Cracking an Irish Silence

by James FitzGerald

(Editors’ Introduction: James FitzGerald is the Canadian author of “What Disturbs Our Blood: A Son’s Quest To Redeem The Past”, (Random House Canada), winner of the 2010 Writers’ Trust Non- Fiction Prize and the book was reviewed by Inside Out Journal No. 69, Spring 2013, page 64. His first book, “Old Boys: The Powerful Legacy of Upper Canada College” (Macfarlane, Walter and Ross, 1994), was a controversial oral history of Canada’s most exclusive boys’ private school. The book sparked the conviction of three former teachers for the sexual abuse of students and a successful multi-million dollar class action suit against the school. He is currently working on a creative non-fiction book, “Dreaming Sally”, a true story of first love, sudden death and synchronicity set in the summer of 1968.)

“Those who know ghosts tell us that they long to be released from their ghost life and led to rest as ancestors. As ancestors, they live forth in the present generation, while as ghosts they are compelled to haunt the present generation with their shadow life”

Loewald (2000, p.249)

“Some reach the top of the ladder only to discover it’s leaning against the wrong wall.”

Irish proverb

The master ironist Sigmund Freud once declared that the Irish were one race of people for whom psychoanalysis was useless. While deferring to his genius, I submit a case to the contrary.

On April 24, 1824, a sailing ship bearing a bewildered twelve-year old boy – my great-great-grandfather – landed in the aptly named harbour of Port Hope on the northern shore of Lake Ontario. Like thousands of 19th century Irish immigrants, my Ulster ancestors longed to trade the travails of the past for the promise of a better future. But the end of their six-week, stomach-tossing Atlantic crossing gave way to a starkness beyond their experience or imagination: total engulfment by the vast, unforgiving Canadian wilderness, rife with killer diseases, punishing climate, and anti-Irish prejudice.

Over the ensuing generations, the FitzGeralds struggled to redeem the trauma of migration through relentless work, scaling the social ladder from farming to pharmacy to medicine and the respectable peaks of upper-middle-class Protestant Toronto. Today, nearly two centuries on, retaining vestiges of Irishness in my sensibility if not my accent, I find myself a fifth generation Canadian writer, mining the fever-dreams of my tight-lipped antecedents and reflecting on what has been gained – and lost. My stoic forebearers were destined to look forward and forget; I was destined to look back and remember.

Growing up in an exclusive neighbourhood of Toronto, I felt no blood- tie with Ireland. Drinking deep of the milk of amnesia, the driven Scots-Irish diaspora had built a city of the future, and a polished pew among the privileged classes proved our reward. Yet why, as a quiet, neglected boy, did I persist in believing our home was haunted? In my bones, I knew that 186 Balmoral Avenue – the Gothic, stucco-brick, three-storey in mid-town Toronto where I lived until age seven – was inhospitable to children. Sometimes, when I wandered alone through the dark rooms, I felt sure that some daunting, suppressed secret was about to burst out of the cast-iron radiators, flooding the hardwood floors. I was born an archaeologist of silence.

I had no way of knowing that the house was built in 1914 by my grandfather, John Gerald “Gerry” FitzGerald, a driven, red-headed doctor of international stature who died under mysterious circumstances ten years before I was born. During my childhood, my father, Jack, a pioneering immunologist who inherited the place after his marriage, never spoke of his father. While my sister, brother and I grew up ‘having it all’ – sports car, swimming pool, private schools, European vacations – our material prosperity was infected by a profound emotional poverty, a chronic ‘affluenza’ embodied in the American presidential family homily we so slavishly emulated: “Kennedys don’t cry”. Even though our father Jack worshipped his namesake JFK at the altar of the TV set, he never made much of the coincidence that he shared the same birthday – May 29, 1917 – with the doomed Irish- blooded president. But I did.

