A tabloid said. It was 2003 Christmas, and the first time I set my foot in Ireland. It was a bumpy but memorable overnight travel from London by a train, ferry, bus, then train; a guy with a mullet playing rock music on the ferry, children dancing. Passengers on the bus so sleepy... or pissed that couldn't tell...or gave a damn about an exit and entry. In the dawn, a horse was scratching its back in a mud field. Crumbling ruins in the countryside...
Looking the interior through a broken window
An abandoned psychiatric hospital called Our Lady's Hospital (or Eglington Asylum, the Cork District Lunatic Asylum, etc.) sits on a river bank on the outskirts of Cork, Ireland. It is literally situated on the boundary between the town and country. As driving a car, my aunt-in-law told me that it is renowned as "the longest hospital in Europe".
Completed in 1853 by a local architect William Atkins, this Gothic revival hospital must have functioned as a watchdog for the Catholic morality. I mean, "You've been a baaaaad girl, I'll bring you to the loony bin on the hill" type of deal. Well, the statement is not far fetched because my uncle-in-law -- who brought me and Brian to the hospital -- told us that unwed mothers used to be chained there.
Looking the interior through a broken window
No way, I thought.
"They are fixing the hospital to make an apartment."
Double no way.
The vision of an unwed mother chained in a desolate cell haunted me. Why having an out-of-wedlock child regarded as "insane"? That's beyond absurd and an outright violation of human rights, I thought. Anyway, it's not fair the guy spilled seeds unpunished.
But I was not aware of the influence of the Catholic Church in Irish society, functioning as the social and moral framework. Father Ted didn't teach me about that!
Is it true that unwed mothers in Ireland were held in lunatic asylums? I started researching, and found that there were numerous workhouses for unwed mothers and other "fallen women", not only in Ireland but also in Scotland, England and even in the US (note: they were not necessarily Catholic institutions).
For example, at the infamous Magdalene Asylums, women held there were forced to engage with laundry work in order to "wash away their sin":
The laundries got their name from Mary Magdalene, the fallen woman who became one of Jesus' closest followers. They began 150 years ago as homes to rehabilitate prostitutes. But by the early 20th century, the role had been expanded to care for unwed mothers and other young women the church considered to be wayward. -- from cbsnews.comIn accordance with the expansion, the institutional character became increasingly punitive in Ireland. Here is the documentary about Irish women who spent their time in the asylum, separated from their babies and constantly humiliated and abused by the nuns:
Why did the attitude towards unwed mothers become more punitive and organized in the early 20th century? In Ireland, the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 gave the church a further opportunity to stigmatize the unwed mothers by systematically managing them; the workhouses for fallen women were separated by "first-time offenders" and "multiple offenders". To avoid the separation with their children and social stigma, many mothers fled to England.
The concerns over unwed mothers were not limited in Ireland; in 1921, the City of Boston established a residence for unwed mother in Long Island, taking a place of a poorhouse that had established in 1891.
But all the cases were in workhouses, not lunatic asylums. I was thinking my uncle-in-law must have been told an exaggerated story from his folks.
Removed window boards looked like gravestones
Sorry, Tom. I was wrong.
I finally found confirmed cases in Yorkshire, England, where women with illegitimate children were sent to psychiatric hospitals:
Lucy Baker was sent to St Catharine's hospital in Doncaster in 1921. At the time of filming in 1972, she was released from the hospital and at an old people's home. But this 75 year-old Yorkshire accented grandma had spent 51 years of her life in the mental hospital.
She wasn't sent to St Catharine's immediately. She became pregnant by meeting a married man. At first, her parents were helping her by taking care of her baby while she was working at a local mill as a weaver.
Three years later, she again became pregnant from a different guy. This time, her father sent her to a workhouse, and her second child was born. Separated from her children, the situation "got on my nerve", she said. Her written pleads to be released from the workhouse were rejected. As anyone with a right mind would do, she escaped from the workhouse. When she was found, the authority put her into St Catharine's. The documentary also interviewed a grandma in St Catharine's who had three illegitimate children.
I am surprised that the case I found was in the early 20's; I was expecting to find sometimes around, say, the mid-19th century.
In Ireland, the establishment of the Irish Free State would be the main reason, but it is not limited in Ireland. The reaction to the Suffragettes movement? Flappers must have raised an eyebrow of an American conservative. But I think the growing popularity of eugenics in the early 20th century must have given authorities an excuse to punish, and eventually eradicate the unwanted segment of population with a back up of "science". Here is a kind of discourse prevailed against unwed mothers:
The unmarried mother was perceived as doubly deviant. Not only was she a threat to the social order, but her child could be infected with deviant genes and perpetuate the threat in future generations. -- Crime, punishment and the search for order in Ireland (Italicized by S.K.)A female as a reproductive sex bore some of the tremendous burdens eugenics created. In the US, the movie Black Stork was released in 1917, leading to Carrie Buck who was compulsorily sterilized in 1927.
In England, the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act was greatly influenced by the burgeoning eugenics. Many like Lucy Baker were labeled as "individuals with loose morals" under the act. No matter how eugenics were praised as the beacon of rational science, it is impossible to rationalize morality; it belongs to the realm of muddy, subjective, ephemeral world of human minds.
So now, Our Lady's Hospital is converted to an apartment complex. I am generally cautious about converting historic asylums to for-profit establishments (i.e.: Metropolitan State Hospital). Whether the building is architecturally significant or beautiful, the symbolism contained in those walls is too sad and grave to glamorize it as a tool signifying a luxurious life style. On the other hand, I don't want to see abandoned psychiatric hospitals being razed just because people don't want to face the uncomfortable past...It's the dilemma keeps me being interested in those ruins.
I don't know what kind of folks live there now. Correct me if wrong, but I have a feeling it's not the Cork natives' first choice. When I visited Ireland in 2003, the economy was booming; there must have been a steady influx of EU professionals to the town. Now? I have no idea, ask the Bank of Ireland.
Thanks for reading my long due lengthy memory and thoughts, and Merry Christmas!
Locate Our Lady's Hospital @ Google Map
The Magdalen Asylum, Co. Cork.: Abandoned Ireland (Check out the picture of gravestones on the last page, it's sadly horrifying...)
The Magdalene Laundry: cbsnews.com
Sex in a Cold Climate: YouTube
Wasted Lives: YouTube
Crime, punishment and the search for order in Ireland by Shane Kilcommins: Google books
Planning for life by Liam Concannon: Google books