Recognising and Healing Malignant Shame


Garrett O'Connor, M.D.

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There is widespread support for the view that many contemporary Irish attitudes and behaviours have their origins in colonialism.2 However, no comprehensive hypothesis exists to explain how this evolutionary process might have taken place. This article attempts to integrate and build on previous contributions to the field by using the trans-generational model of parental child abuse to explicate how subjugated peoples (in this case Irish Catholics) could be damaged psychologically by political oppression (in this case British colonialism).

Children who are subjected to severe and prolonged abuse by parents or other authorities tend to internalise the abuse in the form of a behavioural syndrome characterised by pathological dependency, low self-esteem and suppressed feelings which I have called 'malignant shame'. As adults, shame-based children are likely to abuse their children in much the same way as they themselves were abused by their parents, thus transmitting the syndrome of malignant shame to the next generation. And so on down the line.

Could a similar process exist at the cultural level whereby prolonged political or governmental abuse of an entire population might be internalised as malignant shame by the institutions of society, and transmitted unwittingly to subsequent generations in the policies and conduct of government, church, school and family?

There is reason to believe that such a cultural process has been endemic in Ireland for many centuries, and that its destructive consequence of malignant shame (low self-esteem, pathological dependency, self-misperceptions of cultural inferiority and suppression of feelings) is a fundamental cause of contemporary psychological, social, political and economic distress in the country at this time.

Clinical experience with families suggests that a combination of psychological and spiritual recovery is an effective treatment for malignant shame, and also perhaps the only way to prevent it from being transmitted to the next generation. If malignant shame should prove to be a significant problem for Ireland at a national level, then a similar prescription will undoubtedly be required, but on a much larger scale.



In April of 1967 I was the Director of the Psychiatric Emergency Service of the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. The riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King were in full blast, and the hospital, situated in the centre of a black poverty area, was in a virtual state of siege.

The emergency room was crowded with casualties, some of them physically wounded, others mentally distraught. Among this latter group were several young black men who had been arrested for looting, drinking and 'running amok'. As Psychiatrist-in-Charge, I made a policy decision not to accept these individuals for treatment because I did not consider them to be psychiatrically ill. Instead, I asked the police to bring in the young men who were not looting and rioting, but staying at home behind closed doors watching the riots on television.

My policy got me into a lot of trouble with the police and the hospital authorities. They did not concur with my view that socially aggressive behavior by young black men after the murder of Dr. King could be considered a psychologically normal response given the long history of racism, segregation and cultural abuse that blacks had endured in Baltimore and other parts of the American South until that time. I wondered if the young men and women who showed no external signs of anger were, in fact, exhibiting signs of post-colonial stress disorder? Split off from their experience of healthy rage by a pathological fear of expressing feelings, were they unconsciously re-enacting the attitudes of passive compliance traditionally expected of slaves and other oppressed peoples?


Post-Colonial Psychological Syndromes

Prominent Third World political writers such as Franz Fanon, Edward Said and Albert Memmi have identified post-colonial dependency as a major barrier to progress for de-colonised peoples. The core of the problem for any post-colonial population is a widespread conviction of cultural inferiority generated by prolonged abuse of power in the relationship between coloniser and colonised. Concentration camp survivors,3 former cult members, liberated hostages and repatriated prisoners of war similarily may be plagued in the aftermath of 'freedom' by a lifetime of irrational emotions, especially shame and guilt.

Whether they know it or not, Irish Catholics all over the world have inherited a history that evokes images of shame, oppression, deprivation and bigotry. In spite of this, they have, as a group, become justly known for their courage, wit, good humour and generosity, not to mention their imagination, sense of higher purpose and legendary capacity to triumph over adversity. These qualities have enabled them to attain unprecedented distinction in business, law, medicine, politics, religion and the arts.4 And yet many of them, even some of the most successful ones, say that they struggle privately with chronic feelings of shame and a painful sense of personal and cultural inferiority.

