Irish Blog Whacked

Sunday, March 24, 2013


“Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” 
― Apple Inc.

“There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness.” 
― Friedrich Nietzsche

“No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness.” 
― Aristotle

“I have found both freedom and safety in my madness; the freedom of loneliness and the safety from being understood, for those who understand us enslave something in us.” 
― Kahlil GibranThe Madman

“All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive.” 
― Yann MartelLife of Pi

“In a mad world, only the mad are sane.” 
― Akira Kurosawa

“Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!” 
― Dale WassermanMan of La Mancha

“It is only through mystery and madness that the soul is revealed” 
― Thomas Moore

“Hatred is the madness of the heart.” 
― Lord Byron

“I have lived nearly fifty years, and I have seen life as it is. Pain, misery, hunger ... cruelty beyond belief. I have heard the singing from taverns and the moans from bundles of filth on the streets. I have been a soldier and seen my comrades fall in battle ... or die more slowly under the lash in Africa. I have held them in my arms at the final moment. These were men who saw life as it is, yet they died despairing. No glory, no gallant last words ... only their eyes filled with confusion, whimpering the question, "Why?"

I do not think they asked why they were dying, but why they had lived. When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. To seek treasure where there is only trash. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!” 
― Dale WassermanMan of La Mancha

Time for State to acknowledge great wrong of Irish mental hospital system

State needs to establish why so many of its citizens were wrongly locked away

‘All the shame of the era is being dumped on the religious orders.” These words, from a nun involved in managing a Magdalene laundry, broadcast on RTÉ radio’s God Slot , are self-serving and morally evasive. But they’re not entirely wrong. The probability is that, even if the religious orders had never been heard of, Ireland would probably have operated a system of vicious repression. How do we know? Because of the mental hospitals.
Before the motorway bypassed the town, I used to dread driving into Ballinasloe. As you approached the outskirts, you saw the big bell tower of the vast asylum, St Brigid’s. Even heading west for a break, the holiday mood would be shattered and silence would descend on the car until you were well clear of the forbidding walls and could shake the darkness from your head.
It was never called St Brigid’s, of course. In the Irish lexicon, “Ballinasloe” was a euphemism for mental hospitals in the same way “Letterfrack” stood for the industrial school system. At its height, the asylum held well over 1,000 miserable souls. And there were many Ballinasloes – Ireland locked up more of its population as “mentally ill” than anywhere else.

Guinea pigs
I mentioned this here recently and some of the responses I got were sceptical. People should always be sceptical about claims that Ireland is or was exceptional.
Mental hospitals throughout the developed world were terrible places. People who were defined as mentally ill lost their human rights and were subjected to misery, indignity and, at times, vicious cruelty. They were guinea pigs for “treatments” from uncontrolled electroconvulsive therapy to the deliberate induction of comas with insulin. Ireland was certainly not unique in any of this.
But there was nothing – absolutely nothing – like the scale of the Irish system. In a fine chapter in the recent book Asylums, Mental Health Care and the Irish 1800-2010 , Damien Brennan has a statistical table. It shows the number of psychiatric beds per 100,000 people in 1955. A simplified version reads like this: Ireland 710; Soviet Union 617; United States 511; Northern Ireland 440; Scotland 436; Sweden 422;England and Wales 357; Australia 332.
There are really only two possible explanations for these figures. One is that the Irish were much madder than anyone else. Alcoholism, poverty, child abuse, distorted attitudes to sex, the social and familial effects of mass emigration and the bloody weather could indeed all be factors contributing to high levels of mental illness. But were the 26 counties really that much madder than the six? Was Ireland really twice as prone to mental illness as England? And were Irish people really under more psychological pressure than the inhabitants of the Soviet Union who had lived with the daily terror of Stalin’s viciously intrusive tyranny?
The other, far more probable, explanation is that, of the 21,000 people who were incarcerated in Irish mental hospitals when the system was at its largest, perhaps half were not mentally ill even by the standards of the period. At any given time, for most of the history of the State, thousands of people who should not have been in asylums were locked away in abysmal conditions and subjected to appalling “treatments” that had no medical justification.
Which raises a question: why does this form of institutional abuse evoke so much less public anger than that inflicted on the inmates of Magdalene laundries and industrial schools? That question leads to another: what is the primary difference between the mental hospitals and the other institutions?
Most people would probably say the inmates of the mental hospitals were not used as slave labour, but this is not so. As Damien Brennan points out, patients did manual work for which they were paid only nominal wages – on farms but also in industrial units that made packaging for black plastic bags, electrical wiring looms used by a German car manufacturer and “security clips for beer and stout barrels for a major Irish drinks company”.
In truth the major feature distinguishing mental hospitals from the rest of the system of social repression is obvious: they were not run by the Catholic Church. The church is not blameless in that it created the social and moral norms that allowed for this kind of systematic cruelty. But the mental hospital system was overwhelmingly run by the State and local authorities.
In 21st century Ireland it does not offer an outlet for pent-up resentment of church control. It tells us, uncomfortably, about ourselves: our State that sustained the system, our families that used it, our towns that came to regard the asylums as economic assets.
The scale and complexity of the abuse of mental hospitals is such that there is no easy way to address this last part of the system that shaped our society. But there is an obvious way to begin. The State should establish a historical commission to create an official narrative of what happened to so many of its citizens. It is time at least to acknowledge this great wrong and to stop driving on past those grim grey walls.

