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"A peculiar tramping people": The Wandering Irish and Mental Breakdown in the late Nineteenth Century


Catherine Cox and Hilary Marland

Erskine Nicol, ‘Outward Bound’ (1852), Wellcome Library, London

Outward Bound, cartoon of Irish migrant

David Fitzpatrick has famously described the Irish as "a peculiar tramping people", reflecting the actual as well as cultural perceptions of the Irish migrant experience in the nineteenth century. Numerous Irish migrants ended up in asylums after prolonged periods wandering across Lancashire, England or even the globe. Of the Irish admitted to Lancashire asylums, many were reported to have been moving around the county, begging, seeking casual work, applying for poor relief, and sleeping in the vagrant sheds set up to meet the flood of Irish fleeing from the Great Famine (1846-52), which were still in use many years later. Others had travelled much further afield, crossing continents, serving in foreign armies.

One historical source in particular illuminates the Irish experience of cross-national migration that took place prior to their entry to the workhouses and public asylum system of Victorian Lancashire. This is a notebook compiled by the Lancashire County Council after 1867. It attempted to establish which body was responsible for meeting the costs of Irish and other migrants requiring asylum care. The notebook recorded the experiences of asylum patients prior to their confinement, and underlined the deep distress of Irish migrants, often struggling to find accommodation and paid work. Many had also had adventurous lives or had been involved in criminal encounters.


‘Goodbye to old Ireland! – Passengers on tender at Queenstown, going out to an ocean-liner’,
Library of Congress, Washington

Passengers on a tender at Queenstown, photo













James Gallagher, 44, single, admitted to Rainhill 11 March 1887. Described as an ‘Irish American’, James Gallagher had been born in County Cavan in Ireland, and went to America aged 4. He later joined the northern army in the American Civil War. Nothing more was known of his life until he turned up in court in Liverpool in 1877 (apparently via Ireland) charged with unlawful wounding with intent to kill. He was removed to Milbank Prison where he became insane and then to Woking Gaol. Finally after being insane for 10 years, he was admitted to Rainhill Asylum.

(LRO M614 RAI/11/9, Male Asylum Casebook, June 1885-April 1888, p.132; LA QAM 4/2: p.469)


Michael Meaney sent by the Parish of Liverpool to Rainhill 12 December 1879. He had arrived by ship from Quebec on 2 December and was admitted to Liverpool workhouse on the same day. He was said to be originally from Waterford in Ireland and the cause of his insanity was given as ‘drink’. Michael Meaney claimed to have served in the army for a number of years, and thereafter had been in America.

(LRO M614 RAI/11/7, Rainhill Asylum Male Casebook, July 1877-June 1881, p.212; LA QAM 4/2, p.282)


Case notes from lunatic asylum

Case of Rose Davey, LA QAM 4/1, Register of class 1 lunatics, covering admissions 11 Dec. 1866-31 Aug. 1869, p. 93

In some instances, the movement of paupers and mentally ill patients across continents became a source of great frustration for the asylum authorities. In 1858, for instance, the Liverpool press reported on the return of 108 paupers from America, including 90 Irish and 17 lunatics and epileptics. Rather than being recent migrants, it was claimed that many had resided in America for many years; some were married to US citizens. Despite this, they had been placed on ships and brought back to Liverpool as their original port of embarkation. This, not surprisingly, did not go down well with the local authorities. On 15 September, 1858 the Daily Post reported that more were on their way to Liverpool and suggested that the Poor Law authorities should protest to the Foreign Secretary in order to ‘prevent more coming’.

By the late nineteenth century, the Irish of Lancashire’s asylums shared with other patients the experiences of long distance travel in search of financial reward and security, hopes of better lives thwarted by circumstances and bad luck. By the late nineteenth century Rainhill Asylum boosted a truly international cohort of patients from as far afield as Turkey, Poland, Denmark, Greece, Canada, America, and China, though in comparison with the Irish their numbers remained small.

Asylum superintendents often responded with sympathy to the plight of these travellers and alluded to the disappointment faced by those who failed to fulfil their hopes of traveling on to America or Australia, becoming trapped in Liverpool. As Fitzpatrick has suggested, ‘For the hordes of Irish deck passengers disembarking at Liverpool, Bristol, or the Clyde, Britain was seldom the desired or promised land’, and Superintendent Dr Rogers at Rainhill described patients ‘crushed by disappointment in a foreign land’ who sought to return to their ‘native homes’ but instead ended up in the asylums of Victorian Lancashire.

Ann Torney, a 21-year-old, Irish, RC single, domestic servant, was admitted to Rainhill Asylum on 2 July 1868. She was described on admission to be ‘very wild and irrational, has apparently lost all control over her mind’. Ann had been sent to the asylum by Liverpool Select Vestry. Born in Ireland and of Irish parents, she travelled to Liverpool for the purpose of migrating to American but was taken to Rainhill on arrival to Liverpool’.

(LRO M614 RAI/8/5, Rainhill Asylum Female Casebook, Feb 1865-Jan 1870, p.265; LA QAM 4/1: p.52)


Further Reading:

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), 36-61.

David Fitzpatrick, ‘A peculiar tramping people’: the Irish in Britain, 1801-70’, in W.E. Vaughan, A New History of Ireland, V, Ireland under the Union 1801-70 (Clarendon Press, 1989), 623-60.

Angela McCarthy and Catharine Coleborne (eds), Migration, Ethnicity, and Mental Health (Routledge, 2012).

E. Fuller Torrey and Judy Miller, The Invisible Plague: The Rise of Mental Illness from 1750 to the Present (Rutgers University Press, 2001).