This discrepancy of feeling is certainly familiar to me. I grew up as an Irish Catholic in a loving cultured Fine Gael family where political discussions seemed to focus on the brutalities of the civil war, which had ended only fourteen years before I was born, and in which my father had served as a medical officer in the Free State Army. Little was said in my hearing about the centuries of colonial history that had caused the war, and my parent's sympathies lay with Britain in her struggle against Hitler. At school, the Irish history I was taught included robbery of our lands by plantations of English colonists, deliberate impoverishment of Irish Catholics through the Penal Laws, and near-elimination of the Irish peasantry by planned neglect and forced emigration during the Famine. Despite this knowledge, I had by the age of eight developed a conviction that England was a source of higher (and better) authority on nearly all matters except Catholicism. In my early teens I came to believe that everything Irish (including myself) was in some way defective or second-rate in comparison to England.

By the time I left Ireland in 1960 to take up voluntary exile as a psychiatrist in North America (where I have remained ever since), this self-misperception of cultural and personal inferiority (which I would later call malignant shame) had become the core of my identity; indeed, it may have been the principal reason for my departure from Ireland, although I wasn't aware of this at the time. Twenty years later, a divorce, re-marriage, recovery from alcoholism and a serious bout with cancer caused me to take stock of my personal situation.

In the mid-1970s I had been invited back to Ireland by Professor Ivor Browne of Dublin to direct a series of Group Relations conferences on unconscious aspects of authority and responsibility sponsored by the Irish Foundation for Human Development. This opportunity brought me into contact with Mr. Paddy Doherty and other Derry leaders working to help their city survive the ravages of military occupation, guerilla warfare and sectarian strife. While attempting to take full responsibility for my personal problems and the damage they had caused me and others, my exposure to the terrible consequences of imperialism in Northern Ireland led me to wonder if the trans-generational dynamics of my family of origin in Dublin and my family of choice in Los Angeles might not also be a micro-cosmic reflection of colonialism. If this were so, then the strengths and weaknesses of my own character could be seen as a psychological legacy of the colonial process manifesting itself at an individual as opposed to a cultural or community level.

A perusal of 20th-century Irish writing finds support for this view. Many writers and historians have attributed self-misperceptions of personal and cultural inferiority among Irish Catholics to the effects of British colonialism on the national psyche. Professor Joseph Lee refers to the 'elusive but crucial psychological factors that inspired the instinct of inferiority', and has identified self-deception, begrudgery, contempt for authority, lack of self-confidence and poor leadership as post-colonial behavioural constraints on the pursuit of productivity and happiness in contemporary Ireland.

Dr. Anthony Clare, a prominent Irish psychiatrist, while emphasising the 'extraordinary vigour and vitality of so much of Irish life', also describes the Irish mind as being 'enveloped, and to an extent suffocated, in an English mental embrace'. This development has occurred, he says, in 'a culture [that is] heavily impregnated by an emphasis on physical control, original sin, cultural inferiority and psychological defensiveness'.

The paradoxical and contradictory construction of the 'Irish Catholic Character' is itself a clue to history. Humour, courage, loyalty and tenderness co-exist with pessimism, envy, duplicity and spite. A strong urge to resist authority is tempered by a stronger need to appease it. A constant need for approval is frustrated by a chronic fear of judgment. A deep devotion to suffering for its own sake is supported by a firm belief in tragedy as a virtue.

Freud, Jung and other psychoanalytic theorists believed that individuals are destined to act out apocalyptic themes of ancient history that are handed down from generation to generation through the institutions of society and in the collective unconscious. Thus, Irish Catholics might have a tendency to re-enact in their daily lives the most degrading themes of Irish colonial history, including the double tragedy of triumph through failure or failure through triumph, each option providing a painful, but safe, haven from ambition. In my experience, these destructive re-enactments were most readily observed during struggles for political power within families, and in the relationship between teachers and pupils at school. Shaming strategies such as ridicule, teasing, contempt and public humiliation are clearly rooted in the historical reality of political oppression. Devious conniving, silence as a form of communication, interpersonal treachery, and secret delight at the misfortunes of others are contemporary reminders of the familial savagery and tribal betrayal to which at least some of our forebears must have turned in order to survive under colonial rule.

