It is time we grew up as a nation, say psychologists


The mistakes made in the Celtic Tiger era might be seen as Ireland’s adolescent stage but there is no guarantee that the country will grow up, a conference was told yesterday.

Counselling psychologist Elaine Martin said Irish society was trapped in a “narcissistic system” as a result of its colonial past and would need to take active steps to move on to the next phase of development.

Ms Martin was speaking at the Psychological Society of Ireland annual conference.

The Irish tendency to devalue themselves as individuals and as a society and to idealise others were among the traits of a colonised people, she said.

This is covert narcissism, which manifests itself in low self-esteem, as opposed to the grandiose narcissism more commonly associated with the term. Both types are characterised by self-obsession.

The conference held a symposium on the Irish psyche in the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger in which it was claimed that we saw ourselves as a “deeply flawed people”.

Ms Martin said Ireland needed to develop a sense of identity and self-confidence set apart from its colonial past.

She said Queen Elizabeth II’s visit had helped the process, but there was a long way to go.

Postcolonial identity

New Zealand had sought to move on from its colonial past by promoting traits such as excellence and integrity as values to develop as specific national traits.

Ms Martin maintained the relationship between Ireland and its former colonisers was similar to that of a narcissistic family.

A narcissistic family, she said, was one defined by selfish parents who put their own needs before those of their children, as the British had done in Ireland for centuries.

In such circumstances children defined themselves according to how others saw them and developed a sense of failure.

They also had a tendency to excessively accommodate the needs of others, which could manifest itself in the manner in which Irish governments had dealt with the troika.


Another common issue identified in postcolonial societies is self-destructive behaviour such as alcohol abuse and secrecy – both common in Irish society.

UCD senior lecturer Geraldine Moane suggested that descriptions of the Irish psyche which appeared in The Irish Times represented themes recurring in colonial stereotypes over centuries. Those included a “delusional” and “warped sense of nationhood”.

This manifested itself in us blaming ourselves for the economic crisis because we were a “deeply flawed people”.

She cited Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s comments at Davos in January, in which he said people “went mad borrowing”.

Dr Moane added: “I would argue that our willingness to write and speak of ourselves in such a negative way is itself a legacy of colonisation. Is there any other world leader who would publicly use the word ‘mad’ to describe their own people?”

Dr Trisha McDonnell, a clinical psychologist, told the conference that Irish behaviour exhibited three postcolonial traits in particular: our deferential attitude to authority; our tendency to avoid the truth; and our communications strategy, which was manifested in a failure to speak plainly and assertively.