Review of Criminal Irish drunkards: the inebriate reformatory system 1900-1920 by Dr Fionnuala Walsh, National Library of Ireland

9781845888350CONOR REIDY, Criminal Irish drunkards: the inebriate reformatory system 1900-1920Dublin: History Press, 2014. Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84588-835-0

The history of drunkenness in Ireland and the population’s relationship to alcohol continues to attract interest and debate. Conor Reidy’s study of the inebriate reformatory system during the years 1900 to 1920 is a valuable addition to this scholarship. Rather than serving as another history of the temperance movement, Reidy attempts something different and innovative: to understand the world of the inmates of inebriety institutions. He places the focus on the individual men and women who became criminal drunkards rather than a history of the reformatory system. It thus provides a fascinating glimpse into the lives of these people, people who too often are relegated to the fringes of history or treated in a top-down approach.

Reidy has made tremendous use of a fascinating source in the Irish National Archives –the records of the General Prisons Board. The availability of sources has resulted in an emphasis on the Ennis reformatory but Reidy uses a diverse range of sources to also examine reformatories in Belfast, Wexford and Waterford. The strength of the empirical research of the book is evident in the endnotes of the chapters and the expansive bibliography. However, it wears its considerable research lightly and is written in a direct accessible style.

In the first four chapters Reidy outlines the history of the inebriate reformatory system in Ireland and describes in detail the institutions in Ennis, Waterford, Wexford and Belfast. He provides a comprehensive picture of life in the reformatory with interesting details regarding, for example, the typical meals served to inmates. In the final three chapters Reidy places the focus on the experiences of the inmates, using a number of case studies drawn from the files to examine the inmate before, during and after admission where possible.  He also analyses the gendered nature of the Irish inebriate reformatory system, noting that far more women were admitted as drunkards to reformatories than men during the period under examination. Reidy’s discussion of the different attitudes towards male and female drunkards is most interesting as an insight into perceptions of masculinity and femininity in early twentieth century Ireland.

The stories of the individual men and women confined to the reformatories are particularly valuable. They are outlined in detail in chapters 5 and 6, and these together with the direct accessible style make the book very readable, broadening its audience beyond the strictly academic. The History Press have produced an attractive publication which includes twelve images, including many of the inmates, further aiding the focus on the individual experiences.

The individual stories reveal the harsh reality of life for many Irish families during this period. For example, the case of Mary, committed to Ennis reformatory in 1908 aged sixty-seven, is particularly sad. Mary was from a respectable background; her husband was a tailor and she had expertise in knitting, crochet and lace-making. The hardship of her life however is evident from the fact that of the ten children born to her, just three had survived infancy. Of these three, one daughter was in an asylum, another in a workhouse and her only son was described as a ‘hopeless drunkard’. Mary’s descent into alcoholism is thus perhaps understandable.

What about the context beyond the reformatory? The period covered by the book was a very tumultuous one in Irish history, featuring war and revolution. How did this affect the reformatory system? Although the Great War is frequently mentioned as a factor in the closure of the various institutions due to diversion of funds and government interest, and the wartime inflation, it appears to have little impact on the inmates and their circumstances. Indeed Reidy states in his preface that war and political violence appear to have little discernable impact upon events and lives chronicled in the book, that the Great War and subsequent political violence played no role in the admissions to the reformatories nor were explicitly referenced in the records.

This is itself worthy of attention given recent scholarship revealing the extent of the war’s impact on everyday life and the probable link between trauma and alcoholism. It is also somewhat surprising given the focus during the Great War on ‘separation women’ –soldiers’ wives accused of spending their separation allowances on excessive drinking. Although recent research indicates that the problem was greatly exaggerated by the contemporary press and later commentators, it is nevertheless very interesting that no impact is evident in the wartime records of this discourse. This would seem to support the case that the war had little transformative effect on women’s drinking habits but rather brought greater surveillance to women. I would have liked a little more engagement with this scholarship and with the world outside the reformatories. While political events and global war may not be evident in the records, they nonetheless affected the lives of the inmates.

Reidy very helpfully places the establishment of the Irish reformatory system in its British and American context. However the reader is left wondering to what extent the situation discussed in the book was specific to Ireland or part of a wider international phenomenon. The particularities of Irish drunkards are hinted at in Chapter 1 when it is suggested that the Irish were particularly known for being violent drunks. This could be explored further together with the impact of such perceptions (or realities) on the attitudes towards punishment and reform of criminal drunkards in Ireland. The role of religion in affecting attitudes towards drunkenness could also merit further discussion, while not detracting from the focus on the inmates themselves.

These are minor quibbles however. This is a fascinating book, which greatly adds to our knowledge and understanding of the history of drunkenness in Ireland, thus contributing to fields of social and cultural history as well as gender studies.