MISS Online: Irish in Canadian Colonial Lunatic Asylums

Tuesday 23rd March, 2021 at 12:00 noon (AEDT) [Change from usual time] on Zoom
Prof. Jane McGaughey, Johnson Chair in Québec and Canadian Irish Studies, Concordia University, Canada.
“These raving maniacs”: Gender, Ethnicity, and the Irish in Canadian Colonial Lunatic Asylums, 1832-1868

In 1852, Grace Marks was sent from Kingston Penitentiary to the Provincial Lunatic Asylum in Toronto. Nine years earlier, at the age of sixteen, she had received a commuted death sentence for the murders of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery. Marks, born near Belfast, was the most infamous female patient in Toronto’s asylum, although she was hardly the only Irish woman confined there. The number of Irish women and Irish men held in lunatic asylums across the British Empire exploded in the mid-nineteenth century. This paper highlights the early stages of my research into the lives of Irish men and Irish women who were diagnosed as “mad” in Lower and Upper Canada (modern-day Quebec and Ontario), either during their quarantine on Grosse Île, in the fever sheds along the St Lawrence River and Lake Ontario, or by their local communities between 1832 and 1868. These years span the high-water marks of Irish immigration to the Canadas, from the worst years of the cholera epidemics and the Great Irish Famine to when ultimate oversight for the asylums passed from the Colonial Office in London to the newly-created Dominion of Canada. Many of these individuals were remanded into the custody of the prison system, or were abandoned in overcrowded city hospitals; others were sent to one of the three main lunatic asylums in operation in the United Province of Canada: the Beauport Lunatic Asylum outside of Quebec City, the Provincial Lunatic Asylum in Toronto, and the Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane in Kingston. Grace Marks joined her fellow Irish inmates in the Toronto asylum at a time when associations between Irishness and insanity were being strengthened in both of the Canadas.

While examinations of Irish immigrants in colonial and Victorian lunatic asylums have been well-researched in English, American, New Zealand, and Australian historiography, the same has not occurred in Canada. In particular, no study has yet undertaken a detailed analysis of how the Great Irish Famine and negative stereotypes about the Irish affected the rate of their incarceration in Canadian lunatic asylums. Drawing on asylum admission records, case files, annual reports, casebooks, and administrative letters, this paper investigates how being Irish affected the medical treatment offered in Canadian colonial lunatic asylums and the gendered significance these medical determinations had on beliefs about the Irish before Canadian Confederation in 1867.

Jane G. V. McGaughey is the Johnson Chair of Québec and Canadian Irish Studies (2021-26). Her first book, Ulster’s Men: Protestant Unionist Masculinities and Militarization in the North of Ireland, 1912-1923 was published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2012. She was a co-editor of Ireland and Masculinities in History (Palgrave, 2019). Her second monograph, Violent Loyalties: Manliness, Migration, and the Irish in Canadas, 1798-1841, was published with Liverpool University Press in 2020. Other publications include articles on Irish diasporic masculinities at the Battle of Windmill in 1838, Canadian citizenship, Irish Covenanters and Ian Paisley, Ulster masculinities during the Home Rule Crisis and along the Western Front, Irish veterans’ bodies as sites of cultural construction, and transatlantic influences on Canadian masculinities since 1756. In 2015, Jane was elected to a three-year term as the President of the Canadian Association for Irish Studies. She was re-elected to a second term as President in 2018.

The seminar will start at 12:00 noon AEDT (Melbourne); 2:00pm NZDT (Wellington); 8:00pm EST (Ottawa); 1:00am GMT (Dublin). The seminar will also be recorded.

For zoom details RSVP: melbirishstudies [at] gmail.com.
For queries contact: melbirishstudies [at] gmail.com or dianne.hall [at] vu.edu.au