Ivor Browne rightly lauded – but we are a long way from his vision and values


The great Ivor Browne, who many will know for his humane approach to human distress, died this week to widespread plaudits from the media. This is right and fitting for a man who gave so much to people, was responsible for liberating many from prison-like institutions and highlighting that distress very often comes from deep-seated trauma, not brain disorders.

But what’s perhaps been missing from the narrative about Ivor, is just how far we really are from having mental health services that deliver on his clear-eyed vision and values. A psychiatrist himself and indeed the former Chief psychiatrist of the Eastern Health Board, Ivor was clear and unwavering in his criticism of psychiatry and its tools, i.e mind-altering medications and coercion in inhumane settings that cannot bring about healing. While the mainstream talks about his quirky treatment methods and breaking down the walls of the old institutions, very little is being said about his vehement criticisms of psychiatry, its power and how it treats people. Why is that? Could it be that those very power structures are still so strong, that criticism is immediately shot down as dangerous and ‘out there’. This, despite the fact that the science is now clear and very much on the side of radical change.

In a keynote speech to the Critical Voices Network of Ireland conference in 2010, Browne said the tragedy of psychiatry was that it was “actually creating illness” and entraining people into a pathway of “being convinced they are ill…that they continue and become more ill.”

On antidepressants and antipsychotics, Browne was clear – they can do more harm than good.

Old systems that Ivor railed against are still very much in operation today. Given that, a fitting way to really pay tribute to Ivor would be to give voice to the most relevant and pressing topics he was concerned with – radical change away from drug treatment and coercion and a move towards compassionate, trauma-informed mental health services that are grounded in human rights.

In tribute to Ivor, we are reposting an interview he did with our sister site, Mad in America in 2019:

The Mystic of Ireland: An Homage to Ivor Browne

How many psychiatrists do you know who have managed to operate both inside and outside “the system’” at the same time?  Well, I want to tell you about one, a remarkable Irishman named Ivor Browne.

Now, in the course of hanging up his “therapy boots” at the age of 90, after making a massive contribution at public and private levels of Irish society, Ivor Browne remains genuinely modest enough not to care about what anyone thinks of him.

There’s no one in Ireland, and not many globally, who have transformed our understanding of and approach to ‘mental illness’ as much as Browne. Just over ten years ago, when he was 80 years old, he set about writing his first book, a memoir entitled Music and Madness. He did so, he said, “because of my deep dissatisfaction with the direction which psychiatry and the treatment of mental illness has taken. There is also the wider question of the drift of western society into materialism, the mechanistic philosophy underlying this, and the growth of the free market. This trend has now reached global proportions, with transnational corporations spreading across the surface of the planet. These two processes are not unrelated, as psychiatry too is increasingly under the control of just such pharmaceutical empires.”

“Madman or Messiah?” and “Into the Mystic” were the type of headlines Ivor attracted, and when he counseled against antidepressants, peers deemed his advice “extremely dangerous and unwise.” He quietly accepted being regarded by the establishment as “a problem and not the full shilling” and let his work stand.

Finding His Vocation

As a young man in the 1950s, music was his obsession. He was determined to become a jazz musician. An unremarkable student, he entered the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin “only to keep my father calm while I got on with my dream of playing jazz.” When he contracted a double bout of tuberculosis, his beloved trumpet-blowing came to an abrupt end. A year in bed, however, developed his inquiring mind in many directions that would be followed throughout his life. In his pre-registration year, he came before his Professor of Medicine, who told him, “You’re only fit to be an obstetrician or a psychiatrist!” Indeed, he had little passion for medicine; that is until he actually did take up psychiatry. Then, gradually, he began to accept that this was his true vocation.

Before going to London, Oxford, and then Harvard for his early training, he says, he had thought of mental illness as something which simply happened to us, like catching a cold or going down with flu. But, during his experience with the famous Austrian psychiatrist Joshua Bieber in the Marlborough Day Hospital in London, he realized that there were deeper layers to human personality and traumatic experience, which lay behind most psychiatric illness. Later, at the Harvard School of Public Health, he began to understand the fundamental importance of our immune system in combating pathological organisms and other threats from the environment. “I had never even heard of these concepts during my ordinary medical training,” he reported. Oxford was a revelation to him:

When I was growing up, I had always assumed that if any question arose, someone in authority would give you the answer. Until I came to Oxford, it had never dawned on me that I could think independently about the nature of reality or come up with solutions myself. But here in this hospital I was dealing with people who, although they were labelled as patients, had been selected as the most brilliant academics or students from schools all over Britain and elsewhere, Their attitude seemed to be starkly different. If a question arose, they asked themselves ‘what do I think about it?’ This struck me like a bolt from the blue and I began to think: ‘if they can think for themselves, independently, why can’t I do the same?’ From that moment on, I began to think for myself, never again being willing just to accept, unquestioningly, the views of others.”

