The Case Of Anna Eakins

26 June 2013, 22:03

The Irish Deaf Archives: Anna Eakins, a Deaf woman in the ‘Idiot Ward’

The Irish Deaf Archives has plenty of information about many different types of Deaf people, and it is from the information that we can work out and imagine what life must have been like for these people. This article will talk about Anna Eakins, who was put in the Idiot Ward of Carrickmacross Workhouse. (the part of the workhouse that functioned as a lunatic asylum, or mental hospital). She must have had a hard life, but we will let you decide for yourselves. Here is the information on Anna.

Anna was born on 4 Sep 1878 to George Eakins and Catherine Gartlan, and was their first child. She was admitted to St. Mary’s school for deaf girls, in Cabra, Dublin, as a pupil in June 1889. She was registered as coming from the townland of Maghcross, and was referred to the school by the Board of Guardians of Carrickmacross Union. Unfortunately, she left St Mary’s before she completed her education.

Little is known of her activities after she left school. She ended up back in Monaghan, and entered the Carrickmacross Union Workhouse in about 1898. In the 1901 census, we see that she is living at the Union Workhouse as an inmate. She was listed as being ‘able to work’ and a lace worker, a skill she must have learnt at St Mary’s in Cabra.

In the same year, Anna’s parents and four younger sisters were still living at home in the townland of Rahans, near Carrickmacross. We don’t know why she wasn’t living with them at home. Anna’s parents and family eventually left Ireland and emigrated to the United States. Her family did not have much money at the time of emigration. By 1904 all family members except Anna were living in Melrose, Massachusetts, and their descendants are probably still living in the USA today. However, Anna was left behind at the Carrickmacross Union workhouse. Reasons for this could only be surmised at, but Anna was left behind, while her parents and siblings created new lives for themselves in America. It is possible that the Eakins family did send for her after they left; Anna later wrote in a letter that “my parents sent me my passage ticket to take me away to America, but the Master sent it back and won’t let me go”. However it is also true that Anna seemed to believe her family emigrated in 1897, whereas it was not until 1902 they started to emigrate. Was she told the truth by her family? In any case, there is no record of Anna travelling to America after this point, so she probably never got to see her family again.

Life for Anna at the Carrickmacross Workhouse seems to have been hard for her, but then it was a hard life in a workhouse at the turn of the century. There were more than 100 people in this workhouse, with 12 people in the separate ‘idiot ward’ or lunatic asylum. Workhouses were not as busy in the 1900s as they were a few decades before, but they were still very harsh places and most people did not go there unless it was very necessary.

It seems Anna made lives hard for the other people living at the workhouse, the other inmates, with her difficult behaviour. In 1906, she assaulted another woman with a fire shovel, and at the resulting court case, the following was said: “The Master said that the girl Eakins was of a highly excitable nature and unless placed under restraint might commit serious injury”. She was also reported to have treated all written orders by the court with haughty disdain. When people criticized the workhouse for prosecuting her, it transpired that the doctor called for the prosecution.

In 1907 her behaviour became so bad at the Union Workhouse, being so violent and writing foul language on the walls of the ward, that the other female inmates became terrified of her. She was brought to court by the Workhouse. At first, there was a call for an interpreter, but then it was decided to ask questions of Anna using pen and paper; this seemed to work smoothly.

The staff at the Workhouse had decided to make allowances for her and treat her kindly because she was “deaf and dumb”. When the court asked Anna if this was true, she said it was. However, as she became a threat to other people, the Workhouse doctor had no option but to put her in the Idiot ward (the lunatic asylum part of the Workhouse), for the safety of the others. Unfortunately, this was not good enough as Anna wasn’t forcibly restrained from leaving the ward. After being put in the Idiot Ward, her behaviour became much worse until one day she walked out of the Idiot ward and into one of the other wards at the Workhouse, carrying a pile of stones. She started to throw stones at the three people there, assaulting them. She wrote in her defence: “That is all lies. Why do they let those three old dirty tramps into my ward?” She then claimed she had been deserted by her parents but that she would go to them, if she was released.

Anna called everyone at the workhouse ‘tramps’, which might explain her disdain for them, but questions have to be raised as to possible provocations that triggered her behaviour, for example, how other people treated her or behaved towards her that made her violent. What is apparent is that she might have had mental health issues with behavioural symptoms. Hence the decision to send her to the Idiot ward makes a lot of sense to people at the time. During the court case, Anna was portrayed in a bad light as being a defiant woman. When the court officers gave her the note informing her of her two weeks sentence in Armagh Jail to read, it is reported that Anna flung it aside after reading it, and walked off towards the dock.

The following year saw some more action. On November 14, 1908, Anna wrote a letter of complaint to the Board of Guardians of the Carrickmacross UnionWorkhouse. In her letter she wrote: “The Master of this Union is very bad to me because he won’t let me go to America to my father and mother who are there eleven years”. She also alleged that he did not allow her to work to raise a living for herself, and that he held her ticket (for America), and refused to give it to her. She stated quite adamantly that the Idiot Ward was not the place for her, that she should be put back in the general Workhouse. She said:

“I am one year in the idiot ward. I was sent here from the workhouses last year by the Master because I abused the workhouse matron, Sister M Bonaventure, and called her dirty names. I don’t like this lunatic ward, for I and all in it get the worst treatment, and I have to sew and work hard from morning until night. I was in the workhouse for ten years and liked it splendidly. It is lovely in the workhouse. Many a time I asked the master to forgive me for abusing the matron Sister M Bonaventure, and let me back to the lovely workhouse, or change me to some part of the hospital from this lunatic ward, but is too hard, and said “no”.”

The Guardians laughed at her letter but instructed the Master to allow her be hired out. He claimed that she hasn’t been prevented yet, but he would allow her find employment. The Master was also instructed to inform Anna’s parents in America of the situation. The response to her letter might have been the reason behind her next violent episode a month later. She assaulted two women and broke nine panes of glass windows at the Workhouse. She was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment for each offence, consecutively. Her angry reply at this was: “I will kill the tramps who unjustly sent me to jail.”

When one looks at the 1911 census, she is back in the Idiot Ward of the Workhouse. Her mother died just a couple of months later. It is possible that Anna never knew.

Looking at the overall pattern, the picture is of a Deaf woman who is portrayed as an angry, violent woman left behind at the workhouse while her family left Ireland for a better life in America. Her term for the inmates, ‘tramps’, reminds one of fastidious nuns with a dislike of unkemptness, quite possibly influenced by the nuns at Cabra. There seems to be more going on than what is shown in the files, but going by what we have, Anna Eakins was a deeply unhappy woman with serious issues in her life.

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