Sunday, 7 September 2014

Grangegorman: 'Personal Effects'

Spilled out onto the floor are boxes and boxes of handbags and small canvas sacks. Photographs of family and loved ones. Rosary beads. Tickets. Silver spoons. Sets of keys, presumably for the hall door. Seashells, lipsticks, mirrors, combs, vanity compacts, birth certs, travel visas, letters, cutlery, cards, false teeth, prayer books and diaries. More letters, case notes, hospital management records.

Taking away someone's handbag and other personal possessions was part of an institutional process of "depersonalising" the person. What does that remind me of? I can't help but think of the trains to concentration camps, the gulags.

Yet this isn't crime fiction from a faraway country. It's a real slice of Ireland's dark history, which took place just around the corner from where I live.

Personal Effects: a History of Possession is an ongoing project by Irish artist Alan Counihan. There's a good video about it here.

It's a stunning series of art installations and exhibitions, based on the personal effects of past patients from the asylums and mental hospitals of Grangegorman on the northside of Dublin. The archives go back almost two centuries.

The following video gives a small taste of what the place was like before the recent renovations (apologies if you find the music a bit ponderous)...

"Research shows that 33,000 patients died in overcrowded and disease-ridden psychiatric hospitals between the late 1920s and early 1960s, with death rates significantly higher than in the general community.
"The State also had the highest rate of admissions to mental hospitals recorded anywhere in the world at the time, peaking in the late 1950s, when more than 20,000 people were resident in these institutions."

-  Carl O’Brien, the Irish Times, 16 June 2014

"Everybody knew what was going on inside those mental hospitals," Alan explained in an interview with The Journal. "You can’t blame the Church. The State government and local families knew what was going on. There were many people who did need care. There were many people because it was so easy to get rid of the 'inconvenient'."

As Alan puts it on his own website:

"In 2010 the entire archives of  the institution variously known as The Richmond Asylum, The Richmond District Lunatic Asylum, Grangegorman Hospital and finally St Brendan’s Hospital, Grangegorman, situated on the north side of the River Liffey in Dublin, Ireland, were retrieved from the attics of an abandoned building on the old hospital’s campus. Described by Brian Donnelly of the National Archives as the most complete institutional record in Ireland, the material offers a fascinating insight into the management of an asylum that shortly after its opening in the early nineteenth century was seen as a model of care throughout Europe but which quickly developed a darker reputation due to overcrowding, mismanagement, political interference and wilful public ignorance. 

"It bears witness to the histories of anonymous persons who lived, and were cared for, within the institution. Their possessions, while charged objects, are totems of the everyday, suggestive of inner lives no less rich nor remarkable than our own and revelatory of stories as much about ourselves and about our society as about their owners. This work is created in response not only to the retrieved possessions but also to their original possessors who were, in turn, possessed by the institution for the duration of their care." 

Today Grangegorman is being turned into a campus for the Dublin Institute of Technology, in a fine restoration project. Yet as Alan's work shows, the ghostly remnants of the past linger on and shouldn't be forgotten.

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