Stalking Irish Madness


Patrick Tracey's first book, "Stalking Irish Madness: Searching for the Roots of My Family's Schizophrenia," is a memoir, a research document, a medical ethnography, and certainly a page-turner. As Tracey says, "There's many, many ways to write a book about schizophrenia. But I had my story to tell and to tell it this certain way."

The story Tracey has to tell is one that begins years ago, with a woman named Mary Egan. The Egan line is the one Tracey chooses to follow in his search through Ireland, as Mary Egan serves as the historical link that brought the "Irish madness" down to Tracey's grandmother, May Sweeney, and eventually to two of his beloved sisters, Chelle and Austine.

The diagnosis first of creative, theatrical Chelle, then later of Tracey's confidante and best friend, Austine, smashes a fragile family dynamic and sends Tracey into the depths of his own drug addiction and despair. "There's stuff there just from my own life-I didn't want to do a big drunkalogue, or a drugalogue, you know. But I let you know that it was pretty severe," he says.

Out of this period came the decision to undertake the journey to Ireland that shaped and became Tracey's book. "I just sort of woke up sober in London," Tracey reflects, "and there it was, Ireland was right next door. I'd heard about this gene link and just thought, I've got to go investigate it, you know, and I sort of realized at some point that this could be a book and the book could be worth something. I didn't know what. I also knew that I had to basically go there and bring the news back home to my sisters."

Tracey is clear about the fact that "Stalking Irish Madness" was written, first and foremost, for Chelle and Austine. "My sisters wept when they read it and felt that it was a nice-you know, it was an offering. And that's what it is. I think every book is sort of an offering. Here it is; this is mine."

This emotional attachment to the subject matter shines through on every page, but the book is also a gritty and engaging travelogue that pulls the reader along with it through the gorgeous Roscommon landscape as well as the muddy campgrounds where the author sleeps.

While his own story is not the focus of this book, the writing and the experience clearly belong to Tracey. "It's definitely a memoir in the sense that it's the world through my eyes. It's not really about me, it's how I see the world, trying to get the reader in my body, or rather, in the passenger seat, and I'm just telling you the story as I'm bumping through Ireland in my '94 Nissan minivan with the bad radio. That just seems like a natural way to tell a story, especially in the oral Irish tradition."

"Stalking Irish Madness" opens with a spooky scene of Tracey exploring the caves of Roscommon on Halloween night. Tracey speaks of how Irish fairy legend was blamed for people hearing voices in older times, a mythology that still holds weight among some believers.

Tracey, however, is ready to move on to a different explanation.

"I try not to club people over the head with science, but it's important to understand that the fairies were framed. They said the Irish were away with the fairies, but it wasn't fairies, it was what I call a three-legged stool of schizophrenia. The famine-[specifically] maternal malnutrition-alcoholism-and the last one is late age of paternity. That's the three-legged stool of schizophrenia, and specific conditions were set up in the west of Ireland for that. It was all in the same DNA stew."

I'm not surprised by his mentions of famine and alcoholism, but the late age of paternity factor is one I haven't heard before. Tracey explains, "You couldn't get married, you didn't become eligible until you hit about fifty and inherited the family farm. So there were a lot of copy errors in the sperm of old men. The science is a bit boring, but I'll just give you a little bit. Men's sperm cells copy every sixteen days and they replicate. By the time we're fifty there's a lot of what are called 'copy errors.' It's just that, just what it sounds like. There are errors that are made in the DNA of the cells that get copied. There's more than twice the rate of schizophrenia in children born of fathers for every ten-year jump in the age of paternity. So really, the lesson is that men should be having children at a young age if you want to reduce risk.

"The other thing that's well known is the link between famine and schizophrenia. That also doubles the risk. And in people who were born of mothers who carried them through a famine, the risk of schizophrenia is nearly triple." Much of Tracey's theory comes from the Dutch hunger studies done in Rotterdam during World War Two. "They have found much higher rates of addiction, schizophrenia and manic depression among children who were carried through that famine. They tracked them for decades. These are solid gold studies. They don't really say too much about the experience of the Dutch, but if you take that set of data and apply it like a grid to Ireland, it's a simplifies everything."