As a reading and viewing public, we have become jaded with ever-more dramatic and graphic renderings of violent crime. Television routinely shows torture, imprisonment, even dismemberment - a recent series of Dexter featured all three at once - and hardly an eyebrow is raised. Where once we had merely the discovery of bodies in drawing rooms, "done in" with the proverbial blunt instrument, detective stories now outline the minutiae of slow slaughter, apparently received with unquestioning relish. Audiences seem willing to accept any manner of murder; indeed, the more perverse the better.
It is therefore something of a peculiar relief to turn to Pauline Prior's study of criminal lunatics in 19th-century Ireland, a very specific cohort of patients admitted to the Central Criminal Asylum in Dundrum, Dublin, from its opening in 1850. I say relief, for despite the accounts of murders, many of them dreadfully distressing, the rich source material that accompanied the patients offer contexts and detail. And if they do not explain why a particular crime was committed, these force us to try to comprehend the circumstances under which individuals with mental illness laboured throughout this period.
One cannot but be touched by the many cases of dreadful distress recounted here. The majority of the Dundrum inmates had been convicted of murder or serious assaults: many were traumatised to the extent that they could remember little of the events. Prior strives to find a balance between the criminal, the victim, and often the victim's family, and permit each to "speak" their perspective of the crime.
The famous Galway doctor Terence Brodie is a case in point. Convicted of murdering his wife in 1886 - and the testimony from his servants of how he drunkenly taunted her before her shooting, is truly harrowing - Brodie spent only five years in Dundrum before being discharged and emigrating to South Africa. His release (secured through influential connections) was vigorously opposed by his wife's family, who also objected to the fact that he continued to enjoy a substantial income from her estate. Yet the reader's response to this apparent case of gender and class inequality is complicated by the fact that Brodie had himself suffered dreadful trauma.
He had lost his entire first family in the space of two months in 1879: two young sons to diphtheria in November, followed by his wife and her newborn infant just weeks later. His surviving daughter was taken to Dublin to be raised by an aunt, leaving him alone (and drinking heavily) in Galway. The doomed second marriage thus had a context that causes the reader to pause before rushing to judgment, and demonstrates the complexity that lies behind the blunt category of "criminal lunatic".
The great strength of this book lies in the extensive use of, and quotation from, the archive at Dundrum. One would like to have seen a greater degree of engagement with 19th-century social and political change, and the impact that had on the asylum system as a whole in Ireland, and Dundrum in particular.
The manner in which it moved from being a model institution for the care and rehabilitation of dangerous lunatics, to a mere place of incarceration, is intimately linked with changing attitudes towards state medical interventions in Ireland, and the purpose of the asylum system as a whole. It would have been fascinating to see that analysed in greater detail.
That said, this is a fine book that brings new sources to light and tells us a great deal about both the nature and treatment of insanity, and of Irish society in the 19th century as a whole.
Madness and Murder: Gender, Crime and Mental Disorder in Nineteenth-Century Ireland
By Pauline Prior. Irish Academic Press. 258pp, £45.00 and £19.95. ISBN 9780716529378 and 9385. Published 10 April 2008