Alan Counihan: Personal Effects, axis: Ballymun

The site at Grangegorman for many Dubliners is loaded with associations; none of them particularly good, and hopefully this will change now that the site is being re-developed for education. It is the location of the newly amalgamated DIT campus. The site has a convoluted history and is huge in scale, it has also seen significant changes, many central to the (supposed) care of the less fortunate in society. From the early 19th Century, Grangegormen housed Richmond Lunatic Asylum (opened 1815) and a General Penitentiary (opened 1820); eventually the two merged and evolved into the District Mental Hospital in 1925. It is this Hospital that became St. Brendan’s Hospital. People were inevitably shuffled between these facilities, many being wrongly classified; some very ill individuals were kept in the main jail when they should have been in the Hospital, others had very little wrong with them and were kept in the Hospital. Unfortunately due to this history the Hospital, the Penitentiary, and the female penitentiary at Stonybatter (opened 1836, receiving its inmates from Richmond Penitentiary)(1,2) have become inextricably linked; each bearing the air of Victorian class cleansing.

Early in the 19th Century the State began the development of general penitentiaries, jails where one could atone for one’s sin under the notion of “Moral Reform” (1). To be incarcerated one need only deviate from the puritanical standards of middle class norms; that means a lot of things, it also means the inmates were mostly poor. The main tool of administration was Religion. Internally governed, the penitentiaries were morally instructed with regular religious visits, on-site education and industry – not surprisingly, both Richmond, and the female penitentiary at Stonybatter ran highly profitable laundry services. Enforcement of dark cells, rationing and hard labour were all used as punishments. Of course mental illness was often confused with immorality and many mentally ill patients found themselves in the penitentiary. The Central Criminal Lunatic Asylum Act (1845), attempted to remove the ‘harmless lunatics’ from the penal system, so that only ‘dangerous or criminal lunatics’ would be confined in the jails. The terms of classification however were broad – confusion, irrationality, dementia as well as melancholia, all fell under “mania”, and appallingly, paralysis and congenital disorders fell under “lunacy” (3,4).

photo (7)

Photographs were taken of all admittances to Richmond Asylum dating back to 1880 (the development of photography), this practice stopped in the 1950s.  A full archive however remained at the Hospital dating back to pre-famine times until the site re-development. The National Archives of Ireland now hold the bulk of the archive up until 1880, the remainder (which runs until the late 20th Century), remains in the care of St. Brendan’s Hospital. This project (it seems wrong to refer to it as an exhibition), by artist Alan Counihan entitled Personal Effects centres around the patients at St. Brendan’s Mental Hospital; the items in the archive mostly dating from the 1950s/60s, therefore that latter part of the collection that still remains at the Hospital.


When I went to see the work now showing at axis: Ballymun I was expecting something rather static; photographs, archival materials in vitrines, however this is far from the case and the project is extremely immersive. Made-up entirely of people’s possessions, it aptly sets the tone for mid-20th Century Ireland with a wall of Rosary beads. Decoratively arranged, they remind one of the lies that must have gone into explaining- away the sudden estrangement of a family member. When I was growing up the suggestion that someone “suffered with their nerves” (mostly women) was still rampant. There is also an installation containing items from bags and their contents, the possessions of the dispossessed; and this contains normal everyday things such as mirrors, lipsticks, notebooks, ration books, all meticulously suspended from diminutive purses. The photographs from the collection are projected onto a hospital screen in one corner, the faces blurred out of respect to family members, yet the photos are so familiar, they are of the order of all family photos: Kids in hats, women in their finery, men looking dapper.

photo 1 (1)

It is too hard to analyse these things, these possessions, they are not ours, though they very easily could be. The mental health provisions in Ireland in the 19th Century and on into the 20th Century were woefully inadequate and remained tethered to the Victorian notion of incarceration being the best salve. As we know now this could not have been further from the truth.  Unfortunately mental health in Ireland and elsewhere is still a huge issue, and oftentimes not well treated, or even noticed. Suicide rates are still hauntingly high in Ireland. We have the highest rate of young female suicides and the second highest rate of male suicides in the EU (4). It is important to remember the mistakes of the past to make the future better equipped to handle mental health. This is why this archive should remain, ideally intact, and perhaps close to where it originated from: Grangegorman.

Archive letter excerpt sent from Dún Laoghaire in the 1960s to a Hospital patient:

“I am very sorry I cannot say ‘yes’ to your request to come home just now,” “Will you try and content yourself where you are for a while longer? You see, I would not be able to look after you [the way] you would need to be looked after.”

Alan Counihan’s Personal Effects continues at axis: Ballymun until Friday 15th August, open 12 noon-6pm (excluding Saturdays).

Here is Alan Counihan explaining the project in his own words:



1.Rebecca Sharon Lawlor: Crime in nineteenth-century Ireland: Grangegorman female penitentiary and Richmond male penitentiary, with reference to juveniles and women, 1836-60. NUI Maynooth (2012).



4. Simon A. Hill and Richard Laugharne: Mania, Dementia and Melancholia in 1870s.

5. Suicide Statistics for Ireland, 2013:





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