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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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St. Patrick’s Hospital for the Insane Opens in Dublin

Having been funded by a bequest from author Jonathan Swift following his death in 1745, St. Patrick’s Hospital for the Insane, Dublin, opens on September 19, 1757. The hospital is a psychiatric facility located near Kilmainham and the Phoenix Park.

Today, St. Patrick’s University Hospital, known for the innovative care of its patients, provides “Ireland’s largest, independent, not-for-profit mental health services.” When founded in 1745 it is the first psychiatric hospital to be built in Ireland mandated for the care of “Idiots and Lunaticks.”

Although new theories of madness and more therapeutic approaches to treatment are being proposed in the late 1700’s, during most of the eighteenth century society views the lunatic as one who has literally lost his reason, “the essence of his humanity,” and therefore “his claim to be treated as a human being.” Treatments, designed “to weaken the animal spirits that were believed to be producing madness,” still include restraints with chains, bloodletting, emetics, purging, and beating.

Confinement rather than cure is the focus of the earliest institutions in Great Britain. They resemble prisons with cells and keepers to control the inmates. Bethlem Hospital in London is the first to include lunatics in 1377. By the eighteenth century it has become infamous as “Bedlam” and has a reputation for cruelty, neglect, and poor living conditions, with an inadequate diet, rough clothing, and inactivity. Even worse, the mad in Bedlam are displayed as entertainment — a “freak show,” a “spectacle,” a “menagerie” from which “both provincial bumpkins and urban sophisticates could derive almost endless amusement” for a fee.

The earliest biographers of Jonathan Swift report that he had chosen to found St. Patrick’s Hospital because he had become insane himself at the end of his life. One writer even claims that he is the first patient to die there. Neither of these conclusions is accurate. It is his philosophical views and personal experiences that influence Swift’s decision to leave his estate for the establishment of St. Patrick’s.

Throughout the eighteenth century, medicine, politics, and literature all debate the relation between reason and madness, a subject that greatly interests Swift. In his most powerful satires, including Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and A Modest Proposal (1729), he sometimes explores the Lockean theory that “any person could fall into madness by the erroneous association of ideas.”

But the stronger motivation for Swift’s legacy grows from his involvement with the day-to-day problems of the Irish people, not only as an individual but also as Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a position he holds from 1713 until his death. At mid-century there are no provisions specifically for lunatics. If not being cared for by their families or found wandering the countryside, lunatics would sometimes be confined with criminals in prisons, with the poor in a workhouse, or with the sick in a hospital. Swift has firsthand knowledge of these conditions since he served as a governor of the workhouse and as a trustee of several hospitals. In 1710, after a visit to Bedlam, he gets himself elected a governor there in 1714. By 1731 he has decided on his legacy, intending his hospital to be charitable and more humane than Bedlam.

Another strong motivation may have been Swift’s ability to empathize with the sufferers of madness. Not mental illness but recurring attacks of Ménière’s disease (MD) afflict him for over fifty years, beginning at age twenty-three. The debilitating bouts of vertigo, nausea, tinnitus, and deafness worsen by the late 1730’s, and he complains of memory loss and difficulty in reading and writing. When he finalizes his will in 1740, he refers to himself as sound in mind but weak in body. In 1742, following a sudden decline in his health, his friends have him judged incompetent and appoint a guardian. Probable dementia increases his helplessness until his death on October 19, 1745.

Swift leaves an estate of about 12,000 pounds. In his will he lists details as to where St. Patrick’s should be built and how it should be run by his board of governors. Although they first meet in 1746, the asylum does not open until 1757. The governors need to acquire the site, oversee the plan and construction of the building, and ensure available money for operating expenses. Insufficient funds are the main obstacle, even after adding money from rents, donations, subscriptions and Parliament. Finally, St. Patrick’s has to accept paying patients to offset the costs of its charity cases.

Richard Leeper, who is appointed Resident Medical Superintendent in 1899, introduces a series of important initiatives including providing work and leisure activities for the patients. Norman Moore, who is appointed Resident Medical Superintendent in 1946, introduces occupational therapy, including crafts and farm work to the patients.

After the introduction of deinstitutionalisation in the late 1980s the hospital goes into a period of decline. In 2008 the hospital announces the expansion of its outpatient services to a series of regional centres across Ireland. A mental health facility for teenagers, known as the Willow Grove Adolescent Inpatient Unit, opens at the hospital in October 2010.

