By Barry Lally
The Connaught District Lunatic Asylum at Ballinasloe, which opened its doors in November 1833, initially served counties Galway, Roscommon, Mayo, Sligo and Leitrim, and was established under the Lunacy (Ireland) Act of 1821. It was one of 22 such institutions built between 1810 and 1870. The architect was William Murray, whose design was influenced by the panopticon concept devised by the Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The principle behind this layout was to enable the manager and his staff to occupy a central structure with radiating wings from which they could monitor and administer life within the institution. This arrangement allowed the wings to be viewed from the centre, while access was only possible from one wing to the others by passing through the centre.
When the plan for the asylum was first mooted it was announced that provision would be made to accommodate 150 lunatics (schizophrenics) deemed curable. This was immediately denounced as a waste of taxpayers’ money. Doubts were expressed that in the whole of Ireland there could be so many insane persons. It was felt that advertisements would have to be placed in the newspapers to attract patients. Advocates of the asylum proposed an enlightened regime whereby the inmates would be treated with kindness in a setting approximating to a home environment. This, it was believed, would have a positive effect on their prognosis: an idealistic project which, however, never came to fruition for reasons soon to become apparent.
Recruiting suitable staff proved to be an intractable problem. Asylum keepers were regarded as the dregs of society engaged in an occupation no respectable young man or woman would dream of taking up. Most of the initial staff members in Ballinasloe had been under notice at St. Patrick’s Institute and the Richmond Asylum in Dublin for gross misconduct, and were given the option of transferring to the Connaught District Asylum. Because of the near- impossibility of finding replacements, the Ballinasloe Board of Governors was obliged to turn a blind eye to their often drunken and lewd behaviour. The first medical officer appointed was Dr. William Heise, who had been managing the Richmond Asylum and was removed from his post in 1831 because of the poor condition of the institution. His appointment to Ballinasloe was terminated after it was discovered that he had made a patient, Emma Kirwan, pregnant. He went on the pursue a successful medical career in Australia.
Admissions to asylums were governed by the Dangerous Lunatics Act of 1838, legislation which remained in force, though amended from time to time, up to 1945. Anyone could bring an accusation of dangerous lunacy against another person. Having the accused committed involved a certificate from a medical practitioner and an appearance before two justices of the peace. The so-called lunatic would then be sent to the county jail and from there to the asylum. This had the effect of associating insanity with criminality in the public mind, which impacted negatively on how mental patients were treated well into the following century. Once the legal procedures had been followed, the asylum was required to admit and detain the individual in question regardless of his or her true state of mental health or whether the institution could properly accommodate them.
A consequence of the 1838 Act was that the asylum quickly became unmanageably overcrowded. Workhouses used the institution to offload their senile and feeble-minded inmates. It became a dumping ground for society’s rejects in a country that had an apparently insatiable hunger for institutionalism. “The Irish asylums,” a critic has written, “were primarily social rather than medical creations, expanding to meet societal and community requirements, rather than demonstrative medical needs.” In 1951, the town of Ballinasloe had a population of 5,596, of whom no fewer than 2,078 were patients in the mental hospital. The magnitude of the latter figure can be best appreciated when it is recalled that since the 1870s the Ballinasloe institution’s catchment area had been restricted to counties Galway and Roscommon.
In 1924, Ballinasloe Asylum was re- named “The Mental Hospital”, surely a problematic change in light of what a contemporary report had to say: “There is an appalling difference between the mental hospital (as an asylum should be) and an ordinary hospital, that in the latter each kind of disease is carefully treated by the best methods, whereas in the former no type of mental disease is fully treated.” Another rebranding occurred in the late 1950s when the authorities chose “St. Brigid’s Hospital” as a sop to popular prejudice, a name that had no association with either the history of psychiatry or the local area. It’s not without significance that at the time there was no question of re-naming, say, Merlin Park or Roscommon County Hospital, presumably because the patients treated at those facilities were suffering from “respectable” conditions that didn’t need to be concealed behind the moniker of a mythical figure.
It was not until the 1930s that significant improvements in the institution took place. By now, more members of the nursing staff had formal qualifications. Dr. Ada English promoted occupational therapy, and later in the decade the Admissions block, as well as St. Enda’s and St. Joseph’s, the latter a TB isolation unit, were built. In December 1939 convulsive therapy, using Cardiazol to induce seizures, was introduced, later to be superseded by electroconvulsive therapy. The mid-1950s saw the widespread use of anti-psychotic drugs such as Largactil, which were effective in suppressing symptoms if not in curing the underlying conditions.
In the 1980s the emphasis shifted from institutional to community care, so that by 1986 resident patient numbers had fallen to 876. This trend continued, leading eventually to the closure of the hospital in 2013. Today the only part of the complex functioning as a mental treatment unit is a mixed ward, known as the Creagh Suite, catering for up a dozen dementia patients in the Admissions block. The rest of the building is given over to administrative offices.
Unfortunately, the original 1833 structure on Church Street was never adequately secured against trespassers. As a result, it has become a prey to vandals and a happy hunting ground for the makers of sensationalist youtube videos. What a sad fate to befall an architectural gem of historical importance once compared to a palace!
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