Delving into the world of 1930s mental asylums

Author Jimmy Smyth
Author Jimmy Smyth

County Down author Jimmy Smyth’s new book The Journey has been years in the making.

What started out as an idea whilst working in the National Health Service is now a powerful story highlighting the plight of women at the mercy of mental health asylums in the 1930s.

The Journey by Jimmy Smyth, now available on

The Journey by Jimmy Smyth, now available on

Jimmy, 68, from Kilkeel (now living in Newcastle)is not just a writer, he’s an acomplished counsellor and mindfulness teacher.

Building on a lengthy career in the mental health field Jimmy wanted to bring to life the truth of what it was like for women considered “mad” or “crazy” in the 30s.

He explained: “ I met a beautiful, wonderful lady, in her late seventies who at seventeen years of age had her one week old baby dragged from her arms before she was incarcerated in a lunatic asylum, where she would spend the rest of her life - over 60 years.

“She was an amazing and great lady and she never left my mind.

“My research started when I worked as a psychiatric nurse and on reading about this era in particular I was shocked and horrified by how women had been treated, worse than animals, under mental health legislation and the majority of these asylums were worse than Nazi concentration camps.”

Also the author of Don’t Let The Health Service Kill You, Jimmy is passionate about empowering people today with the knowledge of how they can improve their own healthcare through education.

Back then, he reveals, it wasn’t as easy to ensure a person was treated fairly and justly.

“I spent most of my working life, as a psychiatric nurse and a senior mental health social worker, in Downshire Psychiatric Hospital in Downpatrick.

“The Downshire opened in 1869 and for most of its life was Down Lunatic Asylum.

“Back in those days, throughout the UK and Ireland, asylums housed many secrets: many of them horrific acts of brutality, torture and inhumane treatments of human beings; mostly women: both the mentally ill and many thousands of mentally normal people, who were held prisoner in these hellholes, just because they were considered social embarrassments.

“Young normal healthy women, many of whom were victims of rape, spent the rest of their lives in these living hells, never to see or hear of their babies again.

“I wanted to highlight themes such as injustice, brutality, poverty, hardship and the power of the human spirit to overcome almost anything.

“I chose this era because it was a time, not that far back, when young people found the courage to dream and to believe in a better life; in spite of the odds being stacked against them.

“They were true pioneers.

“I hope The Journey will encourage others to look more closely at the lives of so many people who had their freedom stolen and their lives destroyed by society.”

The Journey centres around young Mary Harper, a 17-year-old teenager who has already led a full and hectic life; surviving poverty, hardship and an alcoholic father to become a beautiful, charismatic and charming young woman.

In the story Mary has a job that she loves; her first boyfriend; wonderful caring friends and money to spend - at last everything is seemingly perfect.

However, that was until one fateful night when Mary’s world comes crashing down around her. Having been brutally raped, The Journey recounts the story of “how Mary slowly becomes stripped of everything that made her life great - her happiness, her freedom, her family, her friends and finally, her sanity” said Jimmy.

He added: “After her rapist poisons her father’s mind with vicious lies; a now-pregnant Mary gets a diagnosis that will change her life forever and once she’s locked up in the Lunatic Asylum, it seems like Mary has lost all hope of ever living a normal, happy life.”

The book goes on to ask “what happens to her child and how she will cope with the violence, abuse and brutal so-called treatments in the Asylum?

“Will Mary ever be free from the ‘Big House’?

“Will she ever find the love and happiness that she deserves and so desperately craves?” said Jimmy.

Set in the rural region of Kilbarra in the 1930’s: The Journey will take you back to a time when life was harder, tougher, and much more challenging.

Closely following Mary’s sad story; the lives of her mother, sister, two brothers and the illegal antics of her alcoholic father.

This book will draw you into the lives of these characters and the intriguing ways of a small rural community.

The Journey (£9.99) is available now from