Irish asylums were secular. We cannot blame the church

 Irish asylums were secular.  We cannot blame the church

The word asylum implies a safe place. Add a definite article, to make it the asylum, and you conjure up the idea of ​​a grim institution, its languid inmates lost. You may sense a certain amount of fear. But when the Richmond Lunatic Asylum first opened in Grangegorman, north Dublin, in the early 19th century, it was a bright, open campus, with pretty buildings and extensive grounds, albeit surrounded by walls. So what happened?

This is the subject of The Asylum Workshop, an intriguing play by Colin Murphy, co-written and performed by final year drama students from Technological University Dublin, now based on the Grangegorman grounds. The play, which premiered over a short period in late 2022, draws from a series of theater workshops and the Grangegorman archives.

It was a process of discovery, says Peter McDermott of the TU Dublin Conservatoire, who directed and produced The Asylum Workshop. He’s talking about the experience of exploring the institution’s historic papers and objects, now housed in the National Archives of Ireland, and the idea of ​​wanting to make the layers of stories embodied on the new campus visible, once his departments they have moved from his previous home, in Rathmines.

It’s also quite the story. Go back in time to find orchards and farmlands. It was here that a prison and almshouse was built. This was followed by Richmond Lunatic Asylum, then a shell shock treatment center and, towards the present day, St Brendans, which, when it opened in 1851, was Ireland’s first public mental hospital. At one point the hospital had more than 2,000 patients. The smaller HSE Phoenix Care Center is now on site, which has 54 beds.

Sometimes when it comes to institutions, it can be easy to talk about numbers, says Brendan Kelly, a professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin, who has provided advice on the show and who also appears in the script as a character. Spotting how a system originally designed to be humane, respectful, and effective in its treatments may decline to become little more than a crowd control exercise, he adds that during the 1950s and 1960s, there were an estimated 20,000 people in psychiatric hospitals. irish. Today we have less than 2,000 people admitted to psychiatric care, the third lowest in Europe, he says.

The play opens with the drama students rehearsing scenes from Hamlet, perhaps the ultimate show within a show within a show. From there, their observations are layered with snippets from the archives and dramatized patient testimony. (Murphy notes that their names have been changed for privacy reasons.) In a telling juxtaposition, Kelly’s character is talking to the students, describing how when you step out of here today and take in the beautiful scenery, the light, the beautiful buildings sense of openness is probably what it felt like when it opened in 1814. It was a beautiful institution. This absolute faith in the power of institutions to heal, help and repair society was built in a spirit of the greatest therapeutic optimism.

The next lines belong to a former patient, called Mick in the script: I have been transferred to 8B, a locked ward. He was known. People were walking around the ward all day, tapping each other’s cigarettes, picking butts off the floor, think of a lion in a lion cage, at the zoo.

Mick’s characterization of the workings of his mind describes someone in need of support but perhaps not institutionalization, and part of the richness of the work lies in the way Murphy explores the different workings of various minds and the different ways in which incarceration it has been used to purge the undesirables from society. Chillingly, the play demonstrates that such undesirability may have been economic, familial or social. People could be involuntarily transferred to a mental institution at the request of a family member, and often were.

A journalist as well as playwright, Murphy has tended to focus on social and social issues, including events such as the marriage equality referendum, with A Day in May; and Haughey | Gregory, with Fishamble. With The Asylum Workshop he brings the same nuanced view to sensitive issues such as the pernicious role of our narrow definition of normal, how society treats difference, and what it does with those who threaten to upset comfortable conception of how things should be. , according to those responsible.

Through the ingenious device of shuttling back and forth in time and perspective, we come to realize that these questions remain the same. As the show begins, the students argue softly about ideas of wokeness. It’s easy to dismiss those who claim fragile sensibilities. But, as he concludes, the realization is that if we don’t find a way to support and include other ways of mentally and emotionally navigating the world, we not only consign our brothers and sisters to the margins, but we also lose the power that such diverse perspectives and mindset can lead to valuable changes.

Things have changed. According to Kelly, legislation passed in the mid-19th century meant that someone could be jailed even if he appeared to be a lunatic about to commit a crime. They could be sent to prison and then to an asylum. It was a path to the psychiatric hospital with a very low standard. Today that bar is much higher, even if perhaps we have gone too far in the opposite direction to arrive at an equally negative result. As Kelly says, we now have people with severe mental health issues in prison, homeless and, untreated, at home.

What Colin, Peter and these amazing students are doing, Kelly continues, is exploring the greatest institutions in Irish history. And what is really inconvenient for them for Ireland is that the Roman Catholic Church has not managed them. They were secular. We cannot blame the church.

One lesson we can learn from this, Murphy says, is that we need to keep striving to do better, realizing that our mistakes will only be exposed down the line. Even the next generation may find out how wrong we were, but we have to keep trying.

The Asylum Workshop, supported by Stories of Grangegormanopens at the Black Box Theatre, TU Dublin, tomorrow and runs until Saturday 24th June

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