In 2010 the entire archives of the institution variously known as The Richmond Asylum, The Richmond District Lunatic Asylum, Grangegorman Hospital and finally St Brendan’s Hospital, Grangegorman, situated on the north side of the River Liffey in Dublin, Ireland, were retrieved from the attics of an abandoned building on the old hospital’s campus. Described by Brian Donnelly of the National Archives as the most complete institutional record in Ireland, the material offers a fascinating insight into the management of an asylum that shortly after its opening in the early nineteenth century was seen as a model of care throughout Europe but which quickly developed a darker reputation due to over crowding, mismanagement, political interference and wilful public ignorance.
Thirty tons of the retrieved archives were transported to the National Archives for preservation. Among this material were the Registers of Admissions and Registers of Discharge or of Deaths of thousands of individuals over almost two centuries. (In the mid twentieth century there were almost two thousand patients and two thousand staff living or working within the institution). Along with the Registers and other bound volumes also retrieved were tons of loose paper records which were then temporarily stored in another abandoned building of the hospital. From wall to wall of its rooms spread mountains of paper comprised of every imaginable aspect of hospital life: burial records, personal correspondence, patient’s records, taxi receipts, cheque stubs, job applications, visit requests, post-mortem records; the list too long to complete, all in a state of decay, covered in mould and pigeon droppings. One could but hope that the carelessness shown for the records was not reflected in the care of the patients.
Also recovered from the attics were boxes and boxes of the personal belongings of dead or discharged patients some of them dating back over a century. On admission a patient’s belongings were taken away and only returned if the person was deemed to have returned to a condition of normality from which they were deemed to have strayed. Here were boxes and boxes of handbags and small canvas sacks, each labelled with the name of their owner, their registered institutional number, their date of admission and the contents. Some contained an entire life history with birth certificates, travel visas, letters, photographs of family and loved ones, cutlery, cards, mirrors, combs, false teeth, prayer books and diaries. Almost every handbag held at least one rosary and a set of keys. One sack held but one tattered brown envelope containing a wedding band.
If many of these were the belongings of dead patients why over so many years were they never reclaimed? Carelessness on the part of family and relatives perhaps? Among all the terrible histories of confinement in Ireland made public in recent times that of the treatment of those deemed mad, unstable or unfit for society is unlike any other. In the context of historic care for the mentally ill in Ireland, our society is no less responsible than our government for any injustice, abuse or erasure of individual dignity that occurred.
That insight lies at the core of Personal Effects: a history of possession