From So Little Sleeping


Cleveland Irish” From So Little Sleeping and So Much Reading
By Francis McGarry

It is not every day that I have the pleasure of entertaining my Aunt Irene.  However, my cousin Steven texted the other day and that does not happen every day either.  Steven is her youngest and is in school and has the tendency to overindulge in academics.  Perhaps a common trait in the family, but a less common focus. 

He wants to be a structural engineer and is definitely smart enough to be a structural engineer.  As Aunt Irene observes, “The kid is a bit up tight.”  When he was much younger, he became aware that some people enumerate the manner in which they eliminate body waste.  Steven expanded upon the simple one, two, and composed a detailed list that had, last I heard, surpassed 200. At least now he is focusing on engineering. 

When I was in grad school at University of Chicago, I noticed similar students.  There were undergrads who had never had a grad lower than an A who could not deal with a B.  My streak ended in the second grade, based on the E to A conversion.  You punch one janitor and that justifies a S- in conduct?  I was never a fan of Cal Ripken, Jr. anyway.

University of Chicago students did tend to suffer more mental health issues compared to undergraduates, in my experience.  The University of Chicago has one of the highest suicide rates of American universities.  In general, suicide is 10th in cause of death in the US, yet 2nd for college-aged students. 

Do not get me wrong; my cousin Steven is not there.  However, it is noticeable how the last year of lockdown has exacerbated some of his control tendencies and challenged his meticulous nature.  Aunt Irene is optimistically anticipating his return to campus and that the new normal resembles in some way the old normal. 

At least he can again interact with others who appreciate the mechanics of deformable soils and fracture mechanics.  Aunt Irene is also old school and contributes most of Steven “in a funk” to the winter in Cleveland, especially since Lebron left.  Aunt Irene likes the Cavs and has the ability to inject Ron Harper into any conversation. 

After hanging up the phone with her, I began to appreciate the effect the last year has had on folks and began to ponder how a historical event like the Famine would have on individuals.  There are quite a few books on Irish history that I have read and I struggle to recall discussions on mental health.  Emile Durkheim’s Suicide: A Study in Sociology and Louis Perez’s To Die in Cuba: Suicide and Society is all that came to mind. 

Durkheim was required reading for social sciences and Perez’s work discussed how Cuban women, primarily, would publicly set themselves on fire.  My interest was more in general mental health and the Famine. 

Health at a Glance: Europe provided some data to juxtapose current and historical narratives.  2018 statistics, devoid of Covid influenced cases, places Ireland with the lowest percentage of psychological distress symptoms. 


Prevalence of psychological distress symptoms, 2018




Not surprisingly, that refutes some “professional” opinions of the 19th Century.  Those Irish immigrants admitted to asylum in Liverpool were ascribed with a variety of degenerate behaviors and hereditary peculiarities, including immorality, intemperance and violence.  It was believed that these traits were denotable in the facial features of Irish patients. 

Patrick Gibney in 1873 was “quite demented and resembles more a monkey than a human being.”  Bridget Devaney in 1874 displayed a “head small and ill shaped with a forehead narrow” and perhaps more pertinent to her placement, the use of profanity “in her native and adopted tongue.”  Newspapers described the Irish as “wild Frankenstein’s monsters” or “half-crazed Fenian monkeys.”

The monumental migration of the Irish to England coincided with exceptionally high rates of institutionalization.  Many were transferred from the workhouses and admitted in a poor state of physical health.  In 1861, nearly nineteen percent of the population of Liverpool was Irish born, and they comprised half of the asylum population.  As the influx of Famine immigrants lessened, the Irish percentage in the asylum did not. 

19th century Newfoundland reported over forty percent of its asylum population as Irish born.  Nova Scotia reported nineteen percent of its institutionalized population was Irish born, compared tothree3 percent of its general population.  New South Wales witnessed twenty-five of its patients as Irish born.  In general, single males and females comprised about half the Irish admissions. 

However, a greater comparative percentage were widows.  Each context social bias had its role; the Irish were “degraded and had dirty habits.”  “The Irish peasant, in his native country, has a marked immunity from these fatal forms of brain disorders.”

Those common comments denote the bias of the time and simultaneously illustrate the fact that the Irish immigrant was a foreigner.  Cultural change despite a varying degree of familiarity caused stress. 

It is the comparison of behaviors that denotes some as bizarre.  It was not much better in Ireland under English rule.  The Dangerous Lunatic Act 1838 allowed person thought to be a danger to themselves or others committed to jail and/or the “lunatic asylum.” 

In America, the first study of “insanity” was in 1854 Massachusetts.  Physicians reported, “one in ten are idiots or at least no better.  Three fourths of the remaining Irish importations, are monomaniacs, being dupes of Catholic Priests.” 

That bias, in a more modern lexicon, continued 120 years later.  Historians noted that psychiatric treatment rates of Irish Americans far exceed other ethnic groups.  They concluded that was due to lack of social mobility.  More recent scholarship shows this to be hokum. 

There is more general scholarship on immigration, culture and mental health.   It includes some of the bigger words I like to use and an adequate amount of over analysis.  Those readings did not assist with the attempt to empathize with the mental aspects of Famine, both for those who remained in Ireland and those who migrated. 

The bias of the time increases the difficulty of comprehension the singular issue. I do recall my great aunt Kay being called a “crazy Irish lady” and I did find another great aunt who was in the asylum in Pennsylvania for a few years.  Sometimes anecdotal data is all you can trust. 

In the end, Steven will return to analyzing statically determinate trusses and I will get my second shot.  Then Aunt Irene and I can go back to sipping whiskey on the porch and critiquing my uncle, with a more compassionate lens as he curses the lawn.   

*Francis McGarry holds undergraduate degrees from Indiana University in Anthropology, Education and History and a Masters in Social Science from the University of Chicago.  He is an assistant principal and history teacher.  Francis is a past president of the Irish American Club East Side.  He is the founder and past president of the Bluestone Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.   

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