And so he returned to Ireland with a growing belief that the future of mental health must lie in the growth and empowerment of the person. Drugs may temporarily relieve symptoms, but ultimately only the person could realize his or her potential.

From the mid-1960s to the 1990s, as Chief Psychiatrist of the then-Eastern Health Board and Professor of Psychiatry at University College Dublin, Ivor fearlessly challenged what he saw as a dehumanizing system, liberating many from institutional care and pioneering new experimental therapies. He developed innovative community models and most of his groundbreaking work took place outside of, and in spite of, orthodox thinking. Some said he broke rules and saved lives. Some simply said he broke the rules and he must be stopped! Still, scientific rigor, allied with human compassion, inspired him to persist in putting the patient first and to sway his peers from the pervasive idea of “a pill for every ill.” Today, if you ask a young Irish psychiatrist what they know about Ivor Browne, if they don’t say “Ivor Who?,” they will know very little because — well, for the “profession” (with some notable exceptions), he was a little too hot to handle, and isn’t worth highlighting, really.

Yet, in 2017, Meetings with Ivor, a film directed and written by Alan Gilsenan, became so popular with a broad range of people that now the aging Ivor is a little more difficult to ignore. Because Browne provides such a longed-for example and guidance, and because Alan Gilsenan is such a gifted filmmaker, it became the highest-grossing Irish documentary in cinema that year (against all odds), and attracted a huge audience on the premier Irish TV station.

Life and Work Intersect

Although I produced that film, the real truth is that it produced me. I’ll briefly try to tell you why, and in the process, maybe show how special a man Ivor Browne really is.

It was in 1983 that I first met him, and the reason was that he and his wife happened to be living in the apartment below me. I was a young man newly arrived in Dublin (via Toronto) from the west of Ireland. I had just taken up a position in the Abbey Theatre press office and had no idea how much of a pivotal influence my downstairs neighbor would later have on my life.

When the student is ready the master will come, they say, but it was to be thirty more years before this student — me — was ready. I held Ivor in awe because I knew he was an eminent professor/psychiatrist, and although he had always regarded me kindly, I was far too nervous to ever have a full conversation with him… meanwhile, in my upstairs apartment, I got on with my young man’s life of wine, women, and song (and work), mostly forgetting about the people downstairs.

Cut to 2012 and I happened to bump into Ivor. He was on a visit to Galway, where I now lived. The last time I’d seen him was at the 2008 Dublin launch of his memoir, Music and Madness. “Did you read it?” he asked. I blushed and lied, “Well, not all of it.” That evening I dug out the hefty book and before long was enthralled by its contents. I finished it in about three days and couldn’t fully understand why it gripped me so. I felt compelled to somehow get the word out some more on this man’s comprehensive and refreshing vision.

Since my philandering days in Dublin, followed by an extended youth freelancing in film in boisterous Galway, I’d begun to wonder how by my fifties I still hadn’t fully grown up, even with a wife and child. I’d stopped drinking some years earlier, and my life had quieted down somewhat. I’d spent a few years in therapy, touched on some indistinguishable happenings in my childhood, but had chosen to leave it at that. Rilke’s words were keeping me afloat: “Let everything happen to you/Beauty and Terror/Just keep going/No feeling is final.” Also, in a surprise move even to myself, I’d begun a three-year program to train as a teacher of the Alexander Technique because I loved the equilibrium it brought me.

After reading Music and Madness, I called Ivor to tell him how much I loved it. Because he’s so humble, he was pleased. I said I might call to see him sometime in Dublin to talk more. He said, “I’d love to see you.”

A Radical Film

On the day I called on him, he treated me to tea and showed me lots of interesting things. I was feeling quite vulnerable, but I didn’t dare bring that up. What I felt most was the respect he showed me. This great man showing me respect? The visit was calming but, more than anything else, as I stood in his kitchen before saying goodbye, I felt something powerful swirling in my heart.

