Drink! Fecklessness! Partitionism! Shame! The Irish ideologies
From the Celtic Twilight to the Celtic Tiger, from Dev to Vincent Browne, and from the Border to Brand Ireland, PATRICK FREYNElooks at some of the concepts that have shaped Irish identity over the past century
Every nation state needs an exotic origin myth, and ours was packaged courtesy of WB Yeats, Lady Gregory and the Celtic Twilight. The languages of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Brittany were tied to an archaeological legacy that stretched across Europe, and a historical one referenced by classical writers. In their yen to define a soulful Celtic identity they probably over-reached. A study led by Prof Daniel Bradley of Trinity College Dublin found that the Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Breton peoples have more genetic links to the Iberian Peninsula than they do to the supposed Celtic homeland of central Europe.
“People say we’re Celtic, but what do they mean by that?” says Bradley. “Do they mean we’re genetically tied to a particular archaeological context that stretches across Europe or that we’re sort of similar to Scottish, Welsh and Breton people? I’m happy with the second thing, but I don’t see any genetic basis for the first. I think people are very uneasy if you say we’re not Celts. Celtic means different things to different people.”
“We’re a mongrel mix of different cultural strands,” says Richard Kearney, the Charles Seelig professor of philosophy at Boston College. “Celt is just one word for a medley of narratives.”
After the Famine, Irish people began to lay more fixed claims on land, to (eventually) own their land, and to obsess over it. “From then on there was one inheriting son and one dowried daughter,” says Tom Inglis, author of Moral Monopoly and a sociology professor at University College Dublin. “The subdivision of farms stopped. Farms had dropped to incredibly small sizes – five or 10 acres on some very bad land – and this change took place where, okay, we’re not going to suffer the consequences of famine. We were going to get our act together. The obsession with property is really a legacy of not being allowed to own it for generations.”
Land has always been a fraught issue. From the Land League, through the Land Commission, the bungalow bliss/blitz of the 1970s and the property erotica of the Celtic Tiger era, the post-Famine Irish want to own property. So when the State levies a property tax, we’re more inclined to imagine rackrenting landlords than Nordic-style public services.
An Béal Bocht
We’ve always had a complicated relationship with poverty. While eager to recount stories of hardship nestled in the past, from Peig Sayers to Myles na gCopaleen’s parody An Béal Bocht to Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, we’ve also liked to present ourselves as a classless society, in which we’ve all suffered equally (less a meritocracy and more an egalitarian failed state).
“We’re riddled with fascinating contradictions on this one,” says the UCD historian Diarmaid Ferriter. “It used to be asserted publicly that there were no class differences in Ireland, but then you’d witness incredible poverty and snobbery . . . There’d be a public demarcation of class and wealth and a deference shown to people with money, but it would also be claimed that we were this plucky little nation all in it together.”
In Ireland many lay claim to rags-to-riches success stories, so the idea that some experienced significantly more suffering rankles.
“People got very angry about Angela’s Ashes,” says Ferriter. “There was a reluctance on the part of some people to confront the reality of what some people lived through . . . He was accused of being a liar.”
This remains an issue. “By 2007 I think people genuinely believed that there were no more poor people in the country,” says Mark O’Halloran, writer of Adam and Paul and Prosperity. “I got quite angry about that, because all you had to do was stand on O’Connell Street and look around.”
De Valera’s Catholic crossroads
“The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age.” So spoke Éamon de Valera on St Patrick’s Day 1943.
“Everyone goes back to that speech because it’s about isolation, about becoming a Catholic island in which we needed less of the material and more of the spiritual,” says Tom Inglis. “Even before independence the idea of modernising through the British state was anathema to the colonised Irish Catholics, so the State of Ireland when it emerged became a very Catholic state. Not only did it have control of education, health, social welfare, industrial schools and orphanages, but it dominated the image of what a good life was. The State was independent of the church, but politicians had the same view of what a good life was.”
Not being British
A key strand in Irish identity is “not being British”. The British ruled us for centuries, after all. There has always been a sliding scale of not-Britishness: the more rural, Catholic, westbound and separated from centralised politics you are, the more “not British” you are, which theoretically makes you better at being Irish. “That’s the dialectic,” says Richard Kearney. “I am A because I am not B. I am Irish because I am not British. Douglas Hyde said, ‘The British are the people we love to hate and never cease to imitate.’ ”
Irish people in the gently triumphalist south were never going to be comfortable with anything as ambiguous as a foreign state in the attic. For northerners after independence the border was a grim reality to be grappled with. For many in the south it was a grim reality to be ignored.