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Poverty, Welfare and Insanity amongst Irish Migrants

Jane Hand

"The numbers of starving Irish men, women and children—daily landed on our quays is appalling; and the Parish of Liverpool has at present, the painful and most costly task to encounter, of keeping them alive, if possible..." (Liverpool Mercury, 15 January 1847).

‘Irish stew dinner to the poor’ Wellcome Library, London

Irish Stew dinner for the poor, drawingUpon admission to Rainhill Asylum in May 1870, Mary Cremin, a 19-year-old domestic servant diagnosed with melancholia was noted to ‘have been very badly nourished & clad for some time’. Similarly, Michael Cunningham, admitted four years earlier, was described as being in a ‘very thin and reduced’ state. The asylum superintendents, aware of the social and economic pressures facing the institution, identified poverty as a key factor explaining the high admission rates of Irish-born patients. Dr Rogers, Superintendent of Rainhill Asylum, understood that the treatment and care of the lunatic poor was ‘closely interwoven with the still more important one of how to deal with the general pauperism of the county’.

Throughout the nineteenth century large numbers of impoverished Irish migrants relocated to England where they contributed significantly to both workhouse and asylum populations. The influx of Famine Irish during the 1840s and early 1850s triggered concern amongst Poor Law Unions who were responsible for providing welfare for the pauper poor in the form of poor relief. In the context of Famine migration (1846-52), the majority of migrants entered low-paid employment, moved on, or became dependent on poor relief. Indeed, contemporary commentators identified England’s generous poor relief system as an attractive prospect for migrating Irish especially during the Famine years. The workhouse and asylum were both identified as sites for economic survival on the part of Irish migrants. By late 1846, the number of Irish paupers receiving public assistance in Liverpool had soared from 900 in the previous year to 13,471. Moreover, the majority of Irish migrants settling in the industrial cities of the north became concentrated in overcrowded and disadvantaged areas that were exposed to regular outbreaks of infection and disease.

Irish admissions to workhouse and asylum systems were particularly influenced by the impact of unemployment especially as many migrants were single and lacking in familial support. Almost half of all Irish men and 40 per cent of Irish women admitted to Rainhill were unmarried. Single women were often described as domestic servants and were an especially vulnerable group, in part because of employers’ disinclination to take on Irish servants and their distance from their families and mechanisms of personal support (see ‘Kin to Nobry’: The Irish, Migration, and Isolation’). But men were also vulnerable:

Michael Mulloy, a married lrish labourer, was admitted to Rainhill Asylum for a second time in July 1853. He had been travelling around picking up work in Lancashire – Manchester, Bolton and Wigan –‘without any of his friends knowing his movements’ and eventually he returned to his wife who became frightened by ‘his strange behaviour’. By June 1854, the Rainhill Asylum medical officer noted that he had ‘symptoms of advanced General Paralysis’ and he was ‘very unsteady on his legs’. Nearly four years later, he was confined to bed following the deterioration in his condition. He was destructive, requiring ‘strong clothing and an occasional sedative’, and died in June 1858.

(LRO M614 RAI/11/1 Rainhill Asylum, Male Casebook, 1853-57, no. 743)


‘Overcrowding in Nineteenth Century Slums’, Wellcome Library, London

Overcrowding in C19 slums, drawing

Irish migration also had an impact upon the management of mental illness within the public asylum system. The large numbers of Irish patients that found their way into the public asylums of Lancashire had a profound effect on asylum resources. In Rainhill Asylum alone, Irish-born patients accounted for more than half of the resident population by the late 1850s. And when compared with non-Irish patients, these migrants remained within the confines of the asylum for longer periods and had much poorer rates of recovery. One doctor reported that patients admitted from Liverpool were ‘much more seriously shattered in bodily health and condition, from poverty, dissipation, and other noxious influences incidental to large towns’.


 Workhouse hospital ward, Wellcome Library, London

Workhouse hospital ward, drawing

Within the context of mid-nineteenth century approaches to welfare, a large number of Irish patients were directly admitted from local workhouses. This practice of transferring patients between the workhouse and asylum was established in the early 1850s when, spurred on by a newfound optimism about the asylum’s ability to cure, the Commissioners in Lunacy and asylum superintendents urged Poor Law Guardians to remove their lunatics from the confines of the workhouse and instead place them in the care of the asylum. As asylum overcrowding worsened during the 1860s and 1870s and as pauper lunacy increased the burden on the local taxation, the ‘poor rate’, these same Commissioners in Lunacy and asylum superintendents were forced to compromise their position on housing lunatic patients in the workhouse. To this end, superintendents altered their position from actively encouraging the transfer of workhouse lunatics to the asylum to actively discouraging it.

The Irish patient was seen to contribute enormously to the problems of overcrowding and pressures on Poor Law resources. For example, in 1894, the Liverpool Poor Law Union of Toxteth spent £16,000 on Irish cases of pauper lunacy alone. Certainly, the pressures of large numbers of Irish patients within the Poor Law system in England contributed greatly to the challenges faced by asylums and workhouse amidst overcrowding and the expansion of long-term chronic patient populations. Yet, poverty and hardship were time and again indentified as key determinants for Irish migrants facing the challenges of relocation. In conjunction with being classified as generally poorer, weaker, sicker, and more isolated than other patients in the asylum, Irish migrants were further challenged by their poor living conditions and the stresses of urban life. In particular, drunkenness, assault, petty theft, vagrancy and disorderly behaviour were time and again identified as a product of the high rates of poverty amongst the Irish migrant population.

Further Reading:

John Belchem, Irish, Catholic and Scouse: The History of Liverpool Irish, 1800-1939 (Liverpool University Press, 2007).

Catherine Cox, Hilary Marland and Sarah York, ‘Emaciated, Exhausted and Excited: The Bodies and Minds of the Irish in Late Nineteenth-Century Lancashire Asylums’, Journal of Social History, 46:2 (2012), 500-24.

Catherine Cox, Hilary Marland and Sarah York, ‘Itineraries and Experiences of Insanity: Irish Migration and the Management of Mental Illness in Nineteenth-Century Lancashire’, in Catherine Cox and Hilary Marland (eds), Migration, Health and Ethnicity in the Modern World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 36-60.

David Fitzpatrick, Irish Emigration, 1801-1921 (Irish Economic and Social History, 1984).