The political turbulence of 1960s coincided with my own adolescence and the unravelling of our family. Following the Kennedy assassination in 1963, my father sank into a protracted mid-life depression, culminating in reckless drug abuse and, in 1970, two attempts at suicide by jabbing morphine into his arm. As I watched a chain of emotionally- illiterate, electro-shock and pill-pushing psychiatrists botch my father’s treatment – in fact, driving him into a psychotic state – I wondered why everyone was ignoring the elephant in the room: the unspoken influence of my extraordinary grandfather Gerry on my father’s life. And, of course, my own.

After studying arts at university, I drifted lethargically through a string of under-achieving jobs in journalism and book publishing, suffering a kind of success-phobia. The iatrogenic fiasco of my father’s ‘treatment’ led me to embrace the countercultural rhetoric of the Laingian anti- psychiatry movement, but for a long time I remained suspicious of even the most humanized forms of help.

Then, in my late twenties, I met several members of ‘Therafields’, a grass-roots, lay therapeutic community born in mid-Toronto in the early 1960s. Their eclectic philosophy drew on an experimental mix of Freud, Jung, Klein, Winnicott, Reich, Laing, Sullivan, Bowlby, Kohut, Fairbairn, Bion, et al; the approach was psycho-dynamic, bio-energetic, inter-active, humanistic and non-medical, respecting the power of dreams, transference and resistance. In addition to house groups in the city, marathon group therapy weekends were held on an organic farm in the rolling countryside north of Toronto. Many of the therapists were brilliant apostate Catholic priests and nuns busy breaking their vows of celibacy while wedding liberation theology to depth psychology. At its zenith in the 1970s, the community attracted nearly a thousand people, especially artists and writers, and this fact alone earned my attention. But after several visits to the farm, I felt ‘Therafields’, while not a bona fide cult, emanated cultish ‘us-versus-them’ vibrations, and I backed off. Only with the dissolution of the community in the early 1980s, and the establishment of a formal training school (the now highly respected Centre for Training in Psychotherapy), did I take the plunge (hastened, I might add, by a failed romance).

I was lucky where my father wasn’t; I met the right man at the right time and I hit the ground running. In our first session, Peter latched onto my Irish surname, suggesting that the legacy of my ethnicity was something I should take seriously. Soon I sensed my salvation depended on my laying bare the secrets of my paternal bloodlines. In my sixth session, I brought in a seminal dream that would prove prescient of my future searchings: wielding a scalpel, a doctor in a white lab coat made a deep, vertical incision down the middle of my face, releasing a violent, Niagara-like torrent of water. Dreams, I was learning, do not yield to a single interpretation, but I sensed that the image symbolized the accumulated generations of untapped grief of which I was the contemporary carrier. And the image hinted at my psychic split, the precise, ultra-rational, surgical hand of schizoid Western civilization that cut my head in half in the bloody moment of my birth: an agreeable, polite, deferential, Canadian persona masking my wild animal nature, my exiled Irish madman.

In concert with my ongoing individual and group therapy, I burrowed through the stone wall of my father’s denial by delving into archives, letters and photo albums. Year by year, I obsessively retraced my grandfather’s nomadic footprints through the cities of Europe and North America and questioned aging former colleagues. I was amazed to learn that Gerry had been a Canadian hero, a medical trailblazer of international influence. My family story was inextricably bound up in an epic drama, one that had been entirely withheld from my siblings and me. Why? What was my father trying to protect us from?

In the generation between the world wars, Gerry boldly conceived and built the modern institutional infrastructure of Canada’s public health system. His Connaught Laboratories and the allied University of Toronto School of Hygiene, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, became a paragon to the world and led to the effective control or eradication of a litany of deadly diseases, including syphilis, diphtheria, rabies, tetanus, meningitis, typhoid, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, smallpox, influenza, diabetes and polio. The Nobel Prize-winning discovery of insulin by Fred Banting and Charles Best in 1921-22 was merely one feather in the cap of his fledgling institutions. (Acknowledging the pivotal role of my grandfather, Best declared: “There would be no insulin without FitzGerald.”) By the late 1930s, The New York Times was praising the visionary Canadian public health model, with its unique blend of training, research and production and distribution of free preventive medicines as a public service, as the finest in the world.

