The state of us
CULTURE: Was It For This? Why Ireland Lost The Plot. By John Waters Transworld Ireland, 312pp. £14.99
LAST YEAR WAS the 20th anniversary of the publication of John Waters’s first book, Jiving at the Crossroads. It was a delightful book, as he managed, with a sharp eye and a lyrical and gently humorous style, to mix memoir with insightful sociological and political analysis to capture a country in transition. He seemed respectful of tradition while critically probing what constituted Irish modernity.
In the 20 years since, he has written numerous other books and, as a long-term resident of the opinion page in this newspaper, has used his platform to reflect critically on the various states we’ve been in, provoking, stirring and musing on aspects of the Irish psyche and other personal preoccupations, many of which find their way into this book.
The tone has changed over the years; there is a stridency and forcefulness in more recent times in order to challenge a detested liberal consensus that he feels dominates Irish media and public discourse. This book highlights what he sees as a corruption of thought involving the promotion of a singular, flawed model of progress, championed by the 1960s generation and resulting in “a strong sense of things being said for the purpose of self-assurance rather than because of any firm conviction that they were especially relevant to the present moment”. What it amounts to, he maintains, is a notion of freedom that puts individual rights and self-interest at the centre of all considerations of the public good, which cannot be considered real freedom. The solution to some of our woes is, he believes, religion, as, with secular individualism now dominating, we have forgotten what we live for.
How else did “we”, according to Waters, lose the plot? Through the prism of events such as the economic crisis, the fall of Brian Cowen, last year’s presidential election and the visits of Queen Elizabeth and Barack Obama, he reflects on the failure to question the moral basis of the Celtic Tiger version of modern Ireland, which was rooted in the inadequacies of those who had sought to modernise the country “on exclusively materialist principles since the 1960s”. The result was a country that was not sustained by its own resources. Added to this, he maintains, is an Irish self-hatred, preventing the imagining of a new beginning.
Waters is, and always has been, good on the role and influence of the media. He effectively excoriates the tsunami of internet users who use the facility to become anonymous assassins attacking named others with total impunity; the reductionism of much web-based commentary; and “the two-minute hate facility to which many of our media organisations have latterly reduced the idea of democratically focused journalism”. It has resulted in private sincerities left unexposed for fear of derision. Waters looks back to the Sinn Féin TD Dan O’Rourke, who represented his native Roscommon, dissecting a speech of his urging acceptance of the Treaty of 1921, a speech “not defined by interests or opinions but by something deeper and more enduring”, and lamenting the failure now to speak about Ireland as an imagined entity. But he is wide of the mark in surmising that “we laugh and laugh at those who built our nation”, and his contention that Charles Haughey “stole Ireland back from the elite who had stolen it for themselves” is risible.
He is in full flight but barely comprehensible when he describes Fianna Fáil as “the black swan of our political ballet, the exterior phenomenon that dances out the part of our inner psyche which would otherwise manifest only in outward incoherence and contradiction”. He is interesting and funny on the materialism of the Celtic Tiger era. He suggests that “we stopped counting”, apparently, to counteract the cultural effects of “centuries of pessimism”. (Apparently there was no happiness in Ireland for hundreds of years.) He recounts entertainingly his own disastrous experience of the purchase of a holiday home in Spain, pitching the dream of an idyllic bolt-hole against the reality of rising damp and gangster builders.
The historian in me was naturally drawn to his assertion that “the problems begin with a lack of self-knowledge which derives from a refusal to look squarely at history”. But Waters, it seems, does not follow his own advice. Despite regret at the absence of “a national father figure to show us the way”, and his framing of his argument by pointing to the loss of an idealism and honesty associated with the Irish revolutionaries who fought for independence nearly a century ago, he decides to substitute historical research with a reliance on his own heart. He occasionally cites from the writings of Patrick Pearse, the economist JK Galbraith and the American poet Robert Bly, but the author he quotes most is himself. This is an indulgence too far. His self-reliance too often results in meandering, repetitive and verbose psychobabble that makes the book too long and compromises his sound central thesis, which is that instead of getting back to the basics of a vision for a changed Ireland we are “constantly looking for some new dependency to enter into”.
The book contains a number of insightful and cleverly elaborated perspectives, but it is too flabby to remain compelling. There are constant assertions about what “we” do, think and believe, which seems to wear out even Waters himself eventually. As he admits on page 298, 100 pages after the book should have ended: “Perhaps, after all, there is no longer a ‘we’ worth talking about.”
He is, in my view, accurate in his conclusion about contemporary politics – “politics today is not politics at all, but something more like management of a minor company with an uninteresting product” – and it is surely fair to assert that, domestically, there is now no one of whom we can think “they’re in charge”. But the road he travels to reach his conclusion is far too long and exhausting.
Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin. His new book, Ambiguous Republic: The Irish Seventies, will be published in October by Profile Books