Psychoanalysis in Ireland—An Interview with Dr. Barry O’Donnell

Author: Barry O’Donnell (Director, the School of Psychotherapy, St. Vincent’s University Hospital)


The School of Psychotherapy was set up in 1983 to develop the teaching of psychotherapy in the Department of Psychiatry in St. Vincent’s Hospital (subsequently St. Vincent’s University Hospital). Its first Director and co-founder was Dr. Cormac Gallagher who had attended the seminars of Jacques Lacan in Paris in the 1970s and had introduced Lacanian psychoanalysis into Ireland. UCD Professor of Psychiatry Noel Walsh and Dr. Mary Darby, consultant psychiatrist, founded the School along with Gallagher. Both practiced a psychanalytically-informed psychiatry in St. Vincent’s. Since its launch, the School has offered a Masters program awarded by UCD. The teaching on this program introduced the work of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan to students who (for the most part) already had formal training in psychiatry, medicine, psychology, social work, chaplaincy, or philosophy. It was the first formal psychoanalytic teaching in Ireland and serves as the foundation for most other developments in psychoanalysis in Ireland since. It has always required its students to take up their own psychoanalysis as a prerequisite for any real encounter with the field. The School has from the outset practiced an openness to the representation of other traditions within psychoanalysis and related practices, requiring only that there be respect for different positions and learning from these differences.

Graduates of the psychoanalytic program developed the first-ever BA in Psychoanalytic Studies in LSB College in 1993, followed by a Graduate Diploma in Psychanalytic Studies in 1995 and an MA in Psychoanalysis in 1996.

Hundreds of Irish students have encountered psychoanalysis grounded in clinical practice through this extraordinary wave of work. The teaching of Lacan in the School of Psychotherapy and LSB College (now Dublin Business School) was made possible through the work of Cormac Gallagher who has, to date, translated nineteen of the twenty-seven years of Lacan’s Seminar along with other papers from Écrits. The website Lacan in Ireland carries this work as well as numerous papers by Gallagher which provide effective routes into Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic thought.

The Letter: Irish Journal of Lacanian Psychoanalysis is published by the School of Psychotherapy. Launched in 1994 it has, to date, published sixty issues, which effectively represent psychoanalytic work in Ireland in this period as well as cutting edge articles from further afield. The title of the first paper in the first issue includes Patrick Pearse’s statement: “Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam.” Arguably, the work of the School of Psychotherapy has been to provide something of a psychoanalytic tongue in Ireland to see if from the cause of Pearse can be turned the cause of Freud and Lacan—a question Cormac Gallagher asks in script on the website of The Letter.

Dr. Patricia McCarthy continued the Freudian-Lacanian teaching of the School of Psychotherapy as Director between 2006 and 2014 and currently is editor of The Letter.

Another development out of the work of the School was the formation of the Association for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy in Ireland (APPI). It began as a learned society of graduates and became a separate company in 1998 having the important role of professional body for the accreditation of psychoanalytic psychotherapists.

In more recent years the Irish School for Lacanian Psychoanalysis (ISLP) formed on a cartel basis to provide a forum for the production of psychoanalytic writing. While involving for the most part graduates of the School of Psychotherapy, ISLP works by happening outside of demands for qualification/accreditation/social science research methodology.

Three questions from the journal Breac

1. One of the major challenges faced by psychoanalysis in the contemporary moment is the need to appeal to institutions that can be fundamentally opposed to its premises. By this I refer to the difficulties encountered by psychoanalysis in the hospital, university, and insurance corporation. In Ireland, where state funding for health care provides the majority of coverage for patients seeking analysis, psychoanalysis finds itself in direct opposition to the government through its approach to variable consultation lengths, pay scales, and its lack of a timetable and uneasiness with the definition of the end of analysis. In what ways do you find your practice working with and against the material realities of psychoanalysis in the twenty-first century, and how are these methodologies specific to the situation in Ireland today?

BOD: First of all, it needs to be clarified that it is not the case in Ireland that “state funding for health care provides the majority of coverage for patients seeking analysis.” Despite the Trojan work described in the introductory statement on the work of the School of Psychotherapy and programs of study and training spawned from it that has given psychoanalysis some presence in Ireland, there is still much work to be done in establishing the psychological as a realm with its own laws and its own potential to be a real site of difficulty and suffering. The most common port of call when someone experiences what falls under very generalized terms such as “depression” or “anxiety” is the general practitioner, a medical doctor. The challenge to educate Irish society in the existence of unconscious mental processes and subjectivity is nonetheless being taken up by the psychoanalytic movement in Ireland, for all its own diversity.

