Madness, Migration and the Irish in Lancashire, 1850–1921


Dr Catherine Cox, Professor Hilary Marland and Dr Sarah York

Project Title

Madness, migration and the Irish in Lancashire c.1850-1921


In the first half of 1847 an estimated 300,000 Irish migrants arrived into the port of Liverpool. Irish migration into Lancashire escalated significantly during the Great Famine and remained high in the post-famine period. Irish migrants were described as being markedly susceptible to mental illness and Lancashire’s four major asylums absorbed a huge number of Irish migrants from the 1850s onwards.

In 2009, Dr Catherine Cox (Director of and co-founder of CHOMI, UCD) and Professor Hilary Marland (University of Warwick), began a three-year, Wellcome trust funded project to examine this phenomenon entitled ‘Madness, migration and the Irish in Lancashire c.1850-1921’.

The project assessed whether there were particular stereotypes and concerns, which influenced the incarceration and treatment of Irish patients, and placed the experiences of Irish patients and those treating them within a broader canvass of efforts to tackle disease, poverty, intemperance and social dislocation in Lancashire.

The arrival of large numbers of Irish in Lancashire prompted a series of anxieties for civil, religious and medical authorities, particularly as the Irish became concentrated in overcrowded, disadvantaged areas of Liverpool. The Irish were held responsible for a range of evils that threatened the social equilibrium: the rising incidence of pauperism, violence, and crime generally, and more specifically outbreaks of disease, declining wages, sectarian violence and political tensions. These anxieties intensified during particular flashpoints such as outbreaks of cholera and typhus in Liverpool. In the asylums meanwhile overcrowding had become a major problem.

The project also examined attitudes to Irish migrants and the associated high levels of insanity, exploring whether the Irish were identified in official and medical discourse, and lay commentary as a group who were particularly susceptible to mental illness and vulnerable to psychiatric intervention. In official and medical discourse, the Irish were associated with drink and in turn drink was identified as a cause of insanity. Public anxieties about Irish migrants and Irish insanity were reflected in press reporting and lay commentary, which was harsh in tone. In 1870, the Preston Chronicle and Lancashire Advertiser reported that the influx of Irish lunatics had forced extra asylum accommodation to be provided at the expense of the ratepayers, referring to the importations of “Ould Ireland’s” demented children. The hardening of attitudes seen in lay commentary did not correlate with the periods which saw the highest influx of Irish migrants. Rather it was associated with the latter decades of the century and is connected to the growing ‘medical’ discourse on heredity and the increase in insanity, and the gloomy prognosis for the populations threatened with escalating rates of insanity more broadly.

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