Thousands avoided being locked up in institutions thanks to Prof Ivor Browne, funeral hears

President Michael D Higgins in attendance as ‘iconoclastic, unafraid’ psychiatrist is laid to rest

Prof Ivor Browne’s championing of mental health reforms ensure that thousands of people avoided being locked up in mental health institutions, mourners at his funeral have been told.

Ireland owes a debt to an “iconoclastic, unorthodox and unafraid” psychiatrist who championed “radical change” in the treatment of mental health, Brendan Kelly, professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin, said.

“While Prof Browne’s death is a deep loss for his family, patients and colleagues, it is also a significant moment in psychiatry and medicine, and for Ireland as whole,” Prof Kelly told the congregation, which included President Michael D Higgins and his wife, Sabina Higgins.

Prof Browne, one of the country’s best known psychiatrists, died at his home in Ranelagh last Wednesday, aged 94. His radical approach to mental illness, including a reluctance to rely on traditional drugs or institutionalisation, is credited with transforming attitudes in Ireland.

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Prof Browne, whose second wife, of 35 years, the journalist June Levine, died in 2008, is survived by a large family, including seven children and 10 grandchildren.

“Ivor loved crazy, full stop,” his son Mike Mesbur told mourners. “He didn’t think it was something to be feared or cured. He loved the people who brought crazy [to him], and the crazier the better.”

But his father was a “reluctant hero” who was “terrified” when having to speak publicly and “felt like an impostor,” he pointed out.

He was also a devotee of literature, art, food, travelling, walking and history. Mr Mesbur read one of his father’s most often recited poems, Philip Larkin’s This Be the Verse: “They f**k you up, your mum and dad ...”.

He recalled how, when he was younger, he became a “reluctant guinea pig” for his father’s explorations of alternative therapies, including holotropic breathwork and intravenous ketamine: “In the 1970s, other kids were hiding drugs from their parents; I was hiding from my parents’ drugs.”

Later in life, his father travelled to India, where he “fell in love” with Sahaj Marg, an Indian meditation system that changed his life forever. “He became enthralled with the idea of love, human and divine, as a backdrop to everything.”

Born in Blackrock in 1929, Prof Browne graduated from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) in 1954 and later studied at Harvard University in the US.

Between 1965 and 1995, he was chief psychiatrist at St Brendan’s Hospital in Grangegorman. During this time, Prof Kelly told mourners at Mount Jerome Crematorium, he led moves to dismantle St Brendan’s and the model of the “mental hospital” and replace it with mental health services in the community.

Although it took time to to reverse “Ireland’s fatal weakness for institutional solutions to social problems,” he “persisted and persevered”, Prof Kelly said.

As a public figure speaking out for radical change, he had his critics, Prof Kelly recalled, but was often proved right as time passed.

“Was he right about everything all of the time? Nobody is, but he was far more right than he was wrong. And for those who sought Ivor’s help, he was very useful indeed.”

For a doctor with senior positions in healthcare and academia, he was “remarkably iconoclastic, unorthodox and unafraid”. He could “puncture ego with the mischievous insouciance of a Zen master”.

As a therapist, he was “passionate and compassionate, kind, rigorous, devoted and engaged”, he said.

Closing the service, Prof Browne’s son Ronan played The Blackbird on the tin whistle.

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Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times