In response to your question regarding the hospital, the university, and the insurance company: these are powerful institutions in Irish (and Western European) culture. Psychoanalysis as a practice, as a discourse, is symbiotically connected with these institutions but, crucially, offers the (im-)possibility of articulating subjectivity in the face of the tendency for this to be silenced. This is best characterised not as a game of one-upmanship between the “beautiful soul” that is psychoanalysis and the Big Bad World of domineering systems but rather through Lacan’s phrase “the roundabout of discourses.”[1] Time and money, recognized by Freud as fundamental in the makeup of a sense of reality, stand as material for investigation in psychoanalytic practice, whatever its location. The School of Psychotherapy, physically located as it is within a major university public hospital, is very well placed to act as a forum for the discussion of practices bound by health service demands. Amongst other subtle interventions, its longstanding (over thirty years) psychoanalytic contribution to a weekly psychiatric case conference is an important and highly valued instance of how psychoanalysis can enter the conversation concerning our response or reaction to mental illness with its own singular stamp. The context allows the psychoanalytic contribution to have its own autonomy and to raise questions other discourses may struggle to articulate. There can only be a creative tension in raising questions about the practices working with mental disorder. The aspiration is not to win the argument, overrule another discourse or practice, or worse, to reduce all practices to one generic mental health treatment; rather, the aspiration each week is to provide the basis for practitioners and patients to formulate a question about their position.

2. An issue in contemporary Irish life that is expressed through terminology familiar to psychoanalysis is the recent economic crisis and the emphasis it has placed on austerity. A general appeal to Ireland’s ability to take the hurt of austerity measures relies on a sense of guilt and a kind of superegoic demand to atone for pleasures that may or may not ever have been. Undoubtedly, given the severe cuts to social services that resulted from these measures, the analysands you treat have libidinal relations to the changes they have experienced in their daily lives due to the ideology of austerity in Ireland. How does austerity affect the work you do, both from an institutional perspective, and from the perspective of the lives of the people whom you help?

BOD: I am not sure I can respond effectively to this question. It is an understandable observation that there has been a period of austerity in Irish economic life and that it has had effects on the society and culture. I hesitate to comment further as to do so steps into a discourse of social and cultural commentary. Some in the psychoanalytic field venture into this sphere with their psychoanalytic vocabulary. I am not sure how advisable that is. From a psychoanalytic perspective it is not possible to say anything in general about the effect of austerity. As with any cultural phenomenon it provides material for myth-making and explanations but it does not determine subjectivity.

3. Ireland and its culture have been disseminated through the world in part through its diaspora and in part through its artistic production. Both speak to an Irish familiarity with the psychoanalytic concept of sublimation—a crucial part of the analytic process. While Freud’s observation that the Irish are resistant to psychoanalysis is decidedly apocryphal, it is interesting that Lacan chooses an Irish author in order to produce a more rigorous definition of sublimation, and how it can enable a subject a measure of agency in the symbolic. How do you experience sublimation today in the analytic setting, and is there anything particular to Irish life that you feel contributes to this experience?

BOD: We know that the view of the Irish attributed to Freud is apocryphal and likely circulated to keep the Irish away from psychoanalysis—in other words, its fabrication may have been prompted by concern that the Irish would flock to psychoanalysis! I am being speculative, mischievous perhaps. It is not just the Irish who are resistant to psychoanalysis. We all are, even those (Freud and Lacan at times thought especially those) in the psychoanalytic field, whatever their nationality! It is the responsibility of those in the psychoanalytic field to not allow this resistance with its clever ways to win the day.

Sublimation is a complex concept in psychoanalysis. Freud describes it as a vicissitude of the drive. Lacan discusses it as fundamental to an approach to the ethics of psychoanalysis. Following Freud, he contrasts it sharply with the phenomenon of idealization: high ideals we can live up to or, more usually, fail to live up to. Sublimation involves work and cannot be a guaranteed outcome. It is the case that Lacan says some very interesting and important things using a reference to James Joyce. I wonder if this reference is overemphasized in the combining of the words “psychoanalysis” and “Ireland”? There is no question that Joyce was Irish, but psychoanalysis is interested in his adventure as a subject in language, or, as was the case with Joyce, in languages, some not otherwise written. It is the singularity of this project that is of interest.

I believe psychoanalysis involves the concept of sublimation, but the task for those in Ireland in the field of psychoanalysis now is not to read Joyce, or Pearse, or any more recent literary artist (apart from for the purposes of encountering language and their necessary general education) but to read Freud and Lacan in the context of a serious, but not humourless, engagement in their own psychoanalysis.


[1] See, for example, Christian Fierens’ readings of L’Etourdit, trans. Cormac Gallagher,