He encouraged me to call again and I did, about two weeks later, and by this time I’d decided I’d brave it and ask if he’d allow us to make a film on him. The director Alan Gilsenan and I had already made a film on the great Irish playwright Tom Murphy, to which Ivor contributed. Alan had also done a number of powerful films related to mental illness, and so I suggested that he might direct. “That would be good,” Ivor said, “I’d be happy to do that.” I couldn’t believe it was happening! When I asked Alan, he said he’d often thought of doing something on Ivor and he suggested we make a film “as radical as the man himself.” As always, he was true to his word, and over the next few years we set about our task gently, intermittently, until we finally got sufficient financing from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. (All the other established funders had turned us down, one after the other — “Who wants to see a film about an old Buddhist?!” one TV exec asked after watching a pilot. “He’s not a Buddhist” was all I could say.)

Shortly before the financing came through to properly tackle our project, a number of seemingly unrelated things happened to me which set me on a personal journey and exploration of trauma that I’d never envisaged. Ivor figured largely in how I dealt with this hiatus, expertly helping me to identify the sources of the trauma. My cerebral knowledge of Ivor’s “Frozen Present” theory came to vivid, visceral life, I can tell you. “Now they’re coming out,” he said, “and you’ll soon be able to integrate them and then you’ll be able to get on with your life.” He said this with such matter-of-factness and kindness that I just believed him. And he was right. The integration, which I did with my therapist on Ivor’s suggestion, was painful. My family life was painful. Paid work was impossible for a while. I wrote and wrote and walked and wrote and cried. I cried a great deal. All the time I stayed “working” with Ivor, on the film… and with Alan, who kept the space, and I did my best with my loved ones, who suffered along with me.

Before long the film financing appeared and we got on with the documentary in earnest. Ivor did everything we asked. A dream to work with, as they say. Strangely, he regarded the film as being on another person. “You’re not to say it’s a film about me!” he’d protest all the time. The other people we invited to take part did so with alacrity because they so respected Ivor, even those who wanted to challenge him. His son, the acclaimed uilleann piper Ronan Browne, agreed to do the music. Music was so threaded through Ivor’s life that no one could have done a better job than his musician son. And Alan, who had just made a spectacular recovery from a serious bout of cancer, was eager to go. “2016, the year of Ivor” he texted me on New Year’s Day. We had a ball making it and lo and behold, it became a success beyond our wildest dreams.

An Ongoing Inspiration

For 40 years, Ivor has participated in an ancient Indian raja yoga practice, a form of meditation based simply on the heart. It’s now known as Heartfulness Meditation. Since I renewed my acquaintance with him in 2012, I too have followed the same practice. There’s something about it that makes things flow almost miraculously. Meetings with Ivor has spawned a loose Meeting trilogy of films for Alan and me. The second one, a feature drama based entirely on fact, tells the story of a young Irishwoman who wanted to meet the man who’d raped her after he was released from prison, in a Restorative Justice context. That’s called The Meeting and was released in cinemas last September. The film we’re working on now was inspired by the unenvisaged trauma I encountered during the making of Meetings with Ivor and it’s called Meeting Ourselves — it’s about what people are enabled to do when they come across figures like Ivor Browne.

The story I want to end on was told by an ex-psychiatric nurse who stood up in a Q&A after a public screening of Meetings with Ivor last year. She described an incident that happened while she worked in the Dublin Psychiatric Hospital, Grangegorman, where Ivor also worked. A female patient was undergoing a particularly severe psychotic episode. The nurses were quite distressed and called for immediate medical assistance. Presently, they saw a white coat approaching. The doctor considered the situation calmly and, reaching into his coat, he drew out not a syringe but a tin whistle. He stood there and proceeded to play a few lively jigs and reels, tapping his foot. Before long the patient ceased her rant and lined up with the nurses to examine this strange specimen of a doctor. She looked at the others and before going calmly on her way said, “I think that fellow is a bit mad!” It was, of course, none other than the bold Ivor Browne, author of Music and Madness.

To view the 82-minute film Meetings with Ivor, visit www.meetingswithivor.com.

The film The Meeting is viewable here.

The Mystic of Ireland: An Homage to Ivor Browne


  1. Excellent! Ivor Browne is a new name to me–but really, everyone should know about this amazing man and his contribution to the non-medicalization of so called “mental illness”!