Mental Health in 19th century Ireland

PLEASE NOTE: the terms used in this exhibition reflect the language of the day and denote the historical context



The 19th century was a time of intensive legislative reform in relation to the management of mental illness in many countries, most notably, the passage of the Lunatic Asylums (Ireland) Act (1821), the Criminal Lunatics (Ireland) Act (1838) and the Private Lunatic Asylums (Amendment) Act 1842. Among the important initiatives taken in Ireland at this time, arguably the most enduring resulted in the establishment of an extensive system of public asylums which, in turn, heralded substantial changes to the conceptualisation and experience of mental illness in Ireland.

"Up to 1780, so little regard was paid to mental affections, that there were scarcely 200 lunatics supported in our charitable institutions, whereas at present we have in District Asylums alone over 4,000, with an additional accommodation about to be effected for nearly 2,000 more" - Proposal to extend the benefits of Swift's Hospital...

Essential Information

One thing to keep in mind is the terminology used by experts during this period: please note that this exhibition uses terms that you will find in the historical records. These reflect people's attitudes and language at the time and may now be considered derogatory or offensive. Many terms had a specific meaning: for example, 'lunatic' was used to describe a person who was "sometimes of good and sound memory and understanding and sometimes not", while 'idiot' was used to describe "natural fools from birth". Also, nowadays in the 21st century, we would normally say 'mental institution', whereas in 1880 the term 'asylum' was used in place of the old word 'madhouse', which went out of fashion during the 18th century.

To view the exhibitions click on the thumbnails below:                                                    

The Public Provisions for Asylums‌‌ Evidence of the Royal Commission‌‌‌‌ District Asylum Admissions‌‌ ‌Defects in the Law‌‌ Conditions in Early 19th Century‌‌ ‌‌‌‌Steps to Improving Conditions‌ A Case of Neglect

Major themes of the Exhibition

A major shift took place in the provision of care for the mentally ill and destitute in Ireland during this time. The minimal provision for the destitute mentally ill in Ireland gave way to a system of large district asylums dotted around the country, mostly filled to capacity and some twenty private asylums registered in 1893, located chiefly in Dublin and its surrounding towns.

"Down to 1808, there was only one asylum in the country, and some years later, and others were established, the condition of the inmates must have been deplorable. Mr. James Rice stated, before a Committee of the House of Commons, in 1817, in reference to the Limerick Asylum, that it was such as we could not appropriate to our dog kennels." - Defects in the Moral Treatment of Insanity in the Public Lunatic Asylums...

Many of the pamphlets in the Oireachtas Archival collection in the 19th century dealing with this topic considered The Famine and poverty as one of the chief causes of mental breakdown among the Irish, while others interestingly attribute the varying illnesses to emigration.

According to Andrew Halliday M.D., the Scottish physician and writer; the extreme misery of the poor in Ireland, and the crowded and dirty state in which they live together, particularly in Dublin … were strong predisposing causes to the disease.

By the early 20th century, the insane asylums were probably as feared in 1900 as they had been in 1850, and the stigma did not sufficiently decrease in Ireland until recent years.


Click here to access the Library online catalogue



Mental Health Guide, The National Archives UK -

Lenus, The Irish Health Repository - Commission on Relief of the Sick and Destitute Poor

Finlay, Fergus, Irish Examiner - 'The State and society colluded to treat vulnerable women as criminals'

B. D. Kelly: The Mental Treatment Act 1945 in Ireland - The Mental Treatment Act 1945 in Ireland : an historical enquiry

Torrey Edwin Fuller, - 'The Invisible Plague: The Rise of Mental Illness from 1750 to the Present'

The British Journal of Psychiatry (1862) - ‘Revised Rules of the Irish Government for the better control of District Lunatic Asylums in Ireland’/Extract