The Project

© Jane McGaughey

Gender, Migration & Madness examines how the medical treatment of Irish men and Irish women in nineteenth-century Canadian lunatic asylums was framed by considerations of gender, migration, ethnicity, sexuality, and colonial presumptions about mental illness. The project was supported in part by funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

While the confined Irish overseas have received in-depth scholarly attention in other countries, especially the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, there has been a significant lack of Canadian focus on Irish asylum admissions in the era of the Great Famine.

Over the course of the past two centuries — if not longer — Irish people have been depicted in many sources as particularly prone to mental illness, both at home in Ireland and overseas. Refugees from the Great Irish Famine (1845-51) were often seen by imperial authorities and new host societies as poor, starving, and diseased arrivals who were unable to adapt to the physical, emotional, and mental hardships of eviction and emigration.

Our main focus so far has been on three institutional case studies between 1841 and 1868: the Beauport Lunatic Asylum outside of Québec City, the Provincial Lunatic Asylum in Toronto, and the Rockwood Lunatic Asylum for the Criminally Insane in Kingston. These three asylums were key institutions in pre-Confederation Canada — the period before 1867 — and were located in Canada East (Québec) and Canada West (Ontario).

One of the key aims of this project is to bring more attention to Canadian case studies that highlight the connections between colonial-era migration, gender, and “madness.” By doing this, we hope to reveal new histories about what it meant to be Irish in the Canadas.

Key Questions:

  • What significance did the Great Irish Famine have on rates of Irish confinement in the Canadian asylum system?
  • How do themes of gender and Irishness contribute to Canadian histories of migration, class, and insanity in the Irish Diaspora?
  • How do stories of the Irish in Canadian colonial lunatic asylums compare to other parts of the Irish Diaspora?