Friday, February 15, 2013

The Big House

When I was a youngster sometimes I'd hear my father or someone else mention that such a person was in the "Big House" which years later I understood to mean he or she was a patient in a psychiatric hospital.  Back then people found and still are finding it difficult to discuss depression and mental illness in any form.  The hospitals were known as Lunatic Asylums for the Insane and other dreadful, frightening names, so no wonder we were scared at the very mention of them let alone the sight of them.

These institutions were huge granite or red brick buildings looming up within large high-walled areas usually containing a laundry, bakery, chapel and other smaller outbuildings. Three of our most famous Irish psychiatric hospitals, St. Brendan's Hospital (also known as Grangegorman and originally the Richmond Lunatic Asylum), St. Ita's Hospital (formerly Portrane Asylum) and St. Patrick's Hospital (originally St. Patrick's Hospital for Imbeciles) date back to between the mid-1700s and late-1800s, and, as some came into existence through either large donations from wealthy donors or Government grants, I'm sure only the finest building materials of the day were used in their construction. They've certainly withstood everything our Irish climate has thrown at them over the years, though some now are in the final stages of total disrepair.

In recent years it has been decided that these hospitals, both here in Ireland and further afield, no longer provide the proper environment or adequate accommodation required to meet the needs of the mentally ill.  Some patients are already in the process of being moved to other facilities, others, too elderly and frail both in mind and body to be disturbed, remain within the confines of what to them is home.

As a part of my research for an upcoming film in which I'll be playing a psychiatric patient I've been reading up on the care and sometimes barbaric treatments administered to patients in some of these grim institutions. At this point I hastily add not Irish ones although perhaps some of these too are not wholly exempt from blame.  I'm shocked to the core to discover the inhumane conditions these pure people had to endure in the name of healing. 

The following poem, part of which I wrote a couple of years back, is written from the viewpoint of a passer-by who has just walked through a psychiatric hospital ruins and is standing before the building questioning what really happened within its walls down through the ages. The hospital is purely fictitious.

The Big House

I stand before you asking
If your walls could speak
What horrors would they reveal.
You stare through sightless eyes
Your windowpanes once warmed by summer sun
Now shattered as the broken spirits of your long dead, forgotten inmates.

Your open doorways beckon from the storm
Creatures, winged and animal alike
As once they welcomed human souls in search of refuge from their demons.

Pills and potions were the menu of the day
And when chemicals alone could not mend the most broken minds
Temporal lobes were seared to exact the desired calm.

Your white-washed walls more befitting bovine habitation than human comfort
Now crumble piece by greying piece into the dust and fossilised bird shit.
On your few remaining iron beds manacles still dangle
Like the hanging Jesus on his Calvary cross
A grim reminder of freedom so cruelly denied.

Chimney stacks stand tall against the darkening sky
Two hundred years of desperate cries and splintered thoughts
Long carried on the wind.

Before they finally crush your wasted bones
Just let me say to those unfortunates who died within your walls
I'd like to think you left this world sensing someone cared.

No need now for barred windows for no one's left to flee your prison
Those still living seeking peace in new-found sanctuaries
Those no more at rest in dreamless sleep.

© Ann Brien 2013

Above image:  St. Brendan's Hospital, Grangegorman via Wiki.
Image used only to portray the poem's fictional hospital's state of disrepair.



  1. Thank you Steve for your comment, I've read your wonderful posts and I'm following your blog. Cheers! Ann