In 2006, Martin Scorsese’s film "The Departed" was released. It went on to win a multitude of awards and continues to be highly esteemed. However, there is one particular scene that caused amusement among the audience and curiosity among academia.
It was a quote attributed to Sigmund Freud about the Irish, that the Irish were "impervious to psychoanalysis."
The origin of the quote was the subject of an international research effort which included the Association of Psychoanalysts and Psychotherapists in Ireland, the American Psychoanalytic Association, and the Freud Museum of London.
Eventually, it was revealed in a private email by screenwriter William Monahan to Abdon Pallasch, formerly of the Chicago Sun-Times, that it was based on a similar quote (also without an established origin in Freud’s work) which embodied the sentiment he wished to convey in the drama.
But beyond the authenticity of the quote, there is resonance.
Are the Irish impervious to psychoanalysis? Are they so stoic and irrational that they are beyond the reach of the most famous psychotherapy? Do they have such robust ego defense mechanisms that enable them to endure the hardship of life due to the centuries of colonial oppression and the petty insularity of small island psychology?
Or is there something else to be said?
Psychoanalysis is not just a theory, but also a critical clinical practice for mental health problems. This of course evokes two questions, can the Irish be psychoanalyzed, and more importantly, should they undergo such a process?
The answer is yes, and to understand this in detail, one must look critically at all the narratives that explore what it is to be Irish.
The year 2016 in the Republic of Ireland offers an important opportunity to analyze this question because, since the 1916 Rebellion and the establishment of the nation-state of Ireland, there has been a merging of all the different domains of life. This was in part due to the demands of nationalism and the effort to create an independent and robust ‘Irish’ society.
The consequence of this process was that the Roman Catholic Church, the institutions of the Irish state, the Irish economy and the subjective life of the individual were merged into one authoritarian way of thinking.
100 years later, Ireland’s ethnic national identity requires a re-examination, due to the many human rights violations (e.g. the Magdalene laundries and institutional child abuse) that are linked inexorably to this rigid way of thinking.
More importantly, there is the issue of mental illness that underscored all these events. Are the Irish more prone to mental illness? There is of course a multitude of ways of interpreting Irish society and how it views such illnesses...
At the heart of the issue of being Irish is how identity and behavior can be influenced by the past.
How then is madness represented in terms of Irish society? An incredible acceptance of authority lies at the heart of it, be it church or political.
Indeed, the excess devotion to authority was such that during the mid-twentieth century, Ireland had the highest rate of asylum residency (per 100,000) in the world. How then did Irish society function for so long under such pressure?
Historically and culturally, catharsis and self-expression had and still has many forms in Ireland, the confessional booth, the pub, and art. Moreover, the understanding of Ireland’s cultural narrative and discordant mental health was always known by its artists – in the past century by the figures of Swift, Joyce, Yeats, Keane, and Beckett, (and their historically neglected female contemporaries) and in the contemporary era by vocal advocates of mental health reform, Niall Breslin and Blindboy Boatclub from The Rubberbandits.
The popularity of this level of advocacy is a clear vindication that expressing the unconscious through public disclosures can offer not just empowerment, but some solace. Of course, linking the psychology of the individual and the concept of madness to the society in which people live is very challenging.
However, many authors have applied this method to complex societies like the USSR, South America, Europe, and the United States, in an effort to explore the consequences of living in an authoritarian society. What is clearly missing is the application of this method to Ireland.
Even though a psychoanalysis of Irish culture has been neglected, the 20th century has seen a number of scholarly texts trying to explore the idea of Irish psychology, especially from the untouched rural environment, such as "The One Blood" (1975) by Elliot Leyton and "Inis Beag" (1969) by John Messenger.
However, the most detailed psychoanalytically informed cultural critique of Irish people is to be found in Nancy Shepper-Hughes' classic work "Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics" (2000).
The original study, of a small village on the Dingle Peninsula, is now almost 40 years old and times have changed dramatically, in terms of economics but also the role of the church itself. Indeed, surrounding the role of the church is the even more complex role Ireland finds itself in the process of globalization. From Catholicism to consumerism, a challenging link between the Irish nation-state and the individual remains.
This has very serious consequences for how the Irish nation-state deals with the evolving concept of madness and the very real people who have mental health problems. Indeed, in the process of changing Irish society, there is the revelation that many of the problems Irish individuals have had in the past such as maladaptive ideas regarding sexuality, suffering, and servitude, still persist.
However, they persist in very complex ways that continue to highlight the link between the nation-state and the individual unconsciousness. Noted recent examples include the introduction of The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 and the national debate which largely focused on suicide, and how effective psychiatrists and other mental health experts are at identifying and treating suicidal tendencies. A second debate was the one surrounding the Irish Referendum on same-sex marriage (2015), which focused on the impact of legislation on the notion of family and child welfare.
No matter what way these complex issues evolve in Irish culture, there remains the necessity of being mindful of how these are linked together in the unconscious psyche. History is not a morality play, but lessons can be learned from not understanding the consequences of interpreting human behavior. Despite the many changes in Irish society, ignorance and stigma regarding mental health problems still exist.
Psychoanalysis is not about replacing one provisional conclusion with another and disguising old methods of thinking with new information, only to perpetuate the illusion that progress is being made. It seeks to break this cycle and allow people to finally think for themselves. However, in the process of dealing with our demons and their exorcism, there is the risk that we vanquish the very best part of ourselves.
Yes, the Irish can be psychoanalyzed, but we might not like what emerges about ourselves.
Dr. James FitzGerald is an Irish medical doctor.
*Originally published in 2016. Updated in May 2023.