Alluding to the psychological impact of foreign and political domination (of Irish Catholics) in Ireland, Clare points to the need for exploration of the Irish penchant 'to say one thing and do another'. Wisely, he warns that investigation of this topic and related issues will require sensitivity and tact if defensiveness and the risk of feeding the Irish tendency to self-denigration is to be avoided.

Nevertheless, the exploration must proceed. The short and long-term effects of potentially destructive post-colonial influences on work performance and human relationships in Ireland should be a matter of national concern. The post-colonial mentality which, according to Lee, impedes ambition and constrains progress by 'shrivel[ling] Irish perspectives on Irish potential' must be identified and harnessed for positive purposes if the current spiritual, cultural and economic renaissance in Ireland is to continue, and the concomitant movement towards peace in Northern Ireland is to be maintained.

Historical Background

This section and the one that follows contain a brief (and highly selective) review of pertinent Irish history, a description of how and why shame-based parents inflict emotional damage on their children, and an introduction to the psychology of malignant shame. An awareness of how these issues are linked will help the reader to identify the connection between family abuse and political oppression. In turn, this awareness will clarify how the oppressive relationship between coloniser and colonised in Ireland has produced self-misperceptions of cultural inferiority (malignant shame) in significant segments of the Irish Catholic population.

At various times since the reign of Elizabeth I, English governments have justified oppression of Catholics in Ireland on the grounds that the Irish were an inferior race and a shameful people.5 At the end of the 17th century, the Penal Laws were enacted by the colonial govern- ment specifically to impoverish and degrade Catholics in Ireland, and to undermine or eliminate the influence of the Irish Catholic Church. All Irish Catholic institutions which carried traditional values, attitudes and religious beliefs were targeted for destruction. These draconian laws were enforced, more or less, for about eighty years or until 1770, when a process of repeal was initiated only because the repressive legislation had achieved its original objective of 'preventing the further growth of popery', and 'eliminating Catholic landownership'.6

Over centuries, the potential for tribal solidarity among Irish Catholics was consistently undermined by land-rape, poverty, discrimination and the readiness of the Crown to exploit the venality of Irish despair through the purchase of treachery from paid informers. After the Act of Union in 1801, and the failed insurrections of 1798 and 1803, the spirit of Irish Catholicism was further weakened by the systematic elimination of the Irish language as an essential cultural symbol. Even after Catholic Emancipation was achieved in 1829, native Irish experience was increasingly devalued, and preferred styles of dress, behaviour and thought were defined in terms of the dominant British colonial culture.

Then came the Famine in 1845, and with it a real possibility of annihilation or abandonment of Irish Catholics by disease, starvation or neglect by the British government. 1.2 million people died in less than five years, 2 million more emigrated to the U.S. during the next decade, and by 1850 large parts of Ireland (particularly the West and Southwest) must have resembled nothing more than a 600-year-old concentration camp.

Throughout this time and later, English newspapers and journals, most notably The Times, Punch and The Illustrated London News generated powerful denigrating stereotypes designed to promote the view that Irish Catholics were at least partly responsible for the catastrophe that had befallen them. Their laziness, stupidity and superstitious religious beliefs were said to have brought on the Famine, which was conceptualised by some politicians and churchmen as a just punishment from a wrathful God for the sinful and rebellious attitudes of Irish Catholics. 'The great evil with which we have to contend', wrote Charles Trevelyan in 1848, 'is not the physical evil of the famine but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people'. As Treasury Secretary of the British government, Trevelyan was responsible for the funding of Famine relief operations.

