In this week’s blog, following the recent broadcast of the RTE documentary series ‘Behind the Walls’, Fr. Paddy shares his thoughts on mental illness in Ireland.


Mental illness for too long has been stigmatised. Anyone who carries the cross of depression, anxiety and mental anguish lives in a fragile and dark place. A place that struggles to find meaning and at times even to remain alive. One in every three people at some stage in their lives will live with mental illness. I’m sure in all our families and friendships, we know and love someone who feels this vulnerability. To feel depressed is most difficult, but to suffer stigma as a result is deeply disturbing.

“Behind the walls”, R.T.E.’s documentary series on the history of Psychiatric Hospitals in Ireland, is another example of a very dark chapter in Irish Society. Much attention in this series, focuses on Clonmel District Mental Hospital, as it was then, still open today and known as St. Luke’s Psychiatric Hospital. A report written in 1958 by the assistant inspector of Mental Hospitals, Dr. Ramsey, details a horror story, of how, we as a nation treated people living with mental illness.

The patient population of then “Mental Hospitals” in 1958 was more than 21,000 people. “For many years, Ireland had led the world in locking up its people in psychiatric hospitals – on a per capita basis. Ireland was even ahead of the old Soviet Union”, said Mary Raftery who produced this brutal depiction of how Irish Citizens were treated in psychiatric hospitals. Huge numbers of people ended up in psychiatric institutions in Ireland due to social causes.

Commenting on the experience of psychiatric patients in Clonmel, Raftery stated “unlike prisoners, they had no due process, no trial, no hearing, no appeal and no end to their sentences. Stripped of their basic human rights, they were consigned, and often for decades, to conditions so bad that one official in the Department of Health wrote he ‘was thoroughly shocked by the abysmally low standards in Clonmel’”.

The first decade of the new millennium, has in many ways been a painful one. From international terrorism to global financial crisis. Scandals within church, financial and government institutions. Much focus has been revisiting and revealing a hidden and silent wound in the heart of so many places in our communities. This dreadful reality highlights how cruel and intolerant Irish society treated our most vulnerable people.

Fragile, decent citizens, locked, imprisoned behind the tall walls of stigma and social exclusion, is a shocking reality that still many can remember. Revisiting such cruel hardships is important. Healing can only take place when we accept and can speak out the truth, no matter how devastating and uncomfortable it may make us feel.

Walls have fallen, often been broken down by brave and courageous people who yearn for inclusion and renewal. Such a desire brings us all to a better place. The fall of communist Europe and more recently the ending of Gaddafi in Libya.

For all who are affected by mental illness in the past, I’m sure their story must be most difficult to tell and even remember. May the walls of fear and cruelty, wherever they are built be challenged and taken down, brick by brick.

“When winter comes, can spring be far behind”.