Emigration is part of the Irish story. While many leave to start a new life and succeed in ways they never could at home, for some, the story is often a sad one. This is shown in a particularly poignant way in the Victoria Mental Health Institutions collection...
In Australia, it was understood that moving to a new country could be traumatic. The first major medical conference, held in Melbourne in 1889, contained important papers on the psychology of immigration.
In those days racial psychological profiling was all the rage, so the theory went that individual races were particularly prone to specific mental illnesses. Despite this, they were also looking at the effects of colonial expansion on the human mind.
It was a pressing concern. Australia was, and is, the fourth most popular immigrant destination. According to the 1861 Census, more than 70% of the population of Victoria was born outside Australia, mostly in England, Scotland and Ireland, although this percentage dropped sharply after 1870.
In 1861 more than 70% of the population of Victoria was born outside Australia
According to a paper presented at that Melbourne conference in 1889, 77% of the inmates of Australia's 18 public lunatic asylums were immigrants, while at that point the immigrant population as part of the general population was around 33%. The Irish formed the largest group of inmates at 27%, closely followed by England and Wales at 23% and Scotland at 6%.
The conference also looked at the illnesses suffered by the inmates and it was found that the largest percentage suffered from delusional behaviour and paranoia. In a strange, unknown country they were likely to become "suspicious" and suffer from "false beliefs".
Irish names in the Yarra Bend asylum 1870
At this point in the 19th century Victoria had the largest population of mental health patients with 3,300 patients housed in 16 over crowded institutions. In 1889 they estimated that 1 in every 300 Victorians had spent time in a mental health institution.
In a strange, unknown country they were likely to become "suspicious" and suffer from "false beliefs"
Take Cornelius Reilly, an inmate of the Beechworth asylum in 1887. The 40 year old labourer, who had been born in Ireland, was brought in by police believing that he was being punished for disloyalty.
Cornelius Reilly 1887 recorded at the Beechworth asylum
But the Irish connection to the Victoria Mental Health institutions goes further than just the inmates. Entries in the various registers often name family members and previous addresses which can open doors for new avenues of research. But the Irish were also well represented among the staff of the institutions in the 19th century. There were many Irish doctors and attendants in the asylums and many Irish police officers as well, who played an important part in the committal process.
Coming from largely rural Ireland, with its rain and low grey skies, the Australian sky must have seemed impossibly big, the sun must have seemed impossibly bright
If you have hit a dead end finding your Irish ancestors after they moved to Australia then why not see if they had needed help from one of Victoria's mental health institutions? Coming from largely rural Ireland, with its rain and low grey skies, the Australian sky must have seemed impossibly big, the sun must have seemed impossibly bright.
Making a new life in an alien landscape must have been a huge strain if you were used to knowing everyone you met from day to day. Many of those who spent time in the 19th century Victorian mental health system were released but others stayed until they died.
These new records shine a light on those for who emigration took a heavy toll and could solve long standing mysteries. If your family left Ireland for Victoria and some got lost along the way, then perhaps you'll find them here.