There is considerable evidence to suggest that Trevelyan's official 'British Government' attitude persists 150 years later as a powerful dynamic of the current war in Northern Ireland. In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph on May 10, 1969, Mr. Terence O'Neill made the following statement after resigning as Northern Ireland Prime Minister:

It is frightfully hard to explain to Protestants that if you give Roman Catholics a good job and a good house, they will live like Protestants, because they will see neighbours with cars and television sets. They will refuse to have eighteen children, but if a Roman Catholic is jobless and lives in a most ghastly hovel, he will rear eighteen children on National Assistance. If you treat Roman Catholics with due consideration and kindness, they will live like Protestants in spite of the authoritative nature of their Church.

Other pertinent 19th-century literary extracts include the following well-known and widely cited quotations. The first of these was penned by Charles Kingsley, author of The Water Babies and other classic English novels, in a letter to his wife after a brief tour of Ireland in 1860:

I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country. I believe that there are not only many more of them than of old, but that they are happier, better and more comfortably fed and lodged under our rule than they ever were. But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.7

In an 1862 article entitled 'The Missing Link', Punch had this to say about immigrant Irish labourers in England:

A creature manifestly between the Gorilla and the Negro is to be met with in some of the lowest districts of London and Liverpool by adventurous explorers. It comes from Ireland, whence it has contrived to migrate: it belongs in fact to a tribe of Irish savages: the lowest species of the Irish Yahoo. When conversing with its kind it talks a sort of gibberish. It is, moreover, a climbing animal and may sometimes be seen ascending a ladder laden with a hod of bricks.

From a historical perspective, however, the British government cannot be held solely responsible for the distress of the Catholic population in Ireland then and now. By a peculiar quirk of historical irony, the 19th-century Irish Catholic Church and its faithful adherents may also have contributed to the process as they struggled together to recover from centuries of persecution and near-annihilation at the hands of the English.

By 1850, substantial numbers of Irish Catholics, separated from their lands, devastated by starvation and disease and apparently deserted by government during the Famine, had come to believe that human misery was all they deserved and all they could expect from their colonial masters. Naturally, they looked to the Catholic Church for succour and salvation. The Church's response was immediate, powerful and above all successful, because it stopped a potentially genocidal process from gaining a fatal momentum. But the psychological and spiritual price of survival was high; so high, in fact, that it is still being paid 150 years later by significant numbers of Catholics in Ireland, and by many more on the diaspora, including myself.

Survival of the Church and the Evolution of 19th-Century Catholicism

As part of its survival strategy in the early part of the 19th century, the Irish Catholic Church, having been persecuted, shamed and humiliated by the British government for almost one hundred years, now joined forces with it to suppress the insurgence of militant nationalism in Ireland. This unhappy but efficient alliance led the Church to internalize unconsciously the most abusive aspects of Anglo-Irish history and the Victorian culture, including suppression of feelings, repression of sexuality and the devaluation of women's and children's rights. These negative social values were reinforced by a devotional revolution which emphasised sexist elements of Augustinian and Jansenistic theology imported from France and, ironically, incorporated a strict practicum of religious rituals borrowed from England, including Novenas and the Rosary. In the latter half of the century, the ordinary people of Ireland clung to their religion as a badge of identity and a weapon of defiance. For many, Catholicism became a substitute nationality, and nationalism a form of secular religion.8

W. Humphrey, Paddy on Horseback, 1779


Although emigration by Catholics and Protestants from Ireland to the U.S. and elsewhere had been common since the middle of the 17th century, an enormous exodus of Catholics to North America began in 1847, the peak year of the Famine. Lacking material goods to take on the Atlantic journey, the emigrants brought with them instead the austere, authoritarian survival ideology of 19th-century Irish Catholicism, as well as the usual colonial stigmata of second-class citizenship and low self-esteem. What awaited many of these immigrants in the land of promise was poverty worse than anything they had known in Ireland, and an impenetrable wall of racial prejudice and religious discrimination:

Woman wanted to do general housework--English, Scotch, Welsh, German or any country or color except Irish.9

Again, the Catholic Church came to the rescue. Irish clergy, in their traditional role as cultural defenders of a devastated people, used strong infusions of vigourous faith and national pride to counter the racism and bigotry aimed at their immigrant flock.