Peadar O'Donnell

By Anton McCabe and Bill Webster

Peadar O'Donnell, socialist and writer, died on 13th May at the age of 93. With him died a link with the revolutionary movement that swept Ireland between 1907 and 1923 and the great figures who led it.

He was clear where he stood. Last year in Glenties, Co. Donegal, he said that his belief in social revolution was as strong as then as it was when he started out. He wrote: "It is an illusion to suppose that you can have a peaceful society under the capitalist order - just by improving the social welfare - that is nonsense." He told one of the authors of this tribute that he could not conceive of a movement towards social revolution in Ireland unless one had obtained the unity of the working class.

There were confusions and mistakes in his political career - but they were those of a revolutionary. Peadar was also modest. In a letter to one of the authors he wrote (March 8th 1982), "I'm afraid that my role was a very minor one indeed."

Monaghan soviet

Born in west Donegal, from a small farmer background, he absorbed politics from his mother who helped establish a co-op locally to break the power of petty exploiters, and who was a Larkinite. After teaching in west Donegal he went to Scotland in 1917 where he met leading trade unionists and social revolutionaries to discuss the problems of the day.

In 1918 he applied to the Irish Transport and General Workers Union for a post as organiser. It was a time of land seizures, factory occupations, strikes and general strikes, of enthusiasm in Ireland for the Bolshevik revolution; when the Irish Transport and General Workers Union seemed to stand for socialist revolution and its membership went from 50,000 to 130,000. The Irish Press (14/5/86) judged the mood of the time: "In his (Peadar's) native Donegal this was predominantly leftist. Connolly's 'Watchword of Labour' would be sung at dances and other functions rather than 'The Soldiers' Song'."

As a union organizer he was not a comfortable bureaucrat. He covered all Ulster outside of the Belfast area - travelling by bicycle. His remarkable contribution to the class struggle is chronicled in the official history of the ITGWU. "At Caledon, a village in Co. Tyrone, where was refused use of a hall, he climbed up a tree and addressed a meeting from one of its branches, descending afterwards to enrol 107 members. He won over members of a local Orange band who played and parade in support of the strike that developed.

"In Monaghan in 1919 the wardens of the mental hospital had been on strike for three weeks when they approached O'Donnell for assistance because they were nearly beaten. He led a march on the hospital and the authorities thought they were going back to work but he fooled them - the workers immediately occupied and held the building for 12 days. The red flag was run up by this Monaghan soviet. They key activists were men and women from Protestant backgrounds. A satisfactory pay increase was secured."


It can be judged how far ahead of his time he was - with his encouragement the male nurses insisted that the pay increase be applied to the female workers.

O'Donnell wanted a class-struggle union; but the leaders of the union wanted to be comfortable bureaucrats and were unwilling to challenge capitalism - while claiming the mantle of the murdered Connolly and the jailed Larkin.

