Stalking Irish Madness

by Christina Bruni Patient Expert

Would I recommend you give Stalking Irish Madness as a stocking stuffer or holiday gift? You decide. Patrick Tracey's book-part memoir, part documentary-traces the roots of his family's schizophrenia back to the great potato famine in Ireland in the 1840s. You'll be riveted as much by the Irish folklore as well as his account of how this cruel illness destroyed the lives of his family: first Mary Egan in the mists of time, then his grandmother, May Sweeney, and now his sisters, Austine and Michelle (Chelle).

May Sweeney heard voices telling her to pull out all her teeth-and her union boss husband whacked the dentist who complied with her request. She was a gorgeous woman who left the house one morning and came home at night with a bloody mouth and no teeth. Interestingly, Chelle's twin, Elaine, remained unscathed.

Why do I say that you maybe want to check this book out of the library instead? Tracey, because of his firsthand experience with his sisters, makes some bold claims not corroborated by statistics. First, he states no effective treatments exist for schizophrenia, even today. I'm on Geodon now-as close to a cure as I'll ever have, because it gave me back my life. The author further astounds: "For the vast majority of schizophrenics, there's no such thing as recovery."

This does a disservice to the very people who need help-who might actually read his book. He perpetuates the myth of chronic hopelessness and helpless, even going so far as to insinuate that if you never heard voices or hallucinated, you can't possibly have SZ. What about those of us whose delusions and paranoia robbed us of sanity as well?

Now, aside from that, why I like the book: he exposes Ireland's history of having a disproportionate number of people committed to asylums and institutions, which were almost as commonplace as pubs up until the 1960s. Traveling by camper through County Roscommon where his ancestors were from, and other places that figure prominently in the Irish mythology, he portrays the country and its more off-kilter inhabitants in a loving, reverential way.

Tracey has a sixth sense and meets people with SZ wherever he goes, even at the trailer camp, and at a meeting of the Hearing Voices Network where he listens to someone describe lucidly what it's like to cope with voices every day.

In Irish lore, folk were "away with the fairies" when they were mad-these creatures stole your identity. Today fairy mounds are sacred in Ireland, and can't be paved over to make roads, which wind around them. One such spot drew sufferers there to drink from its lake-it turns out there's a high concentration of lithium in its waters.

While I bristle at Tracey's suggestion that most people can't recover [studies prove up to 60 percent do], I understand he talks from experience because Austine and Chelle live in group homes and are ghosts of their former vibrant selves. They got sick in the 1960s at a time when Thorazine and a handful of other drugs were the only treatment.

In going to Ireland, the author speaks with the scientist who discovered that dysbindin plays a role in schizophrenia development. Tracey wants answers-and a cure isn't around the corner, at least not for his sisters and possibly not in our lifetime. The groundbreaking work of Dr. Dermot Walsh and Dr. Kenneth Kendler, an American psychiatric geneticist, led to the discovery of the first-ever schizophrenia-gene link: an abnormality in the dysbindin gene. The "Irish Study of High-Density Schizophrenia Families" in July 2002, "produced the first evidence of a gene that is expressed in neurons in many areas of the mouse and human brains." DNA from blood samples of participants revealed this link.

Quoting Walsh, "It's quite clear that its effect, like some other genes that have since been discovered, is quite small and you will only get this effect in a small proportion of individuals. How it works and how it operates is another day's work."

So Tracey exits the scientist's office with dashed hope, and his book is a faithful testament to the souls of the Irish folk who went mad. He's a true Irish storyteller-a real seanchie-who's given to drop-dead embellishments of the stories handed down.

If you can forgive him his contention that people can't recover-I take back my stance-by all means, buy his book. Stalking Irish Madness is a candid and unsentimental look at this devastating illness-a historical document as important as it is honest.

For more information, log on to

Christina Bruni
Meet Our Writer
Christina Bruni

Christina Bruni wrote about schizophrenia for HealthCentral as a Patient Expert. She is a mental health activist and freelance journalist.