The Wonder Eye: Meetings With Ivor profiles a pioneering and radical Irish Psychiatrist. Ivor Browne is celebrated as someone who played a public role in destigmatising mental illness, encouraging alternatives to the institutionalisation that characterised irish society. Caitriona Devery caught up with Alan Gilsenan to find out more about the making of the documentary.
You’ve made socially engaged documentaries about mental health in the past – was this in the same vein? What brought you to Ivor Browne as a subject?
It’s hard to say for certain. Generally, I work on instinct and gut rather than intellectualising things out of existence. But – as you say – I’ve made many films in the area of mental health (psychiatric care, suicide, euthanasia, depression…) so it does beg a question alright. In ways, of course, I’m drawn to the edge of our experience, the shared world where we really find ourselves, the extremes of our lives where we find ourselves. And I don’t divide those of us who may or may not “have mental health issues” – they are all our experiences in one way or another.
I’ve known Ivor for many years and admired him greatly. He – and his work – seem to reside in this shared space. The place where we are all mad. Or sane. It makes no difference really, except in our ability to manage ourselves and others in a dysfunctional world. But my first memory of Ivor was his defence of the great radical Scottish psychiatrist RD Laing during a slightly untoward attack from Gay Byrne on The Late Late Show.
People speak of him in a very reverential way, as a wise or holy man. Is that something Ivor is aware of, or even courts?
I’m not a big fan of gurus of any kind.. I love that Van Morrison line “no guru, no method, no teacher… just you and I in nature, in the garden”. Yet, even as I say this, I realise that Ivor is a teacher in so many ways and Sahaj Marg [the style of meditation that Ivor teaches] is a way of mediation that allows for the handing down of ancient wisdoms through teachers, and I do think there is much value in that. But I don’t see Ivor as some guru nor do I think he would ever see himself in that light. He is very modest by nature. And yet I totally understand that he inspires people with his warmth, insight and compassion and maybe that has a role for us all.
Do you think someone like Ivor could exist now? I mean someone with such a high profile, who was inside the system but who also speaks against the grain?
I’d like to think so. But we live in such a conservative and conformist age. And we are all now our own spin doctors. But I think we should celebrate maverick spirits on all sides, freethinkers of all persuasions and none. Not just politically correct cheerleaders. I think Nell McCafferty is one of those. And Tommy Tiernan.
Brendan Kelly’s book says Ireland has an exceptional history not in terms of excessive mental illness but of excessive incarceration / institutionalisation. Was Ivor part of changing this? Where has been his biggest impact?
Yes, certainly. He was not alone in this, of course. But Ivor certainly led the way throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties. If anything, we have not emphasised that especially in the film because it is so well-documented in other ways. I think he humanised mental illness fundamentally, and much of the common assumptions which we take for granted today were the radical thoughts of Ivor Browne all those years ago.
Was it very intentionally a portrait of him as an individual? And on mental illness at an individual level? There’s not so much reference to how wider culture and society can impact on mental health. Can you tell me a little bit why the story was approached like that?
Yes. It was always meant to be very much a personal portrait. Ivor’s books of writings give a firm picture of his views and ideas in the public space over the years but I wanted to capture something of the man himself. And I think the public emerges from the personal in the end. If we understood more about our inner lives, our mental and emotional landscape, then the public sphere would be a safer and saner place. You only have to cast a glance over the news to see that.
Do you think – or would you have a sense of what Ivor would think – things are getting worse or better when it comes to mental health in Ireland?
Of course, there has been progress and there are many enlightened people working within the area of mental health in Ireland today. But – and it’s a hell of a “but” – you just have to open your eyes to see the state (and State) of us today: a torrent of deaths by suicide, young women wasting away with anorexia and self-harm, prescription and non-prescription drug abuse, alcohol and gambling addictions, an orgy of pornography and abuse. There is much reason to despair. And yet – for all the lip service paid to all of this by the political class, by health care and social workers and by the media – there really is nowhere for anyone to turn.
Keep your eyes peeled for screenings of The Wonder Eye: Meetings With Ivor .