Ireland has become a nothing mosaic with no binding identity
Opinion:In recent years a strain of disaffection towards Ireland and the Irish has been recurrently visible in the Irish mass media. This disaffection points up the need for us to agree on a new set of values that characterise and distinguish Ireland among the nations.
The dissidence is revealed by letter writers to editors, and commentators on current affairs, who use the adjective “Irish” with a negative connotation. The stock phrase “an Irish solution for an Irish problem” is treated as a joke rather than a sensible maxim.
When international ranking surveys of one aspect or other of the lives of nations are published, the relevant headlines tend to highlight, whenever it occurs, a bad ranking of Ireland, while not doing likewise when the ranking reflects well on us.
A practice unique among European nations: when the Republic of Ireland is being referred to, the term most frequently used is not, as would be normal, “the Republic”, but rather the contemptuous-sounding “this State” or a blunt “here”.
Attentive foreigners newly resident in the Republic tend to interpret this sort of thing as a strange collective self-hatred. But that reading is inaccurate.
It is not a case of the Irish, collectively, expressing aversion to Ireland and the Irish but rather of a considerable number of Irish individuals intimating that they subscribe to standards of right action or intelligent insight superior to those of the Irish generally: a sort of “Ascendancy” attitude.
The nub of the matter is that these compatriots lack the willing attachment to, or love for, the nation that is normal in a nation’s members.
They lack that normal feeling because we have lost, and not replaced, what our grandparents created in the first half of the last century: a concept of Irish national identity subscribed to and valued by virtually the entire nation.
We had that after those men and women had created an agreed idea of the Irish nation as an ancient, Gaelic, Catholic, rural, and anti-imperialist nation, heir to a long freedom struggle and seeking liberal-democratic self-government – all valued attributes.
Equipped with that self-image and empowered by it, we freed the nation from the British empire, conducted a vigorous and creative foreign policy, missionised widely in Africa, Asia and South America, survived a world war almost unscathed and established a sovereign republic.
Then, from the 1960s onwards, because of a continuing lack of sufficient home-grown economic enterprise, the depopulation of the countryside, the abandonment of the language replacement project, and various new divisions in the collective mentality, we lost that shared and valued definition of our distinctive national identity that had united and empowered us.
Ireland is nothing
In 1985 a visiting Australian writer, Vincent* Buckley, in his book Memory Ireland, noted the new public orthodoxy and sketched it as follows: Ireland is not a nation, once again or ever, so the new story runs, but two nations, maybe several; it does not have its characteristic religion or, if it does, it ought not; it does not have its characteristic language, as anyone can see or hear; it has no particular race or ethnic integrity. Ireland is nothing – a no-thing – an interesting nothing, to be sure, composed of colourful parts, a nothing mosaic. It is advertising prose and muzak.
But it was not until 2003 that Ireland’s new condition was affirmed symbolically in the centre of its capital city, opposite the historic GPO.
Following years of debate about what monument should replace the towering pillar that had commemorated Lord Nelson, Dublin’s elected rulers decided on a towering spire of gleaming steel that represented – as precisely as a monument can – nothing.
Independent nations exist amid changing internal and external circumstances. To retain their internal cohesion, their independence and their creative power, they must work continually on maintaining and renewing an agreed and valued distinctiveness. A work of creative intellect, intuition and statecraft combined, its resulting national self-definition to the world is achieved through a combination of distinctive institutions and proclaimed distinguishing values.
The English have shown themselves very good at this skill. Having learned many things from them, we would do well to learn this from them also.
Our brief try at compensating for the loss of our distinguishing revolutionary identity by becoming the richest nation in the world was amateurish. The penalty for not doing better than that more enduringly will be for Ireland to remain a self-lacerating, derivative blur between Britain and the United States.
And derivative means in every sense dependent.
* Dr Desmond Fennell’s new book is Third Stroke Did It: The Staggered End of European Civilisation
*This article was edited at 12.07pm on Thursday, January 31st, 2013.