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Changing Archetypes: From The Virgin Mary to the Celtic
 Tiger – Some Jungian Reflections on the Challenges Facing
 Post-Catholic Ireland

by Mary O’Callaghan

Ireland is opening up

With these words Frank Mc Guinness opens his play Mutability. Although
 the play is an exploration of Edmund Spenser’s relationship to 16th Century 
Ireland the phrase provides an apt description of Ireland as it enters the 21st 
century. Over the past three decades Ireland has moved from the status of
 a ‘developing country’ to one that had, very recently, the fastest growing 
economy in Europe; from a country that stood united in its Catholic faith to 
one that has experienced the disintegration of the power of the church.

A Survey carried out in 1964 found that 90% of the population agreed with 
the proposition that the ‘Church is the greatest force for good in Ireland 
today’. The same survey also revealed, however, that among those 
questioned who had more than twelve years education four out of five
 disapproved of the Church’s dominance, feeling that, as one respondent put 
it, “The world is too complex today for a clerical state, and that is what we 
have in Ireland” (Kenny, 1997:258). The situation in Ireland has changed
 dramatically since the sixties, particularly with the introduction of free 
education. Ireland now has the highest percentage of educated young people 
in Europe. The collective Catholic mytho-religious perspective that had
 adequately sustained the Irish population tor so long is now crumbling. 
Jung understood well the dangers inherent in the clash between creed and 

the standpoint of the creed is archaic; it is full of impressive
 mythological symbolism which, if taken literally, comes into
 insufferable conflict with knowledge…The danger that a mythology 
understood too literally, and as taught by the Church, will suddenly be
 repudiated lock, stock and barrel is today greater than ever 
(1938:265, italics mine).

Jung’s observations have particular relevance to the Ireland of to-day. At
 first glance, it seems hard to ascertain what impact the collective loss of 
faith in the institutional church has had on the Irish people.

Fintan O’Toole, Irish Times correspondent, has suggested that: “It needs to 
be remembered that most Irish Catholics experience the disgrace of their 
bishops and the loss of trust in their priests not as a liberation but as a 
trauma” (1997:221).

If there is truth in this observation, which I believe there is, it is worth 
exploring what the nature of this trauma is. If Ireland were a client, albeit
 a very complex one, coming to us for therapy how would we approach her?
 As part of our assessment of this ‘client’, it would be important for us to
 bear in mind the following astute observation about the Irish people; “You
 don’t know the Irish if you expect them to talk openly about their own past”.

These are the words of another political journalist. Fergal Keane, spoken in 
the context of considering whether a Truth and Reconciliation Council 
based on the South African model, would work in Ireland (Conflict
 Resolution in a Divided Society: an agenda for hope. March 2000, North
 London University).

While this reluctance on the part of our client will challenge the enquiring 
therapist in us, we do have access, through historical commentary, to more 
of our client’s history than the client is conscious of, even to elements of that 
past that have been deliberately suppressed.

Just as a family history is an indispensable tool in helping us to understand
and piece together the client’s story, so too a historical perspective may offer
 us the necessary distance to think through some of the strategies that were 
utilised to help Ireland maintain a certain cohesion and homeostasis in the
 face of trauma. In reviewing Ireland’s history there is little doubt that the
 two greatest traumas, certainly in its recent history, were The Great Famine
 (1845 to 1850) and the Civil War of 1922. I shall look at each of these major
 events briefly and consider what psychological strategies underlay the
 national response to them.

The Great Famine

The famine and post-famine years wiped out more than a quarter of the
 population of Ireland. A million died of starvation at home. Many of those 
who opted for emigration as a way of escape lost their lives in what became  
known as ‘coffin ships’.

Although the historian Margaret McCurtain suggests that; “…the Famine
 was the first time that the Irish had experienced a punishing God” (1988),
 the self-questioning challenge of such a perspective was never allowed to 
surface. Instead, the generally accepted view in nationalist Ireland,
 supported for more than a hundred years by Irish historians, was that the 
blame for the Irish Famine could be laid firmly at the doorstep of Britain 
and its oppressive policies in Ireland.

Weistubb in his article ‘Myth and the Origins of Diversity’ observes that;
 “Religious reform may occur in response to political oppression….
Historically, major religious movements have evolved out of difficult
 political circumstances” (Singer, 2000:143).

Prior to the famine the practice of Catholicism was a minority observance 
with a maximum of 40% of the Catholic population attending mass on 
Sunday. From the mid-nineteenth century up until the 1970s this had
 increased to 90% of the population attending weekly mass. (Clancy et al.

Larkin in his book The Devotional Revolution in Ireland (1976) argues that
 both post-famine trauma and the suppression of their native language
 resulted in the Irish creating a new ethnic identity based on Catholicism. A 
principal effect of this new identity was to distinguish the Irish from the 
colonial establishment.

