The habitual use of alcohol in any degree over the strictest moderation in my opinion and experience, certainly tends to bring on the signs of old age before their time. Grey hairs, disinclination to muscular exercise and mental exertion, blurred facial expression, loss of keenness of eye, loss of memory, diminution of the usual interest of life, selfishness, are all more apt to come before their time in the man given to take a “little too much.”[1]

Sir Thomas Clouston M.D., Fifth Norman Kerr Memorial Lecture, 3 November1913

Those who generated the admission records of the drunkards admitted to the State Inebriate Reformatory for Ireland at Ennis had an uncanny ability to describe them in the most unflattering terms. An almost complete ‘before’ history of a typical inmate seemed to represent all the negative aspects of their existence, their actions and their life events. While it is true that the impoverished labouring classes of early twentieth-century Ireland probably did not have much to be cheerful about, it is revealing that officialdom tended to represent the criminal classes in almost wholly unflattering terms.

When William C became drunk he was ‘unruly, foolish and disorderly’. William was convicted of attempted suicide and being a habitual drunkard at the Tullamore Quarter Sessions in June 1914 and was sentenced to the maximum three years in Ennis.[2] He was thirty-two years old, single and a labourer. William was born in Mountmellick in the midland county of Laois, known at the time as Queen’s County. Upon returning from nine or ten years of foreign service with the British army he was a changed character and claimed that as a result of suffering sunstroke in India he no longer knew what he did when he took alcohol.

One of the complicating factors of this case was the fact that William suffered from epilepsy and almost always experienced attacks when he was drunk. The attacks were prolonged and left him ‘in a feeble and miserable state’. In the aftermath of his drinking binges William was typically demoralised and unhappy and it was believed that he suffered from deep self-loathing as a result of his actions. At least one aspect, and possibly more, of his physical and mental state fit a contemporary diagnosis on habitual drunkenness posited by the British Inspector of Inebriate Reformatories, R.W. Branthwaite some years earlier. Branthwaite outlined a number of ‘predisposing and exciting causes of mental defect in habitual drunkards’. They were as follows;

  1. A neurotic heredity, especially of mental disease, epilepsy, or similar defect which has caused drunkenness in forbears.
  2. Imperfect nutrition during foetal life, and the influence of alcohol-drinking by the mother during pregnancy.
  3. Injury at birth.
  4. The administration of alcohol during infancy.
  5. Falls, blows, or other injury, and bad feeding or general neglect during childhood.
  6. Any shock, injury, or disease during later life which affects the nervous organization injuriously, and thereby impairs vitality and resistance to impulses.[3]

In a story that was replicated multiple times across, not only the inebriate reformatories, but the prisons in Ireland, William passed through a familiar pattern. He worked in the country as a labourer. When he had enough money saved he would come to the nearest town, get drunk, fall in to the hands of the police. ‘He had’, declared the admission records at Ennis, ‘no power to resist drinking to excess when he had the means or opportunity’. He held thirty prior convictions for a range of offences.[4] After one year and 322 days in the state reformatory William was released on licence on 19 April 1916. As an aside and in the interest of providing context for this momentous day in his life, William was released less than a week before the Easter Rising in Ireland.

 Under the terms of his discharge licence it was agreed that William would travel to Offaly, the county adjacent to his native Laois, where he would work as a labourer for a farming couple, the Mathers, who had agreed to take him in. In advance of the discharge Mr Mather wrote to Governor King at Ennis and pledged to do all in his power to keep his charge in order. There was a quid-pro-quo involved in this arrangement. Mather confirmed that because of the late-spring he badly needed labour on the farm. It was, therefore, in his interest to keep the man sober and free.[5] Mr Mather met his new employee at a train station on the day of his release as arranged. Expectations were high. Alas, William was ‘greatly under the influence of drink’ and demanded a portion of the £2-14-0 that was sent to his guardian by the reformatory. Mather refused to give him any money and later returned the cheque to the governor.

Branthwaite’s article in the British Journal of Inebriety as cited in this post features several mugshots of convicted women while the only representation of the male is this line-drawing.