Frustrated, Peadar joined the IRA to be more active in the struggle. He took part in the guerrilla struggle. In 1921 he opposed the Treaty and supported a move forward to national and class liberation. He saw in the Treaty that "The middle class was getting all they wanted, namely the transfer of patronage from Dublin Castle to the Irish parliament. The mere control of patronage did not seem to me sufficient reason for the struggle we had been through." He sums up the failure of the previous few years: "Pure ideals were used as a mask and as blinkers to direct the movement away from revolution." Labour left the struggle to the petty-bourgeois nationalists of Sinn Fein who, inevitably, sold out to imperialism.

Peadar was sentenced to death by the military dictatorship that was the government of the Irish Free State. He was shunted from prison to prison, being taken to Donegal as a hostage. He wanted a social movement: "What a pity Mellowes (a leader close to Connolly's ideas) was dead; had there been such as him to assemble round there was a tem of us yet. Was there a Connolly left in Dublin? …The big thing to emphasise is that the stubborn splendour of the big mass of people must be involved in the tactics of the revolution; this heresy of the cult of armed men that brought Collins to imperialism and us to defeat must be overcome."

He was scathing on 'physical force' republicanism; "We (the republican military leaders) had a pretty barren mind socially; many on the republican side were against change. Had we won I would agree that the end results might not have been much different from what one sees today."

In 1923 Peadar was elected as a TD for Donegal, as a republican. Single-handedly he began the movement against the land annuities. The movement spread through the west of Ireland. It shook the Cosgrave dictatorship and eventually brought it down. The tragedy was that it was taken over by Fianna Fail because it needed a parliamentary voice. Peadar went to the Labour leaders - who refused because the demand was illegal.

Most of the IRA leaders were nationalist conspirators, opposed to 'politics'; the organisation was in the process of degenerating into a nationalist military conspiracy. Peadar was increasingly isolated on the executive. He stayed from loyalty to an organisation and to comrades and from lack of anywhere else to go.

He helped to reform the Communist Party of Ireland, in the mistaken belief that it could be an instrument of revolution. He was removed as editor of the IRA paper and IRA members were forbidden to speak on social or economic topics. Finally in 1934 he was expelled from the IRA - for socialism.

He helped set up the Republican Congress. This tried to link the social revolution and the national question. At the Wolfe Tone Commemoration at Bodenstown in 1934 he helped to bring down two busloads of workers from the Shankill Road, members of the Republican Congress. The IRA attacked them and the other left-wingers. Congress was a heroic effort; in fighting the fascist menace, in leading strikes and uniting Northern workers. With no clear ideas, no clear programme, and no clean break from the old republican methods and confusions, it was doomed quickly to collapse.


After Italy, Germany and with the Fascist menace of the blueshirts and Fine Gael (then fascists) in Ireland he saw the fight against fascism as the concern of all workers. [With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936] he played a big part in organising support in Ireland for the left and helping socialists go out and fight.

He tried to be as active as he could, and to tie together the struggles of town and country workers. Unlike many others, he never gave up hope or become embittered. In February 1982 he wrote to one of the authors that he was enthused by the meeting in Dublin at which Tony Benn spoke, a meeting organised by Labour Youth; enthused by the number of young people present and at the presentation of the ideas of Larkin and Connolly.

His books have to be read to understand the social movement in Ireland in this century, and the real processes in society. He had a real understanding of the rhythms of life in the Irish countryside, and the will to live and struggle of the peasantry. Their optimism is an inspiration. Socialists should read especially The Knife, (Irish Humanities Press 1980); The Gates Flew Open (Mercier 1966) and There will be another day (Dolmen Press, 1963).

The Editorial Board and supporters of Militant mourn the death of Peadar O'Donnell. There can be no better way than in taking to heart the concluding words of There will be another day.

"..the Ireland of the poor came to the very doorstep of the struggle for power twice in 10 years, in 1922 and again in 1931. In each case it failed to achieve a leadership to correspond with its needs and was driven back in confusion. It has paid a heavy price…for those failures. It has however gained sharp political lessons…Other men, on other days, will contemplate those mistakes, for of course the Ireland of the poor will be back. There will be another day."