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Madness, Migration and the Irish in Lancashire

Madness, Migration and the Irish in Lancashire, c.1850-1921

Mental health and the treatment of migrants

In the wake of the Great Famine (1846-52), there was a huge growth in the numbers of Irish people migrating to Britain. Crossing by steamship to Liverpool, many aimed to move onward to America. However, finding themselves in desperate straits, large numbers remained in Lancashire.

As Professor Hilary Marland and her team revealed, many migrants were admitted to the county’s four public lunatic asylums. Asylum doctors recognised a link between migration and mental breakdown that lay behind the high rates of mental illness amongst the Irish. Health services and professionals continue to study the vulnerability of migrants and certain ethnic groups to mental health problems today.

The challenge

During the late nineteenth century, doctors identified migration as destabilising to the point of mental collapse. Penniless and famished, many Irish migrants in Liverpool were particularly vulnerable to mental disorder. Many came from rural areas, only to live in cramped cellars in the city. Local authorities and the press linked the Irish to ‘low living’: disease, alcohol, violence and crime. Later in the century ideas of degeneracy and racial decline also developed, reinforcing cultural stereotyping and discrimination.

This stereotyping impacted on how asylums treated new Irish inmates. Irish patients were labelled as ‘turbulent’ and ‘violent’ more often than non-Irish patients. Their condition was linked to their disordered wanderings or ‘tramping’. Though many were diagnosed with mania or insanity due to alcohol, the pressures of migration, isolation and the failure to build better lives and to migrate onwards to the New World were also acknowledged.

Damaging cultural stereotypes and prejudice might have affected the way Irish patients were diagnosed and treated, yet responses could also be sympathetic. Examining these issues could inform the provision of mental health support for migrant communities in the present day.

Our approach

The research team used a variety of sources to examine the link between mental illness and migration. These included the archives of Rainhill Asylum in Liverpool, with rich case notes used alongside notebooks describing the experiences of patients before admission. The project team produced a database that showed different rates of diagnosis between Irish patients and other groups.

Our impact

Professor Marland and her team worked with closely with Talking Birds Theatre Company to create a dramatic production. ‘A Malady of Migration’ was the second piece of their asylum trilogy with Talking Birds. The script was based closely on research materials, including the case histories of individual patients. The team discussed their research questions and findings with the scriptwriter and participated in rehearsals, stage design and production. ’A Malady of Migration’ was performed in summer 2014 in both Coventry and Dublin. The play drew in broad public audiences, including migrants and their descendants, some of whom had themselves faced mental health issues. The production explored attitudes towards mental health and the idea of place and belonging.

Professor Marland and co-Principal Investigator on the project Associate Professor Catherine Cox appeared in post-performance panels. With scriptwriter Peter Cann and the cast and invited commentators, they provided historical context and insights into the production. By working with Talking Birds, the team developed a model of engagement between research and performance, that in turn encouraged open and engaged discussions around the challenging topics of migration and mental health. The research was funded by a Wellcome Trust Project Grant, ‘Madness, Migration and the Irish in Lancashire, c.1850-1921’ (Principal Investigators, Professor Hilary Marland and Associate Professor Catherine Cox, University College Dublin).

Find out what audiences had to say about "A Malady of Migration"

Discover more with the project briefing sheets

See the performance and follow-up discussions

Pictured below: snapshots of "A Malady of Migration" in performance

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