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Asylums and the Construction of Madness

Week 7:

Historical Material


3 committal warrants for lunatics 1904, 1911

Extract from First and Second Reports of the Committee Appointed by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland on Lunacy Administration (Ireland) (1891).

Statistics: Committals to Lunatic Asylums in Ireland 1819-2000.


Were the insane 'deserving' objects of relief?

What kind of relationship existed amongst institutions such as lunatic asylums, prisons and workhouses?

Is classification an important issue in lunatic asylums?

What impact did one's gender have upon committal, treatment and release?

How were lunatic asylums viewed by the general public?

What do the figures for committals to lunatic asylums tell us about Irish society?

How useful are statistics to an historian?

Secondary Reading 

Mark Finnane, Insanity and the Insane in Post-Famine Ireland (Croom Helm: London, 1981), chapters 1, 4. (Available online as an e-book). In box.

**‘Asylums, families and the state’, History Workshop Journal, xx (1985), pp 134-47. Available online.

**‘Law and the social uses of the asylum in nineteenth-century Ireland’, in D. Tomlinson and J. Carrier (eds), Asylum in the Community (London, 1996), 91-110. In box.

Pauline Prior, Madness and Murder: Gender, Crime and Mental Disorder in Nineteenth-Century Ireland (Dublin, 2008), chapter 2. In box.

Marcus Reuber, ‘Moral management and the unseen eye: public lunatic asylums in Ireland, 1800-1845’, in E. Malcom and G. Jones, (eds.), Medicine, Disease and the State in Ireland, 1650-1940 (Cork, 1999), pp. 208-33. In box.

David Wright, ‘Getting out of the asylum: understanding the confinement of the insane in the nineteenth century’, Social History of Medicine, x, (2001), 137-55. Available online.

Oonagh Walsh, ‘Lunatic and criminal alliances in nineteenth-century Ireland’, Peter Bartlett and David Wright (eds), Outside the Walls of the Asylum: the History of Care in the Community (London, 1999), 132-52. In box.

** ‘A lightness of mind: gender and insanity in nineteenth-century Ireland’, in Margaret Kelleher and James H. Murphy (eds), Gender Perspectives in Nineteenth-Century Ireland (Dublin, 1997), 159-67. In box.

Lindsay Prior, ‘The appeal to madness in Ireland’, in D. Tomlinson and J. Carrier (eds), Asylum in the Community (London, 1996), 67-90. In box.

David Healy, 'Irish Psychiatry in the Twentieth Century' in H. Freeman et al (eds.), 150 Years of British Psychiatry: vol. 2, The Aftermath (London, 1996).

Literature and Film

Week 8:

Sebastian Barry, The Secret Scripture (2008)

Patrick McCabe, The Butcher Boy (1994)

Anne Devlin, After Easter (1994)


The Secret Scripture

What does ‘history’ mean in this novel?

What does this novel tell us about surveillance in Irish Society?

How does containment work in this novel?

The Butcher Boy

How far does McCabe draw parallels between the Industrial School and the psychiatric hospital (the second “house with a hundred windows”)

Explore the relationship between madness and story-telling in McCabe’s novel. How much of what Francie tells the psychiatrists (146-47) is ‘genuine’ hallucination or delusion, and how much conscious fictionalization?

“[H]e was mad to get information to write down”: is there any sense in which the institutional circumstances are ‘producing’ or have contributed to Francie’s insanity?

“You needn’t think you’re not seen” (McCabe, 148): be attentive to the trope of being seen, and being invisible in the works studied.

“…travel through the wastes of space and time” (148): is the experience of institutional time different from the experience of time on the ‘outside’?

After Easter

Can you offer any hypothesis for why the hallucinations of many of the characters encountered take a religious form? How do you read this?

What do we make of Melda, and her confinement on the “banana ward” (Devlin, 38)?

“In England they lock her up if she’s mad but let her go if she’s political. In Ireland they lock her up if she’s political and let her go if she’s mad” (Devlin, 47). How might what Greta has been doing be construed as political? How, if at all, is her ‘madness’ connected with politics? Does this statement have any bearing on any of the other works read?

Secondary Reading


**Henry Sussman, ‘On the Butcher Block: A Panorama of Social Marking’, The New Centennial Review 4 (2004): 143-68 [available online]

C. Wallace, ‘Running amuck: manic logic in Patrick McCabe's The Butcher Boy’, Irish Studies Review (1998) [scanned]

**Maria Kurdi, ‘“Really all danger”: An Interview with Sebastian Barry’, New Hibernia Review, Volume 8, Number 1, Spring 2004, 41-53 [available via Project Muse]

Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, ‘Colonial Policing: The Steward of Christendom and the Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty’, Eire-Ireland, 39: 3+4 (Fall/Winter 2004), 11-37 [available via Project Muse]