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  Irish Families

Part Two

There are certain behaviours that are distinctively Irish and are to be observed in Irish American families. Many of these traits are unconscious, some of them unhealthy. In naming them, Monica McGoldrick has learned how best to work with Irish American families in a therapeutic situation.
Monica McGoldrick  

Irish Mothers

ons and daughters rarely dare to voice their resentment, being both guilty and admiring of their mothers' stoic self-sacrifice. Clinically, it is important to be non-blaming when we see mothers who are overly central in a family and dote on their sons, while being more demanding of their daughters. At the same time we must question with them and their families the patterns they are perpetuating.

Interestingly, the Irish have traditionally allowed more room for women not to be mothers than many other cultures in which women without a family might have no role or status at all. They are the only group in which the emigration of women to the United States far surpassed that of men. In the United States, as in Ireland, Irish women continued to be reluctant about marrying. They have enjoyed a comparatively open range of economic options in domestic work, nursing, and schoolteaching. And this, along with the high rate of desertion of Irish men from their families, augmented female family authority. There has long been a respected role for the unmarried "Auntie Mame," the feisty, independent, funny, and important contributor to family well-being. Clinically, we can strengthen women by underscoring and validating this appreciation for roles beyond mothering, helping single women see themselves as part of a long tradition within Irish families.

Irish women have generally had little expectation of, or interest in, being taken care of by a man. Their hopes have been articulated much less in romantic terms than in aspirations for self-sufficiency (Diner, 1983). They have always remained reluctant about the prospect of giving up their freedom and economic independence for marriage and family responsibilities. An Irish woman is likely to try to do it all herself and never ask for help. She may not expect to rely on a partner for either intimacy or contributing his share of the burdens of family life. This reflects, of course, a common gender assumption, but also a specifically Irish tendency not to articulate needs and feelings and to assume that if you are really loved, the other will know your feelings without having to be told. Often asking gentle questions about the assumed roles of men and women in the family can be an important first step in enabling them to change lopsided and dysfunctional gender patterns. However, therapists must always be careful that they do not unwittingly increase the Irish client's sense of guilt by subtle questioning that suggests they have done something wrong.

Ridicule, belittling, and shaming have played a major role in child discipline.


The Irish tend to view people moralistically as good or bad, strong or weak. The family often designates a good child and a bad one, and they may ignore aspects of a child's behavior that do not fit their designated roles. In one Irish American family, for example, the mother always spoke about her three children as "My Denny, Poor Betty, and That Kathleen."

Ridicule, belittling, and shaming have played a major role in child discipline. (Barrebee & von Mering,1953; Spiegel, 1971a, 1971b). In families where alcohol is abused, discipline is often inconsistent and harsh. However, in many families Irish mothers ruled so well that a mere look or even the thought of her disapproval would be enough to keep children in line.

Children in Irish American families are generally raised to be polite, respectable, obedient, and well behaved. Typical familial injunctions would be, "What will the neighbors think?", "Don't make a scene", "That's a sin", or "You'll go to hell". Irish parents may rarely praise their children, fuss over them, or make them the centre of attention for fear of spoiling them (Barrabee & von Mering, 1953). This strict and restrained attitude toward children may be very hard for a therapist from a more expressive culture to understand, just as it may be difficult for the Irish to understand other groups' permissiveness and encouragement of children to "show off" their talents. Beyond the mother-son tie, family members tend to stick to their own sex and generation in forming relationships.

Whereas large family sessions that draw on the resources of the whole family may be supportive for some groups, for the Irish they may raise the anxiety to a toxic level, leading to denial and embarrassed humor, to cover over their sense of humiliation.
Extended Family

Extended family relationships among the Irish are often not close, although families may get together for "duty visits" on holidays and act jovial and "clannish". Family members tend not to rely on one another as a source of support, and when they have a problem, they may even see it as an added burden and embarrassment for the family to find out. The sense of emotional isolation in Irish relationships is frequently a factor in symptom development and has important implications for therapy. While siblings may meet for holidays out of a sense of loyalty, there is often a feeling of emotional isolation. Though the family may act pleasant and humorous, any emotional exposure to outsiders may be felt as a severe breach of family rules. Older, unmarried relatives may be totally out of contact or may form isolated units of siblings or parent and child, who maintain almost no communication with other parts of the family. Typically, one extended family member (usually a woman) is of central importance for the family. It may be essential to get permission of this matriarch, most often a grandmother or senior maiden aunt, if therapeutic progress is to be made.

The Irish have a tremendous respect for personal boundaries, are enormously sensitive to each other's right to privacy, and will make strong efforts not to impose or intrude on one another. In older age they tend to have a more independent, active view of themselves than the elderly of some other ethnic backgrounds (Cohler & Lieberman, 1979).