The hospital is affiliated with Trinity College Dublin, and has 241 inpatient beds.


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Birth of Robert Tressell, Irish Writer

robert-tressellRobert Noonan, Irish writer born Robert Croker and best known by the pen name Robert Tressell, is born in Dublin on April 17, 1870. He is best known for his novel The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists.

Noonan is the illegitimate son of Samuel Croker, a senior member of the Royal Irish Constabulary. He is baptised and raised a Roman Catholic by his mother Mary Noonan. His father, who is not Catholic, has his own family, but attempts to provide for Robert until his death in 1875.

By 1875 Noonan is living in London. When he is sixteen, he shows signs of a radical political consciousness. He leaves his family declaring he “would not live on the family income derived largely from absentee landlordism.” It is around this time he changes his surname to his mother’s maiden name.

In 1890, Noonan is a sign writer living in Queen’s Road, Everton, Liverpool. On June 10, 1890 he appears at Liverpool County Intermediate Sessions court at County Sessions House, Islington, Liverpool on charges of housebreaking and larceny. He is found guilty and given a six-month prison sentence.

By 1891, Noonan has moved to Cape Town, South Africa, where he is a painter and decorator. He marries in 1891, but the marriage is an unhappy one, with his wife having numerous affairs after the birth of their daughter, Kathleen. They divorce in 1895 and Noonan acquires all the property, including their house in an affluent suburb of Cape Town.

Noonan and his daughter move to Johannesburg, where he secures a well-paying job with a construction company. It is here that he learns the ways of the industry he would later write about in his novel, although Noonan’s actual circumstances vary greatly from the proletarian characters of the book. After becoming Secretary of the Transvaal Federated Building Trades Council, he is able to send his daughter to an exclusive convent school and also to employ a black manservant called Sixpence.

In 1897, Noonan leads a successful protest against the employment of black skilled labour. During 1898, he becomes a member of the Transvaal Executive Committee of the Centennial of 1798 Association, which commemorates the revolutionary nationalist Society of United Irishmen. As a 1798 Association member, he helps form the Irish Brigades, an anti-British force that fights alongside the Boers in the Second Boer War. At this point, accounts of his life differ. Some assert he takes up arms and is interned by the British until the end of the war, when he returns to Britain. Others say he leaves South Africa just before hostilities began in October 1899.

In any event, around the turn of the century, Noonan ends up in Hastings, Sussex. Here, he finds work as a sign writer, but at much lower wages and in far poorer conditions than he had experienced in South Africa. He has to take part-time jobs in addition to his full-time position.

Influenced by the Marxist-influenced ideas of designer and socialist William Morris, he joins the Social Democratic Federation in 1906. The next year, after a dispute with his employer, he loses his job. Despite the demand for his skills, his health begins to deteriorate and he eventually develops tuberculosis. Unemployed and unable to remain politically active, he starts writing, something he hopes will earn enough money to keep him from the workhouse.

He writes under the pen name Robert Tressell as he fears the socialist views expressed in the book will have him blacklisted. He completes The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists in 1910, but the 1,600-page hand-written manuscript is rejected by three publishing houses. The rejections severely depress him, and his daughter has to save the manuscript from being burned.

Unhappy with his life in Britain, Noonan decides that he and Kathleen should emigrate to Canada. However, he only reaches Liverpool when he is admitted to the Royal Liverpool Infirmary, where he dies of pulmonary tuberculosis on February 3, 1911, at the age of 40. He is buried in a pauper’s grave at Liverpool Parochial Cemetery, later known as Walton Park Cemetery. The location of the grave is not rediscovered until 1970. Twelve other people are buried in the same plot. The plot is now marked although the land is no longer used as a cemetery and is now used by Rice Lane City Farm.

Kathleen mentions her father’s novel to a friend, writer Jessie Pope, who recommends it to her publisher. In April 1914, the publisher purchases the rights to the book for £25, and it appears in Britain, Canada and the United States later that year, in the Soviet Union in 1920, and in Germany in 1925. The version as originally published is heavily abridged by Pope, with much of the socialist ideology removed.

The original manuscript is subsequently located by F. C. Ball and, after he raises funds to acquire and reassemble the original version, an unabridged edition is published in 1955.