Unhappy history

Front view of St Brigid's Hospital, Ballinasloe. In 1951, Ballinasloe had a population of 5,600 people, 2,100 of whom were patients of St Brigid’s Psychiatric Hospital. Photo: Gerry Stronge.
Front view of St Brigid's Hospital, Ballinasloe. In 1951, Ballinasloe had a population of 5,600 people, 2,100 of whom were patients of St Brigid’s Psychiatric Hospital. Photo: Gerry Stronge.

Lifestyle –  How state asylums like St Brigid’s in Ballinasloe defined psychiatry in Ireland for generations and became an intrinsic part of the country for more than a century. Judy Murphy talks to Brendan Kelly about his latest book on the subject.

Home. It’s a small, powerful word that conjures up images of people and places and the inextricable bonds that bind them.  The many manifestations of home will be discussed at this year’s Galway International Arts Festival via 18 talks, debates and discussions which will explore everything from the monastic beehive huts of the Skelligs – which were home to medieval monks – to homes in fiction, and Ireland’s institutional homes, including our mental asylums. These mental hospitals, including St Brigid’s in Ballinasloe, will be the subject of a talk from Galway city man Brendan Kelly from Renmore, who is Professor of Psychiatry at Trinity College and Consultant Psychiatrist at Tallaght Hospital.

Brendan, whose latest book is Hearing Voices: The History of Psychiatry in Ireland, will be sharing his vast knowledge of mental health in Ireland from medieval times to the present day, with a focus on the State asylums that sprung up in the 18th century and became an intrinsic part of Ireland for more than 100 years.

In the 1950s, Ireland had more in-patients in psychiatric hospitals than any other country in the world, before or since, says Brendan, giving Ballinasloe as an example. In 1951, the town had a population of 5,600 people, 2,100 of whom were patients of St Brigid’s Psychiatric Hospital.

“If nearly half the town is made up of patients, the other half is either working there or supplying it,” he explains of the hospital’s importance to the town.

That meant, even when there was a will at Government level to move people out of these institutions into less restrictive environments or back into the community, social and economic factors combined to keep mental hospitals busy until the mid-20th century.

Brendan’s practical and academic knowledge of mental health in Ireland is phenomenal and he’s able to explain complex subjects in lay person’s language. He’s passionate about the subject and how it relates to all our lives.

The Renmore man graduated in medicine from UCG in 1996 and then worked in the Regional Hospital (now UHG) and Merlin Park for two years before moving to Dublin to continue his post-graduate training in psychiatry. He’s been there since. And he’s been busy.

As well as lecturing in and practising psychiatry, Brendan “did a series of other degrees along the way”, including a PhD in history, one in law and another in governance. He also has a Masters in epidemiology and one in healthcare management.

“I’m interested in lots of areas as they relate to mental health and psychiatry,” he explains, adding that psychiatry and mental health have links with “the broader worlds of history and law”.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.