Saints, Scholars
and Schizophrenics

By Nancy Scheper-Hughes
Reviewed by HJG

In Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics, Nancy Scheper-Hughes examines the lives of modern-day Irish people in the pseudonymic village of Ballybran in the rural Dingle Peninsula through the influences of the Celts, Irish Catholicism, and the Great Famine. Although the Irish are now extremely ascetic Catholics, following in the tradition of Jansenism, their pre-Catholic memory still balances their lives. Scheper-Hughes argues that even before Saint Brendan came to Ireland, the Celts were already fairly ascetic, shunning most things bodily, which helped them to adapt to the rigorous lifestyle of Jansenism. This does not fit with out current conception of the Celts, but perhaps it was true of Western Ireland which Scheper-Hughes investigates. However, scrutinizing “true” history through millennia of Catholic interpretations is, of course, impossible.

The local mythology (beyond the usual Celtic history of the Fir Bolg and Tuatha de Danann [isn’t that a yogurt?] and all that) relates primarily to the adversarial position of Saint Brendan the Catholic and Crom Dubh, the local pagan chieftain (formerly deity). Through trickery, Saint Brendan won over the chieftain and presumably obtained the right to co-opt his people into a new religion. However, the legendary Saint Brendan’s father’s name was Fionnlugh, joining the names Fionn, the great Celtic warrior, and Lugh, our favorite sun god. Similarly, Bran the god and Brendan the saint seem to have been merged into one entity—Brendan is the patron saint of navigation due to his discovery of America ten centuries before Columbus (in Irish heads), and Bran is a god of the sea. In yet another blatant conflation of Catholicism and local paganism, the annual Lughnasa trek the villagers make to the top of their local mountain to perform little rituals for luck and prosperity and curing backaches is now done in the name of Saint Brendan. “And ever since the conversion of the village to Christianity, it has rained on the day of pilgrimage, hence giving annual testimony to the victory of the gloomy and ascetic Brendan over the pagan sun god (p.86).” (Sounds like the Druids had more fun.)

Despite their conversion, the Irish have not forgotten their pagan heritage. Crom Dubh, since his conversion to Christianity, was given a saint day at the end of July (hmm, coincide with Lughnasa much?), and his statue stood in the graveyard until the early 1990s, when it was stolen. Although they praised Saint Brendan as their new god of the light, Crom Dubh was important as he stood for their dual, dark nature, which was equally vital in giving balance. Although they shied from talking about it, the villagers still recognize the magic power and religious validity of the ancient pagan monuments. “I had occasion to mention the three curious standing stones of the parish. The wife in her ready reply collapsed the two-thousand-year history separating the religion of her Druidic ancestors from the Catholic faith of her own times: ‘Those were the kind of altars we used to have before the priests made them flat (p.83)’ ” The phallic symbol of the stones flattened to ascetic celibacy; the lively religion of the Druids flattened to Christianity. Crom Dubh and the pagan religion were castrated.

What is sad and somewhat amusing is the proof that the Irish lifestyle leads to psychoses (at least, that was Scheper-Hughes’s interpretation in the mid-70s, when she did her field work). At that time, Ireland had the highest rate of schizophrenia in the world. When Scheper-Hughes lived among the village to try and find out some of the causes, she found a lifestyle so bent on asceticism that it precluded basic human needs. The babies were often left to their own devices, and cuddling them was considered to be spoiling them. Physical punishment and guilt were used to keep children in line, and blatant favoritism often resulted in the youngest son being forced into the role of black sheep, cast by parents and village as an inept bachelor, whose duty it was to take care of the old people and the farm. This was forced on him even when small farms were becoming extremely unprofitable, leading to the whole village being essentially supported by the Irish government dole. Older sons and women fled the village as soon as possible in order to be successful, but the youngest son was trapped by obligation and low self-worth. Not surprisingly, a large percentage of institutionalized patients were youngest sons who couldn’t cope with the emotionally crippling village life. As much as I’d like to gleefully blame this all on Catholicism, there is good reason to believe most of this unhealthy extremeness came about as a result of the Great Famine in the 1850s. Before the Famine, Ireland tended to have the same quietly debauched population as the rest of Western civilization. However, their starvation caused a third of the Irish population to die, a third to emigrate, and a third to stay home, forever scarred. (An interesting socio-political note is that in the Great Famine, as in most famines, there was no lack of food in Ireland. The Irish grew many crops for the English while subsisting mainly on potatoes for themselves. And when the potatoes died, the Irish died.) These intolerable conditions resulted in fleeing becoming the favored option. Also, parents began distancing from babies, so as not to be too sad if the bairns died from starvation. Additionally, the asceticism further encouraged a celibate life in the name of God, resulting in many fewer children. Now, self-deprivation is so celebrated that the elderly bachelor, who managed to survive life somehow, is referred to as a “saint,” even if he takes his cows into the kitchen to keep them warm. In fact, especially then, as extreme eccentricism is tolerated (and even celebrated) as long as it doesn’t violate the village norms. (I have been informed that this is typical of all the British Isles. However, I find it particularly perplexing when contrasted with the fates of people who are more sane than the saints, but who are castigated for outwardly breaching the surface peacefulness of village life.)

What I found most striking about Scheper-Hughes’s study was the difference in attitudes between hospitalized patients and normal (unhospitalized) patients. In the 70s, DSM-II was still the prevailing diagnostic psychiatric manual, and its definition of schizophrenia was quite vague, even to go so far as to implicate “excessive and inappropriate silliness” as signs of schizophrenia. The definition was later changed to reflect only the seriously ill, those with voices or delusions or serious functioning impairments. The likelihood is that most of Scheper-Hughes’s interviewees were not schizophrenic, simply unwilling to cooperate with the village norms. This was especially notable where sex was concerned. The hospitalized patients, when given the TAT (a pictorial test), would describe what I consider normal relations between men and women, whereas the “normal” interviewees would skew the pictures often to reflect their own concept of reality. For example, in a picture of a naked woman lying on a bed with a man standing with his head bowed, most “normal” people did not think of the scene as sexual in nature, or ignored the fact the woman was unclothed, which can be credited to the near-complete sexual repression of the Irish villagers. The hospitalized people, on the other hand, saw more typical interactions, since the “abnormal” Irish people rejected the notion of imposed celibacy and yearned for intergender relations. From an outside viewpoint, the reality of the village was really sort of a dream which all the people believed in and never talked about so as to preserve their illusion of contentment, causing them to reject those rabble-rousers who refused to have an ascetic life imposed on them.