Catholicism as a majority observance was soon rewarded with a very
 auspicious visitation. On the 21 August 1879 in County Mayo. in the town
 of Knock, to quote the words of the charismatic parish priest Monsignor 

She (the Virgin Mary) appeared here at Knock. She had her family 
with her. She was dressed in white with a cloak tied here at the neck.
 She had a crown on her head with a rose at the verge of the crown and
 the forehead, which is a symbol of purity and chastity. Our Lady was 
praying for the Irish people, that they might settle their differences in 
some orderly way, in some democratic way….that they should settle
 their differences through prayer and through religion 
(O’Toole, 1990:27).

The conflation of politics and religion seems clear in Monsignor Horan’s
 analysis of the function of Our Lady and our resorting to a very devotional 
form of religion to aid the democratic process. Jung suggests that:

visions, illusions etc. only occur when [one] is suffering from psychic 
dissociation, that is when there is a split between the conscious
 attitude and the unconscious contents opposed to it…In addition there
 are cases where the same collective cause produces identical or 
similar effects, ie the same visionary images (1958:319).

An important question remains as to what were the difficulties that the Irish
 could not address without recourse to such heavenly visions and prayer. 
Colm Toibin in The Irish Famine addresses this question as follows:

An entire class of Irish Catholics survived the famine; many, indeed,
 improved their prospects as a result of it, and this legacy may be more
 difficult for us to deal with in Ireland now than the legacy of those 
who died or emigrated…there were things you could not say in 1946 
about the Famine, such as that ordinary Catholic traders in the towns
 and the stronger farmers speculated in food and made profit 

Perhaps, for a traumatized and oppressed people that had stood together
 united against a common enemy, namely the British, the betrayal in their 
own camp was too unbearable to face or resolve. That a new breed of Irish 
middle class was born out of the suffering of their fellow citizens was too
 much to digest or speak of. Recourse to visions and prayers may have been 
the only cohesive container for such splitting. Jung observed that 
phenomena such as visions emerge when people are “confronted with a
 situation from which there seems to be no way out” (1958:319).

The Civil War

The events that occurred in 1922 and 1923 have had a monumental effect
 on the course of Irish history. Without going into the troubling history of the 
Collins and de Valera relationship, suffice it to say that as a result of their
 difficulties a bloody Civil War broke out. More people died in the Civil War
 than had died in the War of Independence; in fact more people died in those 
two years than have died in the past thirty years of the Northern Troubles.
 Yet comparatively little has been written about that troubled time. As the 
historian F.S.L. Lyons has observed:

It was an episode which has burned so deep into the heart and mind 
of Ireland that it is not yet possible for the historian to approach it with
 the detailed knowledge or the objectivity which it deserves and sooner 
or later must have. So many of the divisions and hatreds that were to
 scar the political and social life of Ireland for the next two decades – 
and are visible even today – stem from those months of internecine 
warfare that charity and the interests of truth alike demand a certain
 reticence about events which are still felt so profoundly and yet so
 little understood in their inner meanings (1971:63, Italics mine).

Many of the men and boys who fought in the Civil War have gone to their 
graves unable to share their own personal story or trauma with their nearest 
and dearest. What is significant is that the power of the church increased
 enormously in the years that followed the Civil War. It was to take another 
60 years before the church would lose its tight grip on the burgeoning Irish
 State. The role of the church with its rigid morality and censorship laws
 seemed crucial in creating a certain homeostasis which allowed us to
 distance ourselves from the underlying traumas. An example of this is 
offered by J.J. Lee who, reflecting on post-Civil War Ireland and its
 preoccupation with sexual morality, observed that; “the obsession with sex 
permitted a blind eye to be turned to the social scars that disfigured the face
 of Ireland” (1991:159).

Back to the Consulting Room

What does this family history of our ‘client’ tell us about her coping
 strategies in the face of trauma? In the Famine scenario we saw that by
 projecting all the blame onto the British we created a false memory that 
helped us to distance ourselves from betrayals within the family itself.
 Furthermore, as a protection against having to face the falseness of that
 coping mechanism and as a way of maintaining a semblance of national and
 social cohesion, we resorted to the devotionalism that Knock so 
dramatically represented.

In the case of the Civil War, what could not be spoken of was left unsaid but, 
this time, instead of falsifying our memories, we suppressed them. 
Likewise, in our striving to maintain some sort of cohesiveness and 
homeostasis in a very split society we resorted, not to devotionalism as we 
had done before, but to submission to a powerful and authoritarian Church.