The parish became more important than the neighbourhood, and the priests demanded total obedience to their rule. This clerical strategy helped the immigrants to gain a firm toe-hold in the New World by imbuing them with hope and a strong sense of community. It also positioned them to use their native survival skills to the best advantage in the astonishing ascent that would soon bring Irish Catholics to the pinnacles of material success and political power in the U.S.10

Meanwhile, back in Ireland, the 19th-century survival strategy of the Catholic Church to suppress both affect and insurrection was a brilliant success, but at what price? According to Monica McGoldrick, the Church consolidated its control of the people (and thereby ensured its own survival) 'by holding the key to salvation in a land where this life offered so little'.11 After 1850, the Church may have unwittingly passed on the essentials of its survival plan to subsequent generations of Irish Catholics. Shame, guilt, terror and celibate self-sacrifice were key elements in the Church's campaign to deal with the critical problems of over-population, land shortage and the patronymic system of inheritance. Original sin, sexual repression and eternal damnation were incorporated into a grim theology of fear that led Irish Catholics to believe they had been born bad, were inclined toward evil and deserved punishment for their sins.11 This bleak spiritual philosophy, which evolved in the harsh climate of famine and colonialism, would later become the foundation for 20th-century Irish Catholicism and has remained so to this day, despite the changes of Vatican II and the many departures from tradition by courageous clergy at every level of Church organisation.

Cartoon, 1867. National Library of Ireland

Two Varieties of Shame--Healthy and Malignant

In order to highlight the dynamic similarities between parental abuse of children and political oppression of populations, the foregoing account deliberately juxtaposes the abusive aspects of Irish history with the extraordinary ability of the people to overcome them. Similarly, the coping skills developed by children to survive familial abuse can become the principal tools of their achievement as adults. As we shall see, however, the price that many children of abuse pay for their later material or professional success is to be isolated from their authentic feelings by malignant shame, and therefore to be rendered incapable of achieving intimacy in relationships. The implications of a similar outcome for an entire population would be devastating.

Physiological or healthy shame is a critically important motivating factor in the psychology of learning and character development. Healthy shame enables children to grow in two ways. First, it helps them to identify the limit of their ability, and then impels them to exceed it. However, like anxiety and guilt, which, in the 'right amounts' are essential for our psychological well-being, healthy shame can become pathological or malignant under certain circumstances.

Healthy shame becomes malignant when it ceases to motivate behaviour that is consistent with normal growth and development, but instead is used as a weapon by individuals or groups in authority to control or manipulate the actions and attitudes of those under their power. For example, insecure parents may shame and punish their children into submission for the same behaviours or inadequacies that they are unable to tolerate in themselves. Authority figures in schools, prisons, churches and the military can, and do, perpetrate verbal, physical, sexual and religious abuse on their charges in the same manner and for the same reasons. Calculating politicians have used shame in their attempts to break the spirit of entire peoples as they did when subjugating the Native Americans, when murdering the Jews and when neglecting the Irish Catholic peasantry during the Great Famine.

Malignant shame, more than a simple emotion, is an identity: a more or less permanent state of low self-esteem that causes even successful persons to experience themselves as being unworthy, and to view their lives as being empty and unfulfilled. No matter how much good they do, they are never good enough. Shame-based individuals may experience themselves privately as objects of disgust, feel secretly flawed and defective as persons and live in constant fear of being exposed as stupid, ignorant or incompetent.

