different . There has to be great sympathy for women who may have already had 10 or more children - to have a special needs child who needed round the clock care - well I’m sure it’s rational to think most people would have imagined they would have been better cared for in an institution like Brigid’s. Many families simply didn’t want to care for a special needs person in the family, there was also huge shame and social pressures having a special needs child and of course - many families emigrated all the way through our history and to enter America (as recent as …….) having a ‘problem’ child or adult in the family was a massive hindrance. In fact, it would mean refusal - so many were left into Brigid’s and places like it. Many people grew up not knowing they had family in the hospitals - and there are many cases of siblings finding out decades later that their sister or brother had spent their lives in a mental institution alone with no knowledge of them. If they were lucky, they found out in time and were able to offer some comfort to their institutionalised sibling or family member before their death. If they were unlucky, they would live their entire life abandoned believing they were alone in the world.
On discovering all the files on the floor, among the documents dated from 2004, one stood out among all the young people’s details I had read. Jude (I will change her name for this story but I assure you the details are factual.) was born in the late 1950s and had come to Brigid’s at the age of four from the infamous St Mary’s Children’s home Tuam. According to her report she had displayed ‘behavioural issues’ and it was written that she was ‘tearing at her clothes and would scratch people with her nails’. The stark words ‘no known relative’ clearly written on her report. Of course seeing it with 2020 eyes is unfair. It wasn’t at all shocking to see children being put into institutions back in the 1940’s and 50s and even the 70s because they were blind, deaf or had down syndrome. In the 1990’s there were hundreds of Downs people in Brigids and a lot had been there from birth. On that level Judes’ story was probably quite common, but coming from a mother and babies home if seemed strange that ‘no known relative’ would be written on her record. Surely the people in the home knew who her mother was. I worked out Jude would be in her 70s now and had potentially lived her whole life never meeting or knowing anything about her family. I knew Jude’s story would be one thread I'd have to pull in this tapestry of shame and secrecy where peoples lives are scattered like confetti on the floor of their prison.
I decided to try my luck and reach out to Catherine Corless on Facebook thinking one of her research team could help me. The very next day I had a lovely message from Catherine herself amused that I thought she had a team of researchers ‘I’ve been working alone on this since 2012 doing all my own research’ I told her I felt overwhelmed and didn’t know where to start. I’d found several files of children who had all come from St Mary’s children’s home and I wanted to know if they were included in her count or if they were extra. I wanted to find out more about Jude and If anyone could source information Catherine could.
So you could say I had an advantage if you can call it that on Catherine Corless, in that i had black sacks full of records. As she said to me in our first conversation - ‘Sara, no one can dispute records’. So in the piles that i obtained i decided to focus on the surprising amount of babies and children under 16 years of age who had been sent to Brigid’s.
I put a call out on Facebook for anyone who may have worked in the hospital in particular the 1950s. I managed to find a wonderful lady who had been a nurse in St Brigid’s in the 1940s to 1960s who spoke to me about the place ‘back in the day’. She worked in admissions and helped setting up special wards for treatments like Deep Insulin and EST. “ We would basically put groups of patients into an induced coma. We would lay out about 20 mattresses and the patients would be administered increasing doses of insulin It had varying degrees of success but had some very risky side effects and was mostly reserved for people experiencing their first attack of schizophrenia Records seem to show that nearly half made a complete remission and another 25% improved (remissions usually lasted about 2 years) There were dangers, but in those days the alternative was incarceration in a locked ward in a Victorian asylum, with little hope of rehabilitation or discharge.
She was indeed able to tell me about Jude. She was non verbal and they had never seen any visitor come to see her in the years she was there. No known relative was the information they had and had no idea she came from St Mary’s children’s home.
She also knew of the six year old boy and his admission Brigid’s. ‘The hospital was over crowded so the boy was put into a communal woman’s ward and essentially reared by female patients. He was a wonderful boy and carved out a decent career, got married and and had kids now” triumphing over a system that disregarded him at such a young age. His early records said he was ‘deformed’ but staff i have interviewed who knew him have told me he grew up without any deformities and at 16 he managed to leave the hospital to live his life.
She worked in admissions and had some fascinating stories. As a student nurse she helped set up wards for the first treatments of Deep Insulin. “ That was well before any anti-psychotic drugs were invented. We would put carefully selected groups of patients into an induced coma. We would lay out about 20 mattresses and the patients would be administered increasing doses of insulin. It had varying degrees of success but like any pioneering medicine, it had some risky side effects and was mostly reserved for people experiencing their first attack of schizophrenia”. Records seem to show that nearly half made a complete remission and another 25% improved (remissions usually lasted about 2 years) There were dangers, but in those days the alternative was incarceration in a locked ward in a Victorian asylum, with little hope of rehabilitation or discharge.
Her diligent and painstaking work to uncover the truth was never a blame game, it was an honest quest to unravel the often toxic mix of local folklore and history to reveal the truth. Often when we grow up with local stories, only when we step back can we realise that regardless of the time frame it wasn’t normal or acceptable.