'Law should always be secondary to love'
Niamh Horan talks reincarnation and good old-fashioned sex with the controversial Dr Ivor Browne
I ALWAYS knew meeting Dr Ivor Browne was going to be a unique encounter. Outspoken, offbeat and determined to swim against the tide to his last breath, he is the man who single-handedly took on the might of the Catholic Church – and won.
It was Ivor (he reprimands me every time I call him 'Doctor Browne') who stood by Phyllis Hamilton when Fr Michael Cleary's friends and church abandoned her and refused to believe her children were fathered by the infamous singing priest.
In fact long after the headlines moved on, he stayed.
"I was at her bedside when she passed away last year," he says.
Did you hold her hand?
"No," he replies matter of factly. "I held her heart."
Dr Browne, sorry Ivor, is 85 years of age, but on most matters of interest, he is ahead of his time.
On gay marriage, he says: "Law should always be secondary to love"; on abortion: "It doubles the tragedy when a woman has to go off to England. The question of compassion and love should come into it again. All of these issues, at their basis, are very simple."
But it is his views on reincarnation that may offend some. He believes we choose what body we come into. That includes disability, victims who are sexually abused, cancer patients. Even sexuality, he says, is a choice before we come into this world. He says we do this because of "impressions" made upon us in a previous life.
The last time reincarnation hit the headlines, England football coach Glen Hoddle unwittingly ended his own career when he told a news reporter that people who are disabled or suffering in this world are paying for the sins of a past life.
But Ivor believes it is a chance to change our souls for the better.
"The notion that we start life as a 'tableau' or a clean sheet, that's not actually true. We bring in impressions from former lives. But the positive side is that each reincarnation is an opportunity to change that and to improve and not to go on repeating it."
So do you believe if you choose to be disabled, for example, it will help you in some way in the next life?
"Yes. I mean nobody wants to see someone disabled but if you accept it – and you see some wonderful miracles in people who are very disabled and yet accept it and make a rich life even."
Could you also choose your sexuality?
"Yes. Because if there have been former lives, and we have probably been both male and female in different lives, so we have had a chance to experience almost all aspects, and the whole thing of male and femaleness is a whole spectrum anyway, we are all partly heterosexual and homosexual. That's why it's a tragedy when we start to discriminate against people."
What kind of impressions would have to be left to take a road that difficult in this life?
"Well, in most of the situations, what you find is more of the same, which is that the person – and remember, it's not all to do with bad things, bad things are a general view of karma. It's people who have suffered in a former life or who were abused, very often pick a family that would give them a chance to change that if they work hard at it. But in fact they get abused again and of course then nothing is achieved.
"But at some point I think a spark comes, and you see this with certain people. They find something triggers them, perhaps they need someone who helps them to see love or to experience it and they actually make a fundamental change."
I express difficulty in imagining a situation where you choose a life that would lead to such a hard path as disability.
"Well because you see the general principle behind all this is that it is only through suffering that we grow and change. If we accept it. If we are faced with suffering and we don't accept it we not only make it worse, but it's of no value. But if we suffer, that's when we grow, and anyone who looks into their own life will find that."
We discuss the somewhat safer ground of economics and politics too, and he dismays at Taoiseach Enda Kenny's leadership.
"What he is doing is promoting 'Ireland Inc'. Ireland is open for business – in other words, Ireland is for sale. And the only issue is to bring in multinationals where we lose more control."
And he laments our loss of patriotism, describing how we have slowly become a nation of "passive slaves".
"We don't fight for what we believe in anymore and we literally don't have any real belief in this country because we don't have any control over it and we don't own any of it."
But he credits President Michael D Higgins for speaking out about the need for some values.
"He is the only voice who is actually showing some kind of feeling for country.
"And he should continue to do so."
On our attitude towards sex, he believes we need to re-examine our roles.
"People are rushing after pleasure, but if you look at a deeper aspect of... particularly women's sexuality, women don't naturally go around having a 'shag'. Women, left to themselves, would only have sex as part of a relationship. And that's what they are looking for.
"They are getting drunk and doing these things, but they are not necessarily feel-ing anything if they have sex, they are doing it just to please men.
"Men too can learn a loving relationship and sex can be taught by a loving relationship, but they have to be taught by a woman to get that deeper aspect.
"It sounds very old-fashioned but something isn't necessarily bad just because it's old-fashioned," he laughs.
Love and connection, he feels, are lost on this generation. But not on Ivor.
On the morning of the interview I found him embracing a woman in his hallway.
One of many people who seek his counsel, she was whispering how grateful she was for his help.
In fact every week he welcomes a steady stream of people trying to overcome some knock in life.
Phyllis Hamiliton's son Ross has called him "a saviour"; writer Colm Toibin says he is "a kind man who would get up in the middle of the night for people", adding, "There's an aura off him which is almost holy."
As former chief psychiatrist for the Eastern Health Board and the most high-profile figure in Irish mental health, he could charge a hefty fee for his wisdom.
But he doesn't accept a single cent.
"I have a file that thick," he gestures, of the people wanting his time.
"The idea that I couldn't see someone because they couldn't afford it is absolutely abhorrent."
And many years after the passing of his second wife, June, his home is filled with more flowers than I can count.
Pink roses, large white daisies, peach geraniums on the window sill.
"The love you give, you get back," he smiles, when he sees me admiring them.
"And I have lots of people who look after me too."