Coercive confinement in Ireland: patients, prisoners and penitents

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 3 May/June2013, Reviews, Volume 21

Coercive confinement in Ireland:
patients, prisoners and penitents

Eoin O’Sullivan and Ian O’Donnell
(Manchester University Press, £65)
ISBN 9780719086489


80Coercive confinement in Ireland puts the spotlight on the wide range of institutions used by independent Ireland to confine ordinary criminals and those who flouted the moral codes of the period, along with children and other vulnerable citizens whose ‘crime’ was poverty or mental instability. O’Sullivan and O’Donnell have set out to take a critical look at the control of deviance in the first half-century after independence, a time when rates of recorded crime were low and Ireland had a small prison population. This ambitious anthology is not limited to the formal criminal justice system. The prison was, in fact, ‘a relatively minor contributor to the overall apparatus of coercive confinement’ and was but one of many possible sites of incarceration in the fledgling state. In fact, what set post-independence Ireland apart from other European countries at the time was that it had a sizeable infrastructure of social control that operated independently of the formal criminal justice system. Ireland may have had relatively few prisons but it had an array of alternative sites of confinement: industrial and reformatory schools; Magdalene homes; mother and baby homes; and district mental hospitals. Such institutions are not generally counted when discussing levels of incarceration but to ignore them is to tell only part of the story of Ireland’s history of coercive confinement. Coercive confinement raises important questions about levels of awareness among the general population and challenges the notion that Irish society was ignorant of the existence of Magdalene convents and industrial schools until the late twentieth century. The state, Irish families and various Catholic orders were all involved to some extent; their involvement ranged from simple referrals to legislation and the day-to-day running of the institutions.
Coercive confinement contains a range of source material published contemporaneously and spanning a 50-year period from 1922 to 1972. Divided into three parts, the sources relate to patients, paupers and unmarried mothers, prisoners and troubled and troublesome children in turn. The authors of the material include priests, journalists, writers and civil servants, along with a small number of those subject to confinement. The articles, memoirs and official reports reproduced in the study appeared in publications such as the Irish Ecclesiastical Record, The Irish Rosary, The Irish Times and The Bell. Each extract is preceded by a useful biographical note on the author. Further reading is also suggested at the end of each part. By bringing to light a broad range of source material, the authors hope ‘to resuscitate’ underused published material from the period on Ireland’s ‘architecture of containment’ and to encourage further debate. Indeed, the range of published sources selected clearly demonstrates that Irish society cannot plead ignorance with regard to the existence of these institutions that were features of the Irish landscape, both urban and rural, for so long.
The coercive landscape unveiled is a bleak one. Sending women and children to psychiatric hospitals, homes for unmarried mothers and residential institutions may have been regarded as the kinder option at the time but there is much evidence to suggest that this was not the case. Psychiatric hospitals, homes for unmarried mothers and residential institutions for children, the authors note, were ‘austere places with few displays of affection and many of discipline’. There was a strong emphasis on discipline and labour. Many psychiatric hospitals closely resembled places of detention and were in very poor repair. A significant number never made it out alive; others, cut off from the outside world for years or even decades, grew dependent on the routine and security of the institution and never left. One account is exceptional in this regard. Seán Maher, from a Traveller background, learned to read and write in an industrial school in Cork and his memories are primarily positive.
The children who were sent to residential homes were usually from poor backgrounds; their material circumstances or diets did not improve behind institutional walls. In 1966 the children detained at Daingean reformatory were clad in greasy, tattered clothes. The residents showered on average once every three weeks. Their diets, which were high in starch and low in vitamins, were also poor. Many suffered from malnutrition upon admission and fifteen-year-olds often had the physique of a ten-year-old. Although they may have set out to reform or to treat rather than to punish their inmates, it is clear that the regimes in some industrial or reformatory schools, district mental hospitals, county homes and Magdalene homes were more austere than those found in many prisons of the 21st century. More people were confined in the early decades of the Irish state and they probably suffered more. There was a ‘casual disregard for the quality of life of vulnerable citizens that characterized the formative decades of the Irish state’. All too often, unmarried mothers and the mentally ill spent longer in institutions than those in the formal criminal justice system. In fact, the authors assert that ‘the terms served for even the most heinous crimes were sometimes shorter than periods of confinement endured for non-criminal behaviour such as giving birth outside marriage or being in possession of what was reckoned to be a “feeble mind”’.
The sources and analysis paint a picture of an insular, conservative Catholic farming society that was able to make use of the system of coercive confinement, a system which continued to expand after independence and was not fully dismantled until the late twentieth century. Indeed, we are still dealing with the fallout. Coercive confinement in Ireland will be of interest to scholars of the period, and there is much to interest the non-specialist as well. It signposts key sources for researchers who wish to delve deeper. It attempts to put the voices of those who struggled to make sense of their experiences centre stage, though insider accounts are sparse. HI

Clíona Rattigan is the author of ‘What else could I do?’ Single mothers and infanticide, Ireland 1900–1950 (Irish Academic Press).


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