Malignant shame is a psychological survival mechanism which makes it difficult or impossible for abused persons to express their feelings of anger and rage, because to do so would place them at risk for further damage through retaliation by the perpetrator. Thus, abuse victims often remain passive in the face of punishment because they suspect that the rage and criticism of their perpetrator is both accurate and justified. In extreme cases, severely abused children or battered wives may come to experience verbal, physical or sexual abuse from their parents or husbands not as a form of assault, but as an expression of love. Malignant shame is an important element of the protective dynamic that causes hostages to revere their captors, prostitutes to love their pimps, revolutionaries to admire their oppressors and 'the Irish to imitate the English in all things, while apparently hating them at the same time!'.12

Reduced or absent self-esteem may cause children of abuse to create false personas or caricatures of themselves to divert attention away from what they believe to be the hateful, shameful truth of their 'real' identities. Such children are, quite literally, 'not themselves'. Having lost touch with both their authenticity and their feelings, they may, as adults, become inordinately dependent on the approval and judgment of others for estimations of self-worth.

An Irish settler in New York, 1850s. Cartoon by Thomas Nast; courtesy of Culver Pictures Inc., New York



When viewed side by side, the historical evolution of Irish Catholicism and the trans-generational dynamics of parental child abuse would appear to have certain features in common. Oppressed nations and abused children may suffer more than their share of unnecessary pain in the process of growing up. Both will experience problems with authority, dependency, identity and entitlement, and both will be compromised in their ability to integrate thought, feeling, intellect and action in such a way as to promote intimacy and facilitate growth.

Like the child of an abused parent, the 19th-century Irish Catholic Church may have internalised a core identity of malignant shame as a response to generations of persecution by the British Government under the Penal Laws. In keeping with the psychological imperative that seems to mandate the trans-generational transmission of unacknowledged shame, the harsh and punitive spiritual pedagogy to which the Church bound its adherents at mid-century may have been as much a vehicle for the unconscious transfer of the Church's malignant shame to the next generation, as it was a pragmatic and effective social strategy to avert the real possibility of abandonment or annihilation of poor Catholics during and after the Famine. In the same way that the caricature or false persona of an abused child can be regarded as a behavioural adaptation to the threat of parental abuse, the 'Irish Catholic Character' can perhaps best be seen as a caricature of itself, a cultural false persona based on massive misperceptions of inferiority which evolved as a survival mechanism in the struggle against prolonged abuse by British governments and their representatives in Ireland.

In 1992 I presented an early version of this paper to a largely Catholic audience in Derry. Some were angry, others were stunned, but many could identify. After the lecture, certain members of the audience challenged my authority to speak on the grounds that I had left Ireland thirty years previously and "no longer had my finger on the pulse of the nation". I had no right, they said, to be "putting the Irish down or accusing them of mental illness" when support and encouragement was what was needed "after all [they] had been through". Protestations by me that I was proud to be Irish, loved my country and still went to Mass and Communion occasionally seemed only to inflame a significant segment of the audience, some of whom adopted a rather threatening stance. At a point when the discussion seemed likely to take a nasty turn, a prominent local physician cried out "Stop! O'Connor is not the problem. The real problem is what do we do with our anger?" "And how about our tenderness?" said a woman quietly in the sudden silence that followed his remark.

Both of them were right. The most crippling feature of post- colonial cultural malignant shame in Ireland is an unconscious collusion between the people, the Church and the government to suppress socially significant expressions of intimacy and rage by obliterating them with shame, trivialising them with ridicule or condemning them with diatribes of moral indignation. The implications of this kind of censorship for personal growth, institutional development and the recovery of indigenous pride in a post-colonial environment are profound because human beings, when isolated from their feelings, are also cut off from their humanity, which, in turn, makes them prone to self-pity and compulsive victimhood. Plantation of this evil partition in the mind of the people was, and is, one of the most destructive consequences of British colonial policy in Ireland, because it fosters the development of pathological dependency, strongly supports a culture of blame and actively impedes the process of emotional liberation which is vital for sustained self-appraisal. "If you don't know how you feel, you don't know who you are. If you don't know who you are, you are probably leading somebody else's life!".