Faced with the trauma now being presented to us by an Ireland that has lost
 trust in its priests and whose bishops are in disgrace, what can we be on the
 look out for, given what we know of this client’s history in dealing with 
trauma? Let us examine the adequacy of some of this client’s familiar
 strategies when faced with their current trauma.

Devotionalism and Authority

In Joseph Campbell’s book A Hero with a Thousand Faces we are made 
aware of the universality of the human need to create mytho-religious 
systems in order to bring meaning and a sense of the ‘sacred’ to our lives.
 Jung describes myths as our way of projecting our own complex natures,
 both conscious and unconscious, onto the gods. However, myths are not 
manifestations from on high that the supplicant has to accept 
unquestioningly. Different cultures do different things with myths and,
 although the same god or gods may be involved, the myths inevitably come 
out of different cultural and socio/political matrices that require us to 
interpret them differently.

Myths are so complex and rich and so capable of offering a multiplicity of
 perspectives on any given situation that it is vital, particularly in times of
 collective or individual crisis, that we remain open to exploring for
 ourselves the deeper meanings for us within our own mytho-religious 
systems. When our individual and collective myths are subordinated to
 religious or political authority, they lapse into dogma and lose their potency.

Furthermore, when any mytho-religious system is breaking up, such as is
 happening in Ireland today, we are afforded a crucial opportunity to step 
outside our shedding skin, so to speak, and to reflect on what the individual 
and collective projections we resorted to tell us about ourselves. This is of 
course a vulnerable and lonely place that can be characterised by a sense of 
meaninglessness and depression. We see manifestations of this regularly in 
our consulting rooms when we encounter people who have temporarily lost 
their sense of meaning. There is the common phenomenon of the client 
who, fearing the depression that such a loss of meaning in life creates,
 rushes to construct prematurely some new meaning system rather than face
 and work through the depression and learn from it.

Just as the traumatised individual is tempted to avoid going into their
 depression and benefiting from it, so too does our client Ireland face this
 temptation in her present crisis. Furthermore, just like the individual client, Ireland is susceptible to a repetition compulsion in which we may
 collectively rush to solutions which will be a re-creation of the same
 difficulties as before, even if under a different guise.

While devotion to Catholicism has been on the wane other devotional 
objects have filled the void, some of them of more substantial content than 
others. Regardless of the comparative qualities of these new attachments, 
the question still has to be asked whether in choosing them we are 
unthinkingly projecting the same needs on to the new as on to the old. Is it 
not remarkable that people are willing to pay 19,000 euro for a two week
 workshop with a ‘guru’ in the Bahamas and further sums of money to get
 the benefit of absent prayer? In the 1960s my mother, from scarce means,
 was making weekly offerings to the Poor Clare nuns in the hope that I
 would pass my Inter Cert. Although the guise and context are very different, 
these devotional acts share a similar structure. The ‘guru’ becomes the hero
in the same way as all the credit for my achievement went straight to the 
power of the nuns’ prayer. Small and insignificant though this example may
 seem to be, it does illustrate that when we unthinkingly embrace any new 
system, be it Buddhism, Scientology or New Age philosophies, we end up
 grafting on to the new systems whatever remains unresolved from the old. 
Plus ςa change plus c’est la meme chose!

Facing the Shadow

The danger of bringing to any new devotional object the same fervour and 
unquestioning devotion that we brought to the old is that in this leap we will 
have lost our capacity for self reflection. What we will have lost in
 particular is an understanding of the anatomy of our own shadow and 
ultimately the strength that comes from confronting it. Without embracing 
our shadow side we are incapable of the wide-eyed compassion that sees
 through complexities to their core. When we embrace our shadow we can 
reach a more imaginative place where we can take responsibility for the
 mytho-religious system that emerges instead of adopting the strategies of
 the ‘helpless child’ which, as I have argued, we did in earlier times.

As we come to grips with the incalculable trauma of clerical child sex abuse
 in Ireland today we are in danger of ignoring or neglecting the shadow side
 of our laudable concern to make erring priests and bishops accountable for 
their failures. This shadow side emerges when we adopt a lop-sided position 
whereby, they, the clergy carry exclusive blame. What is missing in this 
one- sided view is an understanding of the matrices from which these priests
 and bishops emerged. In a culture of blame (projection) it is all too easy to
 adopt a them-and-us stance, forgetting that these priests and bishops are our 
sons, brothers, uncles, cousins and nephews. These were the adolescents I 
remember in the fifties and sixties being sent off to the various religious 
institutions and whose cleaving to their religious vocation ensured a certain
 prestige and respectability for the family. They were also the boys and men
 who realised that leaving behind their ‘vocation’ would result in a certain 
shame for the family. I remember as a child the disgrace a neighbouring
 family felt when their son left the Christian Brothers: for years he was not 
allowed to share in family meals and had to eat alone and in shame. By such
 treatment of these unfortunate young men – putting exalted demands on 
them in the first place and then making outcasts of them when they could 
not deliver – we have created a terrible legacy for ourselves, a legacy of 
splitting in which a false dichotomy is made between two utterly
 interdependent elements of our society.

