The myth of the Irish insanity epidemic

Authored by: Damien Brennan

Routledge International Handbook of Critical Mental Health

Print publication date:  September  2017
Online publication date:  September  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138225473
eBook ISBN: 9781315399584
Adobe ISBN:


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Driven by recommendations of the Select Committee to Consider the State of the Lunatic Poor in Ireland (1817), a centrally administered public asylum system under British colonial administration was established in early nineteenth-century Ireland. The Select Committee asserted that, for reasons ranging from ‘hereditary… scrofulous habits of the lower classes’ to ‘the use of ardent spirits… [and] mercury’ (Select Committee to Consider the State of the Lunatic Poor in Ireland 1817: 21), there was a high rate of ‘Irish insanity’ in the colony. The report of the Select Committee went on to recommend that purpose-built asylums were the appropriate intervention for this Irish disposition to insanity. In response, exclusive legislation for the island of Ireland was passed by the colonial government sitting in Westminster, London, which resulted in ‘nine District Asylums successively erected and established in different parts of the country’ (Inspector of Lunatic Asylums 1846: 5). These asylums became part of what was the largest and most enduring mental health intervention to take place on the island of Ireland (note that the island of Ireland refers to the 32 counties of Ireland prior to partition in 1922. Post-partition, the island of Ireland consists of the ‘Irish Free State’, which then became the ‘Republic of Ireland’ in 1937, comprising of 26 counties in the south, and Northern Ireland which remains part of the United Kingdom, comprising of six counties in the North). This asylum system was remarkably robust in its upward trajectory, expanding continuously though a period of major national upheavals including: the great famine of the 1840s and the resulting chronic population decline which continued until the 1930s; the struggle for independence; the partition of Ireland and establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922; the civil war from 1922–4; and the challenges of nation-building. Even after the realisation of Irish independence in the south of Ireland, the asylum system (now referred to as the mental hospital system) continued to expand, reaching its high point in 1956 with 21,720 people resident on a single night; at the time, this figure represented the world’s highest rate of psychiatric incarceration at 710 people per 100,000 of population, followed by the USSR at 618 and the US at 511 (Brennan 2014: 33).

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