Naturally the question burned inside me: why had the memory of this extraordinary man been virtually erased from family – and national – consciousness?

Early in my research, I was intrigued to discover that in 1907-08 Gerry worked as the first pathologist of the Toronto Asylum for the Insane, cutting open the brains of Irish paupers – the Irish dominated the populations of Canadian asylums – in a fruitless search for the germ of madness. Here Gerry met Dr. Ernest Jones, the Welsh colleague and future biographer of Sigmund Freud. ‘Living in sin’ in Toronto with his sister and his morphine-addicted Jewish mistress – in fact, in the very neighbourhood where the ‘Therafields’ community would emerge two generations later – Jones provoked widespread alarm in the city’s stiff- collared WASP medical establishment, not only for his unsavoury lifestyle but for challenging the medical model of the mind and embracing issues of psycho-sexuality. Gerry admired Jones’ intellectual dynamism and they exchanged letters and papers; Jones even gave Gerry the complete works of Freud as a wedding present.

Eventually Jones, the tactless Freudian proselytizer, was virtually run out of town in the wake of an alleged sexual harassment scandal. My grandfather gradually lost contact with Jones while deepening his connection with Dr. C.B. Farrar, whom he had first befriended during a stint at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Farrar was an orthodox, organic- minded psychiatrist of Irish Protestant blood who became a long-time editor of the American Journal of Psychiatry and founding director of the Toronto Psychiatric Hospital; he once condemned Communism, Catholicism, unionism and psychoanalysis as “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” With the departure of the radical Jones, the new psychoanalytical ideas about dreams, sex and repression did not take root in Toronto for another forty years – such was the city’s aversion to the subversive power of Freudian and post-Freudian thought.

In 1908, my grandfather quit neurology and psychiatry in favour of a career in the related but separate fields of public health and preventive medicine. The recent death of his invalid mother at age fifty had precipitated a nervous breakdown in his father, a village pharmacist whose drugs had failed to save her; it was at this time that Gerry began an intense period of international travel, education and training – perhaps, paradoxically, escaping his troubled father in order to save him. Did such an intense family dynamic form the seedbed of a grandiose saviour complex? Was my grandfather being driven to give something back, not only to his family, but the global masses, reaching all the way back to frail Father Ireland?

The more history I harvested, the more I was puzzled and angered by my father’s silence – particularly his silence about Ireland. It was only the discovery of a frayed, hand-written genealogical chart, cobbled together in the 1920s by my grandfather’s younger brother, that led me in the summer of 1991 to my ancestral village in Northern Ireland. Clones, County Monaghan, a market town of two thousand, five hundred, stood only one mile south of the border, a refuge for hit-and- run IRA gunmen. Wandering among the local churchyard’s cracked headstones, I found what I was looking for: generations of FitzGeralds, dating back to the 1700s. When I spied a mouldy grave bearing my own name, I was overcome with a feeling of transgression, as if some dark force was forbidding me to know my unknown grandfather – and ultimately myself.

According to my great-uncle’s scribblings, all FitzGeralds were believed to be descended from Maurice FitzGerald who accompanied the warlord Strongbow on the first Norman invasion of Ireland in August, 1169. The FitzGeralds built a network of glowering stone castles, monasteries and fortified towns and gradually intermarried with the wild, green-eyed, red-haired daughters of barefoot Gaelic tribal chieftains, becoming famously ‘more Irish than the Irish.’ In 1261, an arm of the Desmond FitzGeralds founded the windswept, southwest coastal town of Tralee and spawned the hereditary Knights of Kerry, who survive to this day. While the English kings waged endless wars in Europe, the Catholic FitzGeralds – the ‘Geraldines’ – were free to rule Ireland. But when the Tudors broke with the Catholic Church in Rome in the mid-16th century and tried to impose their sovereignty on the untamed island to the west, the irrepressible Desmond FitzGeralds revolted. The wild, rebel clan was crushed as a great political power and half a million acres of its land in Kerry, Cork and Waterford were awarded to Queen Elizabeth’s Protestant officers. My own father’s middle name was Desmond yet he never spoke of our connection to this gruesomely fascinating strand of Irish history; that in our DNA, we are both conquerors and conquered.

