In praise of Ivor Browne: groundbreaker, lifesaver

The Irish psychiatrist at the heart of a new documentary has transformed our view of mental illness

When William Ivory Browne was a boy he would take the train from Dublin to spend holidays with his aunts Kathleen and Maisie at Rathronan Castle, the Browne family homestead in Co Wexford. He remembers fragments of these idyllic summers wistfully: picking plums and pears in their small orchard, churning golden butter in the dairy, collecting blue-grey duck eggs.

Photographs from the time show a barefoot boy sitting on a swing or on a pony called Prince. Older sepia prints reveal Kathleen, who ran the farm, to be a formidable presence, in a high-necked dress and cloak embroidered with Celtic symbols and holding what appears to be an Irish wolfhound. She was involved in the Gaelic League and imprisoned for flying the Tricolour over the house during the 1916 Rising. In 1929 she became a senator in the Irish Free State Senate, advocating particularly for farmers' rights.

Maisie, who took care of the household duties at Rathronan, seemed exotic, with full lips. She was more delicate and refined, perhaps, but there is some steel in her eyes, too, as she stares imperiously at the camera. For the Gentleman Brownes, as they were known locally, were strong stock who could trace their Norman ancestors to the 12th century, not just in Rathronan but also across south Wexford, in places with resonant names such as Mulrankin and Mayglass, Bigbarn and Fardystown.

Last July, while making Meetings with Ivor, a film about Ivor Browne, I visited Rathronan with the psychiatrist. Since the 1980s the home had fallen into disrepair. The gardens and tennis court were overgrown, and brittle net curtains flittered through broken window panes. Downstairs a dilapidated piano stood in the tumbling ruin.


Climbing stairs in the fortified tower, now gradually being consumed by tentacles of ivy, we found an old wooden trunk and rotting sheets of music – all but forgotten old Irish airs – strewn across the floor. Standing there, alone with his receding memories, Browne seemed suddenly frail and lost for a moment. But soon, while we filmed the elegiac rack and ruin, he recovered himself and was impatient to get on. There was more to see, further roads to travel.

It seemed very Browne, vulnerable and pragmatic at once, utterly in the moment but moving forward endlessly into the next one.

Private sensitivity, public dynamism

These two conflicting strands – a private sensitivity and a public dynamism – seem to have marked out his remarkable life. There is arguably no one in Ireland who has so transformed our understanding of and approach to mental illness. But for a man often referred to as a radical psychiatrist, much of his notable career was in the public health system.

Having reluctantly studied medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Browne by his own admission took part in some of the most brutal therapies psychiatry had to inflict before a transformative period working in London under Dr Joshua Bierer, the Austrian pioneer of social psychiatry.

After a fellowship at Harvard, Browne returned to Ireland, and from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s he was chief psychiatrist with the then Eastern Health Board and professor of psychiatry at University College Dublin. He also conceived the Irish Foundation for Human Development, as well as developing innovative community models in Derry and in Ballyfermot, in Dublin.

Yet Prof Brendan Kelly’s magisterial recent history of Irish psychiatry, Hearing Voices, refers only occasionally to Browne’s contribution. This seems entirely correct, in fact, as most of Browne’s groundbreaking work took place outside, and in spite of, orthodox thinking.

Although there were many others (also documented in Kelly's book) who helped to develop a more progressive approach to mental illness in this country – among them Conolly Norman, Robert McCarthy, Dermot Walsh and Anthony Clare – few would argue against Browne's contribution to the public sphere, fearlessly challenging a dehumanising system, liberating many in institutional care and introducing pioneering experimental therapies to Ireland.

His respect for the dignity of those within his care is renowned. But there are also many misconceptions about Browne’s practice. In some respects he is old fashioned, encouraging personal responsibility and discipline. Contrary to popular belief, he does believe in drug treatment on occasion, especially with psychotic people. Yet he remains an outsider in so many ways.

Maybe it is these outsider credentials that have drawn so many artists and intellectuals to him. In our film the writer Sebastian Barry credits a phone call during a dinner at the home of Browne and his partner, June Levine, as transformative in his creative life. When news of a fire at St Brendan's Hospital, in Grangegorman in Dublin, reached Browne that evening, Barry accompanied him to the scene. There the shadows of the dispossessed women of the asylum lining the corridors – "the mothers and daughters of the city" – led Barry on a creative path towards his novel The Secret Scripture.

In 1983 the playwright Tom Murphy dedicated his masterpiece The Gigli Concert "to my friend Ivor Browne". The transcendent power of the play, which ends with JPW King, a "quack" therapist with echoes of Browne, magically singing like the Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli, owes much to Murphy's relationship with Browne.

For there is something too of the artist in Browne. He has a delicate ear. As the title of his memoir, Music and Madness, confirms, music is the other guiding passion in his life. And if Rathronan Castle was one of his childhood dreamscapes, “the field” that adjoined their Co Dublin home, in Sandycove, was the other. Here he spent his happiest times with his father, a man with whom he had a complex relationship.

He also recalls venturing out to Dalkey Island in a rowing boat with friends. It was on one of these semimythical voyages that Browne began to imagine playing the trumpet. Thus began a lifelong passion for playing and listening to jazz. He loved its rebellious, improvised spirit and the fact that it was the music, as he observed, of the dispossessed, the excluded.

But two bouts of tuberculosis put paid to his trumpet playing, and he spent months in isolation in a shed at the bottom of his Sandycove garden, reading Cardinal Newman, Thomas Aquinas and the Confessions of St Augustine. He became, for a brief time, a devout Catholic, but this period also set him on a path into the mystic that was to sustain him throughout his life.

