Margaret Hawkins,
Restless Spirit:
The Story of Rose Quinn

(Mercier, 2006)

We are all fascinated to varying degrees by the stories of our ancestors -- there are major television series, websites and magazines dedicated to this aspect of history. We have heard or read about the lives of the great and the good and the not-so-good, but what about the ordinary and the forgotten?

No one was more readily forgotten in old -- and not so old -- Ireland than the mentally ill. They were seen as a stigma on a family if they were seen at all. Such an attitude is hard to excuse, although we must not always judge our forebears by the standards of today -- a common fault in history. It is all the more difficult to condone when we look deeper into the situation -- as this excellent book does -- and find how many were locked in the asylum not for mental health reasons but for morality, spite, greed and a dozen other selfish reasons.

The book is well researched and written, although the construction can sometimes confuse. This is because author Margaret Hawkins gives us a sort of "faction" story in parts. She uses her research to present the story as just that -- a story. From meticulous research she has unearthed the facts of life in Wexford around 1907 and of how people lived in the asylum at St Senan's and the workhouse at New Ross. The character, Rose, is presented to us in some chapters like a person in a novel and this works very well to draw us into her life. The depiction of life in Rosegarland and the military training camp near Bannow come alive in these chapters.

Equally fascinating are the chapters detailing the start of the search for a great-aunt forgotten by her family. We get the insights, the extraordinary spiritual connections, the excitement, the frustration and finally the triumph.

We are intrigued by references to people and places we know so well in Wexford. We watch the sad tale unfold, knowing the outcome but wanting it to be different.

This is a story that needed to be told, not just for the immediate family involved but also for the hundreds of people who suffered similar fates in asylums, orphanages and other institutions. It is a lesson to us that, despite all our current tribulations, we are better off than we were 99 years ago in Wexford.

by Nicky Rossiter
27 May 2006

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