The 19th century was a time of intensive legislative reform in relation to the management of mental illness in many countries.

Most notable were 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.

The language of mental health

The 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.

The word "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". In 1880, the term "asylum" was used in place of the old word "madhouse", which went out of fashion during the 18th century.

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 MD, 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.

Relief of the sick and destitute poor 1927
The state of lunatic asylums 1862
Maryborough District Lunatic Asylum 1833
Lunacy law reform 1885
The state of lunatic asylums 1808
System of public medical relief 1836
Lunacy inquiry commission 1879
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.