Later he would fall in love with Irish music, too. During his musical pilgrimages around the country he met and later married Orla Kiernan, the daughter of the folk singer Delia Murphy. But, emotionally immature and consumed by work, their marriage would not last. They had four children – Ronan, Garvan, Daragh and Tierna – but he was not, he acknowledges, a good father, and his relationship with them remains troubled (although Ronan, an acclaimed piper, composed the evocative score for Meetings with Ivor).

In the course of filming the mention of his children would be the only thing to bring a shadow of sadness across his usually cheerful face.

Our film was made intermittently over the past few years. It generally consisted of informal meetings – usually between Browne, myself and the producer Tomas Hardiman, a good friend of Browne’s – often in his kitchen as he baked bread or tended his orchids. Sometimes the meetings were more formal – filming Browne alone, or in conversation with people, or even during intimate and disturbing therapy sessions.

He would invariably greet me (and everyone) with a hug. A hug changes the dynamic of any situation, as Browne once remarked, and he has that rare quality of making you feel better about life simply by meeting him. It is this quality of meeting – profoundly, attentively – that is at the centre of his therapeutic practice. Browne is, as the philosopher Richard Kearney suggested to me, a master of attention. But meetings with Browne are always a meeting of equals, and any resultant healing comes from this coming together of two wounded souls.

But it easy to forget, amid all this guff about artists and hugs and philosophy, that Browne quite simply saves lives. While making the film I came across many people who told me that he had pulled them back from the brink of darkness and despair. He does this with a surprising amount of common sense allied to a deep well of compassion.

Browne has contributed in no small way to demystifying mental illness, and many of the ideas that we accept today as the norm are exactly those for which Browne was demonised some decades ago. But, despite some progress in our collective understanding about mental health, in so many other ways little has changed.

Over medicalised and overtranquillised

In his view we remain overmedicalised and overtranquillised. And the hard reality is that, in a country that pays lip service to the tragedy of suicide, anyone looking for help will be told that there’s nowhere to go. Or be asked to join the never-ending queue at hospital emergency departments.

While it is clear that we still have much to learn from Browne, there remains a slightly uneasy air of the prophet or guru about him. Tall and ascetic, with a trim white beard, and often dressed in white or cream, Browne still cuts quite a dash at the age of 87. Although he doesn’t cultivate it, he inspires devotion and awe among his many admirers.

In the late 1970s Browne travelled to India with June Levine to meet Ram Chandra, a renowned holy man who was the leader of Sahaj Marg, a spiritual practice of meditation that focuses on the heart. When Browne finally met Babuji, as Ram Chandra was known, in the small town of Shahjahanpur, he felt a profound feeling of homecoming and peace. Browne has practised Sahaj Marg meditation twice daily ever since, often for hours before dawn.

The cynical might question the somewhat cultish appearance of Sahaj Marg, with its deep devotion to its leader and adherence to the Whispers, messages of wisdom transmitted by Babuji, from some sort of afterlife, through a medium in France.

But Browne answers all these questions in the matter-of-fact manner with which he addresses many complex questions. There is a scientific rigour to much of Browne’s thinking, and he points out there is substantial evidence to suggest that the heart, rather than the brain, is the centre of our being. A spiritual connection to the heart, to our intuitive self, seems just like common sense if one listens to Browne.

In our conversations and meetings Browne has often referred to himself as a failure or a mistake. This is a view handed down from his father, an opinion that seems at odds with the facts of his life. Yet one of his happiest memories as a boy was painting a houseboat with his father in “the field” overlooking Dublin Bay – and he wondered why this fleeting moment couldn’t last forever.

Browne’s father, James, was a bit of rebel, too; he turned his back on the family’s nationalist leanings and joined the British navy during the Great War. He also broke with the conventions of the time by marrying a Protestant, the charmingly named Gracie Darling.

He detested his life working in a bank and loved those days tilling the soil, dreaming up imaginary games, reading, smoking his pipe and playing his mandolin. Innocent, carefree days with Ivor, perhaps?

Imminent cleansing

While making the film I had a sense of Browne divesting himself of his biography. Shedding the skin of this life and preparing for the next. For he believes in reincarnation and rebirth. (He once said that he felt he might have been some sort of monk in Italy in a past life. Also, in a therapeutic regression session, he recalled being crucified upside down. Imagining he might have some sort of God complex, I inquired further. “Not at all,” he replied modestly. “Sure, lots of petty crooks were crucified in those days. I was probably one of them.”)

He also believes that a cataclysmic cleansing of Earth is imminent. He says that the world will not tolerate feckless capitalism, global warming and spiritual unrest for much longer. A purging is at hand. In the year just past it was easy to share his pessimism. But no, he says, this is not pessimism but renewal. Rebirth.

Browne remains true to the lineage of strong-minded Gentlemen Brownes who were prepared to stand their ground. A distant relative in Buenos Aires, writing, a little melodramatically, a poem in praise of that formidable nationalist rebel Auntie Kathleen of Rathronan wrote: “The noblest of a noble family/ You chose the thorny way to make us free/ You worked and planned and dreamed that in our days/ Ireland might bask in freedom’s glorious ways.”

In a very different context the same might be said of William Ivory Browne.

Alan Gilsenan’s documentary Meetings with Ivor is being screened at the Irish Film Institute, in Dublin, on January 14th as part of the First Fortnight mental-health festival, and will be broadcast on Dublin Community Television;