I learned that another ancestor, John FitzGerald, held an officer’s commission in the Irish Catholic army of King James II that was defeated by William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne on July 12, 1690. Because of the victors’ imposition of the severe Penal Laws designed to disenfranchise Irish Catholics, John FitzGerald became a Protestant. In the 1730s, his son, James FitzGerald, settled in Clones where he built Clonavilla, a gentrified, three-storey stone house encircled by two hundred acres of fertile farmland.

As I made enquiries in a Clones pub, I was disappointed to learn Clonavilla House no longer existed, nor any of the last occupants. The family had once prospered as a strand of the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendency, their class privileges immunizing them against the Great Famine of 1845-50. But by the mid-twentieth century, three aging Clonavilla brothers, all sworn bachelors, had been reduced to idly day- dreaming of a mythic medieval past when the FitzGeralds ruled as uncrowned kings of Ireland. The Clones’ FitzGeralds died off one by one, childless and heirless, a microcosm of the Protestant Ascendency in descent. The last and youngest brother, Harford FitzGerald, sold the place to a nouveau riche cattle baron. One day in the fall of 1974, he set the house ablaze, laughing heartlessly as old Harford watched dumbstruck from the roadside. On the site of the old house, the new owner built a slaughterhouse.

Following my 1991 pilgrimage to Ireland, I visited my aging, reclusive father who in 1975 had retreated into a shabby, one-bedroom rented apartment in a mid-Toronto highrise. Since his suicide attempts, the loss of his once-thriving medical practice, and separation from my mother, my seventy-four-year-old father has regressed into a cracked- leather Lazy-boy armchair and stared at television in a trance-like, lithium stupour. His health stripped by years of drug abuse, he had long refused to receive old friends; he could tolerate my own presence for an hour at most – mirroring the length of my infinitely more rewarding leather-chair sessions with Peter.

As I reported details of the mythic rise and fall of the FitzGeralds, he lapsed into that familiar deadpan silence that had formed me so indelibly. To the end, my father the immunologist remained immune to my overtures, as if he had withdrawn inside the dungeon of a crumbling Norman castle, pulled up the drawbridge, and condemned himself to a netherworld of solitary confinement. When he died in 1992, his secrets died with him.

But the uncanny never deserted me. In 1995, I visited the psychiatric archive at the former asylum where my grandfather had worked as a young neuropathologist probing the brains of Irish ‘lunatics.’ Here, miraculously, I made the discovery of my dreams: sixty intense, confessional letters written by Gerry in 1939-40, the last year of his life. He was languishing in a private American sanitarium, being treated for depression in the wake of a failed suicide attempt. The letters were addressed to his close friend, Dr. Clarence B. Farrar, the thin, cerebral director of the Toronto Psychiatric Hospital where, ironically, a generation later, my father was drugged and shocked into submission. Astonishingly, the letters had been donated the very week I walked into the archives. In yet another irony a novelist would hesitate to invent, my grandfather, a father of insulin, suffered fifty-seven insulin shock treatments, a barbaric, coma-inducing practice, later discredited, that killed roughly five per cent of its victims.

Electrified by my grandfather’s inner world, I devoured his anguished outpourings in one sitting. Here, at last, I found a compelling yet cryptic clue to the repressed secret of his unspeakable end. Throughout the letters, Gerry eerily repeated the haunting sentence: “I have committed the unpardonable sin–and the penalty is death”. Though not a religious man, he pleaded to see a Catholic priest; but he was refused as the psychiatrists despised Catholics as much as Freud. Talk, confessional or cathartic, was verboten.