The split between thought and feeling is evident at every level of Irish life. While we Irish are celebrated for being willing to display our emotions through fictional characters in poetry, drama, literature and song, we are not very skilled at revealing our true feelings in the intimate narrows of face-to-face relationships. At home, many of us are reluctant to speak to each other about our private yearnings for affection because expressions of feeling or physical contact are usually discouraged in families--although compulsive talking to ourselves or others is readily accepted on account of its unique capacity to stifle emotion.

In the absence of formal research which has yet to be conducted, the arguments presented in this paper are based on my clinical observations of malignant shame in hundreds of patients, and my experience of the phenomenon as a self-destructive influence in my own life. The positive response I have received from trusted friends and colleagues with whom I have shared these preliminary ideas has encouraged me to think more about how I internalised my cultural malignant shame through interactions with my family, school, church and government, and how I have passed it on to my children and others dear to me through various abuses of power and authority on my part. A better grasp of the process which facilitated this transmission in my case might prove to be helpful for larger numbers of people struggling with the same issues.

Scientific Racism as depicted in Harper's Weekly, 1898

Despite a public record of some small professional accomplishment in my life, I continue to struggle privately with many of the conflicts described in this article, especially those related to authority, identity, entitlement and judgment. Over the years I have come to understand my behaviour in these areas as a disorder of belonging--a post-colonial character syndrome manifested intermittently by procrastination, ambivalence about aggression, magical thinking and difficulty with intimacy in my most cherished relationships. In my case at least, the common denominator of these personality characteristics is an irrational need for approval by others and a simultaneous fear of their negative judgment.

The roots of this syndrome can be traced to my relationships with parents and siblings at home, to my interactions with Holy Ghost fathers and Jesuit priests at school, to my early but instinctive tendency to delegate higher authority to British values, institutions and objects, and finally to vivid and terrifying childhood images of my personal and public vilification by God on the day of the Last Judgment. Many years of 12-Step work combined with personal psychotherapy have given me a set of psychological tools to deal with these problems. However, the spiritual dimensions of my recovery did not come into focus until I became willing to consider my personal development in terms of my cultural history, and to discern a pattern of connectedness that embraced the diverse and often contradictory elements of my national identity.

The argument has been put to me that conflicts of authority, identity and entitlement can occur independently of culture and should not, therefore, be attributed to the influence of any particular political system. While it is certainly true that such conflicts are universal and ubiquitous in human experience, they appear to be concentrated in post-colonial cultures such as Ireland and Mexico where imperialistic forces have subjected the indigenous populations to appalling excesses of political abuse and unnecessary suffering over many generations. I have been told in no uncertain terms that my proclivity as a physician to talk publicly about my personal experience with these conflicts is both inappropriate and embarrassing. Instead, I have been advised to confront my cultural demons by disguising them as fictional characters in a novel, or by having them evaluated in the privacy of a psychiatrist's office for a possible trial of medications. After I mentioned in a public lecture given at Dublin's Peacock Theatre in 1992 that my heroic and marvelous mother was an alcoholic, a member of my family suggested quite seriously that I should cease my cultural researches to pursue other work opportunities. In other words, I should keep quiet.

That is my point. I believe that the post-colonial syndrome of malignant shame has caused many of us in the Irish Catholic community to be ashamed of being ashamed, and therefore to conceal or remain silent about the healthy shame which is our life-line to integrity, ambition, power and success. The real 'hidden Ireland' lies buried in the malignant shame of each individual and each institution in the country, and indeed in every Irish person throughout the world regardless of religious affiliation. But it is we Catholics who must ultimately take leadership to break the silence about the hidden shame of being Irish, and to bring it, and ourselves, out of personal hiding. It is hard to know how to proceed with this process of externalisation, because factors such as embarrassment and concern for the sensibilities of others must always be considered. But there is no alternative, in my opinion. Finding ways to share our 'experience, strength and hope' is an essential first step in resisting the seduction of false pride which is the emotional hallmark of the true victim. Failure to act will sentence too many of us to a shame-based future as dedicated blamers, whiners and Pollyannas who will surely pass our unresolved social issues and family conflicts onto the children of our next generation.

