The Last Word: Freud, The Irish & The Departed
By Abdon Pallasch
June / July 2007
Abdon M. Pallasch ponders the truth of a provocative line from the movie The Departed.
“What Freud said about the Irish is: We’re the only people who are impervious to psychoanalysis,” declares Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) in Martin Scorsese’s film The Departed. So what exactly did the father of modern psychiatry, Sigmund Freud, mean by that, anyway? Are we Irish all crazy? Or just experts at hiding our true thoughts?
Have centuries of oppression by the British, repression by the church, suppression of our sexual urges and a thirst for the drink made us into a race of people who can have lively, jovial arguments about the weather, sports and politics without ever divulging the real issues burning in our souls, if we even admit to ourselves what they are?
(Pregnant, awkward silence.) At best, Freud generalized.
Or maybe we’re just a well-grounded people who would rather solve our problems on our own than pay $200 an hour for help.
Maybe Freud’s observation is such a great laugh line in the movie because the Irish – or those who hang out with us – can read their favorite stereotype about the Irish into it.
Just one problem: Freud never said it.
William Monahan, who won an Oscar for his engrossing screenplay about Irish-American cops and crooks in Boston, admits that he just paraphrased a line, always attributed to Freud, that has popped up on the Internet and in newspaper articles going back 10 years:
“The line in The Departed,” Monahan told me in an e-mail, “is a paraphrase of: ‘This is one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever.’”
That line – the “whatsoever” version – is routinely used in profiles of Irish people. But never is there any source, any context, any citation to any text or speech by Sigmund Freud.
“I had heard it once before, and when I saw the movie I tried again to source it – and there is no source for it,” said Dr. Barry O’Donnell, chairman of the Association of Psychoanalysts and Psychotherapists in Ireland.
Incidentally, the patients of the 140 members of this Dublin-based professional association do find some use for psychoanalysis.
“I couldn’t find that there was any letter or source from a meeting where Freud actually said that,” O’Donnell said. “His biographer, Ernest Jones, a Welshman, would have been very attuned to it and wouldn’t have let it slip from his three-volume biography. But it’s not in that.”
For the last two weeks, prompted by questions from the Chicago Sun-Times, the 3,400 members of the American Psychoanalytic Association have been batting this about on their message boards and querying public libraries and the Library of Congress, but have found no evidence that Freud uttered the quote.
“I’m Irish and I’m a Freud scholar and I don’t think Freud ever said anything like that,” said Chicago psychoanalyst John Maguire.
“If he said it, he probably had an Irish patient that didn’t work out and he generalized,” said Dr. Prudence Gourguechon, president-elect of the American Psychoanalytic Association. “I personally think it’s made up.”
A quote like that from Freud would “make no sense” because the Irish are a “soulful, poetic people … with strong family relationships,” Gourguechon said. “That’s what psychoanalysis is all about. Repression would be very amenable to psychoanalysis. Changing the subject when you get into painful issues is a psychoanalytic issue. [The Irish] don’t grow up being told they can’t have individual feelings outside the clan. You couldn’t have poets. You couldn’t have drunks, for that matter.”
The notion of the Irish being able to conceal their true feelings well enough to fool psychoanalysts is so appealing that Irish moviegoers themselves love the line.
After seeing the movie, U2 rock legend Bono told the New York Daily News: “In a movie that’s all about lies, that is not one of them.”
Monahan, the screenwriter, never suspected the widely used quote was an Internet legend.
“I have never thought that there was controversy about attribution,” he told me. “If Freud didn’t say it, he should have. If Freud didn’t say it, I am enormously sorry for him, because it is the only statement of truth to which his name has ever been connected.”
Do Irish tolerate the bad?
Monahan, by the way, got off another good one-liner about the Irish in The Departed.
Damon’s character tells his psychoanalyst girlfriend that if their relationship is to end, she has to be the one to break it off because, being Irish, he never will. “I’m not capable,” he says. “I’m f- – - – - – Irish. I’ll deal with something being wrong for the rest of my life.”
Now is that a fair generalization to tar our whole people?
“You could find evidence to support this,” admitted Dr. Brendan Kelly, a professor of psychiatry at University College Dublin. “We have an unrivaled history of failed revolutions, which are now interpreted as covert victories of one sort or another. This legacy is very evident with our soccer team. At the World Cup a few years ago, we got to compete with Brazil. We always regard a draw as a victory. This comes from generations of putting the best possible spin on generations of defeats.”
Both lines from the movie brought me back to Cassidy’s Roost in Maynooth, Ireland, where my classmates and I spent too many nights during college, pints in hand, smoke in the air, engaged in animated conversations about the weather, sports, politics and who fancied whom. But substantive questions that broke below the surface, such as, “How can you be shifting [flirting with] all these women when you’re studying for the priesthood?” would be met with a swift change of subject.
A people who can hide their true feelings would make great paramilitary plants for the Irish Republican Army, or excellent infiltrators of law enforcement of the Irish mob in Boston, which is why Freud’s thesis about the Irish — whether he said it or not — is so apt for The Departed.
“The Irish caricature is one in which they can be outgoing, but when it comes to serious emotions that aren’t a ballad or a joke or a story, they tried to deflect attention to themselves out of fear of being ashamed of what would be seen,” said Dr. Paul Lynch, a Boston psychoanalyst on the faculty at Harvard Medical School. “It clearly is a part of the culture, the shame and embarrassment about sexuality, the role of the church and being dominated by the English for so long.”
But the caricature does not fit all members, and as the Irish standard of living races past the British, it is changing.
“I think it will be very interesting to see how it changes as the Irish become more participants on the world stage and the island culture changes.”
And every psychoanalyst interviewed for this article endorsed the movie, whether or not they liked the line attributed to Freud.
“I had never heard the quote until I saw the movie. I was very shocked by it,” said Dr. Lynne Moritz, president of the American Psychoanalytic Association. “But I’ll tell you, trying to track this down has been the most fun I’ve had in weeks.”