Serendipity led me to an aging doctor in a Vancouver nursing home who turned out to be the last person alive who knew the truth. His shocking revelation confirmed my own decades-old intuitions, spawned by my childhood nightmares in my grandfather’s house on Balmoral Avenue. Over years of time-traveling, a train of epiphanies, large and small, had popped like flashbulbs, melting the generational sheets of body ice, leading me inexorably to the buried psychogenic family secret. My arduous exhumations – in the ‘real world’ and in my dreams – paid off in Hollywood-like fashion, echoing the sled burning in the furnace in the final scene of Citizen Kane. At last I understood – and could forgive – my father’s silence. From terror was born liberation – and a book.

Since the 2010 publication of What Disturbs Our Blood (a line from Yeats), the paradoxes and ironies that abound in my book continue to play out in my daily life. I have lectured several psychiatric audiences, including the very institutions that shocked and drugged my father. In my talks, I drive home the fact that it was a long-term psychodynamic talk therapy, coupled with the parallel act of dream-fed writing, that diverted me from the fates of my father and grandfather. I challenge the entrenched idea, backed by the mass media, that only an MD is qualified to help people in emotional distress; I quote the taboo statistic that psychiatrists suffer suicide and addiction rates twice the national average; I suggest that without being required to undergo a therapy of their own, well-intentioned yet head-centred (and memory-killing) doctors risk committing more harm than good (and they are able to bury their mistakes).

While grateful to be heard, I am dispirited by the inescapable fact that the fundamental stance of bio-medical psychiatry remains unchanged since my grandfather’s time – ‘mentally ill’ people reduced to diseased brains and bundles of biochemicals that can be cured ‘scientifically’ by a magic bullet. As ruthlessly as my grandfather eradicated diphtheria, medical psychiatry has eradicated the primal human need for sustained human relationship – to remember, to speak, to be heard, to feel, to make meanings. In the words of Flaubert: “You can’t find the soul with a scalpel.”

Much of the qualitative power of talk therapy stems from its inherent subversion of the quantifiers of the status quo. Despite their fabled talent for talking and dreaming, Freud recognized in the Irish a stubborn resistance to psychotherapy, which for many may still smack of British imperial control. Perhaps art itself has been the preferred route to healing; as Auden said of Yeats: “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry”. The evolving art of psychotherapy – ‘soul healing’ – is still in its infancy; perhaps its very success depends on its Michael Collins-like guerrilla action – hit-and-run beserker Celts confronting the armoured rows of Roman legions and their bio-tech, amnesiac war machine arrayed against the threat of strong human feelings.

In 2014, my home province of Ontario is regulating the profession of psychotherapy. We can only hope that the two solitudes of medical and non-medical models of therapy will finally break their long history of mutual antagonism and build systems of referral (complementary if not complimentary), rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and steering the rest – those desirous and capable of forming a face-to-face therapeutic alliance – into the Port Hope of the humanities.

Rebel Ireland stands for me as a timeless metaphor for the limits and possibilities of heroic subversion. Like a trans-Atlantic cable, the umbilicus of my unconscious snakes down the Gulf of St. Lawrence and plugs into the Dingle Peninsula, tying Toronto to Tralee; somewhere deep below ‘see’ level, I remain an archetypal, windblown, fevered immigrant, invading and invaded, forever circling some mythic, elusive green island of truth. Do we dare to dream of an impending golden age of humanistic psychotherapy? Of magic words disarming magic bullets?


Loewald, H. (2000) On the Therapeutic Action of Psychoanalysis. In H. Loewald & N. Quist (Eds.) The Essential Loewald: Collected Papers and Monographs. Maryland: University Publishing Group.

James FitzGerald can be reached at his website: <>.