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Members' research

We invite members of the society to discuss their research or to announce their latest publication through a short blog post.

Michael Robinson

"Nobody’s Children": Shell-Shock and Rehabilitation in Ireland, 1918-1938

Shell-shock remains a culturally and historically resonant metaphor of the Great War. This resonance has been undoubtedly influenced by the highly publicised writings of servicemen such as Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon. This understanding was enforced by Pat Barker’s critically and commercially successful Regeneration trilogy. It was, however, only in 2002, with Peter Leese’s Shell Shock: Traumatic Neurosis and the British Soldiers of the First World War, that the first in-depth monograph on Britain’s experience with trauma in the conflict was published. Leese’s work has been subsequently added to a small collection of studies. These British-centric works, however, devote little attention to Ireland. It is this omission that my current PhD project seeks to address.

Shell-shock historians have explained the omission of Ireland by stating the separate volumes of archival material necessitates the nation to have a study of its own. My research has demonstrated that such an assertion is valid. Utilising a broad source base, including regional Ministry of Pensions reports, financial reports, and correspondence from regional Dublin and Belfast Headquarters and the individual pension files of pensioners who returned to Ireland, I argue that the Irish experience of shell-shock does not sit comfortably alongside previous post-war studies into mentally disabled British Great War veterans. They may have experienced the same wartime conditions, and fought in the same uniform, but their homecoming experience was much different.

The hostile revolutionary period, 1918-1923, caused much disruption in the employment and treatment services available to mentally-ill Great War veterans in Ireland. The lack of recognition, employment, training, and treatment facilities resulted in high waiting lists for appropriate psychological treatment in ‘South Ireland’. Yet, the Ministry of Pensions in London attributed the inflated waiting list figures in ‘South Ireland’ to a ‘definitive neurasthenic temperament’ amongst its ex-servicemen which was a long-standing racist assumption. Qualitative and quantitative data which differentiate Ireland from the wider UK context must be contextualised within larger societal and administrative frameworks. Indeed, a study of the Ministry of Pensions archival collection in London demonstrates that pension officials were the target or I.R.A. reprisals which had a detrimental impact on their functioning in Ireland. Correspondence from mentally ill pensioners also demonstrate that they too lived in fear of Republican retribution during this hostile period. This unsuitable homecoming extended to Ulster where shell-shocked Catholic pensioners were subjected to sectarian discrimination by Pensions staff and in-patients undergoing treatment at the one exclusive psychiatric pensions facility in the region were forced to discharge themselves following their reception of anonymous death threats.

The comparatively sedate post-1923 experience of the shell-shocked veteran in both the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland further diversified experience. In Northern Ireland, the government provided employment and training assistance, and its society undertook philanthropic efforts to accommodate ex-servicemen in both the public and the private sector. Conversely, while not discriminating against Great War veterans, the Irish Free State government did not prioritise the pensioner for official employment. The inferior conditions prevalent in the Irish Free State should not, however, detract from disputing claims that British ex-servicemen in the Irish Free State were ‘nobody’s children’ which was the claim of one Irish politician who lobbied on their behalf. Instead, the financial outlay from the Ministry of Pensions for all disabled Great War veterans residing in the Irish Free State, including those mentally ill as a result of war service, far exceeded relative ratios available in the rest of the United Kingdom. While recognising the physical and emotional turmoil that could accompany disability, this pension outlay would have given disabled Great War veterans an integral source of income during a time of widespread unemployment and economic depression.

Finally, after submitting an academic undertaking to access embargoed asylum records in Belfast, Cork and Dublin, my thesis examines the experiences of insane Great War veterans who received treatment in the post-war Irish District Asylum. Ex-servicemen were officially designated as ‘Service Patients’ and treat akin to private patients with the Ministry of Pensions providing the finance. An analysis of the Service Patient scheme in inter-war Ireland provides an interesting insight into the programme. Attempts were made to recognise their army service and to differentiate them from the supposed stigma of pauper lunacy. While the granting of pocket money, private clothing, and a private burial would have been a subjective experience, the Service Patient scheme failed in Ireland. Service Patients were housed amongst pauper patients rather than alongside privately paying patients. Further failings occurred with the delayed granting of tweed suits, which were not uniformly distributed in Ireland until 1930. Indeed, this added benefit was only enjoyed by those whose mental condition was deemed suitable to appreciate the luxury and restricted to leisure time. The same principle applied to the granting of pocket money which offered little in the way of personal control and was conditional on the Service Patient’s mental state. Instead, the most important aspect of the insane patient’s experience was not whether he was described as a Service, Private or Pauper patient but the condition and infrastructure of the asylum in which they were admitted into.

Ultimately, my research provides further evidence of that ‘the historiography of the ‘silent working-class soldier’ has obscured much of what were actually very noisy encounters’.1 With their homecoming experience much different to what was apparent in Britain, Ireland is worthy of a case study of its own.

1. Barham, Forgotten Lunatics of the Great War, p. 315.