Journal Article

Emaciated, Exhausted, and Excited: The Bodies and Minds of the Irish in Late Nineteenth-Century Lancashire Asylums

Catherine Cox, Hilary Marland and Sarah York

in Journal of Social History

Volume 46, issue 2, pages 500-524
Published in print December 2012 | ISSN: 0022-4529
Published online December 2012 | e-ISSN: 1527-1897 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/jsh/shs091
Emaciated, Exhausted, and Excited: The Bodies and Minds of the Irish in Late Nineteenth-Century Lancashire Asylums

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Drawing on asylum admission records, casebooks, annual reports, and notebooks recording the settlement of Irish patients, this article examines a deeply traumatic and enduring aspect of the Irish migration experience, the confinement of large numbers of Irish migrants in the Lancashire asylum system in the late nineteenth century. This period saw a massive influx of impoverished Irish into the county, particularly in the post-Famine years. Asylum superintendents commented on the management problems caused by Irish patients in what rapidly became overcrowded and overstretched institutions. The article examines descriptions of Irish patients, many admitted in a poor state of health, and also depicted as violent and difficult to manage, though reporting of this may have been swayed by anti-Irish sentiment. It suggests that a hardening of attitudes occurred in the 1870s and 1880s, as theories of degeneration took hold and the Irish in Ireland exhibited exceptionally high rates of institutionalization. Continuities across this period included the ongoing association between mental illness and migration long after the massive Famine influx had abated, and claims that the Irish, at one and the same time referred to as volatile and vulnerable, were particularly susceptible to the challenges of urban life, marked by intemperance, liability to general paralysis, turbulence and immorality, and the relative isolation that led to their long-term incarceration. The article suggests that commentary about Irish asylum patients provides traction in considering broader perceptions of the Irish body, mobility and Irishness in nineteenth-century England, and a deeper understanding of institutionalization.

Journal Article.  12533 words. 

Subjects: Social and Cultural History

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