Friday 20 April 2018

Fascinating tales of healing our forgotten war wounded

World War I casualty
World War I casualty
Eamon Delaney

Eamon Delaney

With all the fuss about the centenary of the 1916 Rising, it is easy to forget about the tens of thousands of Irishmen fighting in the trenches of World War 1, dying and being wounded and traumatised in the very week of the Easter Rebellion.

He Lost Himself Completely: Shell Shock and its Treatment at Dublin's Richmond War Hospital, 1916-1919 by Brendan Kelly, Liffey Press €18.95

Many of these soldiers were also Irish nationalists fighting in a great European war which they thought would bring political independence to their land. But they were disgracefully airbrushed out of our official history afterwards, although in recent decades there has been a major attempt to have their heroic experience properly honoured.

But these veterans have often been doubly forgotten. They fought in a war that was a source of nationalist shame but they had also experienced a conflict with an unprecedented level of casualties and mechanised brutality.

Over 200,000 Irish soldiers fought in Europe, and almost 50,000 died. But very many more were deeply scarred by their brutal experience, with physical and psychological injuries that marked them for life. And yet they were shuffled out of sight in Irish towns and cities.

However, this fascinating book by psychiatrist Dr Brendan Kelly looks at an exception to this.

It examines the incredible work done at the Richmond War Hospital, established at Grangegorman in Dublin, on the grounds of the Richmond Asylum, to treat soldiers suffering from shell shock and other trauma. Dr Kelly has drawn from previously unseen archives to tell their stories, which are vivid, disturbing and often very sad.

Between 1916 and 1919, approximately 362 soldiers were treated at the War Hospital. Most arrived stammering, mute and paralysed, and haunted by imagined voices and explosions. But there are uplifting stories here too, for ultimately they are about treatment and recovery, and show the extraordinary resilience of these brave veterans who had suffered unspeakable trauma but were determined to get better.

Men such as Gunner KL, for example, a 37-year-old single Roman Catholic gunner, who arrived in late 1918, who spoke of "severe pain at the back of his head, and also of noises, dreams and night-terrors. [He] states that he can see shells bursting about and he states he wakes up very frightened at night."

Prior to his admission to the Richmond War Hospital, Gunner KL had been in another Dublin hospital, but suffered from memory problems while on leave into the city: "He remembers being in town and only remembers getting as far as Park Gate Street on his return journey… The rest seems a blank to him".

Gunner KL had joined the army in 1914 and in 1917, he was "blown up and rendered unconscious" near the infamous Passchendaele in Belgium, and the following year, he was sent home with flesh wounds and "shell shock".

However, after several weeks, Gunner KL was discharged from Richmond War Hospital, relieved of his symptoms.

His apparently rapid recovery was by no means unique: more than half of the treated soldiers apparently recovered following admission, although a significant minority moved on to different locations for further treatment.

However, the War Hospital was very different to the main asylum in Richmond, in that it was aimed at a specific population (disturbed soldiers) and thus did not require that patients be certified formally as 'insane.'

Crucially, it assumed a more progressive approach to treatment and recovery, which shows how war, and specifically the great European wars, often loosen the usual conventions and conservative way of doing things, especially in medicine and the treatment of injury and upheaval. Thus, while many of these progressive changes were apparently short-lived, and did not automatically contribute to reforms in Ireland's broader asylum system after the War Hospital closed in 1919, they were nonetheless a crucial contribution to some of the changes which took hold in Ireland's psychiatric hospitals in the period between the wars.

The stories here shed a light on a too often neglected part of our history, and on the painstaking recovery which occurs after a terrible war.

Sunday Independent

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