Opinion: from the madhouse to direct provision, the concept of asylum still shadows Irish society but writing serves as its memory and its conscience

In a move which can only be described as peak Beckett, Samuel Beckett spent the Christmas break of 1932 trudging around a psychiatric hospital in the winter drizzle. 'I was down at Donabate on Boxing day', he wrote, ‘and walked all about Portrane lunatic asylum in the rain’. At the asylum gates a local man told Beckett ‘of an old tower nearby where Dane Swift came to his motte, Stella’.

Beckett’s story ‘Fingal’ records Stella’s tower as one of many in a terrain ‘as full of towers as Dun Laoghaire of steeples: two Martello, the red ones of the asylum, a watertower and the round’. This is a carceral landscape, full of structures designed to keep you in or out, and it’s one to which Dublin writers continue to be magnetically drawn.

From RTÉ Archives, Association for the Rights of the Mentally Handicapped go on hunger strike over patient housing conditions at St Ita's Hospital in Portrane in 1978

Out on a night drive, the insomniac narrator of Anne Enright’s The Gathering decides to ‘give up steering the car and let it go where it wants’. She finds herself at Portrane where the air at the asylum gates ‘has the same hum as you find under high-voltage wires’.

Asylums haunt Irish writing. Eighty years to the day after Beckett’s encounter, Jo Spain’s novel The Darkest Place opens with a phone call to Inspector Tom Reynolds. A mass grave has been discovered in the grounds of an island asylum off the Kerry coast. As he awaits passage to the island, the inspector’s local host fills him in on the wider history of Irish psychiatric institutions:

You know who built the first one in Ireland?’

Tom shook his head.

‘Jonathan Swift. The writer.’

From RTÉ One, Behind the Walls: The history of Ireland's psychiatric hospitals

St Patrick's University Hospital, founded in Swift’s will, continues to provide vital services today. It’s easy to mistake the asylum as a metaphor for the philosophical outlook associated with Swift or Beckett. But its presence is real as well as symbolic.

By 1966 Ireland had the highest number of psychiatric beds by population in the world. The stories of people who contributed to this statistic are part of Ireland’s reckoning with its institutional past. The Darkest Place is part of this legacy, retaining what Spain calls ‘texture based on fact’, aiming to disseminate some of the experiences outlined in documentary sources such as Mary Rafferty’s Behind the Walls, Hannah Greally’s Bird’s Nest Soup and Pauline M. Prior’s Asylums, Mental Health Care and the Irish.

From RTÉ Archives, A look at the living conditions at Dundrum Central Mental Hospital in 1971

Even before its inception, the potential for the asylum to be abused was recognized. Sir William Fownes, who was instrumental in encouraging Swift to found St Patrick's, worried nonetheless that it might encourage 'wives and husbands trying who could first get the other to Bedlam', or that 'heirs to estates, would try their skill to render the possessor disordered, and get them confined, and soon run them into real madness’.

By enacting such possibilities, a spate of recent fiction helps commemorate the asylum years. Ann O'Loughlin’s The Judge’s Wife, uses fiction to retell and make sense of handed-down tales of people put away in large Victorian buildings at the edges of provincial towns. Asylum fiction reflects Marianne Hirsch’s concept of postmemory, where a second generation relives trauma of which they have no direct experience.

From RTÉ Radio 1 Arena, Melatu Uche Okorie discusses 'This Hostel Life', her collection of three short stories  about Direct Provision

‘That’s where your woman was put’. Driving around Sligo, Sebastian Barry’s mother pointed to a story embedded in landscape. The woman had married an uncle of Barry’s mother, ‘been considered "no good" in some fashion, and was eventually committed to Sligo Mental Hospital’. The conversation sparked The Secret Scripture, perhaps the most celebrated novel of the twentieth-century asylum system.

These asylums have closed but their function survives and evolves. Societies have always felt a need to sequester people for reasons other than criminal punishment. Before the asylum there was the leper-house; after the elimination of leprosy in Europe what survived, as Michel Foucault wrote, ‘were the values and images attached to the figure of the leper as well as the meaning of his exclusion’.

From RTÉ Radio 1 Morning Ireland, Residents protest outside the Mosney Direct Provision in Co Meath

While its object shifts, exclusion is a constant. As Liam Thornton writes, ‘Irish society’s ability to condemn, institutionalise, and castigate persons due to differences is ever present’. While Portrane gears up for the arrival of the National Forensic Mental Health Service, up the coast at Mosney asylum-seekers gather in protest and in confirmation that ‘asylum’ theoretically denotes a place of refuge but continues in practice to signify one of confinement.

Read: 10 ways institutional abuse details are still being kept secret

Irish writing has marked the shift from a medical to a legal world of confinement. Hailed as ‘the laureate of direct provision’ in a conversation with Sebastian Barry, Melatu Ochie Okorie spent eight and a half years in the system. She said of the experience, which helped produce her book, This Hostel Life, ‘I knew while I was in there that I didn’t want to forget’. While the concept of asylum still shadows Irish society, writing serves as its memory and its conscience.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