"The Fifth Province," a magical place is a place of imagination and possibility, where ambiguities and contradictions can be contained

Irish Americans in Therapy

When the Irish go for therapy, they will probably not look their best. They may view therapy as being like confession, in which you tell your sins and seek forgiveness. They may not understand their feelings and will certainly be embarrassed to admit them. This creates a dilemma for the therapist, since, on the one hand, family members fear he or she will see through them, which is very embarrassing, or, on the other hand, that he or she will not understand what is really bothering them and they might have to explain it, which is highly embarrassing as well. Irish clients often take a one-down position, seeing authority as vested in the therapist.

As a general rule, structured therapy, focused specifically on the presenting problem, will be the least threatening and most helpful to Irish clients. Suggestions for opening communication that preserve the boundaries of individual privacy, such as Bowen therapy, will be preferable to bringing the entire family drama into a therapy session. Whereas large family sessions that draw on the resources of the whole family may be supportive for some groups, for the Irish they may raise the anxiety to a toxic level, leading to denial and embarrassed humor, to cover over their sense of humiliation. It is often more fruitful to meet with smaller subgroups of the family, at least in the initial stages.

The Irish will probably respond more readily to a fairly structured, problem focused (especially child-focused) approach. Brief, goal-oriented therapy with a specific plan and a right and wrong way clearly spelled out (such as behavior modification) would be likely to have appeal. Vague, introspective, open-ended emotive therapy might be experienced as very threatening. Therapy oriented toward uncovering hidden psychological problems is likely to increase their anxiety and their conviction that they are bad and deserve to suffer. The Irish may be more effectively helped by the somewhat mysterious, paradoxical, and humorous techniques of which they themselves are such masters. Perhaps it is not surprising that some of the most well-known therapists of Irish extraction, Bill O'Hanlon, Steve Gi11igan, Phil Guerin, Tom Fogarty, and Betty Carter, for example, espouse more positive, humorful orientations to therapy. These methods encourage clients to change without dwelling on their negative feelings, and organize therapy around building on a positive connotation and a more hopeful vision of their lives.


One of the most creative therapy approaches in recent years, "The Fifth Province Model," developed by three Dublin therapistsNollaig Byrne, Imelda Colgan McCarthy and Philip Kearney evolved specifically out of thinking about Irish history and has, not surprisingly, great merit for therapists dealing with Irish Americans (McCarthy & Byrne, 1988, 1995; McCarthy, in-press). This model seeks intentionally to draw clinical attention away from polarizing conversations and into the realm of ambiguities, that unique place in Celtic mythology where all contradictions can coexist. "The Fifth Province," a magical place that included the other four Irish provinces of Munster, Connaught, Leinster, and Ulster, is a place of imagination and possibility, where ambiguities and contradictions can be contained, where ancient Celtic chieftains came to resolve their conflicts through dialogue with druid priests. In their therapy, they develop multiple stories, offer metaphors and Irish folktales as interventions, and intentionally expand narratives beyond "logical" linear discourse. Furthermore, they use the political metaphor of colonization as a framework for their whole therapy, scrutinizing carefully the potential role of therapy itself to "colonize" or oppress clients, as the Irish themselves had been colonized.

Whereas clients from other backgrounds may be quick to demand that plans be made to suit their convenience or that the therapist solve their problems, the Irish may have enormous difficulty with such self-assertions. Nevertheless, the Irish can be very gratifying to work with because of their extremely strong sense of loyalty and their willingness to follow through on therapeutic suggestions. They are also apt to accept the therapist readily; they may not question credentials, even when it may be in their best interests to do so. Unfortunately, their responsiveness can become a hazard when it produces compliance without real collaboration in the change process. The therapist must help them develop a genuine investment in the process of change and not rely on their politeness, sense of responsibility, and obligation to duty.

Small changes may be registered as large gains in the family, in spite of the many aspects of family relating that remain unaltered. Because of their ability to compartmentalize, they may change, yet have many levels on which they have not connected the therapy with their lives. Therapy, like their religion, their dreams, and their prayers, becomes a new "therapeutic reality," one not necessarily integrated with their other spiritual or healing resources. The therapist can become an authority, who, like the priest, gives instructions that are to be followed.

Irish families also probably prefer therapists to keep a friendly distance. A sense of humour can be a great asset, provided the therapist remains serious and businesslike at the same time. Any personality style too loud or idiosyncratic is likely to make the family extremely uncomfortable. A therapist who swears, for example, is likely to be viewed as crude or sacrilegious.

Although family members may fail to see the need for the father's presence, it is important for the therapist to involve him in therapy. Although Irish men will often find a woman therapist intimidating, the strong role of Irish women may mean they are more comfortable with a woman therapist than are families from most other "traditional" cultures.

