The Last Word: Freud, The Irish & The Departed

Center from left to right: Sergeant Dignam (MARK WAHLBERG), Captain Ellerby (ALEC BALDWIN) and Colin Sullivan (MATT DAMON) head up the surveillance team, including Brown (ANTHONY ANDERSON, seated far right), that is monitoring a meeting between Costelloâ's gang and the Chinese Triad in Warner Bros. Pictures crime drama The Departed.
Center from left to right: Sergeant Dignam (MARK WAHLBERG), Captain Ellerby (ALEC BALDWIN) and Colin Sullivan (MATT DAMON) head up the surveillance team, including Brown (ANTHONY ANDERSON, seated far right), that is monitoring a meeting between Costelloâ's gang and the Chinese Triad in Warner Bros. Pictures crime drama 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.”

29 Responses to “The Last Word: Freud, The Irish & The Departed”

  1. Bernard Kennedy says:

    There is no record of Freud commenting thus. He appointed Ernest Jones a Celt, to bring psychoanalysis to Ireland- a Celtic land. Its movie talk rather than academic.

  2. red says:

    wait a minute, being a redhead myself, I know for a fact that I intentionally am best described as an overly honest person, for the simple fact that it is IMPOSSIBLE to hide my true emotions. I am pretty much literally transparent in the sense that I am extremely pale, so the various fluctuations in my heart rate or adrenaline will be immediately recognized in the form of blushing. It’s honestly something of a horrifying condition to not be able to control such things… also, frued was a dick. who cares what he thinks about anything at this point? #americanfeminist

  3. DNA Cowboy says:

    Oppressed by the British?
    The British were oppressed by the Irish LONG before the troubles.
    Check your history, the Irish caught escaped British slaves and handed them back to Romans in Britain per their agreement to remain free themselves.
    Why else do you think the British and the English detest the Irish so much?
    Essentially the Irish bought their freedom by helping to enslave their neighbours.
    Never asked yourselves why Rome never invaded Ireland?
    Well, now you know.

    • david says:

      point in fact, the Romans never invaded Ireland because they were unable to. If you knew the slightest bit about Irish History you would know that the Romans tried several times but were beaten off the irish shores multiple times. up until Henry’s split with the Catholic church there was actually shared kinship with Irish,English, and Scottish. You should do some research before you spread hatred

  4. Scanlon says:

    I believe that Freudian theory is highly questionable for people of ALL ethnic stripes and nationalities. Not just the Irish and/or people of Irish ancestry.

    I know I’m critical of Freud primarily for his views of woman and for basing such sweeping claims about humanity on such small sample sizes of Victorians using questionable science.

  5. Gerry says:

    Freud gave an opinion even if it wasn’t directed at or toward the Irish race. An opinion is like an asshole, everyones got one. I am Irish born. The people in the movie “The Departed” played fictional characters based on an assemble of Bostonians with Irish ancestry who worked as gangsters and cops. These people are American born and so are most of there parents. There life experiences are very different than the average Irish born person. Comparing the two is like comparing a black guy from Harlem to a Jamaican or a Kenyan. This notion that we are all the same is right up there with Irish people from Ireland eating corn beef and cabbage or Italians from Italy eating Meatballs and spaghetti.

    • kevin says:

      I know my history and heritage. Don’t think that a generation OFF the island can erase 3000 years of culture,history and tradition. From one of the 75,000,000 IRISH descendents of those forced from from thier ancestral home who continue to keen over 700 years of oppresion and degradation under the attempted rule of the “ANGLISH”. Just one question. Why do you think they ate corned beef and cabbage? It was the cheapest shit food they could afford. Or did you not know we weren’t treated any better than in Ireland. We could fight and earn here what we could not in Ireland. Have clue about your history before making such empty comparisons.
      Speeking of food. Keep in mind Trevellyn, look him up’ was a Welshman. The shame of it is overwhelming. What a fellow Celt did to his bretheren.