Even though the current peace process in Northern Ireland may soon result in the departure of British troops from the six counties, the occupation of the Irish mind by psychological relics of colonialism, including malignant shame and the capacity for self-deceit contained in the national tendency to say one thing and do another, will continue indefinitely. Although malignant shame is differentially distributed in the Irish Catholic population (that is, some people and some institutions have more of it than others), the incidence of shame-based conditions such as alcoholism, depression, suicide, child abuse, ruined marriages and unfulfilled dreams is paradoxically elevated in Ireland where loyalty to family, love of children and respect for the dignity of life are also highly valued. Institutional undercurrents of malignant shame are suggested by the contemporary tragedies of the Kerry babies, Miss 'X', Bishop Casey and the pedophiliac scandals in the Irish Catholic Church. Potential candidates for analysis from a historical perspective of cultural inferiority and malignant shame might include the conduct of the plenipotentiaries during the Treaty Talks of 1921 and the role of 'cultural drinking' in the death of Michael Collins.

Perhaps the target of the next guerilla war in Ireland should be the negative attitudes and value judgments about ourselves that are rooted in a combination of denigrating colonial stereotypes and anachronistic 19th- century Irish Catholic dogma. Deep rivers of dammed-up anger are waiting to be released at every level of society, and the dishonest practice of condemning revolutionary violence in public while supporting it in private should be discouraged through promotion of a communications climate in which individuals can feel free to express their authentic feelings and opinions without the risk of being condemned as terrorists.


Two Faces (detail), by Sir John Tenniel, 1881, published in Punch

It is likely that the majority of people reading this article will find its thesis to be neither plausible nor palatable, coming as it does from a person who has lived in exile for thirty-five years. They may argue that 'all that is behind us' and that 'to focus on it now' may endanger the momentum of disengagement from Britain that has begun with Ireland's shift of trade emphasis to the European Community. I contend that 'all that is ahead of us'. We should know that malignant shame is a permanent element of the colonial legacy which will accompany us wherever we go, and which will continue to exert its evil influence on the people and institutions of Ireland unless some formal effort is made to identify and confront it at a national level. There needs to be a clear understanding and acceptance of the fact that all institutions and traditions of Irish society have been traumatised by imperialism, and that remedial action must therefore include South as well as North, Protestant as well as Catholic and so on through all the diversities. Our willingness as Catholics and Protestants to abandon our respective roles as living caricatures of a narrow and hostile cultural stereotype would give us the courage to speak to ourselves and to our future as a nation of triumphant mongrels who have proudly integrated the shame and the power and the love of our rich and rare polycultural past.

Formal adoption of a perspective which emphasises the need for individual, family, institutional and community recovery from colonial trauma should include the creation of psychological and cultural institutions to serve as active containers for the outpouring of suppressed and prohibited feelings that will inevitably occur in the process of reconciling political, personal, religious and class differences in Ireland. The availability of such institutions would permit us all to take a part in the process of healing the malignant shame that is tearing us apart because we don't realise, or cannot accept, that it is a part of us. The Centre for Creative Communications, soon to be established by the North West Centre for Learning and Development in Derry, is an example of an institution that has incorporated these vital purposes into its primary task.

In the meantime, perhaps the best prescription for Irish Catholics in Ireland or anywhere else at this particular time would be that given by Nelson Mandela to his own people in his inaugural speech as President of South Africa in May 1994:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.

We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous,

talented and fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?

You are a child of God.

Your playing small doesn't serve the world.

There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that

other people won't feel insecure around you.

We were born to manifest the glory of God that is

within us.

It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously

give other people permission to do the same.

As we are liberated from our own fear,

our presence automatically liberates others.

American Gold (detail), by F. Opper, 1882



Garrett O'Connor can be reached at: