The psychology of being identical twins

What is it like being a twin? Is there a rivalry, or is it like having a built-in sidekick? In the first of a series of articles about twins in County Kilkenny, David and Fergus Heffernan talk about how their lives as twins but also individuals.

What is it like being a twin? Is there a rivalry, or is it like having a built-in sidekick? In the first of a series of articles about twins in County Kilkenny, David and Fergus Heffernan talk about how their lives as twins but also individuals.

Identical twins Fergus and David Heffernan look alike, of course – so much so that if you showed either of them one of their childhood photographs up to the age of 12, they couldn’t say for sure which one of them it is.

“My mother used to put identity bracelets on us because it was the only way she could tell us apart,” Fergus recalls.

“And the school insisted on it,” says David.

Growing up in a house on John Street in the city, they attended Presentation Primary School and then CBS primary and secondary schools.

And with two other brothers and a sister, the two were always considered as one unit.

“We were always known as ‘the twins’, so we probably did have that category of specialness about us,” says Fergus.

“And my father, incidentally, never ever knew the difference,” says David.

“He would have to bring the conversation around when you came in, to get a sense of who he had,” Fergus agrees.

They didn’t make too much mischief with their twinness growing up – “I think we held our innocence for a long time and it’s only in hindsight now that we realise the fun we could have had, particularly in our teenage years,” says David – but there was one case of the two swapping places in geography and history classes in secondary school.

“And as a result, neither of us excelled at economics or history,” laughs Fergus, who adds: “I would often have got a thump in school that he should have got, or vice versa, but it never would have been done consciously.”

Nowadays, as a psychologist dealing with clients confidentially, Fergus says he lets them know from the start that he has an identical twin who also lives in Kilkenny – just to prevent any misunderstandings.

“If they met you in some place and you didn’t acknowledge them in any way – well, some wouldn’t want to be acknowledged – it doesn’t do the therapeutic alliance much good,” Fergus says.

They are continually mistaken for each other by people who know them, or at least one of them, though.

“If I had one euro for every time someone confused me with Fergus, I would be rich; I would be very, very rich,” David says. “It could happen half a dozen times a day, every day, depending on if I’m out and about.”

“And when David was playing leading men in the musicals, I could walk down High Street and I’d get all the kudos from people saying how wonderful I was,” Fergus laughs.

On the stage

The two say have the same taste in music and books. As Fergus says: “We had to stop buying books individually because we ended up buying the same book, doubled, a lot of the time. So we have to check, ‘Have you this book?’”

But one of the main things they share is a love of theatre, most recently having starred as two of the seven dwarfs in this year’s Watergate Productions pantomime.

It all started with a play that was specifically written for them by their teacher Seamus Brennan when they were seven. Called The Bonanza Kid and performed as gaeilge, the play involved a case of mistaken identities between a sheriff in the wild West and a gangster known as the Bonanza Kid.

“That actually got all the way to an all-Ireland final in Dublin, which was huge at the time,” David recalls. “But I don’t think it was based on the calibre of the play; I think it was the novelty the fact that there was total confusion, because I don’t think we ever appeared onstage together, so how audiences couldn’t figure out how they were able to manage to bring the sheriff or the bad guy on instantaneously at different parts of the stage and they were identical.”

And then, in later years, there was panto.

“It’s amazing what you carry with you, because our first venture into playing the two comics was two characters called Mentalyptus and Eucalyptus in Jack and the Beanstalk,” says Fergus. “And in all the intervening years that have passed since then, with musical theatre and both of us up AIMS awards for directing and acting, we will always be remembered as Mentalyptus and Eucalyptus.”

Separate ways

That isn’t to say that they have always taken the same path in life.

After secondary school, Fergus joined the army and David went to work at The Boot Factory (now Padmore and Barnes). In the Defence Forces, Fergus was sent overseas to Lebanon and eventually made a career change within the army to become a psychologist, which also involved completing his university studies.

David, meanwhile, worked in the area of human resources with various companies before retraining to work in mental health services. He now manages mental health day services in Kilkenny and Carlow.

“The great irony is that we ended up working in the same building together, even though we’re in different parts of the building,” Fergus says of their offices in the Abbey Business Centre on Abbey Street.

It’s also an interesting twist that, after initially working in such different areas from each other, they are now both involved in mental health.

“We did grow up in a home where a mental illness was quite significant in the lives of our mother and our father as well,” Fergus says, although David says that wasn’t what propelled him into his current line of work.

“The strange thing about it is that a lot of people who grew up in any kind of – now, we didn’t have a difficult environment, but it was a part of our lives – can go on a crusade then (to work in the area of mental health).

“We didn’t go off on a crusade; we would be very objective,” he says, although Fergus says it was a factor for him.

“For me it would be a little bit more of a crusade; there’s no point in saying it’s not,” he says. “It was subconscious initially but it’s not subconscious now.”


Speaking of matters subconscious, as David notes, “you can’t talk about identical twins and not get around to the subject of telepathy – which I myself am convinced doesn’t really exist.”

However, he says, “there were many, many instances that our mother would tell us of where if one was sick, the other would fret it, despite the fact they might not have known the other was sick.”

David recalls one occasion in particular when Fergus had suffered an asthmatic attack. (It’s something that happened to him more than once as a child, including during a trip to Cork with a group of altar boys when he had an asthmatic attack in a locked-up room “and Fr Fidelis had to hang me out the window up-side down” – a method that worked, apparently, as he says: “Well, I’m still here.”)

As David recalls: “There was also an incident sometime in our lives where we were apart and Fergus had an asthmatic attack and I couldn’t possibly have known. I’m not suggesting that I showed symptoms similar to asthmatic attack, but I got very fretful.”

“We would have had a huge empathy towards each other growing up,” Fergus says.

And, clearly, they still do.