Irish documentary provides fascinating insight into history of mental health care in Ireland
TG4 has forged an excellent reputation for documentaries that are artful, contemplative and – most important – often cover unusual or neglected subjects. Ar Intinn Eile (An Irish State of Mind), which aired the first episode of three tonight, is a worthy addition to the list.
Directed by Brendan Culleton and Irina Maldea for Blinder Films, it’s a history of mental illness in Ireland – and that’s a complex, gnarly area. Indeed, as one contributor put it, a more pertinent question might be: what is mental health?
One interpretation is that a normally functioning person’s brain allows them to process and deal with life, external and internal, through a complex interaction of biological and environmental factors. When that goes wrong, the results can be disastrous: emotionally and psychologically.
The situation isn’t helped by the fact that, until relatively recently, mentally ill people were treated appallingly. We heard how, in the 18th century, these poor souls were regarded almost as animals because they had lost their reason, i.e. that which makes us human.
It was even believed they couldn’t feel pain, so were thrown into very harsh conditions. There was little State care; the Hobbesian view of life as “nasty, brutish and short” – a trial to be endured, basically – held sway in official thinking.
Interestingly, older Irish tradition had a more caring and holistic outlook on insanity. The afflicted were considered to have a “second view” of the world around them; something to be managed, rather than scorned or punished.
An ancient poem, Buile Suibhne, even spoke of a warrior suffering what we now know as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. And the Brehon Laws, full of kindness and common sense, obligated family and community to support the mentally ill or handicapped, on penalty of a fine.
17th century colonisation then stratified Irish society into rulers and peasants, and people took a harder view. They feared and despised mental illness; people were often left to waste away in a five-foot hole in the floor. Across the water in London, Bedlam asylum was like a zoo or freak-show, with the public coming to point and laugh at the inmates.
Two Irishmen were pivotal in improving all this. William Saunders Hallaran established a psychiatric home in Cork in the 19th century, inspired by the Enlightenment and Locke’s “blank slate” theory, determined to cure mental illness through the full panoply of then-vogue practices: emetics, opium, circulating chair, water therapy and “moral management”.
And two centuries beforehand, Jonathan Swift realised that the insane did not lack reason, but merely used it wrongly. He’d run Bedlam for a while; its mad horrors influenced Gulliver’s Travels.
Swift eventually left money and instructions to found Ireland’s first mental asylum, St Patrick’s in Dublin, where people were well cared for, warm, with proper food and even beer. So, not just a literary genius but a cool guy too.
The title of this opening episode, A House for Fools and Mad, comes from a poem in which Swift predicted the likely reaction to his admirable generosity. We’ve come a fair way since then – not enough, admittedly – and this fine series continues that journey over the next two Wednesdays.
Ar Intinn Eile, Wednesday September 24, and Wednesday October 1.