In working with the Irish, the therapist must often read between the lines, whether of blustering or of muted compliance, to ferret out what is really troubling them; then the Irish sense of loyalty, humour, and responsibility become the best clinical resources. Given the Irish embarrassment about their feelings on the one hand, and their wish to be responsive to suggestions on the other, tasks that can be carried out at home may promote communication more successfully than directly confronting family members in therapy. It may help to give tasks that focus on presenting symptoms, structuring family interactions at home to address maladaptive family communication problems, rather than unmasking them directly in sessions.

Their deep sense of personal responsibility is, in fact, their greatest personal resource in therapy.

There are many advantages to doing this. It fits with the Irish expectation of doing penance for their sins, provides structure within which to organize their behavior, spells out a right and wrong way, and spares them public exposure in therapy. This clarity is important to those who fear doing wrong. It also provides a sense of success early in therapy, which may be especially important for the Irish, who are preoccupied with feeling they are bad and have done wrong. When the Irish do engage emotionally in therapy, they may be seeking forgiveness or absolution, which can be a trap, since granting absolution keeps the client in a one-down position. Attempts at self-justification and tales told to show how it was someone else's fault tend to be a coverup for many layered levels of self recrimination.

The Irish family's sense of isolation can be so great that a therapist may not realize how much it means to them just to have a safe, accepting place to talk to each other about thoughts and feelings. At the same time, the use of nonverbal techniques such as touching exercises, psychodrama, or structural techniques to increase anxiety, may be highly threatening. Efforts to help them reconnect may do a lot to lessen their feelings of emotional isolation. However, this work requires respect for personal boundaries, for the family's need to preserve a degree of distance, and for leaving certain things unspoken.

In general, positive connotation, giving a caring interpretation to behavior, is of much more use than traditional psychodynamic interpretations for Irish clients, who are likely to blame themselves for whatever goes wrong and be fatalistic about internal change. Structuring the distance and intimacy will increase the family's sense of control over their feelings. The Irish may respond extremely well to Bowen Coaching, because of its emphasis on working out relationships in private, and on personal responsibility for change. The Irish are, indeed, excellent candidates for such therapy and may continue working to change relationships on their own, long after the therapy is over, because of the way it provides them with a method for reworking relationships they may have found overwhelming and confusing in the past.

One young woman, whose father had been a successful journalist and the rebel of his family, had great difficulty establishing a relationship with her sole surviving aunt, who was the principal upholder of "Irish Catholic values" for the family. This aunt had been the spinster sister who remained home to care for her aging parents until their deaths. She had built up a lifetime of unspoken resentments about her role, in spite of the secondary gains of being a martyr similar to the heroine of Final Payrnents by Mary Gordon (1981). The aunt never missed sending cards for birthdays or Christmas, but when the niece attempted to make more personal contact, she resisted it strongly, agreeing to meet only rarely and for short visits, limiting discussion strictly to the topics she chose. Initially the niece was quite put off by this behavior, describing her aunt as "a prune with doilies on the chairs". She was annoyed that her "open hearted" approaches were rebuffed for no apparent reason. However, the young woman persisted. It took several years of letters and gradually more personal phone calls before she was able to learn enough about the family background to realize that the resentment she was experiencing had been carried down in the family for several generations. This aunt was the unappreciated and over-burdened spinster, who stayed home and resentfully cared for her parents, while her brothers got the glory. She had become the repository of unforgotten slights, "offering up" her family burdens in her prayers for the family's return to the Church. Church rules had been used in the service of bolstering her self-righteous indignation, which covered her sense of betrayal and hurt that her efforts on behalf of the family had never been reciprocated or appreciated.

In families such as this the work obviously proceeds slowly. However, the long-term benefit of each pursuit to family members is often powerful in overcoming their painful sense of isolation and vulnerability.


Do not expect the Irish to enjoy therapy or feel relieved by having a cathartic heart-to-heart discussion. The therapist working with an Irish family must be content with limited changes. Families may not wish to move beyond the initial presenting problem, and it is important for the therapist not to pressure them into further work. Attempting to get spouses to deal with marital issues after a child-focused problem has been solved, for example, will probably make them feel guilty and incompetent (Hines, Garcia-Preto, McGoldrick, Almeida, & Weltman, in press). It is better to reinforce the changes that the family members do make and to let them return for therapy later at their own initiative. Even if the therapist perceives that there are emotional blocks in the family that are still causing pain, it is important not to push the matter. Because of the lack of immediate feedback about therapeutic progress from the family, the therapist may be surprised to learn that their Irish families have continued therapeutic work on their own. Their deep sense of personal responsibility is, in fact, their greatest personal resource in therapy. They often do continue efforts started in therapy, although they may not openly admit either fault or their resolve to remedy it.

Monica McGoldrick works in the Family Institute of New Jersey.

Our thanks to Monica McGoldrick for permission to publish this article. It will appear in a book entitled: Ethnicity and Family Therapy, 2nd Edition, edited by Monica McGoldrick, Joe Giordano and John Pearce, Guilford Press, New York City.

Artwork from the Reader's Digest Bible, Illustrated version.

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