Prior to the 1830s, mental health care in Derry, as in the rest of Ireland and in most of the Western World, was ad hoc at best, unkind and cruel at worst.
In Derry, a city growing in population and commercial importance, the early part of the 19th century saw patients with any form of mental illness housed at the city’s infirmary – in twelve cells in a shed on the hospital grounds or, in the absence of any other suitable accommodation, in the cells at Lifford Gaol.
But, in the early part of the century, a new wave of social reformers were campaigning for change and compassion and, in 1821, Parliament passed a law allowing for the foundation of a network of district asylums.
These institutions would be, according to reformer John Leslie Foster,” the only mode of effectual relief… for the reception of the insane.”
Opened in 1829, the Londonderry District Asylum, was the fourth of eleven such institutions built in nineteenth century Ireland.
Constructed on eight acres of land, the asylum – which still lends its name to the street in modern day Derry on which it was built, was an imposing building.
Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland writes of the Derry institution: “The lunatic asylum for the counties of Londonderry, Donegal and Tyrone, situated on rising ground to the north of the city, was commenced in June 1827, and opened in 1829; the entire expense, including the purchase of the site and furniture, amounted to 25,678, advanced by Government, and to be repaid by the three counties by instalments.
“The facade fronting the river consists of a centre with pavilions from which extend wings with airing sheds, terminating in angular pavilions, all of Dungiven sandstone; above the centre rises a turret, of which the upper part forms an octagonal cupola; in the rear are several commodious airing yards, separated by ranges of brick building, including the domestic offices and workshops; the entire length of the front is 364 feet, the depth of the building, with the airing yards, 190 feet; and the height to the eave, 25 feet. The grounds comprise eight acres, including a plot in front ornamentally planted, and a good garden.”
Lewis further notes that, by 1830, it was necessary to extend the Derry Asylum.
The asylum was originally intended for 104 patients, but has been enlarged so as to admit 150; it is still too small from the cells being partially occupied by incurables, persons afflicted with epilepsy, and idiots.”
While the parlance of the time now seems dated and unkind, the asylum network was the first in Ireland to provide structure to the care of people living with mental illness.
Thomas Jackson, formerly in charge of the lunatic department of the Dublin House of Industry, was appointed manger of the Armagh District Asylum in 1824, and it is his methods that influenced, and were replicated, in all other Irish asylums, including Derry, where care was overseen by Francis Rogan, M.D..
Primarily, Jackson saw employment as the sole therapeutic tool.
“The poor lunatic,” he wrote to the Irish government in 1827, ” when left to himself, without occupation or the busy and active scene of some pleasing employment, soon graduates into a state of incurability or idiocy and is left a burden to himself and to the community.”
That emphasis on unemployment was fully implemented in Derry’s asylum.
Writing in ‘Derry beyond the walls: social and economic aspects of the growth of Derry’, John Hume says of the asylum: “Treatment was simply employment of some sort. Male inmates worked at gardening, weaving, tailoring, shoemaking and carpentry. Women patients occupied themselves at needlework, quilting, knitting or spinning, laundry and assisting servants to clean passages etc.”
An 1830 team of inspectors were full of praise for the Derry facility.
“Every possible attention is paid to the welfare of the asylum,” they wrote.
“The board of superintendence are constant in attendance and effective: the manager and matron, Mr and Mrs Cluff, possess every qualification necessary for the advantageous exercise of the important duties of their stations. Nothing can, on the whole, be more satisfactory than the inspection of the Londonderry Lunatic Asylum.”
By the early 1830s, the Irish network of asylums was being increasingly lauded.
Sir Andrew Halliday, an English reformer, considered “the system is so excellent and has been found to work so well that I am anxious it should be imitated in this country” while the Inspectors General of Prisons stated, ” the present asylums in Ireland are superior to anything of the kind in Europe, and the whole system of cure, chiefly consisting of employment, kindness, moral government and freedom from restraint is worthy of examination as a good example.”
James MacDonald, physician at the Bloomingdale Asylum in New York, applauded the new district asylums in Ireland which formed “a more complete system than the English.”
Soon psychiatry, the new branch of medicine specifically devoted to the treatment of mental disorders would usurp all other forms of care for the mentally ill, rendering the asylums network defunct.
Derry’s Asylum stands as the first place in the city to offer refuge for those living with mental illness, but became redundant when Gransha Hospital – the first specialised psychiatric hospital to be built after the Second World War – opened in the late 1950s