  6. Ray says:

    Just watched this again for the first time since its release. I missed the lines the first time. Maybe it’s because my life has become more tragic, but I about fell out of my chair laughing. So true. I AM fucking Irish.

    • Frank says:


      You can take the Irishman out of Ireland, but you can never take the Irish out of the man!

      Tá muid ar an mhuintir ár sinsear – ní cailleadh nó listless; searchers agus taiscéalaithe!

  7. Keith says:

    Oh, for fuck sake !

    • Frank,

      Pure Poetry!! Keith………get a real mind! Aren’t you bored with the severe limitations of an uncultured mind? Your reply to Frank isn’t worth the electrical energy that your computer used to process your words. If you read some Irish folklore, you’ll realise that your brain is now dominated by an enraged 3 year old toddler. YUCK! Do you really love the smell of baby poop?

  8. Paul says:

    Freud. Thank you. Our ego/superego (the Irish) has exploded. We fell different, are different, and to be selected as “Freud’s failure” justs suits us fine.

  9. Paul says:

    Hope this ends it all.
    p/s I dont have red hair

  10. analyse una says:

    Freud believed at that time that the Irish could not be analysed because we were too deeply indoctrinated by the Roman Catholic Church.

  11. James says:

    If you were not born in Ireland, if you don’t live in the land, breath the air, eat the food, experience the culture, suffer the weather, drink yourself silly… You are NOT Irish. This ridiculous culture of adopting the nationality wherever your ancesters are from.

    • Kimberley Frances says:


      True I have not lived in or worked in Ireland. I am born and raised American, but my family is very proud of our Irish heritage and why shouldn’t we be? Just because our grandparents made their way here, where is it written, that we have to disregard our heritage. Traditions and history are what binds families together; how does this occur when apparently we are to shake off all we’ve known and learned in the opinion of people who think like yourself? We hold to traditions and celebrations that we’ve been taught because we need that connection. Nana and Pop were incredibly strong and proud and we all believe that strength and pride came from the Irish blood pumping in their veins and heart. Why shouldn’t we be proud to say we’ve inherited those traits and want to keep that connection alive?

  12. Raymond O' Hanlon says:

    As a 100% Irish Man and Celt i do not dwell on such matters. If i do not like someone i hit them till they fall,if i do not like the food i do not eat. i only have faith in the ones i love or trust , a trust hard earned not given easily, i am first to fight first to laugh first stand up for what i think is right…..last to cry, unless it is to do with a child….weee ones have a way of sticking their finger into your soul.What i do is what i do how i live is how i live “no regrets” say la vie and to quote another annalist id do not want anyone sticking their mits into “the dark corners of my soul” if you can make sense of with i said , maybe this is with he ment if not dito….cherrio
    May your days be many and your troubles be few. May all God’s blessings descend upon you. May peace be within you may your heart be strong. May you find what you’re seeking wherever you roam.

  13. Brian Stanton says:

    Freud was too concerned with “below the belt” matters. The Irish are much more Jungian (cerebral, spiritual even mystical).

  14. elmicko says:

    My god that DNA cowboy chap is some gobshite isn’t he!!! Did he ever actually read a history book or just hear that muck he is spreading from another gobshite

  15. Coleen Griffin says:

    I am second generation Irish American and very proud of my heritage . My grandparents came over to this country with hardly anything and made the most of it. I think the Irish are strong minded, hard working , beautiful people . Yes we are a tough egg to crack and we love and take care of our own but that comes from century’s of despair, poverty and oppression by the English . All we know is resilience . That’s why the Irish race is one of the highest population in the United states . I would never see a shrink .. For what?? We already know right from wrong Thank you ..

  16. barry says:

    It was not Freud who alluded to this as is misquoted in the film, but the post-Freudian Jacques Lacan in November 1978 in his seminar series Le Sinthome when he suggested theat Catholics were un-analysable in reference to James Joyce’s novel Finnegans Wake.

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