It is true, of course, that the institutional Church has a long road to travel
 before it can recover its integrity and open the door to the possibility of 
receiving authentic forgiveness. Few would argue that it will have to come 
forward on that road in a more transparent, responsible, vocal and humble
 way than it has to date. But as long as we are content simply to point the 
finger or be uninvolved passers-by, we are unthinkingly subscribing to that 
terrible legacy of splitting that we have carried through all our major 
national traumas.

If we make a false dichotomy in our society and conveniently view them 
(the institutional Church) as solely to blame and ourselves, therefore, as 
blameless, we repeat for the same reasons the shadow projection that our
 Famine-time forebears cast onto the British.

In my experience, admittedly limited, of working with victims of clerical
 abuse in London and Dublin, one of the greatest difficulties my clients often
 face is the blind eye that their parents turned to what was going on or, even
 worse, the punishment they received when they attempted to tell their 
parents what had been done to them. Such ‘silence’ on the part of the
 victim’s family and any silence to-day in the face of clear evidence, for 
anyone willing to think about it, of the societal inseparability of ‘priests’ and 
’people’ smacks of the conspiracy of silence we used after the Civil War to
 avoid facing the national shadow overhanging us all.

In the film, The Magdalen Sisters, the most powerful scene for me is when
 the father brings his daughter back to the laundry after she attempted to
 escape. Despite its brutality I have been struck by the lack of attention 
which that scene has generally received. It is as if it is easier for us to ignore
 the part that ‘we’ played in that brutal system and to concentrate instead on
 the wickedness of the nuns. I suspect that the film makers gave that scene
 such graphically brutal treatment so as to highlight the complexity of the 
problem and bring it into a collective awareness. It could be said that they
 failed in their purpose for the simple reason that we could not face the 
terrible shadow that this film exposed for us all and could only, once again,
 split into the false dichotomy that allowed us project that shadow on to those 
’others’, the priests and nuns of the institutional Church.

As psychotherapists, we also need to be on the look out for splits in the way
 we view survivors and perpetrators of clerical sexual abuse. How well are 
we responding to the healing and reconciliation needs of a society torn 
asunder by child sexual abuse? There seems to be no shortage of therapists
 who have undergone specific training to work with survivors of sexual 
abuse. This is in sharp contrast to the lack of specific training available for
 those who might work with abusers, including clerical abusers.

Is this lack of training our way of marginalising the abuser and our way, albeit 
unconscious, of re-enforcing the myth, proclaimed by Fergal Keane, that you 
can’t expect the Irish to talk openly about their own past. Before someone can 
muster the courage to talk there has to be someone equipped to listen deeply
. If we do not rise to this challenge, not only do we deny the marginalised a
 voice but we also, in the more general sense, lose the opportunity to integrate 
a very important part of our own history and our national shadow.

Mary O’Callaghan is an integrative psychotherapist in private practice and
 holds a masters in Jungian and Post-Jungian studies.


Campbell, J. (1968) The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New Jersey: Princeton University 

Clancy, P., Drudy, S., Lynch, K., O’Dowd, L. (1995) Irish Society: Sociological
 Perspectives. Dublin: Institute of Public Administration.

Jung, C.G. (1958) Collected Works Vol 10. London: Ark Paperbacks.

Kenny, M. (1997) Goodbye to Catholic Ireland. UK: Sinclair-Stevenson.

Larkin, E. (1976) ‘The Devotional Revolution in Ireland’ in Historical Dimensions 
of Irish Catholocism. New York: Arno.

Lee, J.J. (1991) Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society. Australia: Cambridge University Press.

Lyons, F. S. L. (1971) Ireland Since the Famine. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan.

McCurtain, M. (1988) Mother Ireland (Video). Belfast, Ireland: Derry Film & Video.

O’Toole, F. (1990) A Mass for Jessie James: A Journey Through 1980’s Ireland. Dublin: 
Raven Arts Press.

O’Toole, F. (1997) The Ex-Isle of Erin: Land Images of a Global Ireland. Dublin: New 
Island Books.

Singer, J.(ed) (2000) The Vision Thing. London and New York: Routledge.

Toibin, C. (1999) The Irish Famine. London: Profile Books.

Weistubb, E. B. (2000) ‘Myth and the Origins of Diversity’. In J. Singer (ed) The Vision 
Thing. London & New York: Routledge.

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