Shell-shock is still a culturally and historically resonant metaphor of the Great War. Research into the post-1918 experiences of mentally disabled Great War veterans, however, remains under-developed. Two historians who have tackled this omission head on are Peter Barham and Fiona Reid who, respectively, have analysed the lives of Great War servicemen who were institutionalised within an English asylum and those who returned to civil society. Yet, no historian has devoted any focused attention to shell-shocked veterans outside of England and across the British Empire.
Over the past three years, I have been analysing the post-Armistice experiences of shell-shocked soldiers who returned to Ireland. In a revolutionary period lasting until 1923, these ex-servicemen received an unfortunate homecoming particularly in ‘South Ireland’ and in what was later defined as the Irish Free State. Here, shell-shocked men were viewed with suspicion due to their previous war service. Their sacrifice of ‘nerves’ elicited little sympathy or assistance from the government or wider society.
Some Great War veterans ended up being locked away inside an asylum. In order not to ‘taint’ the insane Great War veteran with the stigma of pauper lunacy, the ‘Service Patient’ scheme was introduced by the Ministry of Pensions throughout the United Kingdom. This enabled ex-servicemen to dress in private clothing, receive a small weekly allowance of pocket money, and to be buried outside the asylum walls if a man died whilst under treatment.
By 1931, 375 ‘Service Patients’ were receiving treatment within Irish Free State mental hospitals. In the absence of segregated facilities, insane Irish Great War veterans were housed alongside the general patient population. As a result, their experience depended almost entirely upon the conditions of the asylum that they were admitted into. Some were lucky enough to have a bed, entertainment facilities, and caring and attentive staff. Others seemingly lived in overcrowded, under-staffed, and filthy surroundings. In addition, not all ‘Service Patients’ were allowed to dress in their own private clothing until 1930, over a decade after the ‘Service Patient’ scheme was introduced in Ireland. Furthermore, they had little choice around how to spend their allowance, which would usually pay for extra food at mealtimes,
Indeed, in comparison to English asylums, the diet and recreational facilities available to Irish ‘Service Patients’ was deemed inferior by the Ministry of Pensions (who continued to inspect ‘Service Patients’ in the Free State throughout the inter-war period). Owing to nineteenth-century discriminatory perceptions of the Irish, little action was taken owing to the unfair stereotype that the Irish could rarely read or write, and largely ate only potatoes. Whilst the First World War was a seismic event in British and Irish history, these perceptions demonstrate how little some things had changed.
University of Liverpool (Institute of Irish Studies)