Kidnapped by his family and put in a mental home
Published 06/05/2007 | 00:11
RENOWNED poet Paul Durcan feared he was going to be given a lobotomy when he was committed to a mental institution by his family as a young student at UCD.
Durcan, one of Ireland's best-known poets, has revealed how he was spared the dreadful brain operation in favour of electric shock treatment, which has left him mentally scarred to this day.
In an insight into his disturbed life, Durcan has told for the first time how he was just a teenager when he was bundled into a car and driven to St John of God's in Dublin where his family signed him over to doctors.
He was then referred to a Harley Street clinic where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and underwent 27 bouts of crippling electric convulsive therapy (ECT).
Durcan says he feared doctors were going to perform a lobotomy on his brain - a crude procedure in which surgeons drilled two holes through the head and removed brain tissue in a bid to break the nerve circuits they believed were responsible for mental illness.
"The thing that I was most seriously terrified of was that it might happen to me. With other people who had it you could see these little dimples. Even the terrible psychiatrist who performed it admitted that there was no way you could undo what had been done," he said.
"Here were these authoritarian, cocky middle-aged men telling me they knew everything about me.
"They could inject electricity and gas into you so as to make you conform."
The 63-year-old says a breakdown of relations with his privileged middle-class family was to blame for the horrific saga that played out shortly before his first works were published. He insists that he was never mentally ill but says that he has suffered depression and insomnia since the treatments.
"There are two shadows on my soul that stayed forever - melancholia and depression stayed with me for rest of my life. The second is a kind of insomnia.
"I attribute both of them to the heavy physical bombardment and the things I saw there, some of which I wasn't able to cope with."
In a television documentary made by esteemed director Alan Gilsenan and about to be screened on RTE, Durcan also reveals for the first time the difficult relationship he had with his father, Circuit Court judge John Durcan.
"My father used to say to me from as early as I can remember that: 'Nemesis will follow you all the days of your life.' She was the Greek God of bad luck - and sure enough, he was right."
Durcan grew up in a privileged middle-class family in Dublin and has fond memories of his early days at their home at up-market Dartmouth Square. "I think like most children I was enthusiastic about life. I was probably too intense and excitable and the day was never long enough. I think I was incredibly trusting and naive.
"From a fairly early age I was aware that certain kinds of people disapproved of me - particularly certain kinds of male.
"These men had the idea that boys had to be soldiers, chaste soldiers, and had to fit into a mould and if they didn't there was something not quite right. My father would say: 'Paul is a sissy. Come on, be a man.' I was aware of his deep disapproval.
"I spent all my life trying to understand my parents. Even if I had 100 more lifetimes, I still wouldn't.
"Both of them are very complicated, especially my father. I remember when he was in his early 40s he was a laughing, convivial man and a great storyteller. I remember so many rich moments with him. But then as I got older the picture darkened.
"He himself became a circuit court judge in Mayo and Galway but stayed living in Dublin and went every week. He took it very seriously. He would stay in hotel rooms never speaking to anyone, and over a period of time that is a tough way to live.
"When I was 10, he began to be somewhat problematic. When I think about it there were gratuitous beatings and he was incredibly severe about things like examinations. If I hadn't got second or third place it was bad news, and sometimes he would take the strap off his trousers and beat me.
"A man has to be so very complicated if he takes a school report for a 10-year-old that seriously."
Durcan had a better relationship with his mother, remembering her as a beautiful woman who laughed a lot but who was immersed in a strongly male world.
At 13, Durcan suffered from a rare bone disease which left him hospitalised for two months. He recalls how he was sent home for Christmas with a plaster cast on his leg - but attempted to smash it as he wanted to be brought back to hospital to the warmth and affection he got from the nurses there.
Durcan recalls how, in the spring of 1964, he was in a pub in Merrion Row when two members of his extended family came in. "I knew from instinct they were not there for my good health. So I ran out the back door on to the street and saw another one of them.
"He tackled me and bundled me into a car and they drove me back to Dartmouth Square. In the afternoon, a psychiatrist came and gave me an injection and then I was driven to the St John of God.
"I remember one doctor saying that he had met some bad people in his life but that I was the worst. Then it was decided I should see a consultant in Harley Street and there I met my Waterloo, in a sense." Durcan recalls how - in terrifying scenes that could have come straight out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - he was given 27 doses of ECT.
At that time, surgeons were prone to conduct lobotomies - the dreaded operation that left President John F Kennedy's sister Rose and many others like her mentally retarded for life.
Durcan says that it was the fact he didn't conform with his middle-class family that landed him in a mental hospital along with his father's belief that anything a doctor said was sacred.
"I knew my mother was uneasy about it but the way he looked on it was that a doctor had said it so it must happen. If someone feels obliged to say that I must have been ill, that is fair enough, but I know I wasn't."
Durcan spent three years in and out of various psychiatric hospitals. He eventually ran away and went into town to meet fellow poets Patrick Kavanagh and Brian Lynch. His mother kept in touch and sometimes gave him money, often arranging clandestine meetings in Bewley's. Durcan then moved to London. It was when he was living homeless there that was told his first book was to be published.
Later that year, he went to a wedding with Patrick Kavanagh and his wife Catherine. While sitting in the bar, Durcan met his future wife Nessa O'Neill.
When they said they were to marry, his father phoned Nessa's mother Kitty and asked her to remove his name from the Irish Times announcement. The couple had two children but split up 1977. Durcan now lives in Dublin, and his new collection, The Laughter of Mothers, will be published by Harvill Seckler next autumn.
'Arts Lives: Paul Durcan - The Dark School', will be shown next Tuesday on RTE One at 10.15pm.