By this time, the structuring of the Inebriate Act (1898) guideline on sentencing was already being challenged in forums such as the British Society for the Study of Inebriety in London. In 1914, J.W. Astley Cooper, the Medical Superintendent of Ghyllwood Sanatorium for Inebriates in Cumberland condemned the practice of sending an inebriate to an institution for a specified time period. He argued that there was no other pathological condition, either mental or physical, where a patient was sent for a fixed period, discharged or indeed kept for the full duration (in the case of a court-imposed sentence), and then deed to be cured. All institutions ran programmes that allowed a cure to occur at a different pace and detaining inebriates for pre-set time periods did not take account of the individual and their capacity for progress. The judgement on when a person leaves such an institution, he claimed, should be left to those who have a frontline view of each individual case. He also railed against a long detention on the grounds that a person may break their addiction sooner but the extended duration in custody may prove counterproductive.[6] William was one of numerous cases from Ennis who emerged off the train drunk on the day of discharge after months or even years in custody and completely separated from alcohol.

After an ‘impertinent’ initial encounter William stayed with his guardians for the first night. The following morning he again demanded his portion of the money but Mr Mather refused and promised to clarify the situation with the reformatory. He then chastised William for his behaviour telling him ‘it was a poor return for all my trouble…and I got drenched with the rain going to meet him’. William argued that he was too unwell to go to work and so would ‘go and list’ instead. This was the end of their brief but boisterous association and William left the house. They subsequently reported him to the Killeigh Police Station as he had breached the terms of his licence, in their opinion.

One curious feature of Mather’s report to the governor is his repeated apologies for the trouble that the incident caused the reformatory. This phenomenon is evident in many cases of the employers of discharged inebriates. As they are benefitting to varying extents from the labour that these individuals will provide they fail to notice that they themselves are providing a considerable service to society by effectively agreeing to oversee the aftercare of these troubled individuals. In agreeing to do this they were effectively taking a potentially costly task off the hands of government and philanthropy.

Two days later the police confirmed this course of events to Governor King and revealed that William was known to be seeking work in his native Mountmellick. This was the last that was heard of him by the reformatory for ten months when the police confirmed that he had since joined the 5th Leinster Regiment in Mountmellick and was attested in Maryborough on 21 April 1916. This was a day after leaving the home of the Mathers. Until November 1916 he was stationed at the famous Curragh Camp army base in nearby Kildare after which he was moved to the frontlines of the First World War. No further account of his progress was submitted to the General Prisons Board until February 1919, at which time Ennis inebriate reformatory was already closed. Police Sergeant Leonard reported that William C. was killed in action in France in 1918 ‘after earning a glorious record for bravery and merit’.[7] William is commemorated in the Irish First World War Memorial Records. His reg. number was 5519 and he held the rank of Private. He died from his wounds on 30 May 1918.[8] William, it appears, was one of those inebriates whose entire adult life was defined by turbulence. Ironically, he could only be redeemed by a so-called glorious death in the midst of the greatest turbulence that he or anyone else had ever known.

[1] Thomas Clouston, ‘Some of the psychological and clinical aspects of alcohol’, British Journal of Inebriety, 11, 3 (January 1914), 119.

[2] State Inebriate Reformatory for Ireland, Register of Inmates, 1914. Under the Inebriates Act 1898 a convicted person could only be detained in the state reformatory if they were also proven to be, and subsequently convicted of being a habitual drunkard.

[3] R.W. Branthwaite, ‘Inebriety: its causation and control’, British Journal of Inebriety, 5, 3 (January 1908), 122.

[4] State Inebriate Reformatory for Ireland, Casebook, 1914. The Casebook, as a source will be explored further on this website at a future date.

[5] State Inebriate Reformatory for Ireland, Casebook, 1916.

[6] J.W. Astley Cooper, ‘The care and control of inebriate men’, British Journal of Inebriety, 11, 4 (1914), 183.

[7] State Inebriate Reformatory for Ireland, Casebook, 1916.

[8] Ireland’s Memorial Records, 1914-1918.