Ireland has always had a strange relationship with mental health. Being simultaneously acknowledged in hushed tones and brushed under the carpet, it’s no wonder that only in recent years has the discussion surrounding mental health begun to gain momentum. Using a mixture of archive material and self-shot footage, Duncan Campbell has created a filmic representation of Irish mental health in his new exhibition at IMMA entitled The Welfare of Tomás Ó Hallissy (2016).
Campbell’s work is the result of vast research. An anthropological film, The Village, created by Paul Hockings and Mark McCarty, acts as the spring board for a project which also encompasses studies such as John C. Messenger’s Inis Beag, Hugh Brody’s Inishkillane: Change and Decline in the West of Ireland and the widely lauded Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics by Nancy Scheper-Hughes.
Campbell mirrors the archive material taken from The Village by introducing the premise of two American anthropologists visiting the rural village of Dun Chaoin and encountering a community trapped within the day-to-day and clearly separate from the Americans studying them. The blend of fact and fiction in the film questions the validity of anthropological research carried out by an outsider and examines the often mistaken assumptions made and their affect on historical representation.
There are clear parallels between Campbell’s film and the investigation undertaken by Nancy Scheper-Hughes into the social disintegration experienced by the inhabitants of a small village on the Dingle Peninsula. The name given to the town, “Ballybran” may be fictional but the problems faced by the people that Scheper-Hughes observed are a constant affliction of the Irish psyche. In 1979, Scheper-Hughes published her findings in the beautifully written Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics. The main issues that the study focuses on are emigration, suicide, unease, inadvertently forced celibacy, damaging practises within childrearing, fear of intimacy and lastly schizophrenia. Fun fact: Prof Oonagh Walsh recently investigated the extraordinarily high rate of mental illness among Irish people in the decades following the Great Famine and found abnormal levels of admissions to asylums amongst famine emigrants in Australia and Canada.
Freud’s assertion that the Irish were the only race impervious to psychoanalysis has been widely disputed and ultimately traced back to a follower of Freud and not the man himself. However, while therapy is almost a hobby in the states, here it seems to languish in the shadows, as many of those with serious mental health problems are denied the professional care they need due to their economic situation or long waiting times. Fifteen counties in Ireland have no out-of-hours mental health services for children and adolescents. There is some light at the end of the tunnel however as the public conversation about mental health has gained some momentum in recent years.
Scheper-Hughes herself faced opposition when she published her findings. Many of the villagers she had befriended and interviewed felt betrayed by her statements and public airing of their lives, even though their identities were hidden. In a new edition of Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics a preface is included which tells of the author’s struggle to reconcile her findings with the lives she observed in that small village in the west of Ireland.
Much like Scheper-Hughes, The Welfare of Tomás Ó Hallissy wrestles with the responsibility that faces an outsider ‘looking in’ and the validity of their observations. The people who are being examined are themselves true representations of their nationality, however those examining them are always removed from the situation due to a lack of shared experience. Therefore the legitimacy of holding such findings as a form of historical representation is problematic. The abrupt ending of Campbell’s work is quietly jolting and presents itself almost as a prolonged intermission, a clever device that works to trap all of the alarming and troublesome issues alluded to by the characters and director within the mind of the viewer. Campbell manages to fill the viewer’s mind with the same troubling issues that afflict those he is portraying, provoking, like any good anthropologist, a discussion about the lives being dissected and their owners.